France

HCMF 2019 (Part 1)

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Last week i was able to catch a couple of days of the shenanigans going on at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was strange not to be doing my usual thing of setting up camp for the whole shebang, but quite apart from it being better than nothing, experiencing a festival in microcosm like this is somewhat revealing. More than perhaps most music festivals, going to HCMF involves becoming a prospector, panning for gold in its welter of content. Personally, i’ve tended to find the nuggets of gold to be relatively few and far between, but when you find them it’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience, easily among the most memorable i’ve ever had. This proved to be the case again this year: some was worthless, some looked like gold but on closer inspection was just superficially shiny – and every now and then the festival really hit the jackpot.

Apropos: Termite Territory, by composer-in-residence Hanna Hartman, receiving its first UK performance on Thursday afternoon by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. It looked at first glance to be a not particularly promising mucking around with close-miced bits of corrugated cardboard. However, its highly episodic structure – each episode involving a different approach to the way the cardboard was wielded by the five players – turned out to be deeply engrossing. Read more

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Only Connect 2019 (Part 2)

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The lack of ostentation in most of the music at this year’s Only Connect festival was perhaps nowhere more conspicuous than in a concert last Saturday devoted to French composer Pascale Criton. Performed by violinist Silvia Tarozzi, cellist Deborah Walker and singers Stine Janvin Joh, Signe Irene Stangborli Time and Liv Runesdatter (members of vocal group Song Circus), the concert featured three works of Criton’s. Two of them were solos, and they highlighted just how elusive is the nature of Criton’s material. In Circle Process, the whole nature of playing the violin wasn’t simply stripped back to its essentials, but sublimated and abstracted, Tarozzi primarily concerned with varying forms of friction, the by-product of scuffing and scraping her instrument. From such pitchless (non-)fundamentals, the piece opened out into a complex semi-focused pitch that, while never really deviating, was nonetheless permanently unstable. Only towards the work’s end did Tarozzi become more demonstrative, but even then her wild gestures were a litany of seemingly static harmonics that soon receded back to the pitchless place from whence they began. The process was somewhat reversed in Chaoscaccia, Walker’s cello setting out in a network of dancing ricochets and groaning pitches that occasionally moved close to forming unisons. Criton undermined the boldness of this opening by pushing the material back into nebulous, abstract territory, Walker giving convoluted articulation to harmonics that, again, were fundamentally static. The work’s conclusion was uncanny, a sequence of crescendos from nothing, each abruptly silenced, as if an unseen presence were directly intervening to cancel things out. 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: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Proms 2017: Missy Mazzoli – Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European Première); Catherine Lamb – Prisma Interius V; Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – The Minutes (World Premières)

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The last three Proms premières, though very different in some respects, shared some important things in common. All of them, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Prisma Interius V by Catherine Lamb and The Minutes by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, eschew silence and focus primarily on harmonic movement – or, more specifically, on the (juxta)positioning of pitches to harmonic ends. In tandem with this, they also all broadly adopt an approach that treats the performance space as a vessel into which sound is poured.

For Missy Mazzoli, the space was, literally, space, her music cast “in the shape of a solar system” (her words). The piece began life in 2013, in a version for chamber orchestra that she later expanded to full orchestra, and which was first performed in February last year. Drawing on the double-meaning of ‘sinfonia’, which in Italian used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, this can be felt in the way pitches are drawn-out and sustained and slide, and in the small ornamental embellishments (ever so slightly redolent of James MacMillan) that are quickly established to be one of the work’s most characteristic musical elements. In its own particular way, the music clearly wants to sing – its melodic urge is paramount – but the way it does this is always in relation to and as a somewhat secondary consideration to its harmonic foundation, which is mobile yet attracted to certain fundamentals, drifting between poles of tonal certitude. Read more

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Proms 2017: Laurent Durupt – Grids for Greed (World Première)

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Last Sunday afternoon, French composer Laurent Durupt‘s new work Grids for Greed was given its first performance by the Van Kuijk Quartet at the second Proms Chamber Music concert, in Cadogan Hall. In his answers to my pre-première questions, Durupt made two remarks that are clearly most important to the way the piece operates. First is his comment about feeling “a need to come back to more abstract kind of musical projects such as this string quartet…”. Grids for Greed doesn’t have an imposed extra-musical narrative or programme. Durupt is instead concerned with creating a tense duality between notions of precision – corresponding to the ‘grids’ of the title, here being synonymous with mental, carefully-defined and -executed processes – and more rough, improvisatory elements, corresponding to the ‘greed’ and stemming from the unconscious and more rough and intuitive decisions and impulses.

