Among the recent releases from the NMC Recordings stable i was pleased to see one devoted to the music of Kenneth Hesketh. Ken’s music has intrigued me for some years, & i’ve had the good fortune to conduct one of his works (Fra Duri Scogli) back in 2010. The new NMC disc brings together a cluster of pieces, most of which were composed around five years ago. They include no fewer than three orchestral works, plus a pair of ensemble pieces, focussing on commissions for the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra & Ensemble 10/10, who are the respective performers on the disc.
i think it’s only fair to suggest that Hesketh’s music is an acquired taste, & not because it’s particularly ear- or mind-mangling. On the contrary, one of the characteristics that typifies these five works is their overwhelming clarity, which over time can become a tad relentless, even oppressive. Yet that’s an integral aspect of the multi-faceted charm that is equally typical of this music. When turned in the direction of an archetypal concert-opener, as in A Rhyme for the Season, the orchestral forces are kept firmly in place, embodying the kind of spiky, ants-in-the-pants restlessness that fans of mainstream (i.e. published) British music will find very familiar, yet treated to more than usually enchanting orchestration. Ideas pass at breakneck speed between the sections, & despite its relative functionality, there are some nicely unexpected structural moments that prevent it feeling workaday or staid. Read more
Today i’m going to focus on a relatively early work of Ferneyhough’s, Prometheus for wind sextet, composed in 1967. It’s not a piece that’s performed terribly often, nor is there much information about it, i suspect in part due to how early it was composed (when Ferneyhough was just 24 years old, the same year he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music). The piece seems to have been created via a decision-making process with deliberately limited options; the number of alternatives available at any given point would vary, Ferneyhough selecting from them intuitively. Prometheus is therefore a work that could have turned out entirely differently, as the composer explained in an interview with Philippe Albèra:
The score as it now exists is thus one expression of a field which could, theoretically, have produced quite a different set of results entirely. The title of the piece reflects this openness, the protean quality of my frame of reference.
Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms & King’s College, Cambridge) & performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focussed on several of her more well-known works, including neon & Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber & solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings & the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy & clarity seem to be important & significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, & which clearly go down well with audiences & ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive & thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices & objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes & Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark & difficult pathology. Read more
The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial & aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known & -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor & mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble & additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more
Next in my Lent series is an early work from the twentieth century, Anton Webern‘s Five Canons for high soprano, clarinet & bass clarinet. Rather like Mahler, Webern’s busy schedule restricted his compositional activities to the summer holidays; three of the canons were written in the summer of 1923, & the final two the following year. The word ‘canon’ has a double meaning here; as one might expect, the five pieces are composed as strict canons, but in addition the texts are themselves ‘canonical’, taken from the Catholic liturgy. Each of the five pieces lasts between 30 seconds and one minute, so Webern eschews both textual repetition & melismas, arriving at music of a manner not dissimilar to that of Morton Feldman’s Bass Clarinet and Percussion, austere & matter-of-fact, not exactly cold but nonetheless rather utilitarian & impersonal. Not just for this reason, they’re especially appropriate during Passiontide as three of the texts—’Christus factus est’, ‘Crux fidelis’ & ‘Crucem tuam adoramus, Domine’—are directly related to Christ’s crucifixion; the remaining two are concerned with Christ’s infancy (‘Dormi Jesu, mater ridet’) & an act of purification (‘Asperges me, Domine’). Read more
As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline & restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focussed (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.
Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet & the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre & technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch & octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in & out with rounded edges. Read more