Iceland

Summartónar 2019 (Part 2)

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As i previously remarked, one of the most (and one of the only) disappointing things about my first experience of the Faroe Islands’ Summartónar festival was the almost complete lack of music by Faroese composers. The inclusion of Kristian Blak – artistic director of the festival – mitigated that to an extent, and of course i’m conscious of the fact i only attended six says out of more than 90, but i nonetheless came away with a limited sense of what contemporary music in the Faroe Islands is like. During my time there, the emphasis was on an initiative called North Cultitude 6263; begun last year, it seeks to bring together cultural activities from the countries located at the latitudes of 62-63 degrees. The initiative is not simply about showcasing each other’s work, but also to foster collaboration: Ensemble 6263 is a newly-formed group who, performing for the first time at this year’s festival, included players from Greenland, Iceland, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Russia. The plan is to expand this further until all countries around the world at these latitudes are included.

Some of these performers came from the Icelandic ensemble Caput, who gave a concert of their own in Tórshavn’s Nordic House, a much larger and more lavish counterpart to the one in Reykjavik. i’d been highly impressed by Caput when hearing them in action at the Dark Music Days in January, and while their concert on this occasion was a somewhat more relaxed affair (a free lunchtime event), if anything it proved to be even more involving. This was largely due to the choice of repertoire, Caput bringing together a collection of works that all had a tendency to move slowly and meditatively. To this end, the concert was dedicated to three figures who have died in recent times: flautist Manuela Wiesler, and two Icelandic composers whose music book-ended the occasion and brought to it an intense solemnity. Þorkell Sigurbjörnsson‘s Kveðja, which opened the concert, featured episodes of freedom on flute and viola, flying gently out from a steady rhythmic grounding in the harp. It sounded akin to a processional, but one looking steadfastly up at the sky rather than down at the ground. Read more

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Proms 2019: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – Metacosmos (UK Première)

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Performed last Monday by an orchestra combining students from the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, conducted by Edward Gardner, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Metacosmos is a work i know quite well. Anna and i discussed it at length during our Dialogue together, and i explored the piece further following its first performance in Iceland during the Dark Music Days earlier this year. As i’ve noted on both those previous occasions, the work is somewhat different from most of the rest of her output due to its construction. Instead of opting for her usual kind of convoluted, unpredictable structure, Metacosmos is a complex but recognisable binary diptych, its latter section a refashioned – both shortened and lengthened – version of its former. The two sections are each set in motion via loud accents and a deep drone E, culminating some time later in a B-flat chord after which a melancholic melody emerges (in C-sharp minor the first time and B-flat minor the second time). That kind of structure is interesting in her work for all sorts of reasons, particularly when considering the inspiration for Metacosmos is to do with being “drawn into a force that is way bigger than yourself”, Anna citing the ultimate example of this as a black hole. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released. Read more

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The Dialogues: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir

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i’m excited to present a new instalment in my series The Dialogues. On this occasion, i’m in conversation with Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, whose music has become increasingly well-known in recent years. In the UK, her work has started to appear with more frequency on concert programmes, and there’s a chance to hear her most recent orchestral work, METACOSMOS, at the Proms over the summer (and a CD including the piece will be coming out around the same time). While her reputation is growing, detailed explorations and studies of her work are pretty scarce, so our Dialogue will, i hope, substantially increase understanding of Anna’s musical outlook, intentions and methods.

We met at her home at the end of November last year, and i want to express my appreciation to Anna, her husband Hrafn, and to their beautiful cat Mosi (who sharp-eared listeners will briefly hear at one point) for their generous time and hospitality. i’m also very grateful to Sam Wilcock at Music Sales for festooning me with assorted scores and recordings to help with my research and preparation for the Dialogue. For more information about Anna’s music, check out her website, she also has a YouTube channel featuring a number of pieces, and there’s plenty available on Spotify.

