electroacoustic

Attraction & resistance: NMC Debut Discs – music by Huw Watkins, Dai Fujikura and 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, and many of their releases have become both landmarks and benchmarks in the history of late 20th- and 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 and Huw Watkins. They make for a stimulating and highly contrasting trio, one that resists and 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 and lyrical, harking back to an earlier time. There’s nothing pastiche about what he does, and yet it seems entirely right to describe the five pieces on his disc as “neo-romantic”. Melody presides, and while Watkins affords them the opportunity for considerable variety and 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, and 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 and straight-laced.

Caught betwixt the extremes of attraction and 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 and 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 and two brief solos, all very different in nature and 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 and 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 and koto contributing in no small part to its deeply hypnotic (and 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 and utterly individual, but if ever there was a perfect invitation to the listener to sit up and 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, and there are times when it almost feels like a kind of aesthetic clipping is happening. But overall, it’s an invigorating kind of resistance, and gazing into the textures and structures Hayden creates is simultaneously disorienting and captivating. It’s not without its problems; in misguided, the intended momentum seems to short circuit under the strain of its stop-start material, and both system/error and 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 and outlook; its polyphony is highly dramatic and deeply engaging, less a series of episodes than a large, unfolding narrative with a plethora of twists en route; and 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, and 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 and at home, i’ve found myself listening to yet more music for random-acoustic-instrument plus electronics—and been absolutely bored off my face. The quest for novelty seems to have ruled the electroacoustic roost for years and 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; and back and forth until one of them decides to stop. Often the nature of the relationship between player and computer, as well as a sense of structural coherence and inner logic, are both fuzzy and ill-defined, and 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 and Scott Miller, exploring music for flute and electronics, is so exciting and memorable. The title, Devices and Desires, is allusive—not a million miles from Ligeti’s ‘Clocks and Clouds’—evoking cool and hot impulses, a juxtaposition of measured rationality with unpredictable whim. From this melting pot of head and heart, Rees and 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 and 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”, and the result is Devices and Desires. Read more

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Robert Mackay – Augustine’s Message

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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, and 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 and 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 and 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 and focus the rest of his life on the spiritual and 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 and 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 and temperament from the majority of electroacoustic music one tends to hear these days, but the soundworld she creates is both deeply immersive and 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 and mortal.

The atmosphere Szewach creates is a profound one, ethereal and mysterious. She abstracts the text, stretching and 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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