Arlene Sierra

Mix Tape #43 : International Women’s Day

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As today is International Women’s Day, for my March mix tape i’ve allowed myself to indulge in a celebration of fabulous music by women composers and musicians. Compared to most of my mix tapes, this was one of the more difficult to create, for two reasons. First, because the shortlist of music i was keen to include wasn’t remotely short, but simply enormous (137 individual tracks, lasting a little over 12 hours), and second, because deciding which of them to omit was tough in the extreme. In the end, though, i found an interesting and, i hope, imaginative way of navigating through such a bewilderingly diverse collection of music. There’s no particular structure to the mix as a whole this time, as i was simply allowing myself to be drawn spontaneously from piece to piece, sometimes smoothly, sometimes breaking things up with non sequiturs.

There’s a not quite even split between instrumental and vocal music, though both of these terms are interpreted pretty eclectically. The latter range across the spectrum of sentiments, from poignant and painful (Brika, Laura Sheeran, FKA Twigs, Galina Grigorjeva, Lori Cullen) to passionate and elated (Anna von Hausswolf, Cocteau Twins, Princess Chelsea, Sleigh Bells, Jackie Trent, Ari Mason, Vanbot, Carice van Houten, Peaches, Trio Mediaeval, Ladyhawke), both of widely varying orders of magnitude, alongside the more reflective (EmikaRóisín Murphy, Demen, Zola Jesus, Nynke Laverman, OY, ionnalee, Robyn) and downright demented (Jennifer Walshe – who else?).

As for the instrumental music, not all of it is non-vocal: the pieces by Gazelle Twin, Lauren Redhead and Annette Vande Gorne occupy an electroacoustic place in between, each utilising voices in different ways. As for the rest, perhaps the most applicable continuum is between strains of agitation and disquiet (Jocelyn Pook, Kristin Øhrn Dyrud, AGF, Copeland, Zeena Parkins, Elizabeth Anderson, Natasha Barrett, Mica Levi, Wendy Bevan, Clara Iannotta, Pauline Oliveros, Rose Dodd, Vanessa Rossetto, Chaya Czernowin, Rebecca Saunders, Arlene Sierra, Galina Ustvolskaya, Line Katcho, Milica Djordjević) and calmer, more measured music (Olga Neuwirth, Linda Catlin Smith, Anna Þordvaldsdóttir, Motion Sickness of Time Travel, Chiyoko Szlavnics, Unsuk Chin, Christina VantzouÉliane Radigue, Delia Derbyshire, Isnaj Dui, Susanne Sundfør).

Elizabeth Parker‘s radiophonic cheerfulness doesn’t qualify as either of those, but then pretty much none of the 60 wonderful pieces i’ve featured on this mix fit neatly within one particular box or label: their inventiveness is boundary-challenging, which makes them ideal for a day like today. Apropos: i’ve ended the mix with a track by Frida Sundemo that beautifully captures a sense of optimism, which i think is also ideal for this particular day; the song’s theme is love, yet its emphasis on ‘flashbacks and futures’ seems an apt phrase for the confident, forward-looking attitude exhibited by all of this music, and which this mix tape celebrates.

The mix tape can be downloaded and streamed below; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain each of the albums: Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

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For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended, it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more

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Mix Tape #32 : Best Albums of 2014

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HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Many, many thanks to all of you who have followed the blog through the last 12 months, particularly to all those who have commented and tweeted in response or retort. As usual, here’s my new year mix tape featuring a track from all forty of my Best Albums of the Year. i said yesterday how 2014 had been a breathtaking year, and listening to this 3-hour condensed version of its best music, i really think that becomes obvious.

Enjoy! – and assuming you do, please support the artists wherever possible; links to purchase each of the albums can be found on the last two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by the download link; and you can also stream the mix tape via Mixcloud. Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (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 *

Bringing the main course to an end, here’s the conclusion of the countdown of my forty best albums of 2014. It’s been a breathtaking year.

