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Naomi Pinnock – Lines and Spaces

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It’s fitting that the first portrait disc devoted to the music of UK composer Naomi Pinnock should be titled Lines and Spaces. Not merely because one of the four works featured on the disc has that as its title, but due to the fact that every time i’ve listened to it it’s got me thinking about polarities. There’s a reference to the musical stave in that title, but it also alludes to one of Pinnock’s recurring inspirations, the work of artist Agnes Martin, whose paintings are characterised by the juxtaposition of line and space, usually within a soft, muted colour palette. Though the polarity seems obvious, my own experiences with Martin’s work in recent years have found the apparent opposite of elements to be more complex. Are the lines ‘material’ and the spaces ‘immaterial’ (in every sense of the word), or do the spaces exhibit a different kind of ‘materiality’? Furthermore, do the lines enclose space, exerting an implied inward force, or do they simply demarcate the bounds of the space, which exerts an implied outward force? Maybe it’s a bit of both; either way, the two are held in a perfect equilibrium, but one that paradoxically seems both taut and relaxed.

The same could be said for a great deal of Naomi Pinnock’s music. The most explicit example of this, unsurprisingly, is to be found in the title work, a piece for solo piano comprising three ‘spaces’ and three ‘lines’, performed here by its dedicatee, Richard Uttley. A work i’ve written about previously, its polarity is primarily heard in the contrast between these discrete kinds of music. The ‘lines’ consist of rapid middle C repetitions, each of which has a different element introduced at its centre – an octave displacement, adjacent pitches, and an oblique chord cutting across – resulting in a simple bare-bones drama. The ‘spaces’ are expansive; i likened them before to “droplets of harmonic colour like blobs of ink falling into water”, and while the essence of that is right, i realise that that description possibly suggests a disconnect between them, as if they were isolated motes of pitch unrelated to one another. The reality is that there’s a form of contemplation going on, a quiet wrangling with notes in which ideas don’t just connect but circle around in a way that suggests an underlying obsessive quality. There’s that equilibrium: taut and relaxed, the music sometimes temporarily fixated, sometimes breezily moving on. It’s worth emphasising that Uttley is the ideal pianist for music like this; i’ve always admired his ability to combine intricate precision with understated romanticism, which is the perfect combination for a piece like Lines and Spaces. Read more

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Zeynep Gedizlioğlu – Verbinden und Abwenden

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Composer portrait albums tend to go one of two ways, highlighting either the broad diversity of their output or the more single-minded consistency of a central idea permeating multiple works. In the case of Verbinden und Abwenden, a new disc exploring the music of Turkish composer Zeynep Gedizlioğlu, it’s most definitely the latter. And in a way, the consistent central idea is entirely summed up in that title, which the composer translates as “connect and reject”.

The particular way this tends to manifest in Gedizlioğlu’s music can be heard writ small in Sights of Now, a chamber work for two pianos and string quartet that opens the disc. The opening couple of minutes establish something of a paradigm for everything that will follow. Slow, uncertain chords – music so withdrawn it sounds like the instruments are reluctant to make any sound at all – are suddenly swept aside by rapid, scurrying material held together and driven along by manically rapid note repetitions from the pianos. As the piece continues, it’s as if the score wasn’t notated on paper but on large pieces of elastic that are constantly being stretched and relaxed, causing the pace and momentum to speed up and slow down. Every time i listen to the piece i find myself gravitating away from the details of the tempestuous dialogue going on at the music’s surface, focusing instead on this broader action of expansion and compression going on beneath. It doesn’t take much of a leap to hear this inner flexing as an articulation of the ‘verbinden und abwenden’ idea, the expansion pulling things apart and away from each other, causing the music to slow and falter, the compression pushing them closer together, resulting in rapid bursts of frantically interconnecting ideas. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – Occam XVII

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For the penultimate work in my week-long journey into winter, i’m again turning away from festive music to a piece that continues my preoccupation with the season’s prevailing darkness. Not that the work in question, Éliane Radigue‘s Occam XVII for double bass, has darkness as its theme; her Occam series is primarily associated with water-related imagery (in part literally, the performers being asked to keep images of specific watercourses in mind while playing). But every time i listen to this piece i’m drawn into a soundworld that i think of as a myriad shades of black, having the same kind of inscrutability and, despite first appearances, endlessly shifting surface details (both real and imaginary) of the marvellous black paintings by Ad Reinhardt.

