György Ligeti

Estonian Music Days 2017 – Part 1

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there. But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”. From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. Read more

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Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour.

The first is all about contrasts, alternating between vast tuttis and more restrained, inward modes of expression. The pieces by Bjørn Andor Drage and Marcel Dupré are more the latter; Drage, in particular, makes it sound as though the organ is struggling to speak, Dupré is more concerned with not so much presenting/shaping material as gently caressing it into new forms. Thomas AdèsPreambulum holds back just as much but is exercised with an incessant sense of child-like play. Naji Hakim is emphatically at the other end of the continuum, blurring the distinction between a fanfare and a toccata – both of which sound like they’re made out of laser beams – before launching into a frenzied series of final flourishes, and all in just two minutes. Judith Bingham and Petr Eben pass between these extremes. Bingham seemingly allows the music to do its own thing for the most part; there’s a really lovely sense of spontaneity, and the effusive climax two-thirds through feels like an entirely organic zenith. The sixth movement from Eben’s work about the life of Job alternates between dense quiet clusters and counterpoint before an ever-growing sequence of pulling shapes brings about a colossal musical crunch, as though an angel had misjudged its descent and slammed into the ground. This is followed by a section devoted to texture, in the form of dense walls and piercing clusters from John Zorn – treating the organ like a lab rat – and György Ligeti, cycling tonal colours from Charlemagne Palestine, and heaving wails and roars from the one and only Stefan Fraunberger, caught in a heroic struggle of WTF proportions in order to get a defunct instrument to do anything approximating coherence (and succeeding).

The mix then turns to ecstasy, captured in deliciously soft shimmerings in the exquisite opening to the middle movement of Sorabji‘s First Organ Symphony and the conclusion of one of Olivier Messiaen‘s late Méditations, both composers emphasising metric regularity to heighten the music’s inner power. Others cause their ecstasy to swell into apogees of overload, heard here in David Briggs‘ transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler‘s Fifth, a slow-burn from Louis Vierne that works an almost absurdly simple idea into a looming mountain of fire, and a wondrous back-and-forth from Pēteris Vasks, whose arrangement of his own Viatore (originally written for strings, but much more majestic in this version) often makes me think of Howard Skempton’s Lento, cycling round a common idea but always sounding somehow different and new. The last section is all about drama, often utilising the massive timbral pile-ups of the full organ. Edwin Lemare‘s transcription of Saint-SaënsDanse macabre is pure brilliance and to my mind works way better than the original, tapping into Gothic levels of sinister malevolence. i’ve included another slow-burner from Vierne, this time the second movement from his First Organ Symphony, a dazzlingly exciting demonstration of the dramatic potential and power of fugue. The counterpoint here is simply amazing, and the colossal, cluster-bomb climax will clear out any remaining cobwebs your speakers (or, indeed, your house) may have. Rarely-heard Soviet composer Eduard Khagagortyan gets seriously carried away in the opening movement of his Symphony No. 3, which i’ve included in its 8½-minute entirety partly because he is so rarely-heard, but mainly because the range of imagination in its convoluted narrative is so impressive, and Khagagortyan’s musical language is decidedly piquant, even downright tart. Simon Johnson‘s Holy Week improvisations recontextualise familiar melodies in an altogether new sonic environment to fittingly disconcerting effect, while David Briggs, at the console of Gloucester Cathedral in his own improvised Symphony, reinvents the French organ style in a slow movement that builds to a light-filled blaze of colours (you can hear the whole symphony here).

