Harrison Birtwistle

Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

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It’s easy to believe – even take for granted – that we ‘get’ Harrison Birtwistle. He represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but the tendency is to conflate the man and his music, mix in stereotypes drawing on his age and northern heritage, and arrive at a surly amalgam that, crudely stated, neither gives nor takes any shit. Very many years ago, as a callow student volunteering at the Cheltenham Music Festival, i was charged with attending to Birtwistle during his time in the town, which ultimately consisted of a brief greeting followed by my being told in no uncertain terms that he did not need looking after, and off he went. So i certainly know all about the brusqueness of the man, but his music has always been another, entirely separate, matter. To me, its primary characteristics are an earthiness, an inclination to sing in the midst of turbulence, a strong sense of persistent determination, and an urgent, passionate humanity yearning to be unleashed no matter what. These qualities have permeated his works performed at the Proms in recent years – particularly The Moth Requiem, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Angel Fighter – and they manifest again in his most recent orchestral work, Deep Time, given its first UK performance at the Proms last Sunday.

That being said, there were occasions during the work where i found myself wondering if what i was hearing really was by Birtwistle. But not early on, the music establishing a dark admixture of rumble and grumble within which nascent ideas take shape. It’s a beautifully measured and arresting introduction, the strings clambering up and out of this claustrophobic gloom with such oomph that it almost seems as though, two-and-a-half minutes in, we’re already reaching a climax. But this is a mere overture to the more complex behaviour that forms the firmament of Deep Time. Birtwistle’s programme note speaks of the piece sitting alongside The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances due to its twin temporal and geological concerns. This finds expression in a fascinating underlying order that evidently has a pulse at its core, though sufficiently subterranean that it’s often masked, inaudible or simply forgotten about. Yet it finds expression in another way too, in a remarkable sense of architectonic plasticity, as though the bedrock of the piece were warping and stretching, with concomitant effects occurring on the surface. On this surface, when pulse isn’t pushing through, a plethora of melodies break out (those from a soprano sax are especially striking), invariably short-lived, broken up by unpredictable surges and lunges or multi-layered textures from the full orchestra. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik (Witten Days for New Chamber Music), Germany’s annual three-day blow out celebrating the newest iterations of the idiom. It was my first experience of the festival, and i have to say my initial impressions were overwhelmingly positive. The definition of ‘chamber music’ is treated with considerable flexibility, ranging from solo pieces to works for moderately large chamber orchestras, and the presentation and performance standard of the concerts – not surprisingly, considering its reputation – were never less than outstanding, staged in superb venues, showcasing some of the finest contemporary music specialists in the world. As for the music, which was hugely varied, for the most part the same could be said of the featured composers. For the most part. 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 2015: Eastern Waves, Arditti Quartet

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Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnikwas decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première) & Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Proms 2013: Harrison Birtwistle – The Moth Requiem (UK Première)

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On the one hand, the BBC’s decision not to provide online programme notes in any form for this year’s Prom concerts is as hard to understand as it is unequivocally idiotic. On the other hand, it forces listeners to engage with music on its own terms, without the cosy couch of propaganda provided by the composer or one of their flock. In the case of Harrison Birtwistle‘s latest work, The Moth Requiem, given its first UK performance at Cadogan Hall yesterday, not even the audience was given programme notes(!), but perhaps it was just as well. In his pre-performance talk, Birtwistle spoke at length about the disappearance of cherished things and people, in addition to citing his own (as he sees it) looming demise. A melancholy theme indeed, but Birtwistle positively bristled at the prospect of writing something “soppy”, all but suggesting that the only decent way to confront such painful loss was via anger. Sadness was implied, but conspicuous by its absence; if we are to take the composer at face value, The Moth Requiem, adopting the names of extinct moths as a metaphor for loss, has anger as the central characteristic of its mode of expression. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

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A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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