Alba New Music

Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: BCMG, Nordic Music Days, Alba New Music

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Having packed up for their summer break, ensembles and festivals are starting to get going again in the weeks and months ahead. Most immediately, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group is poised to pop the corks in celebration of their 30th birthday. There’s a couple of events happening in London: on 2 September at Wilton’s Music Hall – as part of the Proms season – they’ll be exploring music by John Luther Adams, Messiaen, Maxwell Davies, and Rebecca Saunders, and on 16 September at Milton Court Concert Hall they’ll be tackling familiar BCMG fare, works by Stravinsky, Birtwistle and Knussen, alongside a piece by the group’s 2015/16 Composer-in-Residence, Patrick Brennan. Most exciting, though, is the day of shenanigans that will be taking place in Birmingham on Sunday 10 September. There’s a free afternoon workshop for families, followed by a ‘canal serenade’ including music by Ondřej AdámekRichard Baker and Yannis Kyriakides, and in the evening, a concert at the CBSO Centre featuring more from Ondřej Adámek, Rebecca SaundersInto the Blue and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Zwei Gefühle – Musik mit Leonardo. It’s going to be quite a day. Full details about all these events can be found here.

Later in September, the Nordic Music Days will be making one of its only ventures ever beyond their respective countries, spending four days at the South Bank in London, from 28 September to 1 October. As you’d expect all of the music is by Nordic composers – a mouth-watering prospect in itself – and there’s a considerable amount of it, including works by Anna Þorvaldsdóttir (a chance to hear her wonderful orchestral piece Aerality), Daníel BjarnasonHanna HartmanØyvind TorvundKaija Saariaho and many, many others whose work is entirely new to me. Many of the performers will be familiar, though: the Philharmonia, Exaudi, Distractfold and the Riot Ensemble will all be taking part. There’s also a conference and seminars discussing various pertinent issues associated with contemporary music, particularly from the perspective of younger composers, in addition to various workshops, an outdoor interactive sculpture and lots more.

And in early October, Alba New Music returns for a welcome second year. Taking place on Friday 5 and Saturday 6 October, this year’s programme includes a performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Time and Motion Study II by the duo who created the remarkable DVD recording of the piece, Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold (their documentary about creating the recording, Electric Chair Music, will also be screened); their concert also includes Jonathan Harvey‘s AdvayaFeldman‘s Projections 1 and Helmut Lachenmann‘s Pression. Saturday afternoon brings an opportunity to hear John Wall in action, and in the evening Scottish flute-master Richard Craig will be giving the final concert in St Giles’ Cathedral, including Ferneyhough‘s 1986 bass flute and tape piece Mnemosyne. There will also be various talks elaborating and discussing the music. For more info, keep an eye on Alba’s website and Facebook page.

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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 2 Comments

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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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Alba New Music

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A quick heads-up about a forthcoming mini festival that will, i’m sure, turn out to pack a punch inversely proportional to its duration. Alba New Music is a new Scottish charity “devoted to celebrating the sonic avant garde”. Following a couple of one-off gigs earlier this year, they’re launching their first weekend of concerts, which will take place in Edinburgh on Friday 7 and Saturday 8 October. The line-up/repertoire is lip-smackingly inviting: on the Friday evening, Huddersfield guitar hero Diego Castro Magas will be giving a recital including music by Wieland Hoban and Richard Barrett alongside two works by Aaron CassidyThe Pleats of Matter (which i found positively ear-boggling back at Electric Spring 2015) and the first UK performance of the electronics-only permutation of The wreck of former boundaries. Saturday is crammed with three events, starting with a free lunchtime concert by Edinburgh Experimental Musicians, including a diverse mix of pieces by John Hails, John Cage, Yoko Ono, Robert Ashley and Pauline Oliveros. In the early evening, flautist Richard Craig will be performing music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough and Fabrice Fitch, followed later by singer Peyee Chen, who’ll be getting her teeth stuck into works by George Aperghis, Michael Finnissy, Erin Gee, Scott McLaughlin and Jennifer Walshe.

Talk about hitting the ground running – it promises to be a fantastic and pretty intense couple of days. The main concerts are £8 a pop or you can do a triple-whammy for just £20. Full details on the Alba New Music website. i’ll be there trying to get my head around it all, so reviews to follow in due course.

 

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