With all of Radigue’s Occam works it’s arguably best just to listen to them rather than read a lot about them – trying to capture something of their inner magic is nigh impossible anyway – so i’ll keep this brief. Occam XVII essentially charts a slow transition from low A to bottom C# on the double bass, but that’s not remotely what the piece is ‘about’ or what’s most interesting about it. The work begins, and is continuously filled, with a plethora of overtones and harmonics ever in flux. Sometimes they suggest the harmonic series, projecting prominent fifths or thirds, but more often they act not as a reinforcement of the fundamental but a kind of challenging colouration of it. Sometimes they shimmer, sometimes they judder, but always they’re in motion, each up- or down-bow seeming either to change entirely or at least subtly alter the agglomeration of pitches magically emerging from the strings. It gives the impression that the instrument is breathing, each inhalation and exhalation a continuation of the same impulse toward deep, dark meditation. Read more

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The Dialogues: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

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i’m excited to present a new instalment in my series The Dialogues. On this occasion, i’m in conversation with Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, whose music has become increasingly well-known in recent years. In the UK, her work has started to appear with more frequency on concert programmes, and there’s a chance to hear her most recent orchestral work, METACOSMOS, at the Proms over the summer (and a CD including the piece will be coming out around the same time). While her reputation is growing, detailed explorations and studies of her work are pretty scarce, so our Dialogue will, i hope, substantially increase understanding of Anna’s musical outlook, intentions and methods.

We met at her home at the end of November last year, and i want to express my appreciation to Anna, her husband Hrafn, and to their beautiful cat Mosi (who sharp-eared listeners will briefly hear at one point) for their generous time and hospitality. i’m also very grateful to Sam Wilcock at Music Sales for festooning me with assorted scores and recordings to help with my research and preparation for the Dialogue. For more information about Anna’s music, check out her website, she also has a YouTube channel featuring a number of pieces, and there’s plenty available on Spotify.

As in all the Dialogues, i’ve included numerous excerpts of Anna’s music throughout to illustrate and elaborate upon the various topics of our discussion. A list of these excerpts, and the times when they occur, can be found below, together with links to buy the music. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the below link or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Duo Gelland, Ensemble Mosaik

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Yesterday’s late evening concert at HCMF, given by Ensemble Mosaik in Bates Mill, presented the first UK performance of Enno Poppe‘s Rundfunk. There are ways in which the piece is remarkable, and ways in which it isn’t. What certainly is remarkable – and the more i’ve thought about this the more remarkable it seems – is that it took Poppe three years to compose. With a duration of 60 minutes, composed for nine performers not so much playing their keyboards as triggering events from them, Poppe’s inspiration was to take the sounds from a collection of vintage synthesisers and use these as the basis – or, to use Poppe’s word, the “atoms” – for the piece. Importantly, Poppe hasn’t chosen to use the original instruments, instead harnessing their sounds with modern technology to obviate the limitations of their dated technology (such as monophony) and to open up possibilities with different tuning systems. The considerable length of time it took Poppe to compose the work was apparently due to the enormous range of options now available to him, having brought these sounds into the 21st century. Read more

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Proms 2018: Simon Holt – Quadriga; Suzanne Farrin – Hypersea (World Premières)

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Last Monday at Cadogan Hall, percussionist Colin Currie and the JACK Quartet combined forces to perform two works from the ’80s by Xenakis and two world premières, by Simon Holt and Suzanne Farrin. The points of inspirational origin of these pieces were somewhat different from what one usually encounters in new music, Farrin turning to an interpretation of humankind’s emergence from the oceans (and what we may have brought with us – see her answers to my pre-première questions for more details), while Holt’s is the only piece i’ve ever encountered to draw on the movements of classical dressage. Read more

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Proms 2018: Caroline Shaw – Second Essay: Echo; Third Essay: Ruby (World Premières)

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What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.

