Michael Finnissy – Offshore

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To conclude my Lent Series celebrating the work of Michael Finnissy, i’m turning to the composer’s first orchestral score, Offshore, written 40 years ago in 1976. It was composed in the aftermath of a traumatic relationship break-up, which no doubt accounts for a lot of things, not least the work’s title and particularly its surprisingly strange general demeanour. Offshore can prove disarmingly difficult to connect with on a first listening (i can recall my own initial attempt, which was an almost complete failure), in no small part due to the way that Finnissy works with the orchestra by fragmenting it into a collection of distinct sonic entities, united by gestural, behavioural, timbral and registral characteristics. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Cheltenham 2016, ddmmyy, BCMG, Perks Ensemble + John Wall

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There are some interesting concerts coming up in the short- to mid-term. Looking ahead to this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, which runs from 1–17 July, there are as usual many events focusing on contemporary music. Trombone whizz-kid Christian Lindberg will be premièring his new concerto for percussion and trombone alongside Evelyn Glennie, Ex Cathedra present James MacMillan‘s large-scale Seven Angels in Tewkesbury Abbey, Langham Research Centre team up with the Goldfield Ensemble for a concert featuring Varèse, Arlene Sierra, Kathy Hinde and Tristan Murail, and there’s an evening showcase of Sally Beamish‘s music given by Red Note Ensemble. In addition, throughout the festival is a series called ‘Keyboard Inventions’ including recitals of contemporary music with and without electronics from pianists Zubin Kanga, Dave MaricSarah Nicolls and Clare Hammond. And if that wasn’t enough, there’s a chance to experience the ultimate work written in response to breaking up with a girlfriend, Erik Satie‘s Vexations, lasting from midday on the final Friday until the following morning. Positively loads to enjoy; full details can be found here.

Late April sees the start of the latest round of ddmmyy concerts, beginning with an eclectic evening in the diverse company of, among others, James Saunders, Tim Parkinson, Jennifer Walshe and Jürg Frey. It’s followed in May with a pair of installations by Matthew Sergeant and Tom Rose, and in June with a particularly mouth-watering recital given by Michael Finnissy and Birmingham clarinettist Jack McNeill, featuring the world première of Finnissy’s Einfältiger Liederkreis. The concerts are taking place at The Yard Theatre and Café Oto; missing any of them feels like it would be something of a crime.

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group will be taking a turn for the genuinely unexpected on 1 May with a portrait concert for Benedict Mason, including the world première of Mason’s new work Horns Strings and Harmony. And in June they’ll be presenting a première-packed evening with brand spanking new music from Luke Bedford, Richard Baker, Zoë Martlew and John Woolrich alongside pieces by Judith Weir and Howard Skempton.

Finally, i must flag up again the Kammer Klang gig at Café Oto on 5 April, featuring Perks Ensemble in an oh-so-rare performance of Michael Finnissy’s “above earth’s shadow…” followed by a recital given by electronics maestro John Wall, who’ll be presenting one of his masterpieces, Cphon, in its entirety followed by a 20-minute improvisation.

So many good things to look forward to.

Michael Finnissy – John the Baptist (World Première)

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A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” Read more

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New releases: Anders Hillborg, Hans Abrahamsen

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Continuing with Scandinavian new releases, a new disc from Bis featuring four works by Anders Hillborg is a real treat. It’s a generalisation, of course, but the focus of Hillborg’s music tends to be on the surface, and this understandably polarises listeners. Usually, the successes of this approach come out on top, and it’s therefore a genuine surprise to hear the main work on the disc, Sirens, not just falling short, but entirely failing. Using a text drawn from Homer, Hillborg’s setting utilises two soprano soloists, mixed choir and orchestra, and you’d be forgiven through the opening minutes for thinking that the most remarkable mise-en-scène was being established. It is unquestionably striking, but once the choir has entered, and a few minutes later the soloists, it soon becomes clear that nothing is being set up, we’re there already—were there, in fact, at the very start. In a way that directly parallels John Tavener, Hillborg is seeking a 33-minute orgasmic wave, but despite moments of utter beauty, the piece is simply so caught up in the attempt to relay its never-ending ecstatic allure that it becomes overwhelmingly cloying and dumbfounded. The harmonic proximity to the (dis-)likes of Eric Whitacre don’t exactly help. But it’s the odd one out on a disc that is otherwise nothing but a delight. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Beat Generation Ballads (World Première)

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Happy 70th Birthday, Michael!

To celebrate his birthday, it seems appropriate to revisit Michael Finnissy‘s most recent large-scale composition, the piano cycle Beat Generation Ballads, premièred at the 2014 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The work comprises five movements, the first four of which are very short, only two or three minutes each, followed by a long finale lasting well over half an hour. As usual for Finnissy, the piece is an engagement with music and events from the past:

…everything I do is nostalgic, because it’s all about memory, the distortions of memory; also, as I get older, I get closer to death, and it’s changed the way I think about my life a lot […] we live in a multi-stranded world, I’ve always loved a lot of other types of music, and it’s been something of a mission to bring all of these musics together, whether they’re supposed to be brought together or not […] Beat Generation Ballads is another episode of that.

“Brought together”, of course, means articulated through the interpretative gauze of Finnissy’s personal response to them, a process that in all of his output leads to complex results that evoke, allude and pay homage while simultaneously spiralling off into Finnissy’s own internal reveries launched from these inspirational starting points. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen. Read more

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A telling contemporary engagement with archetypes: Bent Sørensen – Snowbells

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What leaps out immediately on Snowbells, a new collection of choral works by Bent Sørensen, and constantly throughout, is the composer’s deep, thoughtful engagement with intense emotion, particularly the themes of life, love and death. Words, and the layers of connotation and meaning encapsulated within them, are clearly not just important to Sørensen, they’re everything. The ways in which he expresses them involve a telling contemporary engagement with archetypes, sounding at once embedded in history—not just of music, but of humanity itself—yet also squarely at the forefront of present-day thought and feeling. Sørensen frequently draws on the language and demeanour of traditional music in his settings, four-square structures articulated through rich consonance, as in Sneeklokken (‘snowbell’) for solo voice and the short choral hymn Havet står så blankt og stille (‘The sea stands so still and shining’), the pair of works that book-end the disc. Some like to describe this kind of simplicity with words like ‘courageous’ or even ‘defiant’; Sørensen just sounds authentic, and it’s an authenticity that proves increasingly moving as he leads us into more obviously modern soundworlds. The Snowbells cycle (originally composed as part of an art installation) utilises the melody from its solo precedent as both a starting point and something of a refrain, now exploring each stanza separately. Familiarity permeates its every moment, though often through a filter of smears and smudges; and a pair of the movements where Sørensen ignores text and switches to soft humming is one of the album’s most exquisite episodes, as though the choir were inwardly ruminating on the music in an act of communal contemplation. Read more

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