Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Mixtape #49 : Untitled

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned my attention to that most elusive of artistic statements, the untitled work. When i set out to assemble a shortlist of pieces in my library that had adopted the word ‘untitled’, it wasn’t immediately obvious what i’d find. Yet, with one or two exceptions and to varying extents, untitled tracks tended to yield a very particular type of soundworld: generally dark and/or monochrome in terms of their tone, tenor or palette, with slow, patient use and deployment of sound, often including extended periods of quietness, overall lending the music a pensive, deliberate quality. Above all, i found these pieces to be music highly abstract in character, and while use of the word ‘untitled’ can often provoke frustration when we encounter it in works of art (“doesn’t the artist know what they’re trying to say?”), the intangibility of such music seems to strongly justify the suitability of this word. However, artists use the word ‘untitled’ in ways that are as playful and deceptive as they can be aloof and distancing, and for this mixtape i’ve therefore included not only tracks that are simply untitled but also tracks that use the word ‘untitled’ as part of a longer title as well as untitled segments of larger titled works.

In the first hour, having begun with something of a red herring by Hecq, i’ve concentrated on calmer, darker examples that tend to focus on explorations of texture, from both static and variegated perspectives. Near the centre of the mix is the unexpurgated 15-minute Untitled Drone by Aidan Baker that isn’t just the highlight of his wonderful 2009 album Blue Figures, but one of the most beautifully coruscating exercises in slow-burning ambient that i’ve ever heard. In the wake of this, in the second half i’ve explored untitled tracks that are generally brighter and more colourful, introducing more beat- and pulse-based pieces, some of which even feature vocals (a real rarity in the world of ‘untitled’ music, it seems), and more overt use of instrumental sounds, both raw and cooked.

Throughout the mix, there’s a wide temperature range demonstrated in these pieces, from the warmth (not always gentle) and/or balmy intimacy found in pieces by, among others, Subsea, Zbigniew Karkowski & Kelly ChurkoJames Clarke, Sea Oleena, Ochre, Aphex Twin and 36 to the varying forms of chilly remoteness, some of it seriously aggressive, exhibited by the likes of Noto, CD-R, AutechreHelena Tulve, Nordvargr, Lethe and Christopher McFall & Ben Fleury-Steiner. And that playfulness i mentioned before – plus a fair amount of inscrutability – can be heard manifesting particularly in tracks by Natasha Barrett, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Marc Behrens, DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Øyvind Torvund and John Oswald.

Ultimately, though, i don’t want to labour these descriptive terms or indeed the putative aesthetic connections i’ve been making between them, as they may belie the fact, as i said at the outset, that these are above all strikingly abstract pieces of music, and their ostensible lack of a title (if indeed that is what it is) is perhaps all that needs to be said about them.

Two-and-a-half hours of unidentified musical objects; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music (interesting to note how many of them are available free of charge: another ‘untitled’ connection…?). Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the track titles, where relevant i’ve also included in the tracklisting the track numbers. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded via the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Proms 2018: Roxanna Panufnik – Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (World Première)

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And so to the annual conveyor belt of over-cranked fripperies and falderals that is the last night of the Proms. Nestling among them – not, for a change, getting the concert party started – was the last première of this year’s season, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light by British composer Roxanna Panufnik. Like several other 2018 Proms premières, the piece was commissioned as a commemoration of the end of World War I. For her text, Panufnik draws on two sources: a poem by Isaac Rosenberg titled ‘In the Underworld’ and words from the conclusion of the final section of Kahlil Gibran‘s poem ‘The Prophet’. The combination of these two texts is interesting; Rosenberg’s (expressing a personal heartbreak) speaks not merely of separation but of a more severe, experiential disconnect, while Gibran’s articulates a more benign separation, one that holds open the prospect of a (real or imagined) future meeting. These two texts are assigned to the two choruses used in the work, which in this first performance were the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis.

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Proms 2018: Iain Bell – Aurora; Nina Šenk – Baca (World Premières)

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The interplay of performing relationships has been at the centre of the last two Proms premières. Iain Bell’s Aurora, a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, given its first performance on 29 August by Adela Zaharia and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, seeks to pit the soloist as a figure of light against an orchestra associated with nocturnal darkness and varying quantities of concomitant danger. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Nina Šenk

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Tomorrow afternoon’s Prom concert from Cadogan Hall is being given by soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and it promises to be quite a lustrous affair, featuring music by Debussy, Ravel and the great Lili Boulanger. It also includes the world première of Baca, a new chamber work by Slovenian composer Nina Šenk, so in preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Nina for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

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Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit). Read more

