Best Albums of 2013 (Part 1)

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Continuing my round-up of the best music of the year, here’s the first part of the most outstanding albums of 2013; part two will be coming tomorrow. Read more

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Best EPs of 2013

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So, having listened to no fewer than 261 EPs & albums released this year, it’s time to distil that listening into the annual Best of the Year lists. As always, we’ll start with the ten most exceptional EPs. Read more

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – John Zorn day

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How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening & hardcore, & whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (& it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles & manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, & i say this both as a composer & as a listener—hell, & simply as a human being—to be daunted & intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, & it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.

On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, & some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus & the string quartets Memento Mori & The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides & possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial & light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles & a doll, plus a cluster of pedals & devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written & graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations & quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework.

The piece that began the afternoon concert, Steppenwolf for solo clarinet, shed more light on the nature of Zorn’s music. Zorn is first & foremost a performer, & there are times in his work when the material is more interesting from the perspective of being played than being heard. Steppenwolf is just such a piece, little more than a fairly humdrum study in arpeggiation. This focus on the performer, or more specifically on one performer, recurred in a different way through several of the following pieces. The sense of a hauptstimme seems to be of importance to Zorn; in Occam’s Razor, a work for cello & piano that seamlessly integrates wild hand-smashing into bursts of lyricism, & ensemble works The Tempest & Baudelaire, one was always aware that, at any given moment, one voice predominated; it may be the fastest-moving hauptstimme in all music, passed from instrument to instrument at great speed, but not so fast that it couldn’t be grasped. Walpurgisnacht, a work for string trio inspired by the witchfest held on the eve of May Day, was an embarrassment of riches in this respect, the players clearly revelling in music that is obviously immense fun to play. Baudelaire (a counterpart to Zorn’s 2012 Rimbaud) was conspicuous by its intense complexity; only repeated listenings could even begin to peel apart & make sense of its extremely elaborate material. The Tempest, however, was more direct, romping through a cavalcade of allusive episodes, taking in jazz trios, abstruse duos (with shifting relationships) & a faux-Tudor morsel of pastiche; flautist Claire Chase made a strong impression here, ideally suited to music of such drama.

At the start i spoke of the challenge of reconciliation in John Zorn’s music; this concert—& The Tempest in particular—demonstrated that what unites it all, the common ground in every Zorn composition, is that he is never ever precious with material. It’s stuff to be played with, moulded, mucked about with & discarded when necessary without any fuss. Furthermore, that stuff can be made from nothing or fashioned from memories, offcuts &/or re-creations of extant materials, & treated in exactly the same way, juxtaposed according both to Zorn’s innate impulses & the inherent suggestions of those materials themselves. Such an utterly non-prissy attitude is disarming but very refreshing—&, to return to an earlier point, intimidating. When the Arditti Quartet performed the highly variegated piece The Alchemist in the evening concert, the work’s sheer imaginative range was so overwhelming that it was tempting to dismiss it as a hodgepodge, a kind of scrapbook of elements, but that’s more a consequence of overload than discernment; it’s so very much more than that. Pandora’s Box, receiving its UK première, is not so different. With the addition of a soprano (performed here by the incomparable Sarah Maria Sun, surely one of the most thrilling of all singers involved in contemporary music), the intensity of the singer’s delivery was sometimes all that stopped the work’s crazed conflictions from entirely derailing itself. That & its astute dramatic sense, pulling us in & pushing us away such that we become riveted to the unfolding narrative, its corresponding music lulling us with utter beauty & then ripping it away.

For me, the most perfect marriage of drama, imagination, complexity & directness came in the late evening concert, devoted to three of Zorn’s recent works for female voices. Performed not by an existing choir but a group of individual singers—i desperately want to call them ‘The Zornettes’—who have come together specifically to bring these pieces to life, their facility with such difficult choral writing at times seemed hard to believe. The three works presented—the European première of Madrigals (completed earlier this year), the UK première of Earthspirit & the Holy Visions cycle—share certain mannerisms. Most prominent is a delightfully playful form of broken arpeggios that sound like a cross between the Swingle Singers & 80s UK vocal group The Flying Pickets, notes fired back & forth between the singers, demanding perfection both in terms of intonation & rhythm. Often, Zorn allows this material—which might be dismissed as being of secondary importance, music for accompaniment—to play out for some time, perhaps simply because it’s such fun. But when Zorn lets rip, the singers, as one, erupted in sublime orgasmic coruscations, filling the air with such white-hot intensity that it practically burned the ears with molten shimmer. Holy Visions is a trifle more formal, charting a carefully structured journey through a sequence of Latin verses in homage to Hildegard of Bingen, but even in this somewhat ritualised context, the lightness & sense of carefree abandon heard earlier persisted as an omnipresent undertone, occasionally spilling onto the surface & causing the text to splash out as whispers, speech & assorted gasps & exhalations. i stopped writing about most choral music on 5:4 a long time ago simply because it has become so completely stale in this country. If what we heard in our cathedrals & churches up & down the land sounded even remotely like this, then i might never write about anything else.

