Town Hall, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Carter

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i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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Free internet music: Ektoise

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It’s Australia Day, so the next artist i’m featuring in my series looking at free internet music is the Brisbane-based group Ektoise. It’s difficult to know where to begin, partly because, stylistically speaking, it’s not easy to summarise succinctly what their music is like, and partly because Ektoise is just one manifestation of the creativity of Greg Reason and Jim Grundy, who in addition to being the driving force of Ektoise have released music under numerous other names, each with their own distinct outlook. In order to write something cogent and concise, on this occasion i’m going to focus solely on Ektoise, and i’ll be examining some of their other work at a later date.

Developing from an earlier project called Purity Device, Ektoise were active from roughly 2010 to 2013, comprising Greg Reason, Jim Grundy, Scott Claremont, Hik Sugimoto, Greta Kelly and Tim Fairless. Utilising guitars, synths, violin and percussion, they’re in essence a band, but while their music is clearly rooted in elements of rock and jazz, it transcends both due to a constant air of experimentation, heavy implementation of electronics as well as a distinct tendency towards the avant-garde. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 3 Comments

Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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Free internet music: Brothomstates, Stephan Mathieu

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The next recommendations in my series looking at free internet music are a pair of pieces exploring extremes of computer-mangled audio. The first is a new release from Finnish composer Lassi Nikko, better known as Brothomstates, and even writing his name in the context of a new release – something i never thought i’d be able to do – has immediately put a big smile back on my face. i’ve been a Brothomstates fan for many, many years; since 2001 in fact, when Claro – a gloriously euphoric blend of ambient, electronica and IDM – was released on the Warp label. That in turn led to me plundering his back catalogue, both his 1998 self-released debut album Kobn-Tich-Ey (apparently one of the earliest ever MP3 album releases, which in many respects contains the seeds of what would become Claro) as well as his extensive collection of music created as part of the once vibrant demoscene community, under the name Dune. Both the album and the demoscene tracks are still all freely available online courtesy of scene.org, though anyone wanting to explore the latter should bear in mind they’re all in S3M or MOD format, which will need to be played in VLC media player (which can also convert them), Winamp or an equivalent. Read more

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Ivan Wyschnegradsky – Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony

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If composers have generally lost a lot of the romanticised mystique and puffery that used to surround them (no bad thing), there remains one area where compositional intent is still likely to raise eyebrows and/or hackles, and confine the composer to a box labelled ‘weirdo’: non-standard tunings. Due to the mental and physical reconfigurations it demands, the act of turning away from the haven of semitones and octaves in favour of alternate divisions of pitch still has a tendency to piss off performers and audiences alike, and despite the ripostes that equally-tempered semitones are only one way of subdividing the infinite gradations of the pitch domain, and are in any case largely irrelevant in electronic music, composers who indulge in microtonal machinations within the realm of instrumental music often continue to be emblazoned with a badge of the bizarre. Even such well-known and -regarded figures as Charles Ives and Harry Partch continue to sport this badge (in Partch’s case, being practically defined by it); time, it seems, can only do so much.

All of which makes the publication of Russian composer Ivan Wyschnegradsky‘s Manual of Quarter-Tone Harmony a welcome contribution to this area. In the same way as Partch, Wyschnegradsky’s name is synonymous with microtonality, and the few albums of his work that have been released all feature examples of his quartertone piano music. While i’m no Wyschnegradsky expert, this association is perhaps not an unfair one, as it’s abundantly clear from his Manual just how seriously he regarded quartertones and how earnest he was in his efforts to integrate them into conventional (i.e. semitonal) music theory. Simply but elegantly published by Underwolf Editions, this is the first English translation of the book, a painstaking process undertaken by Rosalie and Noah Kaplan (translator and editor respectively), incorporating later edits made by Wyschnegradsky in his own annotated copy of the book, which was originally published in 1932. At just 28 pages its length belies how significant the book is; it deserves to sit alongside any of the great 20th century compositional tracts, manuals and manifestos. Read more

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Brian Ferneyhough – Fanfare for Klaus Huber

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Today is the 75th birthday of one of the UK’s most consistently remarkable, bewildering, surprising and moving composers, Brian Ferneyhough. By way of a miniature celebration, here are two recordings of his shortest composition, Fanfare for Klaus Huber for two percussionists. It’s a piece i feel somewhat connected to: composed in 1987, the first performance took place in December 1989, at the Musikhochscule in Freiburg (by Ensemble Recherche), and the UK première was organised by myself, given at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 12 December 1996, by Thallein Ensemble (whom i was directing at the time). The work lasts for only a minute, and is concerned with presenting ‘unique sonorities’ as Ferneyhough describes them, each of which is only heard once. From a timbral perspective, this means that each performance of the Fanfare is likely to sound entirely unique, though structurally it falls into five clear sections.

These two performances of the piece were given by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble as part of the Barbican’s ‘Total Immersion: Percussion!’ day in January 2015. The range of sonorities used rather wonderfully gives the impression that the players were wielding the innards of assorted clocks and timepieces, an impression strengthened by the way Ferneyhough progressively slows down the durations in several of the sections, which here sound like clockwork mechanisms winding down. Much of the writing is very delicate, occasionally punctuated with loud accents, manifesting in these performances via crash cymbals, some particularly strident toms and a rather spectacular whistle. Read more

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Free internet music: Kreng

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While we’re still caught up in winter, and before the days get too much lighter, it’s one of the best times of the year to get stuck into the music of Belgian composer Pepijn Caudron, better known as Kreng. He came to my attention around six years ago, when Works for Abattoir Fermé 2007 – 2011 was released, a staggering 3-hour epic box set compiling his work for the eponymous surrealist theatrical troupe. It subsequently became my best album of 2012, and led me to investigate his earlier work, including a pair of EPs dating from the same time Caudron began working with Abattoir Fermé, both of which were released as free downloads.

The Pleiades EP (originally subtitled ‘a.k.a. The Seven Sisters’) was originally released on the Dutch netlabel Fant00m in 2007. Its seven tracks occupy an electroacoustic soundworld similar to that permeating the box set, arranging its collection of recorded elements into a black ambient environment with a distinct air of theatricality. Their recurring rhythmic patterns – sometimes manifested as clear-cut beats, elsewhere more elusive cycles and repetitions – and the music’s claustrophobic monochromaticism bring to mind the better work of Demdike Stare, though Kreng is less concerned with conjuring up a past aesthetic – still less presenting an ersatz rendition of it – than with creating a contemporary habitat that feels aesthetically distant yet familiar, seemingly remote yet chokingly close. The careful deployment of short sampled sounds is also redolent of early John Wall, particularly third track ‘Asterope’, a short but evocative piece combining a bassline with skittery strings, vinyl crackle and a distant noodling piano, which together project something with more than a whiff of doomjazz. Read more

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