Proms 2010: Brett Dean – Amphitheatre (London Première)

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Tonight’s Prom concert opened with another London première, Amphitheatre by the Australian composer Brett Dean, who won last year’s prestigious Grawemeyer Prize. The work was composed a decade ago, and appropriately enough was presented this evening by the Australian Youth Orchestra, conducted by the effervescent Mark Elder.

The clarity of Amphitheatre‘s opening gesture is immediately undermined by the lugubrious, half-lit shapes and fragments that succeed it, the music not so much happening as lurking. Rocking chords, bizarre brass buzzes and tentative, shivering percussion paint a whoozy, intoxicated backdrop from which—eventually, suddenly—concrete ideas arise, pummelling a melody into existence, before descending (or expanding) into dense clamour that impacts the ears with a myriad colours and timbres. Things become subdued; and in an unsettling stillness, the brass quietly convulse—in this work, it seems, as the textures assume a softer quality, the more tense and spasmodic the ensuing behaviour becomes. Quieter still, and things do genuinely seem to calm down, only to be—again—finally questioned by the work’s close gesture, an unnerving, nervous tic. Read more

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Proms 2010: Colin Matthews – Violin Concerto (London Première) plus Stockhausen, Birtwistle, Bedford and Zimmermann

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Tonight’s Proms première found itself nestling among an assortment of contemporary works, each vying for attention. Given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Oliver Knussen’s direction, the concert opened with Stockhausen‘s 1977 work Jubilee, a 16-minute work hysterically described by some as an ‘overture’ (!!). Of course, it’s nothing of the kind, but is rather a broad orchestral tapestry, burgeoning with richness, fragranced heavily with the aroma of ritual. It begins, and remains for some time, with a fairly solemn demeanour, although the incessant high percussion tantalises and hints at more beyond. As it develops, increasingly soloistic strands start arcing out from the texture, highly virtuosic, and the latter half of the work seems to pass in almost no time at all, growing in scale and scope with each passing minute, culminating in a vast hymn-like mass of sound that is utterly thrilling. A splendid example of Stockhausen’s well-worn ‘formula’ compositional approach in action. Read more

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Proms 2010: Simon Holt – a table of noises (London & World Premières)

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This evening’s Proms première came from the pen of one of England’s most intriguing and engaging composers, Simon Holt. Holt’s music betrays little of the generic English sound that plagues so many of the ‘established’ (i.e. published) composers in this land—there’s no trace of the anodyne ‘Faber sound’ here. On the contrary, Holt’s inspirations and method of execution are cosmopolitan, highly eclectic and invariably utterly unpredictable, as is the case with tonight’s piece, a table of noises.

It’s a work that brings together such incongruous ideas as Peruvian box drums—from which the title of the piece is derived, being a translation of ‘mesa de ruidos’, one of assorted names for such drums—and Holt’s great uncle Ash (picture below), a significant figure in his childhood, up in the north of England (Lancashire, to be precise). a table of noises is a percussion concerto, and while percussion continues to be the most hackneyed group of instruments in contemporary instrumental composition, what Holt does with it is strikingly original. The orchestra comprises a selection of wind and brass, colouring the material with a slight abrasiveness that is entirely in sympathy with the atmospheric and often very sprightly solo percussion part. At around 30 minutes’ duration, a table of noises passes through no fewer than ten movements, that explore an exceptionally wide range of both timbres and performing techniques (so much so that George Crumb springs to mind). Above all, Holt clearly relishes the assortment of sounds with which he presents us, allowing them the freedom to speak almost relentlessly rather than resorting to mere novelty (the usual crime perpetrated against percussion). Soloist Colin Currie’s élan takes the work to even greater heights of exuberance; it’s just such a shame that a plethora of loudly-coughing invalids peppers the performance with their own noisome contribution—including just after the final note, a capital offence in my book. Before the performance is a brief interview with Currie and the composer himself. i’ve included with the recording a copy of the programme note from the official Proms guide. Read more

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Hypnotising, confounding, beautiful: Chubby Wolf – Ornitheology

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On 8 July—the anniversary of Danielle Baquet-Long‘s death—in a rather lovely coincidence, her first posthumous release, Ornitheology, landed on my doormat. That was the standard edition, released in a typically short run of 125 copies by Digitalis—by now, of course, very sold out. Yesterday, the special edition arrived, in an even shorter run of just 21 copies, the cassette housed in a black wallet, replete with pink bow fixed to the front, all made from rather-curious-to-hold-but-very-striking-to-behold latex; designed by fashion’s latex goddess Sophie Richardoz, it gives the release an exotic, sensuous and highly tactile quality. Despite their resurgence in recent times, cassette releases have a tendency to appear less substantial than those on other media, in part due to the (usually) shorter durations they occupy. But Ornitheology is a different entity, its brace of tracks amounting to over 90 minutes of music, a demonstrative statement of intent as well as an article of faith in the cassette medium.