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Erkki-Sven Tüür – Illuminatio/Whistle and Whispers from Uluru/Symphony No. 8, Arvo Pärt & Alfred Schnittke – Choral Works, Arvo Pärt – The Symphonies

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Returning to one of my occasional themes, there have been some interesting releases of Estonian music in the last few months. In February, i wrote about the Ninth Symphony by one of the country’s most dynamic composers, Erkki-Sven Tüür, so it’s nice timing that the Ondine label has brought out a disc featuring his Symphony No. 8, performed by the Tapiola Sinfonietta conducted by Olari Elts. The disc also features two slightly older, large-scale pieces, Tüür’s 2008 viola concerto Illuminatio and Whistle and Whispers from Uluru, a work for recorder and string orchestra composed in 2007. One of the primary traits of Tüür’s music is energy, and large amounts of it, though the works on this disc demonstrate (as does the Ninth Symphony) that the way this energy is wielded is not only with devil-may-care abandon – though Tüür is hardly afraid of doing this – but just as often with considerable caution and care. Illuminatio, featuring soloist Lawrence Power, is a case in point, placing the viola within a context that encompasses both the monumental and the fantastical, guided by the soloist’s veering between momentum and lyricism. Particularly striking are its second and third movements; the former charting a complex journey between two poles but where the poles themselves are never fully revealed, the latter starting with the viola rhapsodising but somehow ending up in a barrage of orchestrated machine gun fire. The work’s final thrust towards a place of ethereal transcendence makes sense in pretty much the same way that dreams make sense. Read more

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Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

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The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia. Read more

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Proms 2018: Simon Holt – Quadriga; Suzanne Farrin – Hypersea (World Premières)

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Last Monday at Cadogan Hall, percussionist Colin Currie and the JACK Quartet combined forces to perform two works from the ’80s by Xenakis and two world premières, by Simon Holt and Suzanne Farrin. The points of inspirational origin of these pieces were somewhat different from what one usually encounters in new music, Farrin turning to an interpretation of humankind’s emergence from the oceans (and what we may have brought with us – see her answers to my pre-première questions for more details), while Holt’s is the only piece i’ve ever encountered to draw on the movements of classical dressage. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Agata Zubel

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Tomorrow morning’s Prom concert, given by the European Union Youth Orchestra, includes the first UK performance of Fireworks, a recent work by Polish composer Agata Zubel. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions (i’ve provided some information in lieu of answers for the final three questions), together with her programme note for the piece. Thanks to Agata for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell; Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails (World Premières)

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Two of the smallest of this year’s new works were given their first performances in a recital at Cadogan Hall on 6 August by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. The concert had themes of sleep (and the lack of it), dreams and lullabies running through it, explored primarily in 20th century music by the likes of Howells, Britten, Stanford, Holst and their ilk (all of whom had associations with the Royal College of Music), with the new works by Australian composer Lisa Illean and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Read more

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Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Suzanne Farrin and Simon Holt

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Tomorrow afternoon’s Prom concert at Cadogan Hall features percussionist Colin Currie with the JACK quartet. Alongside two classic works by Xenakis, they’ll be performing two world premières, Simon Holt‘s Quadriga and Suzanne Farrin‘s Hypersea. In anticipation of these first performances, here are their answers to my pre-première questions, together with the respective programme notes for their pieces. Many thanks to Suzanne and Simon for their responses. Read more

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Gráinne Mulvey/Christopher Fox – Aeolus/untouch, John Wiggins – The Listened To Sound, Lee Fraser – Cor Unvers

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A new EP out on the Metier label brings together two works that each exist in an interesting relationship to real sounds. Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey‘s Aeolus, as the title suggests, takes its inspiration from the eponymous king of the island of Aeolia, names better known to us today via the Aeolian harp and its associated mode. Her piece is an acousmatic exploration of material rooted quite obviously in field recordings, though subjected to considerable amounts of processing and sculpting. Throughout, there’s a strong sense that the work is, if not about, then deeply informed by the idea of sound as the result of wind and air friction. The piece begins with, and from time to time returns to, the ambiance of the open air, to the soft accompaniment of birdsong, and Mulvey’s subsequent treatment of sounds transforms them into sheets of shimmer, or as if being propelled through tubes or tunnels, or even heard only by their reverberation, making identification difficult. There’s a lovely intimate tactility in this, made more fascinating by the hands-off nature of these transformed sounds, seemingly all the product of no direct physical contact. At various points there are distinct aural similarities to The Hafler Trio (particularly Intoutof), but for the most part Mulvey avoids the clichés of acousmatic music, producing something far more abstract, yet in which its points of origin remain (just about) tangible.

