choral

Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

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In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

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Maja S K Ratkje – Crepuscular Hour (UK Première)

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Today is the final day of Lent, so it’s time to draw my series focusing on music by women composers to a close. As it’s Easter Eve, the time associated with the great late-night vigil, i can’t think of a more appropriate piece with which to end the Lent Series than Crepuscular Hour by the Norwegian composer Maja S K Ratkje. Originally completed in 2010, the work—which, as the name suggests, lasts a full hour—is intended to be performed in a large, resonant space, such as a cathedral, with the musicians surrounding the audience. These musicians, comprising three choirs, three pairs of noise musicians and a church organ, fill the environment with sound that works both to evoke the effect of crepuscular rays (strong shafts of sunlight emerging from cloud, typically seen at dawn and dusk) and also to transport the audience on a form of meditative journey. The structure of a composition, after all, is not that dissimilar from that of a liturgy, and Crepuscular Hour is in essence an abstract liturgical act, one that doesn’t so much impel meaning on the faithful as provide stimuli and a framework for our own individualised meditations. Read more

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HCMF 2013 revisited: Cecilie Ore – Come to the Edge! (World Première)

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Memories and afterthoughts of the exhilarating and, at times, revelatory experiences from HCMF 2013 haven’t really stopped swirling around my mind, so i’m going to begin 2014 by revisiting some of the most interesting highlights, starting with a world première given by the BBC Singers, directed by Nicolas Kok.

Even though it’s only two months since Cecilie Ore‘s Come to the Edge! was premièred, a great deal has changed. Chiefly, the focus of the work’s subject matter—the ludicrous imprisonment of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—has become a historical event, as the pair of group members who remained incarcerated were released shortly before Christmas. However, the main thrust of Cecilie Ore’s abiding question—”how civilised are we?”—persists with, if anything, greater intensity. Few would attribute the band members’ release to an honest change of heart from a benevolent ruler; on the contrary, Vladimir Putin’s vain attempt to smooth over the world’s dismay at his increasingly dictatorial attitudes only illustrates the difference between being civilised and merely appearing to be civilised. Read more

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Proms 2013: Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (UK Première)

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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 and 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

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Proms 2013: Julian Anderson – Harmony (World Première)

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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 and 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

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Fearless forays into choral hinterlands: Exaudi – Exposure

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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 and 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, and 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 and meld it into corresponding vocal parts—lacks conviction in the attempted correlation, and the method (somewhat hackneyed in any case) only seems to emphasise its subjectivity and arbitrariness, narrowing the scope of these ‘artificial environments’. The second of the three succeeds best, but the other two are forced and 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 and consistency frequently distract one from the work’s shortcomings. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

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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 and text so embedded in the development and 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, and 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 and 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 and liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, and 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…

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