Beginning the sections and exemplifying them are pieces by Charles Tournemire, who in my view is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and – bizarrely – remains almost entirely unknown beyond devotees of organ music. A late figure within the French organ school, he was a significant influence on Messiaen, particularly with regard to improvisation. A self-confessed mystic, Tournemire was responsible for creating one of the longest and most inventive compositional projects ever undertaken: L’Orgue Mystique, a fifteen-hour cycle of music (in 51 parts) inspired by the plainsong melodies used throughout the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. When his music does occasionally appear in organ recitals or church services (his non-organ music pretty much never does in the UK), it tends to be only the huge final movements that end each part of the cycle. i’ve included two of these: his enormous, borderline overexcited improvisation on the ‘Te deum’ melody, which only survived thanks to Maurice Duruflé transcribing the piece from a recording (played here by Jane Watts in what is surely the most exhilarating recording of it by anyone), and his yet more furious Postlude for the Sunday in the Octave of Ascension, which in terms of both the extraordinary use of harmony – pushing tonality far beyond breaking point, essentially redefining it on the fly – and drama – each successive episode getting more carried away than the previous one – make it seem all the more incomprehensible that his music should be performed so infrequently and his contribution to twentieth century music be so unknown. But his quieter music, which dominates most of L’Orgue Mystique, is just as potent. His take on the Easter Communion chant quickly moves away from melody into a kind of semi-frozen (or should that be transfixed?) textural miasma, whereas the Offertory from the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost becomes a soft, dreamy act of the purest tenderness. The mix ends with another Communion, from the feast of Pentecost itself, Tournemire reworking it into music of remarkable, balmy stillness, as though brilliantly illuminated from above, its chords shimmering with warmth. Genius.

A little over two hours of music that pulls out both the real and the imaginative stops; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to buy the music. As ever, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Blasts from the Past: György Ligeti – Poème symphonique

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Blasts from the Past, Proms | 1 Comment

A couple of days ago marked the eighth anniversary of the death of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. To mark the event, and also begin a new occasional series on 5:4, i’d like to take a brief look back at one of the more enigmatic works of Ligeti’s career. Poème symphonique was composed in 1962, and is as much a piece of performance art as a musical composition. The performance specification is relatively straightforward: 100 mechanical metronomes are required, operated by 10 players, each metronome fully wound and set to its own tempo; all 100 are then released and allowed to tick freely until their mechanisms wind down. and that’s it, except your problems begin immediately, procuring and assembling 100 metronomes at one time and place being the most obvious. Not entirely surprisingly, the first performance triggered a fair amount of controversy, being as it was part of an official reception at the closing event of the 1963 Gaudeamus Courses and Concerts of New Music, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, an event involving local dignitaries and which was to be televised the following day. During the performance, protests broke out, and the broadcast never took place. Read more


HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 3 Comments

This morning saw Brian Ferneyhough back at St Paul’s Hall, his music this time being performed by the outstanding Quatuor Diotima, alongside works by Gérard Pesson, Miroslav Smka & György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1968 String Quartet No. 2 came last in the concert, but i mention it first because—as Ligeti’s music always tends to do—it forced a complete reappraisal of the three pieces heard before it. One very basic issue it highlighted was of the current predilection for larger-scale forms—or, conversely, composers’ (perhaps passive) reluctance to articulate works through relatively short movements. Sections & episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation & don’t induce the same sort of ‘soft reset’ brought about by the separation of movements. Let me just clarify that i don’t think one approach is better than the other; it’s just interesting to reflect that—with the obvious exception of James Dillon’s New York Triptych—everything i’ve heard both in this concert & the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans.

Returning to Diotima, they began with the first UK performance of Pesson’s Farrago. Pesson’s lengthy programme note makes the piece sound more complicated than it actually is. Structurally, Farrago is very formalised, episodic & highly rhythmic. Its rhythmic language is the work’s driving force in more than just the obvious way; the material’s underlying regularity goes a long way to reinforcing its dual tone of ephemerality & ethereality. Much of the music is very quiet, & almost all of it is extremely delicate, like suspended pieces of glass turning in the wind, sunlight glinting off their edges. That suggests cool placidity, but it’s not without an order of violence too, although the instruments’ fiercely sharp gestures are checked by soft dynamics & muting articulations (sul tasto; beyond the bridge) that render them more visually than sonically startling, like being flagellated with feathers. Farrago feels long, but the extent of its fantasy is such that it remains an engrossing listen.