The day ended with a new part to the Hermetic Organ project, Zorn himself manning the console of the St Paul’s Hall instrument. Dressed in a hoody, his appearance from behind resembled that of a mad monk, not so much playing the organ as riding it, frantically altering combinations, chord clusters & rates of tremulant, turning deep wind stops into hydraulic battering rams that threatened to tear the hall down to its foundations while a chorus of flutes & tiny bells chirruped its demise. It was an astonishing end to a truly mind-boggling day.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – n s m b l

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All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss & microscopic blurps, along with thin slivers of the primary audio material, little more than the most anaemic of glimpses, hinting at what lies on the other side. These kind of residua bear a strong resemblance to the music of Jakob Ullmann, whose Son Imaginaire III received its world première in St Paul’s Hall last night. The concert wasn’t just a highlight of my HCMF 2013, it was a highlight of my entire concert-going life. However, my enthusiasm for Ullmann’s work (previously manifested here & here) clearly continues to put me in a minority. The pre-concert talk, which i had fully expected to see packed to the point of standing room only, found half of the seats empty, & the concert itself, although better attended, had many seats to spare. Even in Huddersfield, it seems, audiences still have a thing or two to learn.

Having said that, perhaps even Ullmann would consider disinterest a step in the right direction from the outright hostility that has dogged his work in the past. Son Imaginaire III is a case in point; last night’s performance was the third attempt to give the piece a successful première, the previous two being mocked & laughed to the point of being abandoned. The bone of contention in Ullmann’s work is its challenging modus operandi, utilising extremely quiet sounds as the basis for large-scale forms. In some ways, this can be heard as a continuation (or elaboration) of the paradigm shift initiated by John Cage in 4’33”. In that piece, no sound was capable of being extraneous; in Ullmann’s music, any quiet peripheral sounds can be inferred as part of the deliberate musical act taking place: a chair squeak, a muffled cough, a phone vibration, a gust of wind against the windows, they all become plausible components of Ullmann’s loose-weave texture. They, too, are incapable of being extraneous.

But i don’t want to push that connection too far; there is, after all, a world of difference between silence & near silence. The title is instructive—suggesting both “imagined sound” & “his imagination”—as it describes very literally the effect of listening in such a rarefied context as this. The strain of having to listen out for exceptionally quiet sounds makes it all too easy for the imagination to overclock itself, so to speak, to the point where, in such a liminal state, it’s possible to imagine things that aren’t there. It reminds me of the film Paranormal Activity, where lengthy scenes take place in which, essentially, nothing happens, but there are omnipresent omens suggesting that, at some point soon, something very odd indeed will take place. Our eyes scour the frame—the door, the bed, the floor, the corridor, the sleeping couple—fuelled by a heightened mix of excitement & expectation; & here, too, one can all too easily imagine things that are not there. Did the blanket move? Is that a shadow? Did something rustle? Transpose that to the concert hall: Did the cello play a harmonic? Is that the sound of wind through the instrument? Was that a twang on the piano? Often, they’re questions impossible to answer; Ullmann’s music is so perfectly poised at the cusp of sensibility that the space becomes positively electrified with sonic potentialities, real & imagined.

It’s a considerable challenge as much for the performers as the audience; French group n s m b l (10 points if you can say that out loud) handled it with admirable coolness, & can now bask in the renown of being the first ensemble in almost a quarter of a century to have been able to bring this remarkable piece to fruition. Those of you who weren’t there, you have no idea what you missed.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Quatuor Diotima / edges ensemble

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St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions & correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.

