Schnittke Week – String Quartets Nos. 2 & 3, Piano Quintet

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The coming week sees the anniversary of the birth of one of Russia’s most outstanding composers, Alfred Schnittke, born on 24 November 1934. 5:4 is therefore devoting this week to his music, focusing on works that were included in the Barbican’s ‘Seeking the Soul’ festival, in January 2001. Having kicked around in the archive for almost a decade, these recordings were originally on cassette, and (i think) have been cleaned up on several occasions, but the sound quality isn’t too bad considering.

Schnittke’s String Quartet No. 3 was composed in 1983. The opening movement (Andante) is filled with melodic intentions, the quartet’s gestures all concerned with making something from small fragments (originating in quotations from Orlando di Lasso and Beethoven, plus Shostakovich’s D.S.C.H. motif). At times, this common aspiration is made more complex by a sense of conflict in the individual parts, torn between working as an ensemble or forging ahead by themselves. Such an emotionally neutral term as ‘Andante’ suggests nothing of the intense air of melancholy permeating the movement, made yet more telling through Schnittke’s frequent rendering of the players in the guise of a consort of quasi-viols. The blatant tonality heard at the start of the central movement is jarring, although it’s lost within moments; despite being labelled ‘Agitato’, no little time is spent occupied with dark, brooding material. Read more

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Björk – The Breezeblock & Mixing It Specials

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It’s more than a little staggering to realise that today is the 45th birthday of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an artist i’ve followed for the entirety of her solo career and continue to admire very much (one day, i hope to explore her complete output here—when i have a couple of spare months to devote to it, that is…); to mark the occasion, two special items from the 5:4 archive.

First is my complete recording of Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock Special, devoted to Björk, broadcast on 26 October 2004. Björk’s one-hour mix—in which every song is introduced at length by Björk herself—is wonderfully diverse, and a fascinating insight into the kind of music she finds inspirational, unsurprisingly including a number of artists with whom she’s been associated: Matmos are represented by ‘Regicide’, by no means their greatest track, while 808 State‘s ‘Cübik’ may well be their finest hour (although it’s not aging well).

Kukl, the ’80s band in which Björk was vocalist, is described by Wikipedia as an ‘anarcho-punk’ group, but if ‘Dismembered’ is typical of their music, it’s much too tame for an epithet like that; regardless, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff, the seed of what would become The Sugarcubes (conspicuously absent from the programme). and there’s plenty of Björk’s solo music too; the glorious ‘Hyperballad’ (her most remixed song) opens the programme, and there are two tracks from her superlative album Medúlla, released a couple of months earlier that year, performed live at Maida Vale; they’re remarkable versions of the songs—an Inuit choir, a bell orchestra and a throat singer are all involved—and while ‘Who Is It?’ was included on one of the CD singles of that song, as far as i know ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ has not yet found its way onto an official release.

For the rest, despite the presence of one or two distinctly damp squibs (Kid 606‘s ‘Sugarcoated’ is a definite “must try harder” effort, and DAF‘s ‘Sato Sato’ quickly palls), the programme is an enthralling listen, and goes a long way to elaborate the more unconventional sounds and textures that have become ubiquitous in Björk’s output from Vespertine onwards. Read more

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St Martin’s in the Bullring, Birmingham: The Irrepressibles

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i can’t let the week come to an end without making some comment about a concert i attended last Wednesday in Birmingham. Hosted by the church of St Martin’s in the Bullring—finally getting itself really sorted as a top-notch concert venue (my ensemble Interrobang performed there back in May)—it was the second in a short series of gigs given by the remarkable group The Irrepressibles, whose debut release Mirror Mirror has been jangling around in the 5:4 jukebox for most of this year.

The prospect of support acts always sets me on edge; many’s the time my eager anticipation for a concert has been dissipated by a support act unworthy of or unsuited to the occasion. Not so in the case of Thomas Truax, one of outsider music’s more ingenious and genuinely entertaining figures, every bit as irrepressible as the headline act. He brought a cluster of his trademark handmades, including ‘Mother Teresa’ (replete with “removable limbs”), the off-kilter rhythmic patter of which lends Truax’s songs a wonderfully unbalanced quality, and perhaps his most famous accoutrement, the ‘Hornicator’, a cross between a brass instrument and a gramophone horn, which Truax sang through and percussively struck with gusto Read more

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Stephen McNeff – ConcertO Duo (World Première) & Kaija Saariaho – D’OM LE VRAI SENS (UK Première)

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A fortnight ago, the BBC Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 80th birthday with a concert including a pair of premières, both concertos: one for percussion by Stephen McNeff (composed for the boisterous O Duo) and a clarinet concerto from Kaija Saariaho.

