HCMF2013

HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: ddmmyy, HCMF

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It’s November, and i’ll initially skip over the elephant in the month to flag up a very interesting concert series going on in Manchester. Curated by undergrad composer Jack Sheen, it goes by the Excel spreadsheet-friendly title ddmmyy, seeking to make each event literally that, an event, conceived and customised in sympathy with the music contained therein. The next concert in the series is in a little over a week’s time, on Sunday 16 November in the RNCM’s Carole Nash Recital Room, and it promises an interesting selection: a new work from Laurence Tompkins, Larry Goves’ A glimpse of the sea in a fold of the hills and Laurence Crane’s Octet. As all good new music concerts should, there’s a pre-concert talk at 6pm before the kick-off at 7.30pm. Future concerts in February and April next year will be including works by Bryn Harrison, Michael Finnissy and Berio alongside music by RNCM-associated composers. Ambitious and also rather stylish in presentation, it’s clearly a concert series well worth checking out; the flyer with info about all their forthcoming concerts can be seen/downloaded here.

And now, of course, to the pachyderm: in two weeks’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be springing into action for another round of the unexpected, the challenging and the downright discombobulating. i’ll be there for the full ten days this year, and will be reporting back on as much as my mind and ears can cope with. It’s almost nonsensical to single out highlights in a festival where every event is a highlight in itself, but the choice of James Dillon as this year’s Composer in Residence is hugely mouth-watering; both of the festival’s weekends feature his work heavily, the former with the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers premièring a new large-scale work, Stabat Mater dolorosa, the latter with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra taking on another new work, Physis I & II and an existing piece, Andromeda, before pitting the Arditti Quartet against all seven—that’s all seven—of Dillon’s string quartets. i know, right? i’ll also be particularly looking forward to premières from, among others, Liza Lim, Simon Steen-Andersen (whose Black Box Music remains one of the most astonishing things i’ve seen/heard at HCMF in recent years), Christopher Fox, Naomi Pinnock and Monty Adkins; Adkins will also be presenting his beautiful electronic work Rift Patterns (my review of which is here). One of contemporary music’s most alluringly dark clarinettists, Gareth Davis, will be playing a major new work from Elliott Sharp called Sylva Sylvarum; his wonderful rendition of Sharp’s Foliage at Bristol New Music earlier this year makes this an unmissable performance. Apartment House will be performing Brian Eno, Arne Deforce and Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio will be performing a live version of their interesting recent album Hephaestus, Ryoko Akama will be giving the world première of a new work by the great Eliane Radigue, and nyMusikk Bergen will be tackling Sciarrino’s frankly bizarre opera (of sorts) Lohengrin on the festival’s opening night. But i’m also especially looking forward to music by composers entirely new to me, including Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Joan Arnau Pàmies, Øyvind Torvund, Bjørn Fongaard and Ferran Fages. Unsurprisingly, some of the concerts are by now sold out, but many are still available – full information and bookings here. i trust it won’t leave me wordless, but i fully expect to be left speechless.

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HCMF 2013 revisited: James Clarke – 2013-V (World Première)

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If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title and the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title and content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation and spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year and a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications. Read more

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HCMF 2013 revisited: Raphaël Cendo – Rokh I (UK Première)

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One of the most memorable performances at HCMF 2013 arose out of what appeared beforehand to be pretty restricted forces: bass flute, violin, cello and prepared piano, members of the French Ensemble Linea. Yet in Rokh I, the first of a three-part, 30-minute cycle, Raphaël Cendo enables this quartet to become one of the most startlingly elemental pieces of chamber music i’ve ever witnessed.

In Huddersfield, of all places, one hardly expects instruments to be played only in a traditional fashion. But Rokh I goes further; by avoiding almost anything resembling convention, Cendo practically redefines what music is, turning it on its head in fact. Cendo’s extended techniques seem like nothing of the kind, but merely the most basic and fundamental—even obvious—ingredients for the intensely focused, self-referential entity that is Rokh I. The work’s point of inspirational origin is the terrifying mythological bird of prey found in Indian, Persian and Asian literature (perhaps most memorably in the One Thousand and One Nights). Cendo establishes the sonic credentials of the creature in the most dazzlingly vivid way, a counterpoint of violence formed from a myriad gestures, slides, twangs, thwacks, ruffles, slaps, heavily compressed pitches, grindings, pops, clusters and whooshes. It’s as though we’ve become the miniaturised inhabitant of the great creature’s nest, confronted by activity on a massive and potentially very destructive scale. Read more

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HCMF 2013 revisited: Cecilie Ore – Come to the Edge! (World Première)

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Memories and afterthoughts of the exhilarating and, at times, revelatory experiences from HCMF 2013 haven’t really stopped swirling around my mind, so i’m going to begin 2014 by revisiting some of the most interesting highlights, starting with a world première given by the BBC Singers, directed by Nicolas Kok.

