World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released.

The only entirely electronic concert took place on Sunday afternoon, given by the not-entirely-snappily-named Estonian Electronic Music Society’s Ensemble. Vahid Jahandari‘s fixed media The Vulture was arguably the most impressive work on the programme. Inspired by photojournalist Kevin Carter’s famous troubling image of a vulture lurking near a starving girl, Jahandari’s soundscape transformed sounds from a double bass into an immersive, deeply threatening soundscape. There was something distinctly plaintive lurking within, though, heard in higher register material and fragments of melody, ghostly remnants and traces that seemed doomed in such a glowering environment, and which ultimately disappeared into their own reverb. Though the rest of the concert was somewhat more rudimentary, it had a couple of striking moments. In REMOTE ME, Serbian composer Jasna Veličković utilised two remote controls in close proximity to three electromagnetic pick-up coils to create a really fun, beat-oriented miniature study. Fellow Serb Andreja Andric‘s Pocket Electronic Symphony #1 was similarly engaging, the performer wielding a smartphone to generate what sounded like a datastream being shaped into abstract forms, textures and patterns. It was ‘symphonic’ inasmuch as its elements were often, literally, sounding together, and i honestly couldn’t help thinking of Mahler when an extended loud sequence erupted as if from nowhere. It’s worth saying that while the two performances by the entire six-member ensemble – an improvisation and a new work called Flux by ensemble member Ekke Västrik – sounded rather tentative and uncertain (from both a compositional and performative perspective), i couldn’t help admiring the simplicity of their approach, and their focus on elementary signals as the basis for music. It initially seemed dated, but was it really? Getting away from the usual experience of sound sources that have been subjected to massive amounts of treatment and processing was a tremendous relief.

i was glad to have a second opportunity to hear music by Icelandic composer Ríkharður H. Friðriksson. Though i’d been underwhelmed by his performance at the Dark Music Days in January, his fixed media piece … e mezzo, heard in the reverberant Niguliste Church on Friday evening, was excellent, flooding the space and enveloping us in rapid-fire, anonymous stuff, streams of vocalise and pitchless scrunch and noise. It was by far one of the most abstract things i heard all week, but also one of the most immediate and exhilarating. Elizabeth Anderson‘s 8-channel Solar Winds was by contrast a complete let-down – all the more so due to its inordinate quantity of accompanying tl;dr explanatory notes that turned out to mean essentially nothing in light of its vague, undifferentiated, safe and shrug-worthy material. Sweden’s Thommy Wahlström bravely sought to incorporate the church’s primary instrument in his 2017 invention for organ and EA No. 18. The organ part (performed by Ulla Krigul) was strongly redolent of Messiaen’s 1969 Méditations (both the material and the choice of registrations), though articulated such that it sounded private, as if we were being made privy to a kind of ‘inner’ music, even an ‘inadvertent’ music, made all the more vivid through Wahlström’s use of the sound of the organ compressor. As such, the acoustic and field recording elements blended entirely to form a fascinatingly liminal experience.

Among the other electroacoustic highlights was the world première of Schattenseele [The Soul of Shadow] for violin and electronics by Age Veeroos, performed by Swedish duo There Are No More Four Seasons. As with last year’s orchestral work Skein of Thought, Veeroos managed to create something provocatively intriguing from the most wispy and elusive of ideas. Considering the work’s inspiration, it was impossible not to hear its intangible substance as a manifestation of some kind of ‘soul material’, though seemingly not so much made from shadow but light. In Orison for three music box players and electronics, Canada’s Kotoka Suzuki created an interesting disjunct between the physicality of the music-making process – music boxes, strips of papers being fed into them, all closely-coordinated – and the dream-like bliss of the music. To be honest, ‘bliss’ obviously isn’t quite the right word considering Suzuki’s concern was “the voices of children during wartime”, yet while the electronics introduced more negative connotations, the ultimate emphasis of the work seemed to be more on simplicity than pain or damage. Either way, performed by Finnish group Defunenesmble, it was highly effective. At the same concert, inside Tallinn’s amazing former industrial factory now creative hub the Kultuurikatel, Welsh composer Andrew Lewis improbably found inspiration from the squeals of an escalator, which in Straatmuziek [Street Music] were translated into material for alto flute, bass clarinet, piano and electronics. Initially imitative, thereafter the music became romanticised and elaborated. It was really very lovely in an obliquely lyrical way, a line running through its centre but subject to deviations and splinterings off. The involvement of the electronics, introducing the sound of the actual escalator, was beautifully seamless, providing deep rumbles and enhancing the noise and friction in the ensemble. Brilliant.