McNeff instructs the orchestra to establish the mood, the first few minutes of the opening movement filled with big, emphatic gestures. The contrast of the soloists’ entry—starting simply, using only their hands to slap, brush and tickle the instruments—is massive, and makes for a highly effective start. Influences quickly fly in both directions; the soloists echo and maintain the considerable momentum already established; in return, the percussion’s abrupt, restless material leads to hectic, spikey figurations in the orchestra. A marimba idea heralds a dramatic reduction in tempo, and with it a lyrical episode, in which the strings’ music is especially rich, their harmonies familiar but searching. The remaining few minutes are a tussle between these two moods, the more frantic ideas thrusting forth when they can; and while it’s the softer ripostes that ultimately claim the movement, the brass and timpani colour its conclusion with some brief, rather obstreperous gestures. Read more

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Mix Tape #18 : Hallowe’en

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Caught up as i am this Hallowe’en weekend in a flurry of horror movies, it seemed only right to make the new 5:4 Mix Tape suitable for the occasion. For this Hallowe’en mix, i’ve trawled my library for music that’s particularly unsettling—so don’t expect to hear ‘The Monster Mash’ or anything like that.

Not surprisingly, a number of soundtracks are featured, of very different styles and manners. The opening of Johan Söderqvist‘s score for Let the Right One In is a masterpiece of foreboding tension; Joe LoDuca explores rapid-fire percussive sounds in this nervy section of his music for the classic The Evil Dead (and the image on the artwork is a beautiful still taken from the equally beautiful blu-ray transfer of Sam Raimi’s brilliant Evil Dead II). Christopher Young draws on evocative metallic clangs and the ominous tinkles of a music box for his Hellraiser soundtrack, going to the opposite extreme for its sequel, Hellbound, the overture of which aspires to the operatic. Angelo Badalamenti—featured twice—establishes an almost immobile, horribly enclosed mood in his music for season 2 of Twin Peaks and, even more so, Mulholland Drive. The extreme, though, is Lars von Trier and Kristian Eidnes‘ soundtrack to Antichrist, one of the most unconventional ever created, and certainly one of the best. Jerry Goldsmith‘s score for Basic Instinct functions like a vast orchestral suite, often eschewing dramatics for music that slowly builds with masterly restraint; Thomas Bangalter—in a break from being one half of Daft Punk—accompanied one of the most horrific scenes of film violence with this ludicrously effective and queasy bit of sound; and David Lynch‘s own music for his exhibition The Air is on Fire is an impossibly deep and dark ambient cycle, occasionally—as here—introducing elements of hauntology. Read more

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James MacMillan – Oboe Concerto (World Première)

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On 15 October, James MacMillan‘s Oboe Concerto received its first performance at Birmingham’s Town Hall, conducted by MacMillan himself. Taking the solo rôle was Nicholas Daniel, a performer who has brought numerous new oboe works to the world, usually at the more mainstream end of the contemporary spectrum. Structurally, at least, MacMillan’s work is entirely familiar, falling into the traditional three movements, even adhering to the hackneyed fast-slow-fast convention.

The first movement is an exercise in rapidity, Daniel barely given any moments to breathe amidst the endless scales and arpeggios. After a few minutes, having continued in like manner without let up, just as one begins to wonder if the movement’s actually going somewhere, MacMillan’s sense of timing reveals itself; the busy texture surrounding the oboe gradually disappears (returning to the movement’s opening gestures), and a brief, soft, distant string chorale begins, its solemnity a curious combination of Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams. All of which makes precisely zero impression on the oboe; on the contrary, it throws itself into a dithyrambic frenzy, its gestures coalescing on a nervously energetic trill. It comes as something of a shock to find the opening movement ended so soon (barely five minutes’ duration), just as it was starting to pique one’s interest. Read more

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New Dead Pilots piano mix

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Dan Gregory, who runs the splendid label Dead Pilot Records, has been kind enough to include my little piano piece In Paradisum on his latest online mix. While i don’t know most of the other names included in the mix, it’s nice to be in the company of Daniel W J McKenzie, better known by his pseudonym, Ekca Liena.

“Piano Series #3” can be streamed via MixCloud, here

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