Even though it’s only two months since Cecilie Ore‘s Come to the Edge! was premièred, a great deal has changed. Chiefly, the focus of the work’s subject matter—the ludicrous imprisonment of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot—has become a historical event, as the pair of group members who remained incarcerated were released shortly before Christmas. However, the main thrust of Cecilie Ore’s abiding question—”how civilised are we?”—persists with, if anything, greater intensity. Few would attribute the band members’ release to an honest change of heart from a benevolent ruler; on the contrary, Vladimir Putin’s vain attempt to smooth over the world’s dismay at his increasingly dictatorial attitudes only illustrates the difference between being civilised and merely appearing to be civilised. Read more

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HCMF 2013: John Zorn day

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How do you solve a problem like John Zorn? How do you reconcile the disparate works of a composer equally at home in the worlds of (among others) free jazz, avant garde experimentalism, choral, noise rock, easy listening and hardcore, and whose music moves freely, even wilfully, between these worlds at whim? That, i imagine, is the question that many have found themselves asking when confronted (and it often is a confrontation) with Zorn’s music. But, surely, the question ought to be: why are not more composers interested in drawing on such a multiplicity of styles and manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, and i say this both as a composer and as a listener—hell, and simply as a human being—to be daunted and intimated by the work of John Zorn. It’s not just the variety that’s impressive, it’s the fecundity: Zorn spills out new works out a rate that’s difficult to keep up with. Personally, i always have suspicions with composers who produce at this kind of rate; “Milhaud syndrome” we could call it, and it isn’t hard to find contemporary examples, where the emphasis in their work is entirely tilted towards activity rather than achievement.

On the one hand, i don’t believe at all that Zorn is someone in whom that syndrome manifests itself; i’m familiar with a lot of his work, and some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus and the string quartets Memento Mori and The Dead Man—ranks among my favourite examples of chamber music. On the other hand, there were numerous occasions throughout the entire day devoted to him yesterday at HCMF (in celebration of his 60th birthday) when i found myself once again being challenged at making sense of the apparent incongruities, volte-faces, non sequiturs, leftfield asides and possibly even red herrings that continually rear up. Not so with The Book of Heads, a compendium of 35 etudes for solo guitar, which are so wonderfully unconventional that a regularly strummed chord would have seemed like the most ludicrous gesture imaginable. James Moore—congenial and light-hearted, entirely the right kind of personality to take on these pieces—performed 26 of them, his collection of guitars expanded by an assortment of small balloons, nail files, bowls, a rug, some bottles and a doll, plus a cluster of pedals and devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written and graphic instructions—which is simultaneously highly specific while also allowing the performer a considerable amount of latitude. All relatively short, they nonetheless encapsulate Zorn’s multifaceted soundworld: madcap gestures, allusions, evocations and quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework. Read more

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HCMF 2013: n s m b l

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All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss and microscopic blurps, along with thin slivers of the primary audio material, little more than the most anaemic of glimpses, hinting at what lies on the other side. These kind of residua bear a strong resemblance to the music of Jakob Ullmann, whose Son Imaginaire III received its world première in St Paul’s Hall last night. The concert wasn’t just a highlight of my HCMF 2013, it was a highlight of my entire concert-going life. However, my enthusiasm for Ullmann’s work (previously manifested here and here) clearly continues to put me in a minority. The pre-concert talk, which i had fully expected to see packed to the point of standing room only, found half of the seats empty, and the concert itself, although better attended, had many seats to spare. Even in Huddersfield, it seems, audiences still have a thing or two to learn. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima / edges ensemble

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St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions and correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.

First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration and recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun and clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Séverine Ballon

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Today’s first concert was given by French cellist Séverine Ballon. Her recital comprised UK premières by Hèctor Parra and Mauro Lanza and a world première by Rebecca Saunders, together with a classic of the repertoire, James Dillon‘s Parjanya-Vata, composed in 1981. It was especially good to hear this again; it’s a long time since i have, and Ballon’s spectacularly fiery commitment to the work’s whirlwind climax left me wondering why i’d left it so long. Hèctor Parra’s electroacoustic tentatives de réalité is an exercise in frenetic action. Parra’s programme notes always go to great lengths to inform as to the extra-musical points of origin, but on this occasion intention and result seemed insufficiently interconnected. In short, one never felt as involved as Ballon clearly was. The material establishes a kind of monotony that wasn’t especially helped either by the nature of the electroacoustic interaction—cause and effect a-go-go—or by its sonic fingerprint, which in many ways felt like an amalgam or catalogue of a multitude of all too familiar tried and tested (and tired) ideas. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Shorts

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There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret and guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, and never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- and mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, and i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear and which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, and a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, and the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, and almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance and grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ and electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart and a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet and string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima

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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 and 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 and episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation and 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 and the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

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The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo and James Clarke.

