electroacoustic

Chiyoko Szlavnics – Materia/Immateria (World Première)

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Due to various compositional projects, i’ve not been able to give 5:4 much focus in the last few weeks, but now that i have some breathing space, it’s time to catch up on the more interesting recent premières & new releases.

As well as being interesting, one of the most unlikely premières took place as part of Glasgow’s marvellously leftfield Tectonics festival. Born in Canada, based in Berlin, Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ music is heard extremely rarely in the UK, & i suspect this is more than a little in part due to the nature of her mode of expression. Szlavnics begins each composition with a drawing; they tend to combine aspects that would seem at home in technical drawings—grids, charts, measurements—alongside elements that are more fluid & improvisational (examples can be seen on her website). The drawing is then ‘translated’ into sound, pitches & durations being derived from the way the drawing presents itself on the page. The result is material composed for the most part of slithering individual lines, each moving slowly, sliding up & down, sometimes hovering, over long periods of time. It makes for an aloof, bald aesthetic, sufficiently challenging that it is hardly surprising (although disappointing) that her work isn’t featured in British concerts more often.

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

Posted on by 5:4 in CD reviews | 1 Comment

In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, & the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, & connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy & imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she & Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon & exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging & blushing of colours & motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another & allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect & are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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5:4 at HCMF 2012 – Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, & comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) & Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes & methods that have become overused & hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up & play with material given off by the soloist, & while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative.

The more successful pieces, though, were far more exciting. The relationship set up by Alex Harker in Fluence was simple but superbly effective, drawing on a vast array of prerecorded clarinet samples. No sign here of the problem of dislocation that plagues so much electroacoustic music; Harker creates a genuine, subtle dialogue between acoustic & electronic, giving the distinct impression that Roche was engaged in a duet—no small achievement. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s la rupture inéluctable fell into some flat moments, but the demonstrative way Roche interacted with the electronics—regularly stamping a pedal, producing hard-edged, glittering & grinding tones—again made them feel deeply integrated, an extension of the clarinet rather than separated from it. But what struck one more than even these fine works was the remarkable stamina & concentration of Heather Roche’s playing; in her hands, each & every piece became thoroughly absorbing.

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Attraction & resistance: NMC Debut Discs – music by Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura & Sam Hayden

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i don’t think it’s hyperbole to describe NMC Recordings as one of the bastions of contemporary music in the UK. For as long as i’ve been listening to new music (more than two decades now), NMC’s output has been a dependable point of continuity, & many of their releases have become both landmarks & benchmarks in the history of late 20th- & early 21st century British music. So it’s exciting to see NMC embarking on a bold new initiative: Debut Discs, a new series of 12 recordings to be released over the next four years, exploring the music of “emerging British composers”, whose music is currently under-represented on CD. Launched last month, the first three discs are devoted to the music of Dai Fujikura, Sam Hayden & Huw Watkins. They make for a stimulating & highly contrasting trio, one that resists & attracts in roughly equal measure.

Huw Watkins’ music is emphatically the latter, being by far the most accessible of the three. He opts for a nostalgic brand of music, earnest & lyrical, harking back to an earlier time. There’s nothing pastiche about what he does, & yet it seems entirely right to describe the five pieces on his disc as “neo-romantic”. Melody presides, & while Watkins affords them the opportunity for considerable variety & invention, there’s the unshakeable feeling that one’s heard all this before. The skill with which the pieces are put together can hardly be criticised—there’s not a note out of place, & Watkins’ sense of drama is strong—but the shadows of their progenitors are often so potent as to be a fatal distraction. The piano music—represented here in one of Watkins’ earlier works, the Four Spencer Pieces, played with consummate skill by the composer—manages to loosen its bonds to the past, but they’re the exception on an album that’s otherwise frustratingly over-familiar & straight-laced.

Caught betwixt the extremes of attraction & resistance is the music of Dai Fujikura (born in Osaka but resident in England since his mid-teens). The forthright independence of Fujikura’s compositional manner is striking, eschewing the styles & mannerisms of his birthplace; indeed, “Everytime I see some ‘Japanesenesses’ in my own score when I am composing, I delete them”. The five pieces on his disc comprise three substantial ensemble works & two brief solos, all very different in nature & instrumentation. What unites them is a fresh relationship with lyricism, one that allows Fujikura the possibility to go where his ideas take him, where unexpected episodes or shifts feel entirely comfortable (a quality he shares with Takemitsu, but for entirely his own reasons). The sudden bassoon cadenza in Secret Forest is an almost shockingly fragile hiatus in what is otherwise a dense & homogeneous work, dominated by huge bursts of string activity, while the latter half of Phantom Pulse somehow abruptly navigates from percussive bombast to a cloud of resonant lacework with no ill effects. But it’s the closing work, Okeanos, that shows off Fujikura’s skill best, the introduction of sho & koto contributing in no small part to its deeply hypnotic (& at times gorgeous) five movements.

