Ireland

Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden III

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It all began with a trilogy. This was back in 2005 when, over the course of three successive years Irish musical entity Fovea Hex (singer Clodagh Simonds, together with a changing rostrum of collaborators) put out the trio of EPs – Bloom, Huge and Allure – that would become collectively known as Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. An album in all but name, each part of the trilogy was accompanied by an additional disc where the music had been extensively remixed by The Hafler Trio. Following this there was a four-year wait until their only actual album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, was released in 2011, again with an accompanying disc of remixes (titled Three Beams) by Michael Begg, Colin Potter and William Basinski. After which a further five years would pass before their most recent, even more slow-to-emerge, trilogy The Salt Garden, the third and final part of which has recently – finally! – been released.

It’s worth taking a moment just to reflect on two significant aspects of all this. First is the group’s disinterest (for the most part) in more conventional contemporary release practices. i described Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent as an album in all but name, yet at a risk of contradicting myself the fact is that it wasn’t, and isn’t, an album, but – to borrow a phrase from The Hafler Trio – a ‘trilogy in three parts’. There’s something rather old-school about it, not unlike like the main practice during the 1990s in which, due to the popularity of the relatively new CD medium, instead of releasing bog standard singles, artists would instead put out dual maxi-singles, one disc of which typically featured three or four songs, the other disc a collection of remixes. Taken together, the two discs would often last as long (if not longer) than an album, and being able to spend time with a cluster of songs that were then reworked was always an enormously enjoyable listening experience. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 2)

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The one opportunity to hear music for full orchestra at this year’s World Music Days took place on Friday evening at the Estonia Concert Hall, performed by the Estonian National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Olari Elts. The Estonian Music Days’ tradition of recent years has been to begin the Friday orchestral concert with the presentation of the Au-tasu award, given to the work by an Estonian composer premièred during the previous year deemed by a jury to be the best. In its 2016 inaugural year, one of the younger generation, Liisa Hirsch, took the prize, but since then the award seems to have become simply a celebration of Estonia’s most well-established senior composers: Toivo Tulev in 2017, Erkki-Sven Tüür in 2018, with this year’s winner being Helena Tulve. i’m not at all suggesting the compositions that won were not the best in that particular year, but it nonetheless seems a little troubling to see the award so quickly gravitate to the upper echelons of Estonian contemporary music. Arvo Pärt in 2020? That being said, though it didn’t win, special mention was given to a work that, to my mind, wasn’t only one of the best of last year but one of the best i’ve heard in the four years i’ve been attending the festival: Conatus by Liina Sumera. It’s a work i raved about it at its première last year, and while i haven’t yet heard all of the works shortlisted for this year’s award, it would have been entirely fitting if Sumera’s dazzling electronic work had taken the prize. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 1)

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At the northernmost edge of Tallinn, looking out over the Baltic Sea towards Finland, is a huge concrete edifice called the Linnahall. Built during the Soviet occupation, it was constructed as part of the USSR’s hosting of the 1980 Olympic Games, as a coastal hub for the boating events. It’s a place i’ve gone to visit each time i’ve been in Tallinn during the last four years, to savour, and marvel at, its complete incongruity. Of course, Tallinn has the usual complement of modern office blocks, skyscrapers and the like, the scale and sharp edges of which are themselves at some remove from the more modest sizes and gentler inclines of the Old Town and the remains of its surrounding wall. But the Linnahall is different: it’s the personality, if you will, of the architecture that feels so completely alien: massive, brutalist, sprawling and immovable, a testament to human engineering, designed to make an enormous impact. It is, in every sense of the word, imposing. And everything about that, it seems to me, is at odds with the temperament of so much Estonian contemporary music, where the tone is more nuanced and focused, emphasising such things as contemplation and perhaps smallness, informed by the natural world, organicity and intuitive creativity, open to more than just what we immediately see and sense, less about making a big impact or impression than just unassumingly being one. The Linnahall is Tallinn’s ‘other’: as congruous to the city as an astronaut’s footprint on the surface of the moon.