As in all the Dialogues, i’ve included numerous excerpts of Anna’s music throughout to illustrate and elaborate upon the various topics of our discussion. A list of these excerpts, and the times when they occur, can be found below, together with links to buy the music. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the below link or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir – In Praise of Darkness (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

One of the things i particularly enjoy when listening is the sense of not knowing where i am, uncertain of what exactly the music is doing or where it’s going: of being kept, for a time at least, in the dark. It’s this kind of ‘darkness’ that i think typifies the orchestral piece In Praise of Darkness, by Icelandic composer Kristin Þóra Haraldsdóttir.

Much of the work’s first half exhibits an interesting ambivalence, caught between impulses towards reticence and confidence. The latter can be heard both in a repeated-note idea that appears near the beginning, starting in low flutes and migrating through the winds, but most strongly in loud, deep notes intoned by the brass. The former manifests in a more global sense of caution that pervades the whole orchestra, in which sounds feel placed with fastidious consideration and care, and where no particular idea has sufficient impetus to cause a catalytic effect. As a consequence, details emerge and dissipate, and everything seems to be hanging in space with the range of movement of a mobile. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Caput Ensemble; Nordic Affect & Maja S K Ratkje

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Last Friday evening at the Dark Music Days we were back within Harpa’s Kaldalón hall (the cube-shaped space of which was disconcertingly impressive every time i entered it) for a concert given by a group new to me, Caput Ensemble, directed by Guðni Franzson. Having been bemused the previous day at hearing a collection of Icelandic orchestral works that were, in general, characterised more by their similarities than by their individuality, it was a relief to hear four new Icelandic ensemble pieces that could hardly have been more different from each other, in terms of both inspiration and execution. Furthermore, attention was turned away from the theme of nature that had governed the orchestral works, in favour of a more direct engagement and scrutiny of sound itself.

In the case of Rounds (being heard for the first time in a revised version) by one of Iceland’s most renowned composers Haukur Tómasson, the notion of the envelope – the way a sound begins, develops and ends – was being explored. It posed the question of, within this group context, what constituted a ‘sound’, which Haukur’s music suggested was not about individual instruments but the product of many combining to form communal sonic entities. This was initially reinforced by having each one of these entities conclude with a loud pizzicato accent like an unequivocal full stop, followed by a pause. As the piece developed it posed the additional question of what makes a sound into an idea – and indeed whether a sound can itself be an idea. This was provoked by the highly gestural nature of the material, forming something like swatches of sharply-defined patterned fabric that, over time, Haukur arranged into a patchwork, such that the joins were often sudden but clearly part of a bigger overall design. Though a touch superficial, Rounds was certainly enjoyable while it lasted. Gunnar A. Kristinsson‘s Rætur [roots], a world première, took inspiration from that most elemental of things, the overtones of the harmonic series, explored in three movements, each of which upped the microtonal ante. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Iceland Symphony Orchestra; Yrkja

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Judging from the way it’s usually discussed, you’d be forgiven for thinking that – overwhelmingly inspired by the country’s uniquely dramatic combination of earth, water, ice and fire – Icelandic music was all about, and only about, nature. It’s therefore interesting, in hindsight, to note that it wasn’t until the sixth day of the Dark Music Days that the subject of nature even crossed my mind. However, when it finally did, last Thursday evening at the concert given by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Daníel Bjarnason, it didn’t merely cross my mind but practically filled it to capacity. Hitherto, my impression of Icelandic contemporary music, irrespective of my opinion about individual pieces, was one of variety, music characterised by diversity and difference. Whereas now, sitting in Harpa’s large Eldborg Hall, hearing five substantial Icelandic orchestral works, i was staggered by their similarities. Textures, textures everywhere.