The second pertinent remark refers to the way Durupt takes “a long time thinking on my project and the meaning of it, trying to match the general concept with a musical technique”. This seeking to encapsulate the modus operandi of a piece within a relatively narrow range of technical expression is extremely clear in Grids for Greed; indeed, it’s arguably the work’s most defining characteristic.

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Laurent Durupt

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This afternoon, at the second Proms Chamber Music concert at Cadogan Hall, French composer Laurent Durupt‘s first string quartet, Grids for Greed, will receive its world première by the Van Kuijk Quartet. Durupt is a composer new to me, so his answers to my pre-première questions are a useful starting point for becoming acquainted with him and his work. Many thanks to Laurent for his responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Pascal Dusapin – Outscape (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular occurrence among Proms premières. Usually – too often – they’re for violin, but last year bucked this trend by featuring a pair of cello concertos (by Huw Watkins and Charlotte Bray). The 2017 season is bucking it some more, again featuring two of them, the first of which, by Pascal Dusapin, was given its UK première last Wednesday by soloist Alisa Weilerstein with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by her brother, Joshua Weilerstein. The title, Outscape, is an interesting word, which Dusapin describes as meaning “the route, or the opportunity to flee, to invent your own path”. He also speaks of one particular way in which the piece behaves, moving “back and forth between a cello ‘becoming an orchestra’ and an orchestra ‘becoming a cello'”. Yes and no. In practice, the relationship isn’t anything like as mutual or reciprocal as Dusapin states. The cello, while not present throughout, certainly dominates, both in terms of the relative foregrounding of its material as well as the very obvious way that the orchestra tip-toes around it, seeking above all to support and/or imitate, almost acting like a protective mandorla. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it again highlights – as i recently remarked – how many pinches of salt are needed to season the reading of programme notes.

Let’s talk about journeys, then, since this is clearly uppermost in Dusapin’s mind. There is a very clear notion of journey running throughout Outscape. It’s not one being undertaken with any alacrity, but an audible sense of the cello moving along – meandering more than anything, suggesting elements of uncertainty about the way forward – is strong. From the outset, the soloist finds something of a familiar or sidekick in a bass clarinet, the work opening with a slow, thoughtful conversation between the two that develops into a duet, often returning to low C♯, a pitch that retains importance and prominence throughout (perhaps problematically so; i’ll come back to this). Dusapin makes it clear in these opening minutes that, despite their dour demeanour, melody is paramount; the journey being taken in Outscape is one articulated above all through the outworking of line. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 2)

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In the late evening of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik‘s opening day, inside the town’s small but elegantly decorated Johanniskirche, the JACK Quartet gave the world premières of a pair of works of an entirely different disposition from that of Ferneyhough and Birtwistle, heard earlier that afternoon.

Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi‘s Pathos of Distance essentially re-programs the string quartet such that the cello becomes a conspicuous rogue element. Through a mixture of whirling, clicking, whirring and croaking wald teufels (a.k.a. forest devils or, most appropriately, frog callers) and more protracted, harmonic- and tremolando-laden bowed materials, the upper strings were clearly well-disposed to work together, sharing and imitating. Whereas the cello – visually enhanced by Kevin McFarland’s unique attire, jacket-less with shirt sleeves rolled up – took on the role of ‘bovver boy’, grinding, twanging, buzzing and poinging his strings, de- and re-tuning them, often situated four or five octaves below the rest. Both the exploration of this relationship – which did vary, and at times all four players were clearly united – as well as Bianchi’s intricate and imaginative textural narrative were engrossing, right up until the somewhat ritualistic final minutes, including a wave of ‘roars’, a viola and cello duet (the viola now also detuned, and played with a cello bow!) and a concluding flurry of ratcheting. Thoroughly immersive and, in the best possible sense, entertaining. Read more