This year, in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the country’s annual Estonian Music Days, the festival hosted the ISCM World Music Days, and even before setting off for Estonia i wondered if the bringing together of these two very different festivals would result in a similar kind of incongruity. Would it be EMD slash WMD, adjacent to each other; EMD and WMD, happening together but separate entities; EMD within WMD, one embedded in the other; or even EMD versus WMD? In previous years as i’ve tentatively begun to know better the thought and practice underpinning Estonian contemporary music, i’ve been (and continue to be) fascinated at its relationship with the rest of the musical world. Such as it is: i think it’s fair to say, putting it mildly, that the relationship is a complex one; i’ve detected varying quantities of disinterest and/or bemusement, and occasionally even hostility, toward what goes on beyond the country’s borders. So the effect of the collision of these two particular festivals was always going to be extremely interesting. Read more

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Gráinne Mulvey/Christopher Fox – Aeolus/untouch, John Wiggins – The Listened To Sound, Lee Fraser – Cor Unvers

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A new EP out on the Metier label brings together two works that each exist in an interesting relationship to real sounds. Irish composer Gráinne Mulvey‘s Aeolus, as the title suggests, takes its inspiration from the eponymous king of the island of Aeolia, names better known to us today via the Aeolian harp and its associated mode. Her piece is an acousmatic exploration of material rooted quite obviously in field recordings, though subjected to considerable amounts of processing and sculpting. Throughout, there’s a strong sense that the work is, if not about, then deeply informed by the idea of sound as the result of wind and air friction. The piece begins with, and from time to time returns to, the ambiance of the open air, to the soft accompaniment of birdsong, and Mulvey’s subsequent treatment of sounds transforms them into sheets of shimmer, or as if being propelled through tubes or tunnels, or even heard only by their reverberation, making identification difficult. There’s a lovely intimate tactility in this, made more fascinating by the hands-off nature of these transformed sounds, seemingly all the product of no direct physical contact. At various points there are distinct aural similarities to The Hafler Trio (particularly Intoutof), but for the most part Mulvey avoids the clichés of acousmatic music, producing something far more abstract, yet in which its points of origin remain (just about) tangible.

The other work on the disc, Christopher Fox‘s untouch, is the first of a two-part work (untouch—touch) for solo percussion. While the second part involves the soloist striking Thai gongs, untouch reconfigures their actions to the triggering of sine tones. There’s something genuinely uncanny about this abstraction (surely enhanced by seeing it in performance) both in the nature of the tone’s timbre – which doesn’t bear any meaningful similarity to gongs yet knowing about the second part continually brings them to mind – as well as their unfolding over time, begging the question of whether their continuity and the patterns that briefly emerge are arbitrary or closely-controlled. An intriguing, unconventional pair of works. Read more

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Free internet music: Press Charges

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There’s so much i could write about in this series looking at free internet music, that i think it’ll be something i’ll have to return to regularly from now on. For the time being, though, i’m ending this series with an album that’s one of the most imaginative and effective reworkings of existing material that i’ve ever heard. It’s by Irish musician Dunk Murphy of whom, it must be said, i’ve seriously wondered over the last few years if he can do no wrong. He’s the creative force behind the project Sunken Foal, whose three Friday Syndrome volumes (released in 2012, 2013 and 2015) are all absolutely stunning demonstrations of his unique experimental approach to blending acoustic and electronic sounds into something that, stylistically speaking, is very hard to describe, but if we were to call it electronica then that wouldn’t be entirely untruthful.

