ensemble

HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 7. éileadh sguaibe

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Having kept the electronics on a very tight leash in L’œuvre au noir, James Dillon reins them in almost completely in the seventh work of the Nine Rivers cycle, éileadh sguaibe. Like its predecessor, the work was also commissioned for the Paragon Ensemble, who gave the first performance in January 1991. The title, in Scots Gaelic, approximates to “gathered up in pleated folds”, referencing the kilt and serving as a descriptor for Dillon’s manipulation of material, which he has described as “folding sound”. The electronics, as i’ve said, are negligible, so the piece is simply heard as one for brass septet and percussion. Despite éileadh sguaibe‘s brief duration (about which more later), Dillon establishes a fascinating relationship between these two groups, which in many ways feels like a continuation from L’œuvre au noir (and almost sounds like a larger incarnation of Richard Barrett’s superb piece for trombone and percussion, EARTH); in part, it’s inspired by this stanza from Rimbaud’s La Bateau ivre:

I, who trembled, hearing at fifty leagues off
The moaning of the Behemoths in heat and the thick Maelstroms,
I, eternal spinner of the blue immobility,
Miss Europe with its ancient parapets!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 6. L’œuvre au noir

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The third and final part of James Dillon’s Nine Rivers bears the subtitle ‘Melanosis’, another reference to alchemy, this time ‘blackening’. This is, in fact, the first of the three stages of the alchemical process; Dillon began with the middle stage (leukosis), followed by the final stage (iosis), so the connection he’s making is not a straightforward one. The connotations of ‘melanosis’ (also known as nigredo) are rich and thought-provoking, implying a cleansing kind of disintegration which has a psychological/spiritual parallel in the ‘dark night of the soul’. This is overwhelmingly emphasised in the sixth work of Nine Rivers, L’œuvre au noir. That title—usually translated as ‘The abyss’—comes from a 1968 novel by the Belgian writer Marguerite Yourcenar, in which she sought to allude to “what is said to be the most difficult phase of the alchemist’s process, the separation and dissolution of substance” (from the book’s introduction). This is intense, rather daunting stuff, and a quick glance at the instrumentation of Dillon’s piece makes it clear that this abyss is one into which he intends to dive headlong. L’œuvre au noir is scored for bass flute, bassoon/contrabassoon, tenor-bass and bass trombones, harp, 2 cellos and a double bass—notwithstanding some higher pitched doublings and percussion (plus a live electronic component), this is an utmost dark, bass-heavy ensemble; ‘noir’ is right. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 4. La femme invisible

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The opening three works in the Nine Rivers cycle alternate between homogeneous and variegated timbral groupings; the fourth piece, La femme invisible, continues this using a mixed ensemble comprising the three percussionists from L’ECRAN joined by a piano and wind octet (two each of flutes, oboes, clarinets and saxophones, with assorted doublings). Dillon completed the work in 1989, and it was first performed in June of that year by Music Projects/London under Richard Bernas’ direction, and they subsequently recorded the piece for inclusion on the same CD as East 11th St; to date, they’re the only works from Nine Rivers to have been commercially recorded.

While not wishing to get too analytical, one unavoidable aspect is the audibly clear way that Dillon has constructed La femme invisible. There are 10 sections, each of which is initiated in the same way, with a loud strike on a suspended C# bell. The sections are organised with equal clarity, from a small number of basic structural components, which i would characterise as follows:

cadenzas – which always follow the bell strike, a highly florid, rhythmically diverse tutti occupying a single bar of around 10-13 quavers (♩=66)
tuttis – of varying length, usually relatively short and always rapid, in which rhythmic similarities are commonplace (♩=168)
trios – slow, lengthy episodes involving smaller chamber groupings, containing some of the work’s most lyrical material; percussion is always involved (♩=40)
‘stases‘ – brief moments when the music slows almost to a stop, during which sustained notes (sometimes ornamented) are played (♩=26)

Not all the sections in La femme invisible make use of all these components—the sixth section consists of just the cadenzas—but most use at least two. Such overt construction as this is interesting in light of the first line of the relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre:

At times a martyr weary of poles and zones,
The sea, whose sob created my gentle roll,
Brought up to me her dark flowers with yellow suckers
And I remained like a woman on her knees…
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

“Poles and zones” would be a rather fitting description of La femme invisible, and i wonder whether the eponymous boat’s weariness is reflected in the somewhat repetitive manner with which the piece unfolds. The unrelenting bell notes, always C#, certainly become wearying—or, at least, feel increasingly oppressive—although the content of the work’s modules continues to change and vary throughout. But it would be difficult to describe this as ‘progress’ or ‘development’; perhaps the strongest analogy would be variations, not so much on a theme as on a variety of behaviours, which are subsequently revisited, reimagined and reordered (one thinks of Birtwistle’s Endless Parade, examining a common idea from a number of discrete vantage points). In its own way, this too could be heard to contribute to the aforementioned ‘weariness’, but if that sounds slightly defeatist, it’s simply due to the fact that La femme invisible is a decidedly difficult work to get a grip on; despite the clarity of its structure, and indeed its familiarity (the CD has been available for almost 20 years), the work still seems as impenetrable as ever—fascinating but enigmatic, allusive yet elusive.

La femme invisible brings the first part of Nine Rivers, ‘Leukosis’, to an end. In last year’s world première it was performed by members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (supplemented by a number of ‘guest’ players), conducted by Jessica Cottis.


Full score

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 2. L’ECRAN parfum

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Following the large-scale “triumphant hubbub” that is East 11th St NY 10003, the second work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers halves the number of percussionists and adds six violins. L’ECRAN Parfum (‘SCREEN perfume’) was composed in 1988, and received its first performance the following spring by the Oslo Sinfonietta. At 10 minutes’ duration, it’s the shortest piece in the cycle, but there’s absolutely nothing slight about it; on the contrary, L’ECRAN Parfum is a searing demonstration of Dillon the dramaturgist, cramming into its brief span a bewildering and almost infeasibly intense dramatic outpouring. In his programme note, Dillon demarcates the piece in two parts, one “constructed around the continuous iteration of three superposed prototypical forms of pattern — spirals, meanders and branching”, the other “constructed upon the iteration of a single texture, gradually altered by a continuous ‘rallentando’”. He also quotes another stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre, continuing from the previous one:

The storm blessed my sea vigils.
Lighter than a cork I danced on the waves
That are called eternal rollers of victims,
Ten nights, without missing the stupid eye of the lighthouses!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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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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