Whether or not you agree with these words – penned by the sombre but often startlingly wise author of the biblical book of Ecclesiastes – it’s impossible not to consider them when listening to the most recent pair of world premières at the 2018 Proms, written by US composer Caroline Shaw. Her music was new to me, and as a warm up for her two new ‘Essays’, i spent some time with her First Essay: Nimrod, composed a few years ago. In hindsight, it’s by far the best of the three, exhibiting a similar kind of playfulness to that of early Tippett, at all times taking its rhythmic and harmonic ideas from existing tropes and models but which, with the exception of a dull passage in the middle, generally avoids sounding too conventional in the way they’re used. The same can’t be said for Second Essay: Echo and Third Essay: Ruby, which received their first performances at Cadogan Hall on Monday by the Calidore String Quartet. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – A-lang Felton Lonnen (World Première)

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An interesting, small-scale example of Michael Finnissy‘s take on folk music is his re-thinking of the Northumbrian tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’ (“a long Felton lane”). Finnissy places the traditional Northumbrian pipes alongside piano, viola and cello, all of which initially sound saturated by the harmony, contours and the tone of the tune, which stands out in the foreground. The piano offers similarly decorative counterpoint, weaving around the pipes, while the strings lay down slow-moving sustained notes, effecting a kind of extension of the pipes’ drones. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Aijal

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On a number of occasions, informed by periods of time spent in Australia (due to a paucity of work opportunities in the UK), Michael Finnissy has composed works inspired by Aboriginal culture. Most of these date from 1982–3, one of the earliest being Aijal for oboe, clarinet and percussion, the title of which is the Australian Aboriginal word for ‘sky’. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Wild Flowers

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Michael Finnissy‘s musical output is dominated by his works for piano, which to date number around 200, most for solo piano plus others for piano duet and two pianos. For many people, Finnissy’s most well-known work continues to be his first great piano cycle English Country Tunes, a 40-minute, eight-movement journey through music inhabiting the extremes of rage and sublimity. (Coincidentally, today is the 30th anniversary of the première of the final version of that piece, given by Finnissy himself at the BMIC in London). Although indicative of all his music, Finnissy’s works for piano, no doubt due in part to it being the composer’s own instrument, seem to tap to a greater extent into the most intimate and heartfelt aspects of his outlook, somehow finding an expressive modus operandi that’s simultaneously elemental yet agonisingly personal. In Finnissy’s hands, the piano finds both pain and ecstasy. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – n

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In a little over a month’s time, it will be the 70th birthday of British composer Michael Finnissy, and so this year’s 5:4 Lent Series is dedicated to a celebratory exploration of some of his work. Despite his pre-eminence in many compositional circles, Finnissy remains a distinctly neglected figure, rarely heard at the UK’s more prominent music festivals and stubbornly absent from the repertoire of most of our orchestras and ensembles. He continues to be represented best by the collection of independent groups and ensembles that have always recognised the imagination and radical outlook that epitomise his work, though this inevitably means his music remains unknown to the vast majority of the concert-going public. Over the next few weeks, i hope to shed a little light on the diversity of his output, and in the process perhaps challenge some of the misconceptions—usually concerned with excessive difficulty—that have ignorantly dogged his work. i should point out that i am by no means an expert in Finnissy’s music; it has simply fascinated and moved me repeatedly throughout the last twenty-or-so years since i first encountered it. In addition to the Lent Series, i’ll also be exploring the current catalogue of recordings available of Finnissy’s music, and all being well we’ll be recording a Dialogue together later in the year. Anyone wanting to get a good introduction and overview of the composer’s musical life can find a nicely succinct biography on Finnissy’s own website. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM DELTA IV

