A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs & a pair of instrumental works, focussing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells & Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.
The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute & piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back & forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—& soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano & string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling & bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, & he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest & at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back & forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ & ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue.
One of the more striking premières i’ve caught in recent months took place at the Barbican’s Total Immersion event ‘New from the North’, back in March. On the one hand, it’s disappointing that these events are no longer in the least bit ‘total’ & have come very far from being remotely immersive (bring back long weekends devoted to a single composer); on the other hand, it’s hard to sniff too much when the chosen locale is Nordic. Irrespective of genre, much of the most telling music of recent times has come from the Nordic countries, & the latest orchestral work from Finnish composer Magnus Lindberg is just such a piece. Era was commissioned to celebrate the 125th birthday of Amsterdam’s rather wonderful Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Premièred there in January, it was presented at the Barbican by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Storgårds.
In his programme note, Lindberg talks about specifics, but what comes across most forcefully—& very quickly—is how wholeheartedly the piece embraces the tone poem idiom. It may be tempting to think of most contemporary orchestral music—pithy titles & 10-20 minute durations—as being of that lineage, but for the most part, they’re really not. The tone poem demands a unique kind of dramaturgy, not necessarily programmatic in nature, but such that the clamour of its argument compels an audience into just that kind of headspace. In Era, Lindberg even goes so far as to invoke the spectre of the greatest of all tone poets, Richard Strauss, chiefly in the highly energetic, muscular ebb & flow of the work’s structure, but also in elements of the work’s harmonic language (tonally flirtatious) as well as its orchestration; it’s not hard to hear Till Eulenspiegel & Don Quixote lurking in the wings. Read more
It’s 1 July, so here’s the new mix tape, focussing on the intense genre of drone. Drone music suffers the same kind of malaise as more generalised ambient music—immobility & drift as tacet apologias for a dearth of imagination & subtlety of ideas. But these 21 tracks offer an insight into something altogether more profound, plumbing the depths of immobility & stasis, teasing out faint, furtive tendrils of exotica. They represent a broad sonic palette, in terms of colour, dynamic & texture, incorporating elements from dark ambient & noise as well as more experimental electronics.
In all, two hours of droning wonder; here’s the tracklisting in full:
- The Missing Ensemble – A Long Walk (from Zeropolis)
- Access To Arasaka – 7.14 : Daedal (from A Sky Now Starless)
- Shinobu Nemoto – Trip 10 (from Melting Loop Trip)
- Deaf Center – Close Forever Watching (from Owl Splinters)
- Ektoise – The Great Perpendicular Path (from Ektoise)
- Anduin + Jasper TX – A Beam Of Light Bends Back Upon Itself… (from The Bending Of Light)
- Decembered – “Только пепел знает…” (стихи И. Бродского) (from Ноктюрн)
- Peter Wright – …And I Live By The River (from An Angel Fell Where The Kestrels Hover)
- Herzog – Small Loves (from Small Loves)
- Carbon Based Lifeforms – System (from TwentyThree)
- The Hafler Trio – Vi-Parīta [excerpt] (from Exactly As I Am)
- Leah Buckareff – Hypostasis (from Trinitarian)
- Asva & Philippe Petit – Sweet Dreams Asshole (from Empires Should Burn…)
- Organum – Horii [excerpt] (from Horii/Volume Two)
- Benjamin Dauer – Falling Apart I (from Saturation Event)
- Jonathan Coleclough – Halant [excerpt] (from Halant / Heat / Beech)
- Charlemagne Palestine & Janek Schaefer – Fables from a Far Away Future [excerpt] (from Day Of The Demons)
- Freiband – Haze Shrapnel (Remix) (from Haze Shrapnel)
- Christopher Hipgrave – Heavy And Pulling You (from Slow, With Pages Of Fluttering Interference)
- Ekca Liena – Sleep (Minimal) (from Sleep Paralysis (Expansion Tracks))
- The Beautiful Schizophonic – Bambilány (from Erotikon)
Due to various compositional projects, i’ve not been able to give 5:4 much focus in the last few weeks, but now that i have some breathing space, it’s time to catch up on the more interesting recent premières & new releases.
