Aaron Cassidy

Beyond Pythagoras, Phantom Images

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Perhaps the most consistently and fearlessly challenging of UK new music labels is Huddersfield Contemporary Records. As such, they’re not exactly a label needing to up their game, but with their latest couple of albums they’ve done just that, releasing some of the most unforgettable stuff i’ve heard this year. Before discussing Beyond Pythagoras and Phantom Images it’s worth mentioning that, in keeping with the exploratory compositional curiosity that prevails at Huddersfield University, the first impression these discs make is as research publications, the product of intense academic consideration and scrutiny. i only mention this because, first, very few labels seek to place up-front the scholarly, investigative aspects of the music; second, this is not (as a listener) anything to be afraid of; and third, that’s far from being the whole story. Personally, i like being able to engage with the academic side of this kind of music-making. It highlights the experimentalism that underpins most innovation, as well as the provisional nature of such experiments; this, in turn, punctures the bubble – continually re-inflated with perfumed, romantic helium – that composition is all about divine inspiration and magic. Composition, at its best, is about rolling up your sleeves and getting your hands dirty, about feeling the ‘earth’ of the musical stuff between your fingers and finding how it wants and you want it to be shaped; it’s about hunches and algorithms and wild guesses and systems and why-the-hell-nots and struggles and elation, with concomitant failures and triumphs. Maybe all i’m trying to say in this now way overlong opening paragraph is that Huddersfield Contemporary Records really gets this, and these two discs are a superbly authentic testament to the rigour and the glee that the best compositions encompass and embody. Read more

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Electric Spring 2018

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 1 Comment

Huddersfield is supremely talented at providing distractions (and shelter) from the vicissitudes of winter: HCMF does the honours at the start of the season, in late November, whereas at the other end, in late February, it falls to the university’s annual five-day festival of “electronic sonic exploration”, Electric Spring.

There are various reasons why over the last few years i’ve grown to love Electric Spring. First, it’s the mix of familiar and – most often – unfamiliar names: at most festivals one encounters the same composers again and again, and it’s exciting to have minimal use for one’s expectations. Second, it’s a festival that’s prepared to take big risks: of course, they don’t always work, but its preparedness to go places and try things fearlessly is so admirable, and whichever way the results go, they’re often spectacular. Third, i’ve rarely encountered such inordinate attention to detail in concert giving: everything from the sound system – based around HISS, the ultimate wet dream for surround sound enthusiasts – to the lighting to the stage presentation and everything else is always carefully considered and clearly matters enormously to everyone involved in putting the festival on. And fourth, which only makes my third reason more remarkable, all of the concerts are free, making Electric Spring, besides all else, an amazing act of generosity. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Aaron Cassidy – The wreck of former boundaries/Liza Lim – How Forests Think

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Later today i’ll be jumping in the car to begin my annual pilgrimage to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and it seems appropriate to conclude this week’s revisiting of previous years with mention of a recent CD featuring two larger-scale works that both received their first UK performances at last year’s festival. It’s pretty common to hear new music at HCMF and then lose all sight and sound of it for years afterward, due to a lack of further performances on these shores or a CD release. So it’s unusual and enormously welcome that within a year of hearing Australia’s foremost contemporary music ensemble ELISION perform Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think, both are available on a CD released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records. Moreover, the recording is of that very same live performance at HCMF 2016 which, considering how exciting and immersive that concert was, makes it even more of a treat.

i discussed both pieces at length in my original review of the concert, and while this isn’t a new performance, this recording offers a fresh perspective of each piece, one that at times draws significant contrasts with the experience of hearing them live in St Paul’s Hall last November. Lim’s piece in particular left me with a lot of questions and concerns, some of which have been addressed by the CD. Read more

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HCMF 2016: ELISION

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 3 Comments

Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.

In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox. Read more

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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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Mixtape #33 : Purple

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For the new 5:4 mixtape i’ve rather whimsically adopted my favourite colour—purple—as the theme. That colour invites a host of hues and shades, so the mix includes track titles alluding to the entirety of that part of the spectrum, including heliotrope, lavender, fuchsia, pink, plum, magenta, indigo, amethyst, violet and even ultraviolet. Such an oblique connection has enabled me to unleash a more-than-usually eclectic selection, taking in piano works (Ramon Humet, Luke Stoneham, George Crumb, David Rakowski), synthpop (John Foxx & Louis Gordon, Frida Sundemo), ambient (Peter Wright, Specta Ciera, Frond, Saturday IndexDick Mills, The Denisovans, Tor LundvallDarren Harper), rock – electronic, math and (ir)regular (Nine Inch Nails, Frank Zappa, Sleeping People), easy listening (Enoch Light), electronica (World’s End Girlfriend, Time Attendant, Bauri, The Flashbulb, Labyrinth Ear, Da Wei), avant garde classical (Chiyoko Szlavnics, Aaron Cassidy), folk (Steve Peters), indie pop (StopTalk, The William Blakes), fusion (David Murphy), drum and bass (Tim Exile) and noise (K2). Read more

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Electric Spring 2015

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 2 Comments

i don’t know which felt more strange, being in Huddersfield for a music festival in February (rather than November), or the fact that, somehow, for two decades the university’s Electric Spring festival has entirely passed me by. Better late than never, i suppose, especially as this year’s festival, which took place over five days last week, was celebrating a double anniversary, both the 20 years that Electric Spring has existed as well as the 10 years during which it has been run by composers Monty Adkins and Pierre Alexandre Tremblay (an era which has now ended; in future the festival will be curated by a newly-formed committee).

