Australia

CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Proms 2019: Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B. (World Première)

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A week ago, the Proms saw the world première of a new work by no fewer than 14 composers. Conceived by conductor Martyn Brabbins as a 60th birthday present to himself, the piece is inspired by, and modelled on, the structure and character of Elgar’s Enigma Variations. For this new work, Pictured Within: Birthday Variations for M. C. B., Brabbins selected a theme (keeping its origin a secret) as the basis for fourteen variations, composed by Dai Fujikura, David Sawer, Sally Beamish, Colin Matthews, Iris ter Schiphorst, Brett Dean, Wim Henderickx, Richard Blackford, Harrison Birtwistle, Judith Weir, Gavin Bryars, Kalevi Aho, Anthony Payne and John Pickard. (It’s impossible to ignore how much of a sausage-fest that is, but it’s Brabbins’ party so obviously he calls the shots.) The tempos and approximate durations of Elgar’s original movements are, with a few exceptions, generally retained in Pictured Within, resulting in a composite work that corresponds to the overall shape, nature and inner relationships running throughout the Enigma Variations. Read more

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St Mary’s Church, Penzance: Kevos – Old Kings in Exile

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Last weekend i made a pilgrimage to the far south-west of England to catch the latest concert given by (as far as i can tell) Cornwall’s one and only contemporary music ensemble, Kevos. The title of the concert, named after one of the works being performed, Old Kings in Exile, gave me pause to consider the somewhat exiled nature of Kevos themselves, located so very far from the usual locations we more readily associate with new music.

Directed by Patrick Bailey, on this occasion they presented five works, including a world première. It’s worth saying that, as he had the last time i saw Kevos in action, Bailey gave a short introduction to each piece, and they could hardly have been more perfect: enthusiastic and explanatory without in any way over-simplifying things for the sake of the audience; they really left you wanting to hear what was to come. That being said, not everything in the programme entirely lived up to Bailey’s keen words. Mark-Anthony Turnage‘s Grazioso!, though entertaining, seemed to exhaust its ideas relatively quickly. As such, there was the strange sensation that it was almost a piece in the style of Turnage rather than an authentic original, but it was nice to hear the irony of its title expressed in such a relentless way, like an exaggerated rendition of some much more mellow existing music, pushed here to extremes. Castles in the Air by young composer Oren Velasquez Hirtenstein was supposedly a memorial to Oliver Knussen, but it was difficult to engage with it on anything beyond an intellectual level. It’s perhaps revealing that Hirtenstein’s programme note commented on his having “cracked the code to one of Knussen’s favoured compositional devices”; what we heard sounded very much like the product of code-breaking: cool, calculated and methodical, but without any significant warmth or emotional depth that one might expect from a piece written in memoriam. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, CD/Digital releases | 5 Comments

The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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Proms 2018: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell; Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails (World Premières)

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Two of the smallest of this year’s new works were given their first performances in a recital at Cadogan Hall on 6 August by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. The concert had themes of sleep (and the lack of it), dreams and lullabies running through it, explored primarily in 20th century music by the likes of Howells, Britten, Stanford, Holst and their ilk (all of whom had associations with the Royal College of Music), with the new works by Australian composer Lisa Illean and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Read more

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Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Free internet music: Ektoise

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Free internet music, Thematic series | 3 Comments

It’s Australia Day, so the next artist i’m featuring in my series looking at free internet music is the Brisbane-based group Ektoise. It’s difficult to know where to begin, partly because, stylistically speaking, it’s not easy to summarise succinctly what their music is like, and partly because Ektoise is just one manifestation of the creativity of Greg Reason and Jim Grundy, who in addition to being the driving force of Ektoise have released music under numerous other names, each with their own distinct outlook. In order to write something cogent and concise, on this occasion i’m going to focus solely on Ektoise, and i’ll be examining some of their other work at a later date.

Developing from an earlier project called Purity Device, Ektoise were active from roughly 2010 to 2013, comprising Greg Reason, Jim Grundy, Scott Claremont, Hik Sugimoto, Greta Kelly and Tim Fairless. Utilising guitars, synths, violin and percussion, they’re in essence a band, but while their music is clearly rooted in elements of rock and jazz, it transcends both due to a constant air of experimentation, heavy implementation of electronics as well as a distinct tendency towards the avant-garde. 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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Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim – The Slow Creep of Convenience

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If you were to take Jakob Ullmann’s solo III for organ, Stefan Fraunberger’s Quellgeister series and Monty Adkins’ recent Shadows and Reflections and use them as the basis for a new composition, the result would probably closely resemble one of the most (if not the most) stunning releases i’ve heard so far this year: The Slow Creep of Convenience by Anthony Pateras and Erkki Veltheim. Ullmann, Fraunberger and Adkins all utilise the organ as the basis for their long-form, slowly-evolving soundworlds, and while The Slow Creep of Convenience adds Veltheim’s electric violin to Pateras’ pipe organ, the two are so seamlessly blended that for much of its 50-minute duration it’s easy to hear the violin as an integral timbral extension of the organ. However, the main reason i cited those three works, aside from instrumental and durational considerations, is because of the way The Slow Creep of Convenience combines Ullmann’s determined patience, moving according to its own internal logic rather than external expectations or conventions of musical narrative, Fraunberger’s improvisatory unpredictability, responding to the sounds themselves rather than to a pre-planned scheme, and Adkins’ harmonic complexity, establishing a soundworld that at once both alludes to and undermines varying notions of tonality, remaining ever in flux. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2017: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Brett Dean – Fire Music (UK Première)