Several of the electroacoustic works also incorporated video elements. At one end of the spectrum were Alexander Schubert‘s Star Me Kitten and Stefan PrinsGeneration Kill – offspring 1, two of the most stunningly self-indulgent, masturbatory, pretentious and stupefyingly stupid things i have ever been subjected to in a concert hall. It would be easy to point the finger at the Ensemble for New Music Tallinn’s artistic director Arash Yazdani who, based on the combination of last year’s concert of his music, plus an additional bit of doggerel heard this year, and this entire concert, seems concerned solely with the most dismally superficial and reheated forms of shock, provocation and titillation, but the buck stops with Schubert and Prins. Discreet conversations with many, many people throughout the rest of the festival testified that my response to these pieces was very far from being unique (the exact opposite, in fact), so the buck – and Yazdani for that matter – should most definitely stop.

At the other end of the spectrum, back at the Kultuurikatel, in All Play Norwegian composer Jan Martin Smørdal erased the sound of a typically outlandish performance by guitarist Daniel Meyer Grønvold (shown on a screen above the stage) and replaced it with material inspired by, and perhaps to an extent imitative of, the original. The members of Defunensemble increasingly felt fundamentally connected to Grønvold, seemingly becoming the external mouthpiece – or a kind of multi-faceted loudspeaker – for his gestures and contortions. It was entirely convincing, the ensemble seeming to tease out the inner details and filigree contained within Grønvold’s waves, sheets and slabs of noise. Later that evening, Kristine Tjøgersen‘s Mistérios do Corpo [Mysteries of the Body] for string quartet and video did to Brazilian composer Hermeto Pascoal’s body what Andrew Lewis had done to the escalator. Based on a work by Pascoal (of the same name) performed by and on his own supine body, Tjøgersen extends his percussive and vocal sounds to the string quartet. Though perhaps a touch overlong (presumably the same could be said for Pascoal’s piece too), synchronised with the muted video the performance, given by members of the Yxus Ensemble, was compelling throughout, by turns mesmeric and downright hilarious.

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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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National Maritime Museum, London: Hollie Harding – Melting, Shifting, Liquid World (World Première)

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Contemporary music taking place in unconventional places and spaces has to a large extent become the new normal, as has the concomitant tendency for composers to mould their creativity into site-specific works. A striking example of this took place last Saturday at the National Maritime Museum in London, for the first performances of Hollie Harding‘s Melting, Shifting, Liquid World. Harding is currently a PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire – just a hop and a skip up the road from the museum – and her research is concerned with, among other things, “investigating space and action – movement – as elements of composition”.

For Melting, Shifting, Liquid World this basic premise has been shaped by concerns about climate change and ocean pollution. The piece is made up of three distinct elements. The first consists of a string orchestra, the members of which are dispersed throughout the performance space and who at certain points move around it. A solo electric viola is the second element, positioned at the centre of the space and acting to coordinate and cue the string players during the piece. On this occasion those parts were played by soloist Nic Pendlebury and the Trinity Laban String Ensemble. The work is completed by an electronic part heard by the audience through bone-conducting headphones, enabling one to to experience all three elements simultaneously. Use of this type of headphones wasn’t just a clever solution to the question of how to place the audience within three discrete layers of sound and perceive them all clearly and distinctly: spacial and directional sense is lost when sound is conducted in this way, resulting in a peculiarly intimate form of listening in which the sound appears to be materialising inside one’s head as if from nowhere. So the result was an entirely different, much more expansive sense of immersion than one usually experiences. Read more

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Quatuor Bozzini – Phill Niblock: Baobab

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One of the more memorable events at last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was the late night concert at Bates Mill given by Quatuor Bozzini, featuring music by Éliane Radigue and Phill Niblock. A few weeks ago, the Bozzinis released an album featuring two works by Niblock, including the one they played in Huddersfield, Disseminate as Five String Quartets. i have to admit that i was sceptical about the extent to which the experience could be adequately captured in a recording. Niblock’s endless waves of juddering pitch had made Bates Mill seem not simply filled but saturated, one minute feeling as though we were submerged in water, the next suffused with dazzling light. Either way, it was a veritable flood.