The other work on the disc, Christopher Fox‘s untouch, is the first of a two-part work (untouch—touch) for solo percussion. While the second part involves the soloist striking Thai gongs, untouch reconfigures their actions to the triggering of sine tones. There’s something genuinely uncanny about this abstraction (surely enhanced by seeing it in performance) both in the nature of the tone’s timbre – which doesn’t bear any meaningful similarity to gongs yet knowing about the second part continually brings them to mind – as well as their unfolding over time, begging the question of whether their continuity and the patterns that briefly emerge are arbitrary or closely-controlled. An intriguing, unconventional pair of works. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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Mixtape #48 : Enoch Light

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Admiration’s one thing but, personally, there aren’t many musical figures whom i regard as full-on heroes. One of the few notable exceptions, however, is Enoch Light. Yesterday, 31 July, marked the 40th anniversary of Light’s death, and so as a small tribute to the great man my latest mixtape is a celebration of his work.

If his name’s not familiar to you, that’s not necessarily surprising. His earliest recorded work dates from the later 1950s, continuing until roughly the mid-1970s, and unless your musical interests encompass the very particular conjunction of big band, lounge, jazz and easy listening that flourished during this period, he’s unlikely to show up on your radar. My penchant for this music, which began when i was a child – listening to the LPs in my parents’ record collection – has steadily grown into a full-blooded passion, though for obvious reasons it’s not one that i get a chance to discuss on 5:4 very often (the one exception to date being my 26th mixtape devoted to Easy Listening, though as i was focusing particularly on the more laid back late ’60s/early ’70s sound in that mix i didn’t include any of Light’s music).

Enoch Light deserves to be remembered and celebrated not only for his music, but also for the pivotal role he played in greatly developing and improving recording standards and techniques. Having founded his own label, Command Records, in 1959, he pushed hard for the acceptance of stereo (and, in due course, quadrophonic recording), flamboyantly showing it off by using extreme separation and panning, often utilising a left/right hocketing effect that came to be known as ‘ping pong’ recording. One of his most radical decisions was to reject magnetic tape in favour of the increased clarity, stability, stereo positioning and resolution that could be obtained from recording onto 35mm film. The wonderful artwork that adorned Light’s albums combined stark minimalistic, geometric designs – some created by none other than artist Josef Albers – with bold exclamations about the quality and innovation of the recording. These beautiful sleeves occupy a unique place in the history of album artwork.

But, of course, most of all it’s the music that gets me excited. In his multiplicity of roles as conductor, arranger, producer, engineer and, in his own word, ‘originator’, Light created a legacy of music that brought together the brash exuberance of big band and jazz, the cool swagger of lounge, and the light, romantic elegance of easy listening, even managing to incorporate Moog synthesisers into his later work. By turns exhilarating and sublime, for me Enoch Light is one of the most significant and marvellous musical talents of the twentieth century.

For this mixtape i’ve selected some of my favourites from throughout his career, from the very first Command Records release, Persuasive Percussion (1959) to one of Light’s last discs, a quadrophonic album released on his equally forward-looking Project 3 label, Future Sound Shock (1973), the sleeve of which proudly proclaims: “After years of research, the producers, arrangers and artists at Project 3 have produced the recording of the future which will serve as a leader in the world of recorded sound for many years to come.”

In all, a little over 90 minutes of music by way of tribute to the wonder that was Enoch Light, 1905–1978. Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by links to download and stream the mixtape. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Proms 2018: Georg Friedrich Haas – the last minutes of inhumanity; Hannah Kendall – Verdala; Isabel Mundry – Gefallen; Luca Francesconi – We Wept (World Premières)

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The London Sinfonietta’s Prom concert at The Roundhouse, on 21 July, marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I with great works by Messiaen and Ives, plus a quartet of world premières, commissioned to explore aspects associated with the conflict and its aftermath. Composers are often at pains either to avoid extra-musical content entirely or, if present, to play down its significance and play up the subjectivity of the listening experience. One of the few exceptions to this is war music, when composers can breathe a sigh of relief in the expectation that they can lean on programmatic associations to, at least, steer audiences in the right general direction.

Listening to these four pieces, three of which included mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, it was impossible not to acknowledge their ‘war credentials’ due to the way they were presented, surrounded by discussions with three of the composers about their respective inspirations. Yet the extent to which they spoke with authority, or even authenticity, on this subject, was by no means as obvious. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Jessica Wells

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Tomorrow’s afternoon Prom concert in Cadogan Hall promises to be something a little different. Titled Ancient Rituals and New Tales, the event is a showcase for Egyptian oud player Joseph Tawadros. In addition to his own music Tawadros will also be giving the world première of Australian composer Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud. In preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Jessica for her responses. Read more

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