Discussion of Sam Hayden’s music has hitherto been dogged by references to its apparent inaccessibility. But his music requires no apologia; it’s true that it is both powerfully demonstrative & utterly individual, but if ever there was a perfect invitation to the listener to sit up & engage with something on its own, genuinely new, terms, this is it. Everything about these four ensemble pieces (plus an electroacoustic chamber work as a bonus download) cries out its contemporary credentials, from the compositional techniques Hayden uses (brief descriptions of which double as programme notes) to the titles of the works, & there are times when it almost feels like a kind of aesthetic clipping is happening. But overall, it’s an invigorating kind of resistance, & gazing into the textures & structures Hayden creates is simultaneously disorienting & captivating. It’s not without its problems; in misguided, the intended momentum seems to short circuit under the strain of its stop-start material, & both system/error & presence/absence come across less as immersive encounters than (undeniably impressive) spectator sports. However, in the 20-minute Die Modularitäten, Hayden finds a perfect synthesis of his techniques & outlook; its polyphony is highly dramatic & deeply engaging, less a series of episodes than a large, unfolding narrative with a plethora of twists en route; & the moments when electronics lurk, barely audible, at the periphery are pure magic. Bonus work schismatics is also outstanding, the solo violin establishing a dialogue with electronics that one doesn’t just follow, but is pulled right into its epicentre.

All three releases are available on CD everywhere, & on download from the NMC shop.

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No small triumph: Carla Rees & Scott Miller – Devices and Desires

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Many’s the time in the last few years when, both in the concert hall & at home, i’ve found myself listening to yet more music for random-acoustic-instrument plus electronics—& been absolutely bored off my face. The quest for novelty seems to have ruled the electroacoustic roost for years & years, dominated by an approach to music-making that largely consists of: instrumentalist plays some material; computer (i.e. Max/MSP patch) does something with that material; instrumentalist responds to the computer; & back & forth until one of them decides to stop. Often the nature of the relationship between player & computer, as well as a sense of structural coherence & inner logic, are both fuzzy & ill-defined, & while works like this may perhaps have a skin-deep beauty that’s briefly beguiling, ephemerality remains their strongest characteristic.

It’s no small triumph, then, that the new CD from Carla Rees & Scott Miller, exploring music for flute & electronics, is so exciting & memorable. The title, Devices and Desires, is allusive—not a million miles from Ligeti’s ‘Clocks & Clouds’—evoking cool & hot impulses, a juxtaposition of measured rationality with unpredictable whim. From this melting pot of head & heart, Rees & Miller have created six pieces that each occupy a different position on the composed/improvised continuum, including “a fully composed work …, structured improvisations … and free improvisations … All of the electronic sound heard on the CD is the result of processing the sound of the flute, whether in real-time, from a sample taken earlier in the performance, or from a recording made years before we made the recording” (from Scott Miller’s programme notes). Both flute & computer fall outside convention; Miller uses the Kyma X sound design environment, while Rees uses a Kingma System C flute, an instrument designed to enable quartertones to be easily played. These instruments were brought together in “an inspired three-hour recording session”, & the result is Devices and Desires.
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Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

The next work in my Lent series is one of my absolute favourite electronic compositions. The composer Robert Mackay, based in Scarborough, composed Augustine’s Message while studying in Bangor, in 2001. It was performed at the Bangor New Music Festival that year, & was included in an edition of Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ devoted to the festival. Back then, Mackay was planning a multimedia work based on the writings of Peter Abelard & his beloved Héloïse, originally intended as an opera (provisionally titled The Breath of Dionysius), but ultimately becoming a three-part cycle simply called Heloise, of which Augustine’s Message is the final part. Abelard’s relationship with Héloïse, conducted almost entirely in secret, ended in disaster, with Abelard being viciously castrated by Héloïse’s uncle Fulbert. Perhaps not surprisingly, this was the beginning of the end for the lovers, both of whom ended up in monastic communities. In Augustine’s Message, Mackay delves into both the psyche & the soul of Abelard at this tragic point, as he explains in the programme note:

In this section of the story, Saint Augustine visits Abelard in a dream, in which he is battling to come to terms with his recent castration. This reflects a passage from Abelard’s autobiography where he describes a thousand thoughts coming into his head soon after the brutal attack, yet him eventually finding solace in his belief that in some way this act of retribution has been a gift from God enabling him to be free from worldly, carnal lusts & focus the rest of his life on the spiritual & philosophical.

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Julieta Szewach – Dikyrion

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The next piece in my ongoing Lent series is an unusual setting of the Lord’s Prayer by the Argentine composer Julieta Szewach, which was broadcast on Radio 3 in 2008. Dikyrion uses the Aramaic version of the text, in a setting for mezzo-soprano & tape. The work was one of two selected as “outstanding” in the 11th International Rostrum of Electroacoustic Music, which took place in 2007 in Portugal (more info here). It’s easy to see why they came to that conclusion; Szewach’s piece is not only markedly different in tenor & temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive & very beautiful indeed. The word ‘dikyrion’ refers to a 2-branched candlestick used in Orthodox Christianity, that represents the dual nature of Jesus, both divine & mortal.

The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal & mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching & aerating it, turning it into mere shadows of words at the start, mere whispers of them towards the end; enclosing them at both points are low, solemn notes that toll out like deep gongs. Read more

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