This recording goes a long way to living up to that mesmeric live encounter. Both works, in fact, inhabit this same soundworld, both starting life as orchestral pieces that Niblock reworked for a live string quartet plus four additional prerecorded quartets. Disseminate as Five String Quartets sets out with only the implication of stability, harmonically complex from the outset with something that may or may not be dronal at its core. This develops into a conflict where apparent stasis (the piece, after all, is built upon slow moving, drawn-out pitches) is continually undermined by strange undulations and shifts in its tonal makeup. Often, one becomes aware of something only after it’s actually been present for some time, and it’s similarly difficult to track the evolution of the work’s harmony, which from around halfway through has become seriously smeared, still dronal but tonally clusterfucked. Read more

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John Wall & Alex Rodgers – Soar

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Oh mate give this shit a rest
Why should you be allowed to think your dream means anything?

These words of poet Alex Rodgers come towards the end of ‘County Moods (part 1)’, the opening piece on Soar, his latest collaboration with musician John Wall. The question these words pose mirrors part of my own thinking while listening to the album. Interestingly, though, not because of anything specific that i was hearing.

Released by Entr’acte a few weeks back, it’s the first time that one of the duo’s albums has been issued with Rodgers’ texts included, here compiled in an accompanying book. This is interesting in and of itself, but it also serves as something of a challenge to several aspects of how i’d perceived their previous output. Alex Rodgers is one of the most enigmatic poetic voices i’ve encountered. On the one hand, his delivery tends to adhere to the same general tone, register and dynamic, yet he’s nonetheless very far from being impassive. On the contrary, he’s often disarmingly akin to a kind of East End manifestation of Viz comic’s gentleman thug Raffles, filling the air with mumbling, possibly-(probably-)inebriated purple prose before threatening to punch your teeth down your throat. Yet just as important is the nature of the words spilling out of his mouth, which veer between stream-of-consciousness and deeply-considered proclamation, thereby encompassing nonsense and profundity, embracing eloquence and profanity. i confess – and, in light of Soar, it does feel like a confession – that there have been many times i’ve felt that it’s not what Rodgers is saying that’s most significant but the way that he’s saying it: a periphrastic paradox melding the coherent and the incomprehensible – or to return to that opening quotation/question, a dream that, beyond its ability to provoke, bewilder and enchant, may well not mean anything.

Yet with Soar that possibility is emphatically challenged. By being published in this way, Rodgers’ elusive texts have been rendered tangible, made more concrete. Beyond this, considering that Rodgers’ words have always preceded Wall’s music – which responds to and essentially ‘clothes’ the words in a supportive, sympathetic soundworld – and, furthermore, that these texts are not always represented verbatim in the finished pieces (certain lines being elided or missing) has the effect of lending the printed texts the quality of an imprimatur, elevating their significance. At least, that’s one way of looking at it; another would be to regard the printed texts as the springboard for not only Wall’s but also Rodgers’ creative spontaneity, never so much reciting his own words as riffing off them, messing around further with their already inscrutable substance, structure and syntax. Read more

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all that dust: music by Morton Feldman, Matthew Shlomowitz, Séverine Ballon, Milton Babbitt and Luigi Nono

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, CD/Digital releases | 5 Comments

The launching of a new label devoted to contemporary music is something to celebrate, and the newest kid on the block is all that dust, the brainchild of composer Newton Armstrong, soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop. The label’s first five releases have recently appeared, and there are a couple of things to say more generally before getting stuck into them individually. First, all that dust is a label not only concerned with the newest of the new; two of these releases are works composed in 1964, and another dates from the early ’80s. Second, all that dust is interested in digital as a valuable medium in its own right: two of the releases are only available digitally, and have been specifically engineered for binaural listening. Third, the label’s approach to presentation is slick but nicely generic, opting for abstract artwork rather than tailoring each one with something personalised. This somewhat extends to the liner notes, which while they do at least provide some context for the music are generally rather meagre and perfunctory. Overall, though, in terms of presentation what all that dust are clearly seeking to emphasise above all else is the music, indicating that we shouldn’t fuss about admiring fancy covers or reading lengthy tracts but just launch as quickly as possible into these five very different soundworlds. Hard to argue with that. Read more

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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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