As well as being interesting, one of the most unlikely premières took place as part of Glasgow’s marvellously leftfield Tectonics festival. Born in Canada, based in Berlin, Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ music is heard extremely rarely in the UK, & i suspect this is more than a little in part due to the nature of her mode of expression. Szlavnics begins each composition with a drawing; they tend to combine aspects that would seem at home in technical drawings—grids, charts, measurements—alongside elements that are more fluid & improvisational (examples can be seen on her website). The drawing is then ‘translated’ into sound, pitches & durations being derived from the way the drawing presents itself on the page. The result is material composed for the most part of slithering individual lines, each moving slowly, sliding up & down, sometimes hovering, over long periods of time. It makes for an aloof, bald aesthetic, sufficiently challenging that it is hardly surprising (although disappointing) that her work isn’t featured in British concerts more often.
At last year’s Proms, Helen Grime’s focus was on the night; her latest orchestral work—the first in her rôle as Associate Composer to the Hallé Orchestra—continues that theme, in part taking its inspiration from a poem by D. H. Lawrence, title ‘Week-night service’, which begins thus:
The five old bells
Are hurrying and eagerly calling,
They know, but clamorously falling
Into gabbling incoherence, never resting,
Like spattering showers from a bursten sky-rocket dropping
In splashes of sound, endlessly, never stopping.
It is to Lawrence’s striking bell-imagery that Grime is most drawn in her work Near Midnight, although less in the guise of obvious peals than in insistent material & a decidedly restless mood. Where both are concerned, i suppose one should dispatch an obvious bugbear at the outset. Writing about Night Songs last August, i described the obvious similarity of some of Grime’s music to that of her teacher, Oliver Knussen, & if anything that comes across even more forcefully in Near Midnight. Various choices of orchestration, the way certain sections of the orchestra interact as well as the treatment of the work’s principal motif all smack so heavily of Knussen that it actually becomes something of a distraction. This doesn’t cause the work to founder, as such, but the episodes where traces of influence are less obvious are so engaging that one only wishes there were more of them. These are to be found in the work’s softer, less focussed passages, where the orchestra’s seemingly inescapable urge for chatter—this is a very noisy midnight—is abated. Here, Grime makes things magical by polarising her forces into very high & low registers, such as the section a couple of minutes in, where high flutes sing out over deep rumbling punctuations, as well as the work’s third section, in which slow, meandering violins emerge from an entirely dissipated texture to deliver what Grime calls the work’s “melodic core”. Read more
Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests & skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.
Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, & there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings & meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, & the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity & arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced & boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control & consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.
Despite the fact that writing about amazing music is such an unalloyed pleasure, there are times—many more times than i would care to admit—when the music skitters away, becoming elusive when confronted by one’s attempts to speak of it. Perhaps there’s no dishonour in being confounded by glory, but the frustration has never been more acute than when trying to write about the music of Jakob Ullmann. Including the outstanding fremde zeit addendum 3CD boxset of his music near the top of my 2012 Best Albums list wasn’t just an act of fitting celebration but also of defeat; the bland paragraph i wrote to accompany its entry came after umpteen doomed attempts at something more substantial earlier in the year. So when the Edition RZ label recently sent me their latest release of his music, fremde zeit addendum 4, it seemed only fitting to try again.
For anyone unacquainted with Ullmann’s music, there are equivalent points of entry to be found in any of the releases Edition RZ has put out over the last few years, A Catalogue of Sounds, voice, books and FIRE 3, the aforementioned boxset as well as this new CD. It’s worth mentioning that Edition RZ—one of the most forward-looking of labels in any case—has been essentially a lone advocate where Ullmann is concerned; considering how many of his works remain unperformed & recorded, other labels would be wise, finally, to catch on. For there is something truly extraordinary going on in Jakob Ullmann’s music, music that positions itself in a place that is both minimal & dangerously liminal. Read more