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Proms 2016: Georg Friedrich Haas – Open Spaces II, Gérard Grisey – Dérives (UK Premières), Mica Levi – Signal Before War; David Sawer – April \ March (World Premières)

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Finally. Five weeks into this year’s season, the Proms at last finds its way, Red Riding Hood-like, away from the safe, well-trodden path into the unfamiliar terrain of the avant-garde. Twice, in fact; first thanks to the London Sinfonietta, whose afternoon concert at Camden’s Roundhouse last Saturday (there’s presumably a clause somewhere prohibiting anything too radical from being performed within the Royal Albert Hall), conducted by Andrew Gourlay, presented new works by Georg Friedrich Haas, Mica Levi and David Sawer alongside, among other things, Ligeti’s great classic Ramifications. And later that evening, Ilan Volkov and the BBC Symphony Orchestra brought Gérard Grisey’s Dérives to these shores. Quite a day! Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM DELTA IV

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It’s the grande dame‘s birthday today, and i’m rounding off my Éliane Radigue long weekend with another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, one that in some respects combines those featured in the last couple of days. OCCAM DELTA IV, for bowed harp, microtonal tuba and cello, dates from 2013, and initially focuses extremely intently on a low C. Once again, it’s a drone in which assorted partials can be heard to differing extents, colouring its timbre; here, though, the drone is underpinned with some octave lower pedal notes from the tuba, rendering the drone itself essentially an overtone on this occasion (again a parallel with The Hafler Trio’s Trilogy in Three Parts, in this case the final part). Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM XI

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For the second day of my Éliane Radigue long weekend, another work from the OCCAM OCEAN series, and a particularly austere one. Composed in 2013, OCCAM XI is not simply for solo tuba, but solo microtonal tuba, specifically that of British tubist Robin Hayward. Not that that’s immediately obvious from the music, but then it’s not immediately obvious that a tuba is involved at all.

The work’s 13-minute span falls into three sections, the first of which contains a low F, articulated as a series of fragile fragments, air and vocal noise at the fringes, with both its pitch centre and its overtones undulating slightly, moving between different vowel shapes. The sound is a curious cross between throat singing and a kind of ancient reed instrument—almost, in fact, as though the instrument itself had found sentience and was attempting to speak; decidedly fascinating and unsettling. The second section, around the midpoint, shifts up a fifth and becomes more sustained, the tuba’s sounds much less differentiated but suggesting something more ritualistic, its strangely dogged persistence hinting at some higher purpose, as though casting a muffled incantation. Read more

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Éliane Radigue – OCCAM RIVER XII (World Première)

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This coming Sunday is French composer Éliane Radigue‘s birthday, so by way of a little celebration, i’m going to devote a long weekend to some of her more recent work. Having spent much of her life creating electronic music (exclusively composed on the ARP 2500), for the last decade-and-a-bit Radigue’s attention has been turned towards acoustic instruments. Her work is characterised by slowly-moving sound materials, often in the form of drones, becoming focused epicentres of pitch around and about which other sounds are heard, either actually being or at least appearing to be integrated with and/or emanating from those epicentres, resulting in complex beats and harmonic undulations. No doubt informed by being a practicing Buddhist, these intense soundworlds, caught between stasis and movement, continue to fascinate Radigue, as can be heard to good effect in her ongoing OCCAM OCEAN project. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Olivier Messiaen – Quatuor pour la fin du temps

