Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind Ness‘ Gimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Read more
Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more
Among the crop of more interesting recent releases is a reissue of Messiaen‘s complete organ works that is easily the most affordable currently available. Treasure Island Music has brought together the famous recordings made by Jennifer Bate in the late 1970s/early 1980s—originally issued by Unicorn-Kanchana/Regis—in a 6-CD slimline box set costing around £20, which for 7½ hours of music is an exceptional deal. But it’s not just about economy, these performances were extensively shaped by Messiaen himself, Bate working in close collaboration with him during the recording process. Two of the discs were even recorded at La Trinité in Paris, on the very organ where the works were first composed (and, in many cases, premièred), the remaining discs recorded at Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Beauvais. But it’s not just about having the composer’s imprimatur either; Bate’s renditions of these complex works are navigated with stunning clarity—never is it apparent that these recordings are several decades old—and her fidelity to the scores is in many ways greater than that of Messiaen’s own recordings. Read more
An event i unconscionably failed to mention in my recent gig article is the latest DIVAContemporary concert, taking place this Saturday, 22 November, at Weymouth College’s Bay Theatre, on the south Dorset coast. These concerts are curated by one of the UK’s most ceaselessly energetic and imaginative composers, Marc Yeats, on this occasion featuring flautist Carla Rees, oboist Paul Goodey and clarinettist Sarah Watts. They’ll be performing music by established figures, Salvatore Sciarrino, Elliott Carter and Violeta Dinescu, alongside works by Yeats and a variety of younger composers selected for the concert series, including Richard Stanbrook, Benjamin Graves, Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Mic Spencer, as well as myself: my work for solo flute, ‘unredeemed’ self-) portrait(in the form of an eagle, one of the pieces to have emerged from my ongoing PhD composition studies, will be receiving its world première.
This concert series has the added bonus of being streamed live over the internet, so if you can’t attend (as i can’t, being nearly 300 miles away in Huddersfield at the time), you can at least be there in spirit. Full information here.
To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more
For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more