20 | Salvatore Sciarrino – Cantare con silenzio

Easily one of the strangest albums of the year, from a composer who continues to push back the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary classical music. Two of the three works on the disc focus on the flute, sometimes violently foregrounding it while elsewhere it becomes lost amidst heavier forces. The oldest work on the disc, Berceuse, is wonderfully weird, summarised in my original review as “like a seething, roiling organic mass, acting in waves of dense, surging material, it’s as inscrutable as it is hypnotic”. [Presto Classical]

19 | Bass Communion – Box Set

This rather wondrous 4-disc box set brings together a considerable number of rarities from Steven Wilson’s Bass Communion back catalogue. The earliest dates from as far back as 1998, the first of the deeply impressive Indicates Void series based on individual instruments, all of which still sound overwhelmingly modern. In many ways the collection proves how polarised is the Bass Communion canon, not just encompassing but often directly addressing extremes of serenity and cacophany. Regardless of which end of the spectrum Wilson finds himself, his highly-sculpted results are staggering to behold. [Steven Wilson HQ]

18 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Jennies Made Me Do It {1}

Three pieces originating in Matt Waldron’s collaborations and split releases with the equally unhinged At Jennie Richie, they chart an ambitious path through highly complex sonic imagery. ‘Studio Backflow’, unusually for Waldron, is driven along by a relentless pulse, slowly processing past a kaleidoscope of manic sights; ‘Foregone And Ungotten’—the highlight of the disc—begins as a radiant texture before passing down into something altogether more sinister and strange, whereupon it fragments and roams around in a seemingly endless dark space. [Bandcamp]

17 | OY – No Problem Saloon

One of 2014’s most marvellous oddities, No Problem Saloon melds African & European styles and manners into a uniquely congruous confection. Unaffected almost to a fault, OY’s lyrics tackle subjects almost embarrassingly slight (the joys of afros and dreadlocks) as well as deeply profound, the latter captured in the album’s standout track ‘Doondari’, which recounts in detail the stages of the Fulani story of the creation of the world. From my review: “Essentially a slice of drum-pumped electronica, Frempong’s rapid meandering through the repetitions of the story resembles a scrambling recitative passing through an assortment of episodes that skew off at oblique angles, the references to creation & milk finally combining in the quiet wail of a baby.” [Crammed Discs]

16 | Senko – Dronetudes

Despite the title of Danish musician Daniel Kosenko’s latest album, drones are not the primary focus of Dronetudes. Some of these absorbing studies do involve them, draped like large swatches of fabric across each other to create extended forms that shift and shimmer. Beats predominate too, though, existing both in sympathy with and counter to this slower material, and Kosenko clearly revels in the disjunct interrelationship, heard to best effect in ‘karpus trio’—a track that clearly can’t sit still—and album opener ‘wolfsong’, the underlying light of which is continually flecked and tickled by surface-layer beat tracery. [Hymen]

15 | John Pickard – Gaia Symphony / Eden

John Pickard’s magnum opus for brass orchestra and percussion has been given a superb new recording by the Norwegian Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag. Although daunting in terms of both scale and scope, the Gaia Symphony is an immensely accessible and immediate work, carving “huge, rough shapes but handles them as though they were fluid, forming them into pounding rhythms and pseudo-fanfares” (from my review). Anyone potentially put off by the thought of 65 minutes of brass music: think again – Pickard has revivified the medium for the 21st century in this astounding piece. [Presto Classical]

14 | Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal – The Raid 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of 2014’s most exhilarating movies needed nothing less than a score that matched it in terms of both violence and dexterity. What it got was easily the year’s most breathtaking soundtrack, one that moved and acted with the skill of the film’s hero, Rama – biding its time (and thereby tapping deeply into the emotional subtexts that run like threads throughout) before unleashing onslaughts of unimaginable ferocity and virtuosity. Music remade as a martial art. [Amazon]

13 | Markus Reuter – Sultry Kissing Lounge (Crimson ProjeKCt Tour 2014)

Superficially similar to the EP of tracks recorded in Australasia (included in my Best EPs of the Year list), this extended set originating in European concerts goes very much further and deeper. ‘Patricia’ sets the bar very high, filled with surging triadic waves that continually hint at but thwart any cadential connotations; ‘Lorena’ opts for a vaguer harmonic language that threatens to be dragged into the depths. All 13 of these remarkable improvisations are outstandingly beautiful, crowned by Reuter’s thrilling white-hot guitar improvisations, frenzies shaped into melodies like strands of lightning from a Tesla coil. [Iapetus]