The archetype for this use of texture was demonstrated with considerable subtlety in Lendh by Canada-born, Iceland-based composer and cellist Veronique Vaka, the first of three world premières in the concert. Her programme note was all about nature, concerned with the sensory impressions of landscape, inspired particularly by the geothermal area at Krýsuvík (in south-west Iceland). In general – the primary aspect of this archetype – perception of the overall mass effect was of much greater importance than individual actions. Thus the orchestra articulated a network of shifting textures punctuated regularly by swells, as if something were churning and bubbling in the music’s depths. This led to the sensation that the orchestra was an organism slowly breathing, ripples running across its surface with such variety of colour and shape and detail it brought to mind (to switch metaphors) the changes in pigmentation on the skin of a chameleon. Music that focuses exclusively on large-scale textural impressions like this can often become drab and unfocused, yet Vaka instilled in Lendh a real sense of pent-up power and potential: its ‘climaxes’ were barely larger than the swells that had preceded them but packed almost the same weight as a full-on tutti due to the palpable implication of what they could unleash if they really wanted to. A striking and lovely piece.

The same couldn’t be said for María Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir‘s Oceans, also a world première, the ideas of which could have been lifted straight out of a movie. The title of the work – which the composer claims “came early in the process” but just before the festival was still being listed as ‘new work’, so perhaps was more of an afterthought – seemed arbitrary, entirely unrelated to what was essentially a tired exercise in basic, reheated filmic tropes. This was texture at its most ineffectual and clichéd, and while Oceans had its moments – including one where in the midst of a climax the harmony became complicated and briefly clustered – it otherwise lacked any significant memorable ideas. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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One of the plagues that continues to afflict most contemporary music festivals is ‘première-itis’, an acute obsession with presenting loudly-trumpeted world premières at the expense of providing opportunities for second, third or indeed nth performances. It was a relief, therefore, that this year’s Dark Music Days (which was otherwise similarly infected) included a number of concerts ​with virtually no premières at all, the first of which was a recital given last Thursday by UK cellist Zoë Martlew.

The concert took place in the imposing cuboid space of Kaldalón Hall, part of Reykjavík’s flagship concert hall complex Harpa, with a programme focusing on Danish and Norwegian music. However, it was a piece by English (Denmark-based) composer Juliana Hodkinson that turned out to be the most flamboyantly memorable, though not primarily for musical reasons. Titled Scrape, it lives up to its name by stipulating that the cellist should scrape heavily not just their instrument but also against a piece of metal, which Martlew had realised with a cheese grater tied to her right foot. The first attempt to perform the piece ended after just a few seconds when Martlew’s bow was spectacularly shredded, its horsehair loosely flapping around; it was hard to tell whether this was a direct consequence of its grinding against the strings or just a coincidence. The second attempt, Martlew having dashed off-stage for a replacement, was more successful inasmuch as the bow held together, although the cheese grater was now doing its best to rebel against Martlew’s actions, turning at 90° to her foot, thereby making it difficult to control. Whether all of this effort was worth it is a good question. Scrape could (charitably) be described as a celebration of the essence of music-making, of the friction essential to the production of all sound, though the way its relentlessly screeching soundworld soon lost much of its impact and power plus the lack of a cogent shape or structure made the piece an exceedingly dull experience. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Schola Cantorum, Kúbus

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The most taxing challenge facing Reykjavík on Sunday was not, surprisingly, the -9°C temperatures permeating the city that day, but the evening chamber recital at the Fríkirkjan given by the group Kúbus. The day before, Georg Friedrich Haas had made 70 minutes feel like less than half of that; on this occasion, Kolbeinn Bjarnason made 30 minutes feel like 1,000. It was bad enough that he chose (possibly in an attempt at humour, but who can tell?) to preface his Musik der Unzeitlichkeit II with a 5-minute all-Icelandic spiel that appeared to be an anal-retentive description of each of the work’s sections – immediately followed by a two-sentence English version decrying how unnecessary the preceding spiel had been. LOL? Even worse that he saw fit to keep punctuating the piece with witless theatrics involving metronomes placed within glass recepticles that were then filled with water – one of which agonisingly took several minutes to complete. By comparison, the fact that the rest of the music consisted of the most generic and cliché-ridden gestures and ideas that one has heard a million times before felt only mildly irritating, but the sum total of the work was one of the most infuriatingly stupid, cheap, pretentious, pointless and creatively vacuous musical experiences to which I’ve ever been subjected. Read more