First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration & recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun & clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. One has to feel a certain sympathy for cellist Pierre Morlet; not only did one of his strings snap just a few minutes in, but then the assortment of little wedges & mutes required later all began to cascade onto the floor; & then he began stifling a coughing fit. If anyone wanted a demonstration of maintaining focus in the face of adversity, this was it. Although Posadas’ inspiration is shadows, what he hasn’t done is compose obviously ‘dark’ music, but instead, throughout the cycle, has sought to tease out connotations of what shadows can be. His accompanying notes generously seek to dive deeply into this thought process, but what i found especially striking was how unnecessary they seemed, the music leaping off the page with absolute coherence. The quartet continually finds itself in unexpected new avenues & alleys, but there was an abiding logic guiding the decidedly non-linear path. Only once the soprano joined in (for La tentación de las sombras (The temptation of the shadows)) did the music start to become demonstrably umbral, but even then Posadas keeps his textures extremely detailed, full of activity & filigree.

Dealing with this is part of the contradiction that occupied the evening. Detail is a keyword where Sombras is concerned, but Posadas seems to have a knack for making it accessible. If anything, one found oneself sitting on the surface of the music, so to speak, which isn’t ordinarily where i would like to sit (at least, not all the time), but being carried along on it like this seemed to make that sense of logic i spoke of complete. Sense was in part kept at a distance anyway, due to not having the text, but i think we got the gist. However, this aural vantage point didn’t suit the closing work, Del reflejo de la sombra (Of the reflection of shadow), which explored far more convoluted, condensed material. Here, the music became genuinely difficult to process, but that may well have been part of Posadas’ point; certainly, the range of angles from which he approaches the notion of shadow is much greater in this piece, which perhaps accounts for the increased density of its music.

The concert that followed, a performance by edges ensemble of Antoine Beuger‘s four-hour en una noche oscura, could not have been more different. It is a complete setting of the poem with which St John of the Cross prefaces his famous book Ascent of Mount Carmel, each of the eight stanzas occupying a 30-minute block of time. The words, sung by Irene Kurka, are delivered in halting syllables, preceded & accompanied by single, sporadic, sustained pitches from other members of the ensemble (E-bowed guitar, melodica, clarinet, cello, flute, accordion & chamber organ). Here, in contrast to Posadas, the narrow behavioural & sonic palette theoretically meant one could dive more fully into the material. Yet music of this sort—static & utmost solemn—has a way of chastising any & all attempts to probe its intricacies. “What process is guiding when & what the players are doing?”, “Is the clarinet consistently a semitone away from the soprano?”, “Is there a pattern connecting the diverse pitches we’re hearing?”, “Is the structure consistently i) ensemble alone, ii) soprano & ensemble, iii) soprano alone?”, “Does the melodica player realise that nothing she’s playing can be heard by anyone?”—these are just some of the questions that emerged throughout the performance, & all of them felt batted away as soon as they appeared. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of time & aural space to find answers, just that they instantly seemed entirely irrelevant.

The narrative, St John of the Cross’ imagery—echoing the Song of Songs—of an approaching, deeply erotic encounter, became overwhelmingly powerful delivered in this way. As with anything on this scale, there were times when one’s patience fluctuated (for me, during the third & sixth stanzas, probably due to their symmetric proximities to start & end), but overall it obtained a palpable sense of building excitement, even momentum. It’s so many years since i read St John of the Cross that i couldn’t recall the poem’s trajectory, & not reading ahead on this occasion sealed the experience. By the close of the penultimate stanza, the Lover & Beloved just beginning to become tactile, the pent-up pressure felt almost explosive. Beuger’s decision to begin the final stanza with a very long silence was a masterstroke, causing that pressure to sublimate into something even more indescribable (a kind of tantric ecstasy, perhaps); the closing quarter of an hour, consisting solely of Irene Kurka slowly intoning the syllables of the last stanza, are among the most remarkable musical experiences i’ve ever had—desperately you wanted her to hurry up, yet equally you wanted her to linger over each phoneme forever.

What these works share, although exercised in profoundly different ways, is a kind of relentlessness, an unstoppable force that in both cases seems to make penetrative listening neither feasible not desirable. That’s not just a testament to their allusive potency, but to their modes of narrative which are, in Posadas’ case, immediate, & in Beuger’s case, other-worldly. It goes without saying that they require far more than the usual level of commitment, & all involved deserve nothing but the highest praise for giving such transparent, authoritative performances.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra & Mauro Lanza & a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, & Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long.

Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention & result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause & effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried & tested (& tired) ideas.

