chamber music

Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 2)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50In continuing my survey of recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i’m turning my attention now to works that are earlier than everything i’ve explored so far. Stirrings Still, released in 2008 on the Wergo label, is an excellent survey of what we might call (for now, at least) ‘mid-period’ Saunders, featuring five works dating from the period 1999 to 2006. It’s interesting to note the aspects of similarity and difference between these pieces and her more recent work.

The Duo for violin and piano was originally composed in 1996, revised three years later, and its main concern, rather than on a specific musical idea or gesture, is on the nature of the relationship between the two players. In this regard, it can’t be insignificant that the work’s original title was A thin red line – making it the third work of Saunders’ to feature a colour in its title, after CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and the under-side of green (1994) – as this original title, with its clear connotation of courageous, indefatigable military resistance to attack, is quite clearly paralleled in the roles taken by the violin (protagonist) and piano (antagonist). However, in changing the title to Duo, Saunders makes a much more subtle point: a duo is definitely what they are, but what they never do is duet. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Helena Tulve – The Night-Sea Journey (World Première)

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To conclude this weekend i’m returning to the music of Helena Tulve and to another world première, which took place last November during one of Estonia’s main contemporary music festivals, AFEKT. A 17-minute work for saxophone, percussion and piano, in a way all one needs to say about it is encapsulated in its title, The Night-Sea Journey. The music is entirely directed toward the implied narrative of that title, inhabiting a nocturnal world of shadows and moonlight, progressing – in my mind, anyway – across water. At least, that’s one way of hearing it, taking the title literally.

Heard in this way, the piece conjures a foreboding, difficult soundworld. It wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe its music as lyrical – it is, abundantly – yet of the blackest, most brooding kind, drenched in uncertainty and anguish. Initially, there’s a sense of the trio huddled together, not so much playing as making tentative suggestions: a simple piano idea based on oscillating octaves, air noise through the sax, soft suspended cymbal rolls. It doesn’t seem to add up to anything at all, yet in light of where the piece goes from here, in hindsight it’s like lighting a touchpaper. Read more

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Town Hall, Birmingham: Celebrating Carter

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 1 Comment

i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito; Alchemy; Corrosion; Chroma; The Pillory; The Battle

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Another unusual release i’ve received recently came from Jasun Martz, a US musician and artist of whom i was previously unaware, but a quick search online reveals has apparently been involved in music for almost 50 years, with a variety of both classical and pop/rock connections. What i received consisted of six discs – Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory and The Battle, released through January to July this year as an in-depth retrospective of Martz’s output – together with a poster and an original painting by Martz, upon which is attached a ‘Certificate of Art Appraisal’, confidently informing me that its appraised value is no less than $15,000. Ch-ching! The discs are housed in slim digipaks, fronted with further paintings by Martz (all self portraits), and their respective album titles are all prefixed by the phrase ‘Solo Exhibition’, implying that each disc is in fact the sonic component of an audiovisual work (of which the cover may or may not constitute the only visual element). So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, progressing through these six discs it quickly becomes apparent that their contents are connected, with various titles recurring on different albums in partial or completely different forms. So the listening experience has a secondary layer of detective work, puzzling over and deducing the connections between these different manifestations. By the end, i can honestly say they’re easily among the most convoluted interconnecting and overlapping collection of pieces that i’ve yet encountered. Part of that convolution is, depending on your perspective, unnecessary, and there’s a certain amount of duplication – even redundancy – but Martz has clearly aimed to make each disc as long as possible (they’re between 68 and 79 minutes’ duration), and while the discs together constitute Martz’s retrospective – a larger 8-CD box set will also be available at the start of next year – each disc also acts as a smaller-scale retrospective, focusing on specific aspects of his output (in theory; in practice the distinctions are negligible). Read more

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Proms 2017: Laurent Durupt – Grids for Greed (World Première)

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Last Sunday afternoon, French composer Laurent Durupt‘s new work Grids for Greed was given its first performance by the Van Kuijk Quartet at the second Proms Chamber Music concert, in Cadogan Hall. In his answers to my pre-première questions, Durupt made two remarks that are clearly most important to the way the piece operates. First is his comment about feeling “a need to come back to more abstract kind of musical projects such as this string quartet…”. Grids for Greed doesn’t have an imposed extra-musical narrative or programme. Durupt is instead concerned with creating a tense duality between notions of precision – corresponding to the ‘grids’ of the title, here being synonymous with mental, carefully-defined and -executed processes – and more rough, improvisatory elements, corresponding to the ‘greed’ and stemming from the unconscious and more rough and intuitive decisions and impulses.

The second pertinent remark refers to the way Durupt takes “a long time thinking on my project and the meaning of it, trying to match the general concept with a musical technique”. This seeking to encapsulate the modus operandi of a piece within a relatively narrow range of technical expression is extremely clear in Grids for Greed; indeed, it’s arguably the work’s most defining characteristic.

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Cheltenham Music Festival: 21st Century String Quartet, The Hallé

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Here’s a suggestion: if a composer can’t summarise their programme note in fewer than a couple of hundred words, that’s a problem. Is that terribly controversial? Judging by what we were given at the Cheltenham Music Festival last Saturday, it is. This is not a local problem, though, it’s something that manifests itself all too often, composers seeking to convey at length not merely the inspiration for their music but a blow-by-blow account of what happens in it. It’s interesting that they deem this necessary. Does it suggest a lack of faith either in the audience or, more worryingly, in the music? It would be strange for a writer to introduce their novel with a breakdown of the structure and key plot-points; likewise with a programme note full of aural spoilers, it’s impossible to be drawn in and surprised by the music, as we already know what’s coming. Increasingly, programme notes seem akin to the abstracts that preface academic papers, and that’s not necessarily the ideal model for the concert hall. There are two caveats to this: first, it’s not just contemporary music that’s treated to such ‘programme essays’, and second, of course, one’s not obliged to read them at all. Of the first caveat, this is partly to do with the understandable desire for a degree of historical contextualisation, but regarding the second, i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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