ensemble

Morton Feldman – Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety

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To begin the final week of my Lent Series, i’m turning to a curious little miniature by Morton Feldman. Composed in 1970, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is a work for a small, unusual ensemble of 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, celesta, bells, 2 cellos and 2 double basses. The titular dedicatee, Vera Maurina-Press, was in fact Feldman’s childhood piano teacher (from the age of 12), about whom he spoke very affectionately in a short essay from the early 1960s: “It was because of her – only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian – that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.” And a decade later, his warmth for her remained strong: “Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.”

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Dave Price – Twitcher

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The next miniature work in my Lent Series is something a little different from the norm. Dave Price uses an array of game calls and bird whistles in conjunction with a piccolo to create his taut, playful and at times downright hilarious three-minute Twitcher.

Those of a prog rock disposition may find Pink Floyd’s Several Species of Small Furry Animals coming to mind during the work’s long opening section, cycling rhythmic ideas hocketed left and right with all manner of unexpected punctuations, embellishments and hiatuses. After about 80 seconds, everything gets significantly cranked up: the metre becomes shorter and seemingly quicker and there’s less overall sense of rhythmic control, finally leading to a prolonged eruption of wild wails, squeals and ratchet bursts. Price lets out all the pent-up tension with a violent bang, whereupon the piece discovers an altogether new kind of order, the piccolo articulating a Latin-like melody, the music no longer twitching but swaying and dancing to a close. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Double Hocket

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Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out.  Read more

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HCMF 2016: ELISION

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Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.

In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox. Read more

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Proms 2015: Christian Mason – Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (UK Première)

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One of the smaller Proms premières, Christian Mason‘s Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand was commissioned as a part of this year’s 90th birthday celebrations for Pierre Boulez. Fittingly, its world première was given by Boulez’s very own Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival; its first UK performance at the Proms, a few days later, was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer. Mason describes the work as having a twofold connection to Boulez, first in terms of the work’s engagement with twin perspectives, focussing on both intricate detail and broader structural durations (the title derives from this, drawing on the opening line of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”), as well as the use of crotales, involving all 15 players, a reference to Mason’s recollections of Boulez’s orchestral work Le Visage nuptial.
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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Proms 2010: Hans Abrahamsen – Wald (UK Première) plus Knussen, Bedford and Benjamin

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So, where were we? Ah yes, The Proms; my catchup starts with the concert that took place on Friday 6 August, given by the splendid Birmingham Contemporary Music Group.

Oliver Knussen‘s Two Organa is a work all the more engaging for its entirely lopsided nature. The first ‘organum’, “Notre Dame des Jouets”, could perhaps best be described as “sugar and spice and all things nice” (although without very much spice); exploring just white notes, it’s derived from an earlier incarnation, composed for a diatonic music box, and while undeniably rather fun, there’s little more going on beyond froth and fancy. The latter movement, on the other hand, could not be more different, drawing heavily on Knussen’s more characteristic, harmonically rich palette. In the wake of such a frivolous predecessor, the dense, concentric lines at work here come as something of a shock, given gravitas by the imposing presence of deep gongs. But it restrains itself from becoming ponderous, swiftly reducing into a sparser mixture, the lines given more room to move, fragments of the imagined organum sliding in and out of view. Read more

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