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Today is Australia Day, so i’m marking the occasion with an orchestral work by one of the country’s most well-known composers, Brett Dean. Fire Music was composed in 2011 as a response to the disastrous ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires that spread across Victoria in February 2009. At least, that was the starting point, involving discussions with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, though the piece swiftly took on its own internal logic and narrative not so much irrespective of but in parallel with its emotive point of inspiration. In this respect, it’s interesting to note that, in addition to being a regular orchestral commission (by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), Fire Music was also commissioned by Australian Ballet for a choreography by Graeme Murphy titled Narrative of Nothing. Nonetheless, Dean has stressed the personal connection to the 2009 tragedy that certain aspects of the work hold for him, stating that some of the work’s material includes “specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about halfway through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009”. Dean has augmented the orchestra with three satellite groups that surround the audience: two trios (flute, trumpet and percussion) on each side and a string quartet behind. Read more

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HCMF 2016: ELISION

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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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Brett Dean – The Siduri Dances (World Première)

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From the recorder to the flute, and a typically dramatic concerto for the instrument by Australian composer Brett Dean. Composed in 2007, The Siduri Dances, for flute and string orchestra, began life three years earlier in Dean’s work for solo flute Demons. The inspirational scope here is broader, drawing on the mythological goddess Siduri who lives by the sea and, in the eponymous epic, gives advice to Gilgamesh, attempting to make him rethink the necessity of his quest for immortality and focus instead on the here and now:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find that life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.

Dean’s intention seems to be to tap into the spirit of Siduri’s admonition. Read more

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Proms 2014: Brett Dean – Electric Preludes; Bernard Rands – Concerto for Piano and Orchestra (UK Premières); Benedict Mason – Meld (World Première)

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New works at the Proms regularly come in the form of concertos, violin and piano continuing to be represented most. The planned performance of Luca Francesconi’s Duende – The Dark Notes (a work i’d been very much looking forward to) on 7 August was unfortunately cancelled due to soloist Leila Josefowicz having just given birth to her third son. However, that disappointment was more than mitigated by its fine replacement, Brett Dean‘s Electric Preludes, also a violin concerto—but for the 6-stringed electric violin, accompanied only by strings—and also receiving its first UK performance. Read more

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Liza Lim – Invisibility

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i was surprised to realise recently that, apart from a CD review last year, the penultimate composer in my Lent Series, Liza Lim, has not yet been featured on 5:4. That’s a pretty serious omission, one that i hope will be mitigated by celebrating her 2009 work for solo cello, Invisibility. Too many discussions about new music get distracted by the shedloads of technical tomfoolery encasing the music (frequently as a substitute for content, activity masquerading as achievement). In the case of Invisibility, however, one can only begin by examining a technical aspect of the work—but an aspect that informs the work at every level, from the exotic surface right down to its firmament. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: John Rodgers – Amor

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It’s Valentine’s Day, so i’m going to extend the mood through a long weekend with three pieces that each provide a uniquely twisted reflection on the subject of romance. First is one of the more fascinating duets i’ve heard in recent years, Amor for flute and oboe by the Australian composer John Rodgers. The piece is taken from his larger work ‘Inferno’ (a commission from the Adelaide Festival and ELISION), described by Rodgers as a “musico/theatrical translation of Dante’s vision of hell”. The subject matter of Amor is to be found very early in Dante’s work, in the region he described as ‘upper hell’, specifically its second circle; here, Dante locates the Lustful, whose punishment consists of being pummelled for eternity by an immense wind. A whole host of famous lovers—including Dido, Helen, Paris and Achilles—are found here, but Dante’s attention (in one of the most famous scenes of the entire Divine Comedy) centres on the couple of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo. Their illicit love affair undermined Francesca’s (politically-motivated) marriage to Paolo’s brother Giovanni Malatesta; Giovanni was widely nicknamed ‘the lame’, which possibly accounts for Francesca’s roving eye—yet the paramours’ pleasure was short-lived, as after a few years Giovanni murdered them both. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)

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This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons andamp; Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian andamp; the Telegraph, both of which went to some lengths to emphasise choir director Stephen Cleobury’s determination to include new music in the service. It was therefore very disappointing that, while the tally usually runs to at least three, this year’s service featured just a single example of recognisably contemporary music: the newly commissioned carol, which for this occasion was composed by Carl Vine.

Vine chose Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem Ring out, wild bells as his text, matching its string of adjurations with a simple but rich tonal language, pulling the choir through a never-ending series of smooth harmonic contortions. Vine’s music feels intimately well-matched to the words, his setting thereby becoming a meaningful vehicle for reflection, particularly when the piece veers towards more negative emphases. 2012 has seen more than its fair share of tragedy andamp; loss, andamp; confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” andamp; “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh andamp; agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. Read more

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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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