For listeners accustomed to the endlessly new and diverse but ever unified output from Celer, it can feel somewhat difficult to extricate Baquet-Long’s parallel Chubby Wolf project. A simplistic view would be to regard it as a solo extension of Celer’s work—after all, her material obviously carries many of the hallmarks of the established Celer sound. But on both her previous releases—the EP Meandering Pupa and album L’Histoire—a notably different sound, i feel, emerges; one that might be described as more focussed and intense, more austere, and certainly more demanding (which is not to suggest Celer’s music lacks these qualities; far from it). Indeed, both these releases, with their firm sense of patience and restraint, and the resultant cool, aloof textures, are in fact a world away from most Celer, really akin only to their great anomaly, Sieline. Baquet-Long is clearly an independent force to be reckoned with on her own terms. Read more

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Proms 2010: Gunther Schuller – Where the Word Ends (UK Première)

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At tonight’s Proms, almost a year-and-a-half after its world première, Gunther Schuller‘s Where the Word Ends finally found its way to England. It came in the hands of the splendid WDR Symphony Orchestra, Cologne, under the direction of Semyon Bychkov, in his farewell concert with the orchestra he’s faithfully served for nigh on 15 years.

One never quite knows what to expect from Schuller, but his works rarely disappoint. Where the Word Ends was no exception, being one of the most lush and exhilarating new orchestral pieces i’ve heard in a long time. Cast in four seamless movements, Schuller has packed the piece with the range and variety of material one might expect in a symphonic poem. In fact, it’s rather tempting to describe it simplistically as having “something for everyone”, although its progress from brash, modernistic ebullience to delicate lyricism is convincing and subtle. Moreover, the whole thing somehow holds together and makes sense, although my ear found itself recoiling from one or two moments that sounded like so much generic contemporary music (or do i mean generic English contemporary music?). They were only moments, though; Gunther Schuller’s 25-minute span forms an object ever in flux, ultimately dragging the listener through the most vivid, exciting sonic landscape. Read more

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Dragonette – new single: Our Summer Volcano

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Canada’s most exciting electronic pop outfit Dragonette are putting out their first release of 2010 in a week’s time, a single titled “Our Summer Volcano”.

The partial title track, “Our Summer”, is an audaciously addictive anthemic floor stomper, perfect for summer parties where it’s destined to send people out of their minds at the sheer joyousness of it all. More importantly, it’s available for FREE download, and anyone fancying making their own version of this awesome track can also download the vocal stems in WAV format. All you need for the summer is right here.

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Proms 2010: looking forward/back; Claude Vivier – Orion (UK Première)

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The Proms season is upon us once again, bringing with it the lively hope of new commissions and world premières. However, a cursory glance at the concert season makes for rather damp reading, the commissions going to an unadventurous gaggle including Mark-Anthony Turnage, David Matthews, Graham Fitkin, Jonathan Dove and Huw Watkins. That being said, new works from Robin Holloway, Tansy Davies and Tarik O’Regan should make for more interesting listening, along with UK premières from Gunther Schuller, Simon Holt, James Dillon and Bent Sørensen. If time allows, each new work and other concerts of note will be covered here on 5:4, together with a recording of the performance. First up is Gunther Schuller next Tuesday.

Meanwhile, here’s one of the highlights from last year’s Proms season, and a work by a favourite composer of mine, Claude Vivier. It’s the UK première of his Orion, a work that emerged following the composer’s extensive trip to the far east. With a title like Orion, it’s rather too easy to reach for an adjective like ‘cosmic’, but that word absolutely applies; its 13-minute duration has a broadness of scope that is remarkable and highly evocative. While other composers are sporadically brought to mind (Takemitsu, Messiaen, even a hint of Varése here and there), Vivier’s sound-world—as ever—is entirely his own, and it’s a ravishing, exquisite sound-world indeed, which makes it all the more surprising that his work persists in being so unknown. Admittedly, there are layers of obtusity in Vivier’s structures and textures that, for all their superficial beauty, can cause one to feel a little uncertain, even lost. But i for one am content to be taken into uncharted waters by one such as Vivier; it’s music worth a bit of trust and effort. Read more

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