In addition to various daytime activities—including workshops on sound projection (using Huddersfield’s 48-speaker HISS diffusion system) and live coding (supplemented by a late evening ‘algorave’), as well as an MSP symposium and the ‘Yorkshire wiggle’ modular synthfest—Electric Spring centred on five evening concerts, featuring a headline act and opening with a short work by a different composer. The latter varied considerably in terms of both imagination and execution. Ben PottsCuboid was wilfully obtuse, bookended by bouts of tickling a kind of suspended multiple wobble-board, in between which non-sequitur bursts of shifting bandwidth came and went; it was at least mercifully short. Roberto Gerhard‘s DNA in Reflection (Audiomobile No. 2), composed in 1963, formed the soundtrack to a film by Hans Boye and Anand Sorhabal. This felt problematic in a similar way to some of the film accompaniments by Bernard Parmegiani, insofar as the visuals in no way lived up to the more experimental qualities of the music. Where the film was characterised by symmetry and anecdotal references, full of cycling images with large amounts of repetition, Gerhard’s music, encompassing an extremely wide dynamic range, seemed to follow its own predominately amorphous nose (revealingly, he described it an “aleatoric soundtrack”). The audiovisual combination caused a sharp aesthetic jarring that could only be solved by shutting one’s eyes. β Pictoris b by Olivier Pasquet referred to specifics in its programme note—”an extrasolar planet located approximately 63 light-years away”—but his music could hardly have been more generalised, a study in texture formed from the movement and juxtaposition of a body of timbrally similar particles. This was interesting in and of itself, but how Pasquet’s somewhat psychobabbular description matched his material was mystifying. The highlight of these openers for me was guitarist Diego Castro Magas’ rendition of Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, completed as far back as 2007 but only now receiving its world première. i’m not sure which aspect was more jaw-dropping, Magas’ performance—involving incredibly fast hand and finger agility, racing up and around the fingerboard, to and from the tremolo bar, while operating two foot-pedals—or the resultant music which, apart from a section toward the end, sounded about as far from guitar music as one could imagine. There was, admittedly, a surfeit of information to grapple with on this first listen, Magas positively ploughing through Cassidy’s layers of simultaneous action (one of the most frantic passages can be seen in the excerpt above), but its soundworld could not have been more urgent and inviting. i can’t wait to hear it again. And again. Read more

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Fearless forays into choral hinterlands: Exaudi – Exposure

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Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests and skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.

Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, and there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings and meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, and the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity and arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced and boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control and consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings. Read more

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Mixtape #25 : Best Albums of 2012

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year, Mixtapes | 3 Comments

HAPPY NEW YEAR TO YOU ALL!

Today marks 5:4‘s fifth anniversary, and so i’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of you who regularly read, share and respond to the articles and music explored here. Since 2008, the blog has grown from being an occasional hobby (reading the earliest articles, that fact is rather painfully obvious) to something that now receives significantly more time and attention. i very much hope that 5:4 can grow and become even more interesting and useful in the next five years; all comments, criticisms, suggestions and other feedback is always very warmly encouraged.

But to return to the present, and to continue our annual tradition, here is a new mixtape featuring one track from each of the forty entries on my Best Albums of the Year list. The mix includes more extreme dynamic variety than in previous years, so while i’ve done a little to mitigate that, be warned that at times the music veers between extremely soft and very loud indeed. As ever, if you like what you hear in the mix, please support the artists and buy the music; links are included on the last two days’ posts.

i’ve remarked in the past on the provisional nature of all ‘Best of’ lists, and so to keep things current, i’ve updated the summaries of the Best Albums/EPs of the Years, to reflect further listening than had been possible at the time; the revised lists can be found under The Lists on the main menu.

The mixtape lasts a little under 3½ hours; here’s the tracklisting in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2012 (Part 2)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

The lists reduce the vastness into controllable sizes, into the size of things that can fit into our mind, where they can expand again to the size of everything. The list is the way of fitting everything in one place at one time, so that we can take it with us, so that we can fit it all inside a microchip, a chip we can then fit inside our soul. … The list is a code for everything we are, the list is a diagram, sometimes extremely slight and incomplete, sometimes unbelievably deep and complete, of eternity.
(Paul Morley, Words and Music)

Here we go, then, with the absolute pinnacle of this year’s albums, every one of them essential listening. Read more

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Giving voice to the indescribable: Aaron Cassidy – The Crutch of Memory

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Featured Artists | 7 Comments

There are times when a composer wins you over instantly, the cogency of their arguments captured in a transparent marriage of sound and idea that’s instantly familiar and welcoming. This has emphatically not been my experience with the music of Aaron Cassidy. Over the last few years, i’ve oscillated around Cassidy’s music with the regularity of a comet, never quite pulled into orbit (or should that be a collision?), but constantly drawn back nonetheless. With the release, a few months ago, of the first CD devoted to his music, i figured it was time to try to pin down my thoughts about what Aaron Cassidy is up to. The CD, The Crutch of Memory, focuses on works for one or two players, encompassing both Cassidy’s earliest music as well as relatively recent pieces, the latest of which is around three years old. Both the spread of output as well as the restricted forces involved make this a superb primer for Cassidy’s work.

To begin to understand his compositional approach, take a look at the score excerpt below, taken from Richard Barrett’s 1988 work for trombone and percussion, EARTH (click for high-res).

At this point, towards the end of the piece, the trombone’s music abruptly bifurcates into two staves, the upper showing the slide positions, the lower showing the harmonics being sounded. This fundamentally undermines the way a trombonist is used to playing, where these two parameters imply each other within conventional notation; yet by ‘decoupling’ those parameters, and destroying their traditional connection, Barrett creates a remarkable effect—which, in context, is both profoundly moving and deeply distressing—that could not have been achieved any other way.
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