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Daníel Bjarnason – Collider

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This week i’ll be exploring four new albums of contemporary orchestral music that i’ve recently been spending time with, the first of which turned out to be a surprisingly big disappointment. Last year i was very impressed by Recurrence, a disc put out by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra, mainly due to its inclusion of a three-movement work by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason titled Emergence. On the considerable strength of that piece, i’d been looking forward to Bjarnason’s latest album of music, Collider, released on Bedroom Community a little over a month ago. A digital-only release, it features three works: Blow Bright and Collider, both orchestral, plus a small-scale setting of lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest for youth choir and orchestra, The Isle Is Full Of Noises.

While none of the pieces are very good, it’s unfortunate that the album is named after the worst of them. At 15 minutes’ duration, Collider has plenty going on in it, and if you’re willing and/or able to engage with it on a purely superficial level then there’s possibly some enjoyment to be had. But beneath the surface, there’s essentially nothing of any substance to be found. This is, to put it bluntly, painting-by-numbers orchestral writing: a bit of generic brooding here, a bit of scattershot textural mayhem there, unfocused blather that Bjarnason tries to make meaningful through minimalistic outbursts (faux-excitement) and saccharine, filmic lyricism (faux-emotion). Writing music that’s as boringly over-familiar and formulaic as this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it all feels so deliberately manipulative. Yawn/yuck. Read more

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Björk – Crave (Odd Duck Mix); Hearts & Bones; Undone

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In my most recent mixtape, exploring the noble art of the remix, i included a track by Björk – ‘Crave (Odd Duck Mix)’ – that i mentioned had been made available as a download back in 2001, but which was no longer available. There were in fact four tracks that Björk released as downloads at that time, and since three of them have been unavailable for over a decade, i thought it would be interesting to revisit them.

It’s worth saying at the outset that throughout her career Björk has been more responsible than most musicians for cultivating an extensive catalogue of remixes of her songs. i began collecting her work in 1993, the year she began her solo career (having left the Sugarcubes), and each successive single felt like a substantial release, usually coming in the form of two or sometimes three CDs (later including videotapes or DVDs) containing a mixture of additional songs and remixes of the title track. The number of these remixes was at times considerable – one of her earliest singles, ‘Big Time Sensuality’ (1993), had as many as seven – but beyond this, these singles would also frequently include new renditions of other songs: ‘Violently Happy’ (1994) had acoustic versions of ‘Anchor Song’, ‘Come To Me’ and ‘Human Behaviour’, ‘Isobel’ (1995) featured a harpsichord version of ‘Venus as a Boy’, while ‘It’s Oh So Quiet’ (1995) – one of Björk’s only singles never to have been remixed – included three versions of ‘Hyperballad’, a song that wouldn’t be released as a single until the following year.

Björk’s predilection for remixes has remained consistent, reaching a peak during the late 1990s (the Homogenic period) when ‘Bachelorette’ (1997) and ‘Alarm Call’ (1998) were treated to ten remixes each. More recently, 2011’s Biophilia was supplemented with a series of eight singles collectively titled Biophilia Remixes containing a total of 17 remixes, and while there are far fewer of them, a handful of remixes have been released to accompany her last two singles taken from Utopia (2017), ‘Blissing Me’ and ‘Arisen My Senses’. Furthermore, in addition to singles Björk has also regularly released anthologies of remixes, including The Best Mixes from the Album Debut for All the People Who Don’t Buy White Labels (1994), Telegram (1996), Voltaïc (2009) and Bastards (2012). Remixes are clearly a logical extension of the restless imagination and urge to collaborate that drive Björk’s creativity. Read more