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World premières are understandably exciting occasions—but, equally, they can often be fraught with difficulty and no little controversy. The annals of music history contain many such examples, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Cage’s 4’33”, but today marks the 75th anniversary of one of the most legendary and poignant of them all. On 15 June 1940, during World War II, the Germans took the French city of Verdun, and Olivier Messiaen was among the soldiers captured that day. Initially imprisoned in a makeshift camp—situated in a large field not far from Nancy, where he met clarinettist Henri Akoka and cellist Étienne Pasquier—Messiaen was subsequently moved to Stalag VIIIa near Görlitz, in Silesia, inhabited by over 15,000 prisoners of war, including violinist Jean Le Boulaire. His time here, thanks in part to the kindness of one of the camp guards, Hauptmann Karl-Erich Brüll, who furnished Messiaen with pencils, erasers and music paper, resulted in the composition of one of his most famous and best-loved works, the Quatuor pour la fin du temps (Quartet for the End of Time). Read more

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Blasts from the Past: Pierre Boulez – Piano Sonata No. 1

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“Vous êtes de la merde!”

i’m going to begin 2016 by looking back 70 years to the earliest acknowledged work by one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated composers, Pierre Boulez. For much of his life, but particularly as a young composer, Boulez’s perceived demeanour was, to put it mildly, bellicose, and his approach to composition was rapid—an interesting fact in light of his later concern (some might say obsession) with revising his scores. These two aspects, his demeanour and his approach, came to a violent head in 1946, in the Paris apartment of Boulez’s teacher and mentor René Leibowitz, when Boulez turned up with the completed score of his first Piano Sonata, a work that Leibowitz had presumed would be worked on slowly under his supervision. Leibowitz’s disgruntled reaction involved taking the score—at the time bearing his name as dedicatee—and beginning to write on it in red pen; Boulez’s explosive response, prior to storming out, consisted of the five words above. Read more

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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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Pierre Boulez – Domaines

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Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:

  1. bass clarinet
  2. marimba, contrabass
  3. oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
  4. alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
  5. flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
  6. 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

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Pierre Boulez – Messagesquisse

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The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel)

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This week marks the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and to mark the occasion i’m going to explore three of his concerto-esque works, beginning with Mémoriale, composed in 1985. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; one of the characteristic traits of Boulez’s output is an ongoing tendency to rethink and recompose previous work. It all began in 1971 with the death of Igor Stravinsky, when Tempo magazine invited various composers to contribute short pieces for a commemorative issue, published late that year. Boulez demured (the request was for canonic works, which he found both a strange and unappealing idea), but it began a thought process that would lead to the first incarnation, in 1972, of a work for three instruments titled …explosante-fixe…. It was soon replaced with another version for flute, clarinet, trumpet, three strings, harp and electronics, but Boulez was dissatisfied with this version too due to complexities with controlling the technology (involving an evidently cumbersome and fragile device called the Halaphone). Some years passed before, in the early 1980s, Boulez began working towards a new version, now collaborating closely with Ensemble InterContemporain’s principal flautist Lawrence Beauregard. When Beauregard died in 1985, Boulez decided to take some of the material from …explosante-fixe… and rework it into a tribute, which became Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) for flute and eight instruments.
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Hector Berlioz – Grande messe des morts

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Today’s work in my ongoing series on the subject of death is not contemporary, not in the least, but is one which nonetheless still sounds as vital and as daring as it did when it was premièred 177 years ago. The Grande messe des morts was Hector Berlioz‘s epic response to a commission to write a setting of the requiem mass in commemoration of soldiers who had perished in the 1830 French Revolution. Despite being only his fifth published work, the key word in its title is ‘grande’, as it utilises forces on a scale unprecedented in 1837 and almost never equalled since. Berlioz’s orchestral line-up is huge enough by itself, including 8 bassoons, 12 horns, 16 timpani, 10 cymbals, 4 tamtams, and a string section of 108, but this is expanded further with four separate off-stage brass brands (38 extra players) distributed around the performance space; the addition of a choir numbering at least 200 makes for an assembly of performers rather mind-boggling to imagine. And imagine is what most people have to do with this piece; i was fortunate to experience a performance in The Hague many years ago, but for obvious reasons the Grande messe des morts for the most part remains an under-performed curiosity, famous more for its gargantuan size than for the music itself. Read more

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