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It’s the grande dame‘s birthday today, and i’m rounding off my Éliane Radigue long weekend with another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, one that in some respects combines those featured in the last couple of days. OCCAM DELTA IV, for bowed harp, microtonal tuba and cello, dates from 2013, and initially focuses extremely intently on a low C. Once again, it’s a drone in which assorted partials can be heard to differing extents, colouring its timbre; here, though, the drone is underpinned with some octave lower pedal notes from the tuba, rendering the drone itself essentially an overtone on this occasion (again a parallel with The Hafler Trio’s Trilogy in Three Parts, in this case the final part). Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM RIVER XII (World Première)

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This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focused epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première); James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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John Woolrich – In the Mirrors of Asleep

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A recurring aspect in most of the death-related pieces i’ve recently explored is ambiguity, and that’s even more the case in John Woolrich‘s short work for five players, In the Mirrors of Asleep, composed in 2007. i hope Woolrich won’t take it amiss when i say that what i find most telling is the music’s inconsistent sense of direction and diffuse emotional sensibility. In this context, those are attributes that transcend their inherent uncertainty and speak just as clearly (if not more so) than via direct statement. In essence, the ensemble—comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano—betrays a thoroughly mixed psychological habitat. There’s radiance to be found, at the start, and at the fringes of various subsequent materials, particularly the music’s tendency (one of several) to express itself through slow melodic movement. These passages allude more than they emote, but that’s mainly because they aren’t afforded the opportunity to fully expound (or wallow in) their heavyweight sentiments. Woolrich breaks them off, often with spritely episodes of light, staccato counterpoint that fall into concentric patterns like multiple ticking clocks. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Aldo Clementi – Madrigale

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My next blast from the past is a rather lovely work by the Italian composer Aldo Clementi, who died in 2011. Clementi’s interest in both bell-type sounds (music boxes, carillons, etc.) and the notion of self-generating music can be heard to good effect in Madrigale, composed 35 years ago, in 1979. The title would appear to reference the Italian madrigale; originating in the early 14th century, these were usually written for two voices, setting idyllic texts—typically pastoral scenes or expressions of love—and characterised by their use of decoration, particularly melismas. Clementi’s work echoes some of these aspects, composed for two pianists (piano four hands) and tape; the piano is prepared with different materials used in each octave (beyond this Clementi doesn’t make specific demands), while the tape contains a pre-recorded part played by glockenspiel and vibraphone. This combination of metallised and plasticised percussive timbres creates a rich, bejewelled soundworld akin to a large music box, which Clementi reinforces by the heavily mechanical nature of the work’s material as well as its method of execution. In essence, the tape part acts as a click track of sorts, marshalling the pianists through a strict, linear rallentando that continues throughout Madrigale‘s 9-minute duration. At first, the tempo is rapid, pianists and tape creating a dense, swirling cloud-like texture formed from cycling patterns and phrases, but after barely more than a minute the music begins its inexorable, entropic drag, falling away dynamically as its tempo approaches ever closer to zero. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Gavin Higgins – Three Broken Love Songs

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My Valentine Weekend continues today with an intimate survey by Gavin Higgins of a failed relationship, his Three Broken Love Songs, for basset clarinet and piano. Composed in 2006 for the clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, the work falls into three movements, bearing demonstrably blunt titles. ‘…Two bottles of wine later…’ takes as its starting point the soaring opening glissando from Rhapsody in Blue (which, coincidentally, was premièred just over 90 years ago), but sidesteps Gershwin’s dancing airiness in favour of material that initially broods and swoops. Glissandi colour the clarinet’s melodic intentions repeatedly, indicative of an ongoing process of aural inebriation that culminates—responding to a heavy sequence of piano pounding—in a series of ecstatic shrieks. A climax indeed. Read more

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