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In memoriam Jóhann Jóhannsson

Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations | 3 Comments

First encounters can be unforgettable. Mine was in 2006, and it was the result of an entirely random purchase of an entirely random imported music magazine (German, i think) that contained a disc featuring a cluster of forgettable audio trifles plus a music video. When i hit play on that video, time suddenly started to slow down, and i became transfixed and deeply moved by the enormity of the music’s unusual mix of melancholy and beauty. The music was ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim and the Sky’s Turned Black’, by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose sudden death has been reported in the last few hours. He was just 48.

i can’t claim to be an expert in Jóhannsson’s music. i love IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, the album of which ‘The Sun’s Gone Dim’ is the stunning final track, and i know a smattering of his other solo works. Being a movie addict, i’m also fond of the film scores of his that i’ve encountered thus far – particularly Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – though as i still haven’t yet seen Sicario and Prisoners there remains much for me to explore. i’m certainly not going to miss The Mercy, which has just been released in the UK and has a Jóhannsson score, and there’s a couple more films still to come that feature his work.

Even though there’s a great deal of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music that i have yet to encounter, all i’ve heard thus far has testified to a composer with a unique sensitivity, capable in both his studio work and film scores of creating the most nuanced and above all human music, never contrived or ordinary, with an immediacy that i find genuinely uncanny. From the heart to the heart, indeed. i was reflecting on Jóhannsson last autumn, specifically how he had been replaced in Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049, which i think was unfortunate – i would have loved to have seen that movie with a Jóhannsson score (it would certainly have been far more inventive than Hans Zimmer’s ersatz Vangelis knock-off) – as well as the mutual decision by both Jóhannsson and Darren Aronofsky to refrain from creating a score for Aronofsky’s mother!. Considering that mother! turned out to be one of the most brilliant films not just of 2017, but ever, i was deeply impressed by a composer who recognised that there’s a time not to make music, that sometimes what’s needed is just the gentlest whiff of something that may not even be recognised as deliberate sound, which can speak with infinitely greater force and authenticity.

In so many ways Jóhann Jóhannsson has impressed me since that unexpected first encounter nearly 11 years ago. i’m shocked and very sad indeed that he’s no longer with us, but i’m determined to make sure that i now get on with listening to everything else that he made while he was with us. i’ve no doubt there’ll be many more wonderful encounters to come. Rest in peace, Jóhann.


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Þráinn Hjálmarsson – As heard across a room (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 1 Comment

Today is Þjóðhátíðardagurinn, Iceland’s national day, celebrating their independence from Denmark and founding as a republic in 1944. Quite apart from Iceland being one of my favourite countries, its contribution to contemporary music (as seen in my recent Nordic CD review) is a challenging and imaginative one. A very good example of this can be heard in Þráinn Hjálmarsson‘s orchestral work As heard across a room, composed in 2014. That simple, descriptive title immediately brings to mind another, Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting in a room, though while Lucier’s piece grapples with the literal effects of aural reality, Hjálmarsson is exploring them from a somewhat more figurative perspective.

Despite appearances, it would be over-simplistic to summarise the piece as being textural. This would place the emphasis and focus of one’s attention on the generalised, nebulous quality of the music. And there’s certainly a great deal of this, Hjálmarsson establishing a soundworld so indistinct – full of strange, distant rustlings; lots of activity but all of it indefinite and blurred – that it would be easy to hear it as ‘non-music’, a candid outtake in which the orchestra were absent-mindedly toying with their instruments. For a couple of minutes, it seems as though this is all that there is, creating an interesting illusion where, despite the granular, gritty nature of this soundworld, it’s sufficiently slippery that one’s ear slides straight off it. This is paradox music: like trying to make out the structure of a void. Read more

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Davíð Brynjar Franzson – on Matter and Materiality (World Première)

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Without wishing to appear too biased towards the cello, the next concerto in my Lent series is another work that features that instrument at its epicentre. A few months back, i was enthusing about Davíð Brynjar Franzson‘s radical treatment of the piano; in his new work on Matter and Materiality, he puts the cello into an equally radical but altogether more gruelling context.

