On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things & people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more
Last night the 2013 Proms season began, as it now always does, with a world première from a mainstream composer. At the outset, i have to admit to a certain lack of enthusiasm for the occasion, due both to the recent track record of the opening night (Turnage & Weir in the last two years, both submitting relatively drab, safe pieces) as well as this year’s choice, Julian Anderson, a composer hardly renowned for much beyond accessible, occasionally quirky humdrummery. Anticipation was hardly heightened by Anderson’s pre-concert remark that there were only two options when writing a concert opener: “one is to write a piece that’s very loud and rather like a fanfare, and the other is to write a quiet and more meditative piece”. Seriously? Read more
Newly available this week from the thoroughly ambitious Huddersfield Contemporary Records is Exposure, a collection of choral works performed by contemporary music’s most adventurous cluster of vocalists, Exaudi Vocal Ensemble, directed by James Weeks. As with all of HCR’s releases (the rest of which are well worth exploring – details here), the featured composers are an eclectic mixture, demonstrating well the range of Exaudi’s interests & skills. It is by far the most radical disc of vocal music i’ve encountered in a long time, an exploration that takes real risks both in terms of choice of repertoire as well as the pressures brought to bear on the singers themselves.
Of course, going out on a limb is fraught with dangers, & there are pieces on this disc that work far better in theory than practice. Not many, thankfully, but Joanna Bailie‘s three-part Harmonizing—seeking to tease out pitched material from field recordings & meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, & the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity & arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced & boring respectively. Bryn Harrison‘s eight voices suffers in similar fashion, the twists of its repeating material (rather like a convoluted isorhythm) sound marvellous as an idea, but the piece displays minimal result from maximum effort, rapidly losing its ability to command attention. Here, though, Exaudi’s deeply impressive control & consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings.
From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form & text so embedded in the development & consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, & the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations & legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:
[...] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions & liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, & still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…
This year’s Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, had been prefaced by two newspaper articles, in the Guardian & 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 & loss, & confronted by exhortations such as “Ring out the grief that saps the mind” & “Ring out a slowly dying cause” (it’s tempting to hear these lines as “wring out”), one can only sigh & agree wholeheartedly with their sentiments. But Tennyson’s is a positive text, & Vine’s music too seeks ultimately to strike a resounding cry of hope. Having worked fairly perfunctorily through the verses (& that’s no criticism), Vine repeats the final verse in conjunction with a reprise of the opening words, now rendered as an abstract peal of bells. It’s very effective, emboldening the music through its closing moments, leaving a pronounced sense of optimism hanging in the air. Ring in 2013.
Carl Vine – Ring out, wild bells (World Première)
To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion & insight into sacred thought & action that made him entirely unique, & not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself—irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity—is perhaps the most fascinating & engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir & Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music. Read more
Yesterday’s broadcast of the Advent Carol Service from St John’s College, Cambridge (which, strangely, actually took place a week ago), once again included several pieces of more recent music.
The newly commissioned piece came from a composer i’ve not heard of, James Long. Long’s anthem, Vigilate, weaves together words from the Biblical books of Mark & Revelation to arrive at a text that, in a nutshell, backs up its titular imperative—“watch!”—with an emphatic “or else”. The music is fairly standard-issue new choral music, yet it’s not without some telling moments; the opening & closing stanzas perhaps punch hardest, & while Long’s use of snatches of Latin to echo the English is odd, the appearance of “gallicantu” (“cock’s crow”) is nicely judged. The middle stanzas lose their way somewhat, getting bogged down in the words, but the conclusion of “and every eye shall see him, And they also which pierced him”, where the men’s voices are abruptly silenced to leave just the trebles, is very striking.