In between volumes 2 and 3, in 2014 came Press Charges, which appears to be a one-off project, but on its strengths one hopes it’s something Dunk Murphy will return to in the future. Murphy has taken a dozen songs by Smokey Robinson – either more recent solo tracks or older numbers recorded with The Miracles – and used just the vocal line, around which he has created an entirely new musical context. It’s worth stressing that knowledge of the originals is not in any way vital to enjoying this album in its own right; far from it, as one would expect from Murphy they’re a sublimely enjoyable collection of punchy, soul-infused tracks that strike a perfect balance between the edginess of their beat and bass patterns with the overtly lyrical streaks running throughout each song. However, spending time with the originals goes a long way to highlighting just how ingenious are Murphy’s reworkings, which in every case bears almost no resemblance to the original arrangement, yet manage to stay utterly true to the song’s underlying lyrical tone. Read more

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Fovea Hex – The Salt Garden II

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It’s high time i flagged up one of the standout new releases i’ve been spending time with over the summer. Whenever Irish experimental electronic folk group Fovea Hex put out something new, it’s not just a cause to rejoice but a guarantee of something unique and indescribably wonderful. They’ve been around for 12 years now, though their attitude to releases during this time has been measured and meticulous: just one album has emerged so far, Here Is Where We Used To Sing (reviewed here, and one of my Best Albums of 2011) and a collection of EPs and singles.

The earliest of these EPs, painstakingly drip-fed over an 18-month period from late 2005 to mid-2007, formed the Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent trilogy, comprising Bloom, Huge and Allure. The tenth anniversary of this trilogy’s release in a gorgeous limited edition box set, supplemented with three bonus discs containing reworkings of the material by The Hafler Trio, was just last month. Before getting to their new music, i should say something about this trilogy, as it ranks among the most genuinely astounding, epiphanic music i’ve ever encountered. Had 5:4 existed in 2007, i would have bent the rules and made it my album of the year. In describing them as ‘experimental electronic folk’, i’m perhaps obviously struggling to articulate where exactly Fovea Hex most comfortably fit. Folk is surely the group’s most defining feature – spearheaded by the unaffected natural beauty of Clodagh Simonds’ voice – yet the complexity of the soundworlds that are woven around her voice encompass experimental electronics, field recordings and ambient music (Brian Eno, Robert Fripp and Colin Potter were among those involved in the trilogy’s creation). Where the ’60s expanded folk music into ‘electric folk‘, Fovea Hex exploded it into ‘electronic folk’, and on Bloom, Huge and Allure, this found expression in a sequence of songs and interludes that, ten years on, continue to resonate with sheer authenticity, laden with echoes of the past while its entire demeanour is ultra-modern, with infinite sonic scope. Though long sold out, the trilogy is available via Bandcamp, and while this lacks the dazzling additional Hafler Trio meditations – the last of which lasts an entire hour – it nonetheless stands as one of the most significant and radical musical landmarks of the 2000s. Read more

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Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

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They may start to behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, both for themselves and those around them. For example, they may:

  • become restless or agitated
  • shout out or scream
  • become suspicious of others
  • follow someone around
  • ask the same question repeatedly.

It is important to look at why the person is behaving this way and try to identify which needs are not being met. This will mean trying to see things from their perspective as much as possible. Meeting a person’s needs appropriately can make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.

The above words are paraphrased from guidelines on how to respond to someone grappling with the effects of dementia. They’re a useful starting point, i think for considering the output of Gerald Barry, particularly his most recent offering, Canada, premièred at the Proms last Monday. For while Barry himself may not display the signs of this affliction (though, listening to his painfully weird pre-concert interview with Louise Fryer, one wonders), his music most certainly does. It’s perhaps the archetypal ‘Marmite music’: you either think it’s the best thing since – and the perfect accompaniment to – sliced bread, or a ghastly streak of shit-coloured malevolence that you wish with all your being had never come into existence. Read more

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St Peter’s Church, Drogheda: James Dillon – The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (World Première)