12 | St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Something from Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne seems to have rubbed off, as her latest album has a distinctly heavyweight lollop in its step from the get go. Songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ are punchy as hell, eat beat like a slap in the chops. Her experimental nature still pervades every song, making even relatively conventional numbers like ‘Psychopath’ sound oblique; standout track ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ encapsulates the album, pushed along with military precision while exploring unexpected side alleys en route. Not a verse-chorus structure in sight. [Amazon]

11 | John Cage – Works for Two Keyboards • 2

Xenia Pestova, reigning queen of the toy piano, reunites with Pascal Meyer on this superb second survey of John Cage’s two-keyboard music. In my review i remarked how their performance of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos “is as fascinating as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, their navigation through Cage’s indeterminate score resulting in a mercurial kind of halting hocket between the toy pianos & an array of bizarre sounds.” The prepared piano music is no less striking (and more gamelan-like than ever), testifying to the continual freshness and unpredictability of Cage’s music. [Amazon] Read more

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New releases: ensemble/orchestral

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The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Fidelio Trio, The Will Gregory Moog Ensemble, Tokaido Road

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Over the weekend, three concerts at the Cheltenham Music Festival, in different ways and for different reasons, caused one to reflect on the present within the context of ideas, experiences and memories from the past. The most frustrating and patience-testing were to found in the Saturday afternoon recital at the Pittville Pump Room given by the Fidelio Trio, the first half of which presented a threesome of works of the kind where composers dearly wish them to be more than the sum of their parts. Graham Fitkin‘s Lens, Michael Zev Gordon‘s Roseland and Tom Stewart‘s Flying Kites: Concentric Circles (receiving its première) took turns to mooch through material so terrified of doing anything demonstrative that they remained trapped in a limbo of blank tonality. Restraint and simplicity do not make something profound, a fact lost on these pieces, their respective blind, senile, melismatic bleatings lacking any meaningful emotional weight or poignancy. The second half brought relief: Piers Hellawell‘s Etruscan Games offered very much more focussed lyricism, the ambitious third movement in particular exploring an impressive density of counterpoint. Arlene Sierra‘s duo Avian Mirrors provided three charming snapshots of behaviour, the last of which, ‘Display’, was amusingly direct, violin and cello (serendipitously played on this occasion by men) becoming a preening, posturing pair of rivals in search of a mate, the material a wild display of testosterone-fuelled showmanship. But overshadowing them all was the concert’s final work and second première: Gavin HigginsThe Ruins of Detroit. Where the music of the first half seemed to cleave to something undefinable from a less-demanding earlier age, Higgins confronted the past with courage. Titled after and inspired by the famous photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, the piece opened in a place of anaemic fragility (bringing to mind the start of Thomas Adès’ Arcadiana), given hauntological resonance in deep muted piano notes. Here, finally, was lyricism was a real sense of context. Negotiated with necessary sensitivity by the Fidelio Trio, Higgins’ textures were often strikingly vivid, as in a later episode where the piano became a kind of abstract water dripping on romantic memories of former glories. Appropriately, the material often decayed from melody to fragment to gesture, during which one became aware of something vestigial beneath; the conclusion said it all, a sad downward sagging, under the combination of both physical and nostalgic weight. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: An Evening with Nicola Benedetti

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Once upon a time, it bore the proud title Cheltenham Festival of British Contemporary Music; for the last 50 years, it’s simply been Cheltenham Music Festival. Even though it has to a large extent yielded to the essentially conservative musical taste that pervades this part of the Cotswolds (as a Cheltonian myself, I can say that without compunction), Cheltenham has evolved into a festival where music old and new sit side by side, with many concerts featuring at least one contemporary work. There have been times, over the years, when this ancient/modern adjacency has felt forced, even apologetic. However, last night’s event, in our rather grand Town Hall, was nothing of the kind. Read more