Miroslav Smka’s Engrams, also receiving its UK première, didn’t prove anywhere near so convincing. Like Pesson, Smka opted for very quiet dynamics, but his highly gestural material, somewhat inventive but not greatly differentiated, became increasingly frustrating. The glistening surface offered little by way of purchase; ideas were passed around, imitated, collaborated upon, but there was an abiding sense of arbitrariness that wasn’t helped by the lack of anything concrete. At nearly half an hour it was also seriously overlong; being teased & tickled like this quickly becomes annoying.

The oboe’s master of masters Christopher Redgate joined Diotima for the world première of Ferneyhough’s Schatten aus Wasser und Stein (“shadows made of water & stone”—the composer’s preferred translation), turning the group into a very convincing quintet, so well did he match the strings in terms of timbre & register. Both the work itself & wider compositional concerns had been broached in the pre-concert talk, & one detected an implied (Ferneyhough didn’t directly confirm this) ongoing interest in things ephemeral: the blast-wake of destructive energies (in earlier work), the instantaneous sparks of yesterday’s Liber Scintillarum, & now shadows—which Ferneyhough characterised as being both diffuse & sharp-edged. This perhaps goes some way to account for the intensely mercurial nature of Ferneyhough’s music, ever shifting between layers of focus & concomitant material implication. In Redgate & Diotima’s performance, there was an interesting tension between effort—the music is clearly as technically challenging as ever—& relaxation, communicated strongly by the players’ shifting body language. The former of those has been discussed ad nauseam over the years; regarding the latter, the performance was a powerful reminder of how recordings of Ferneyhough’s music never seem adequately to capture the wit so often evident in his material, the exuberance & potency of the instrumental interactions, & the latent lyricism i spoke of yesterday, glimpsed rather than indulged, but rarely absent. This last aspect seems particularly important in Schatten aus Wasser und Stein, melody constantly breaking out, often at some length. In this world première, despite the players still coming to terms with the piece, one glimpsed the beginnings of a very telling addition to Ferneyhough’s output.

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Mix Tape #18 : Hallowe’en

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Caught up as i am this Hallowe’en weekend in a flurry of horror movies, it seemed only right to make the new 5:4 Mix Tape suitable for the occasion. For this Hallowe’en mix, i’ve trawled my library for music that’s particularly unsettling—so don’t expect to hear ‘The Monster Mash’ or anything like that.

Not surprisingly, a number of soundtracks are featured, of very different styles and manners. The opening of Johan Söderqvist‘s score for Let the Right One In is a masterpiece of foreboding tension; Joe LoDuca explores rapid-fire percussive sounds in this nervy section of his music for the classic The Evil Dead (and the image on the artwork is a beautiful still taken from the equally beautiful blu-ray transfer of Sam Raimi’s brilliant Evil Dead II). Christopher Young draws on evocative metallic clangs and the ominous tinkles of a music box for his Hellraiser soundtrack, going to the opposite extreme for its sequel, Hellbound, the overture of which aspires to the operatic. Angelo Badalamenti—featured twice—establishes an almost immobile, horribly enclosed mood in his music for season 2 of Twin Peaks and, even more so, Mulholland Drive. The extreme, though, is Lars von Trier and Kristian Eidnes‘ soundtrack to Antichrist, one of the most unconventional ever created, and certainly one of the best. Jerry Goldsmith‘s score for Basic Instinct functions like a vast orchestral suite, often eschewing dramatics for music that slowly builds with masterly restraint; Thomas Bangalter—in a break from being one half of Daft Punk—accompanied one of the most horrific scenes of film violence with this ludicrously effective and queasy bit of sound; and David Lynch‘s own music for his exhibition The Air is on Fire is an impossibly deep and dark ambient cycle, occasionally—as here—introducing elements of hauntology. Read more

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Mix Tape #6 : Piano

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For years, the piano has been to me an object of fascination and awe; its range of capabilities, expressive potential and timbral variety are breathtaking. Also for years, these qualities were the very things preventing me from attempting to compose something for it. Listening to piano music is a supreme joy, and so this new Mix Tape is a concoction of some of the more interesting examples that have been occupying my ears of late. It also represents some of my favourite composers, all of them bringing something unique to the instrument. Read more

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