Ferneyhough and Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability and (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. Read more

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HCMF 2013: London Sinfonietta

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Truth be told, it isn’t often i find myself lost for words. About 40 minutes ago, the London Sinfonietta finished their performance of the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haasin vain, and i’m still trying to force some coherence about the experience. A few weeks back, i procured a recording of the piece, but ultimately decided not to listen in advance, and approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, and retrospectively i think it’s unfortunate, is some of the discussions that have been circulating in recent times about this performance. It certainly seems to have put the hype in hyperbole.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, and until tonight i was just such a person, in vain was written in response to a resurgence in the far right in Haas’ homeland of Austria. In that respect, it’s interesting to be confronted by it after having heard Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge a few hours before. Like Ore’s piece, i don’t think in vain can be described as a political work, rather an attempt to frame the reality of Haas’ perception of the situation. Unlike Ore’s piece, there is an overwhelming engagement with futility in in vain; there’s encouragement to be found, but of a different kind and arrived at from very different means. Read more

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HCMF 2013: BBC Singers

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Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen and Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.

Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes and suspensions, and i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes and mannerisms of religious chant. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Red Note Ensemble

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This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) and something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola and ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts and dissipates, leaving the viola alone and heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios and oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

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There are some very interesting live events looming between the doorstep and the horizon. Most imminently, New Dots—an excellent initiative designed to foster collaborative composer/ensemble relationships—will be presenting the next instalment in their ongoing ‘Sounds of the New’ series at the Forge in Camden next Thursday (14th). This time it’ll be given by the London-based Octandre Ensemble, in a concert of works from a sextet of up-and-coming composers (none of whom i’ve heard of, but that no doubt says more about me than them). Details of the concert can be found here, and it’s worth highlighting they’re also running a composing competition, scoping out new works for piano and/or percussion duo and/or electronics. Details of that here; but take note the deadline is 15 November.

Beyond this—yet still less than a week away—is contemporary music’s most happily disorienting annual splurge, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This year i’ll be spending what i anticipate to be a frankly exhausting six full days at HCMF, and will be blogging about the proceedings as much as time and energy allow (like last year, expect coverage to spread through succeeding weeks as various parts are broadcast). It seems rather fatuous to refer to ‘highlights’ where HCMF is concerned, since almost every one of its 10 days is packed to the rafters with them; personally speaking, the prospect of world and UK premières from the likes of James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Monty Adkins, Rebecca Saunders, Simon Steen-Andersen, Michael Finnissy, Konrad Boehmer, Jakob Ullmann (one of my biggest heroes) and Natasha Barrett in addition to an entire day of John Zorn leaves one more than a little giddy with anticipation. HCMF Artistic Director Graham McKenzie deserves a lot more than mere kudos for bringing together such a wondrous cavalcade of new music. McKenzie’s regular tweets suggest that many, if not most, of the concerts have nearly sold out; ticket info is available here.

Next month, back at the Forge, composer Piers Tattersall and pianist Christopher Guild are going to be presenting an evening of piano music with and without electronics, including works by Jonathan Harvey, Olivier Messiaen and Pascal Dusapin alongside music by Tattersall himself and a couple of other composers. Piers tells me he’s been working with Guild for several years, so it’ll be very interesting to hear the fruits of that collaboration, and it’s always a real treat to hear Harvey’s leftfield but dreamy Tombeau de Messiaen (if you don’t know it, get on with it). Full details here.

On top of all this avant goodness, i’m especially interested and excited at the prospect of Joe Bates’ Filthy Lucre project. Founded in 2010, the purpose of the project is to present what Joe describes as “mixed-genre, mixed-medium immersive music nights”—kind of like a Robert Rich throwback but with a far more active, thought-provoking raison d’être. Their next night is planned for Saturday 11 January at the Bussey Building in Peckham; running from 9pm to 5am, the night will feature new works as well as eclectica from the delightful likes of Scott Walker, Frank Ocean, Scelsi, Radiohead, Claude Vivier, Dirty Projectors and many, many more. There are so many reasons to enjoy and support occasions like these, so let me encourage you to visit the Filthy Lucre 3 Kickstarter page, read the extensive information about what’s going to take place (the prospect of soprano Juliet Fraser performing Vivier’s Bouchara ought to be enough to ignite anyone’s enthusiasm), and then make a generous donation to help it become a reality. They’re over halfway to their target of £2,500 and there’s just 11 days to go. i, for one, would love to see this happen.

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