If the soloist can be described as not doing much, it’s certainly not for want of trying. It sounds as though Franzson has detuned the C-string down to a bottom D (a similar effect to that in Rebecca Saunders’ Solitude), and this note becomes the unwitting nadir of the cello’s repeated failed attempts to haul itself up or out or along. These attempts are expressed in a dogged series of grinding swells (orchestral colours can be barely glimpsed within them); ostensibly tinged with aggression, the instability of the cello’s timbre coats its pitch with spasmodic harmonics and overtones, exposing it as utmost fragile, all throbs and palpitations, music in dire need of defibrillation. Heavy bow pressure, far from obtaining some kind of solidity (or, considering the title, ‘materiality’), only undermines this fundamental further, causing it to waver and distort. Read more

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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 5 Comments

It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerial, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aeriality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths and fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – æquilibria (UK Première)

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i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more

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Proms 2014: Haukur Tómasson – Magma; Jukka Tiensuu – Voice verser (UK Premières)

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Nothing remotely ordinary, it often seems, can come from Scandinavia. This notion was emphatically corroborated at the Proms in the recent pair of UK premières from Iceland’s Haukur Tómasson and Finland’s Jukka Tiensuu. i can’t help wondering whether they succeeded as strongly as they did in part for essentially the same reason, namely that they each embody a remarkable immediacy, even a simplicity. That’s not to say that these are simple pieces—they couldn’t be much farther from it—but there’s an overwhelmingly apparent sense of directness from both composers such that, put crudely, what you hear is precisely what you get. Read more

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Björk – The Breezeblock & Mixing It Specials

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It’s more than a little staggering to realise that today is the 45th birthday of one Björk Guðmundsdóttir, an artist i’ve followed for the entirety of her solo career and continue to admire very much (one day, i hope to explore her complete output here—when i have a couple of spare months to devote to it, that is…); to mark the occasion, two special items from the 5:4 archive.

First is my complete recording of Mary Anne Hobbs’ Breezeblock Special, devoted to Björk, broadcast on 26 October 2004. Björk’s one-hour mix—in which every song is introduced at length by Björk herself—is wonderfully diverse, and a fascinating insight into the kind of music she finds inspirational, unsurprisingly including a number of artists with whom she’s been associated: Matmos are represented by ‘Regicide’, by no means their greatest track, while 808 State‘s ‘Cübik’ may well be their finest hour (although it’s not aging well).

Kukl, the ’80s band in which Björk was vocalist, is described by Wikipedia as an ‘anarcho-punk’ group, but if ‘Dismembered’ is typical of their music, it’s much too tame for an epithet like that; regardless, it’s pretty enjoyable stuff, the seed of what would become The Sugarcubes (conspicuously absent from the programme). and there’s plenty of Björk’s solo music too; the glorious ‘Hyperballad’ (her most remixed song) opens the programme, and there are two tracks from her superlative album Medúlla, released a couple of months earlier that year, performed live at Maida Vale; they’re remarkable versions of the songs—an Inuit choir, a bell orchestra and a throat singer are all involved—and while ‘Who Is It?’ was included on one of the CD singles of that song, as far as i know ‘The Pleasure Is All Mine’ has not yet found its way onto an official release.

For the rest, despite the presence of one or two distinctly damp squibs (Kid 606‘s ‘Sugarcoated’ is a definite “must try harder” effort, and DAF‘s ‘Sato Sato’ quickly palls), the programme is an enthralling listen, and goes a long way to elaborate the more unconventional sounds and textures that have become ubiquitous in Björk’s output from Vespertine onwards. Read more

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