Mauro Lanza’s la bataille de Caresme et de Charnage, on the other hand, appeared at first to be the kind of thing from which i instantly recoil, modestly absurd antics caught up in a continuous state of revolution. But it became rather engrossing to hear the work’s opening pitched utterances becoming increasingly frustrated & thwarted. As the level of implied strain intensified, the cello was reduced to a pathetic figure, grinding out increasingly flatulent parps & guttural blurts (the inclusion of a foot-powered whoopee cushion couldn’t have been more apposite). This extended episode was followed by a short, enigmatic epilogue comprising lightly tapped sounds—hard to rationalise but strangely effective.

Three times Rebecca Saunders has explored the implications arising from a complex variety of double trill (in Fletch, Ire & Still); now, she has added a fourth work, Solitude. The trill itself doesn’t appear until around two-thirds through the piece, & then only fleetingly; most of the duration is concerned with far darker & more heavyweight material, much of it founded upon the special timbres of Saunders’ regularly used de-tuned C-string. The title may invoke loneliness, but the music is certainly not inactive. Unlike some of her work, there is very little silence in Solitude, lending a desperate & somewhat manic quality to the cello’s unstoppable railing. In keeping with Saunders’ keen interest in destabilised sounds, almost nothing in the piece sounds remotely grounded or sure; however, an incredibly poignant exception to this occurs shortly before the end: a snatch of perilously-aligned double-stop unison melody. It’s a very moving moment, all the more so as the music then lapses back into the C-string’s blankest low sounds, played such that they become ridden with overtones, destroying their coherence. Séverine Ballon’s rendition of this highly wrought material was brilliant, as was Saunders’ compositional achievement, yet again following her intuitive nose & discovering shockingly new frontiers of possibility.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Shorts

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There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret & guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, & never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- & mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, & i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear & which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, & a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, & the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, & almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance & grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ & electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart & a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet & string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon.

All of these made the day worthwhile, offering real insights into their disparate media. Yet the biggest triumphs made even these highlights seem pale by contrast. Percussionist Simone Beneventi ended his recital with the UK première of Francesca Verunelli‘s #3987 Magic Mauve, an 11-minute extravaganza featuring some of the most original & effective percussion writing i’ve ever heard. The work is expanded somewhat through electronics, but they never sound like an ‘outside’ entity; indeed, the kinds of sounds Verunelli obtains from her relatively small palette of instruments often sounded decidedly unfamiliar, so the melding between acoustic & electronic was total. Much of the work exists in the outer fringes of register—deep rumbles & glinting metallics—but the textural interplay is gripping, in many ways simple yet so, so avant-garde. Verunelli tells me that Beneventi has recorded the piece a couple of days ago, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer before more people can discover its wonders.

There was yet more wonder—& no little humour—to be found at my highlight of the day, Jennifer Walshe‘s evening performance at Bates Mill. To see Walshe perform live is to be drawn into something fiercely alive, littered with—indeed, to a large extent fashioned from—the digital scree of contemporary culture, shot through with (mis-)appropriations from a discombobulating array of seemingly incongruous materials. Here’s Walshe’s own summary of her sources for one of last night’s pieces, the first movement of All the Many Peopls:

Lojban, a language constructed entirely according to the rules of predicate logic; the cast of Lohengrin; certain sections from Watt by Samuel Beckett constituting the first examples of process composition; The Public Enemy (1931) starring James Cagney; KRS-One; US & British soldiers making cell-phone videos of themselves blowing things up & uploading the videos to YouTube; Even Dwarfs Started Small; Amazon.com message boards about vampire physiology; sferics; conspiracy theorist Francis E. Dec; detritus from video game voice-overs; August Strindberg; a re-working of ‘The Signifying Monkey’ as an inner city Dublin insult practice; rap video choreographies; The Typing of the Dead; cult Irish martial arts film Fatal Deviation; the collective unconcsious as evidenced by Google Autocomplete; Courage Wolf; 4Chan.

i know, right? The result, filtered through Walshe’s impeccable ear, is an utterly absorbing absurdist compote, a theatrical fucked-up farrago of words, whispers, hollers, squeals, blurts & even, occasionally, song. As tales go, Walshe is the definitive unreliable narrator; but is there anything, anymore, reliable to narrate?

Both in terms of technique & imagination, Walshe is easily one of the finest contemporary vocalists around, a kind of kinked (kinky?) reincarnation of Cathy Berberian, & this all-too-brief performance of hers last night will linger in the mind’s ear for a long time to come. Walshe is back in action on Sunday to present the world première of DORDÁN. i can’t be there, so my experience of “the HCMF qualm” has now become very much more intense…

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