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It shames me to admit that, until February this year, i’d never heard of Louth Contemporary Music Society. On the one hand, it’s ridiculous that i hadn’t: for the last seven-or-so years they’ve been putting on fascinating concerts featuring music by, among many others, Terry Riley, György Kurtág, John Zorn, David Lang, Sofia Gubaidulina, Michael Pisaro, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Tan Dun, Alvin Lucier and Éliane Radigue, performed by the likes of Musicircus, Kronos Quartet, Carducci Quartet, Ian Pace, Trio Mediaeval, Garth Knox and the Hilliard Ensemble, as well as several of the aforementioned composers themselves. Not being aware of such fantastical goings-on seems entirely absurd. Yet on the other hand, not only is pretty much everyone i’ve spoken to about them in the last few months equally unaware of these concerts, i’ve not encountered any promotion or discussion about them in the usual new music places. Perhaps the shame lies elsewhere. Either way, it’s time to shout out loudly about what’s really going on on the east coast of Ireland, and it’s largely thanks to the tirelessly enthusiastic one-man-bandery of Eamonn Quinn, co-founder and curator of LCMS, whose efforts have at last been celebrated with his being awarded the 2018 Belmont Prize for Contemporary Music (Alex Ross won the prize in 2012), a belated but very richly deserved acknowledgement of Quinn’s exceptionally open-minded and energetic approach to concert curation. Read more

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Linda Buckley – chiyo (UK Première)

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We’re back in Ireland for the next in my Lent Series devoted to music by women composers. Linda Buckley comes from the wonderfully-named Old Head of Kinsale, in County Cork. Her studies have centred around Trinity College Dublin, where she completed her Ph.D. and now lectures. Buckley composes intrumental and electronic music, which appear to be characterised by what i can only describe as a kind of intense radiance, incorporating an overt triadic impulse and also strong tendencies toward the microtonal. Put simply, she makes the pitch domain shine in a way that both comforts and blanches, a quality that permeates her sumptuous 2011 orchestral work chiyo. Read more

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Jennifer Walshe: Detleva Verens – Scintillia

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As it’s St Patrick’s Day, who better to feature next in my Lent Series than one of the most brilliant voices in Irish contemporary music, Jennifer Walshe. In appraising Walshe’s work, it’s impressive enough to consider just the seemingly boundless intricacies of her imagination. Famously, Walshe has fabricated the existence of a group of composers under the umbrella collective Grúpat, each with their own very extensive back-stories and discrete artistic personalities. Many of Walshe’s compositions are attributed to these Grúpat figures, pseudepigrapha that demonstrate her remarkable breadth of compositional interest. But equal to this imaginative power is Walshe’s virtuosity as a vocal performer; it’s not always clear what on earth is coming out of her mouth (or indeed why), but such questions are hard to formulate when one’s grappling with her incredible dexterity and stamina, both of which have practically become the stuff of legend. Read more

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première) & Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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Proms 2012: Elaine Agnew – Dark Hedges (World Première)

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Yesterday afternoon’s Prom brought the first performance of Dark Hedges, by the Northern Irish composer Elaine Agnew. It was given by the combined forces of the Ulster Youth Orchestra of Northern Island and the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by JoAnna Falletta, with a solo flute part played by housewives’ favourite, James Galway. Before speaking of the piece itself, it’s worth highlighting the performance, which demonstrated in startlingly vivid fashion the skill and musicianship that young players bring to new music; their playing throughout was deeply impressive. Read more

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Mind-bogglingly beautiful: Fovea Hex – Here Is Where We Used To Sing

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Clodagh Simonds likes to take her time. Following an early spell of musical incandescence in the late ’60s and early ’70s (in her own group, the fascinating prog folk outfit Mellow Candle), the Irish singer was content to hover in the fringes for three and half decades before taking centre stage again in 2005. But even then, her return was a gradual one; in a new guise, Fovea Hex, Simonds took a further three years to unveil a one-hour cycle of music, titled Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent. But what music it was! the nine tracks—released as three EPs: Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007)—did nothing less than reinvent from the bottom up the notions of what song is and can be. This was no irreverant act of avant-garde ruthlessness, however; Simonds’ folk leanings (and they are only leanings; she has repeatedly stated that she neither thinks of herself as a folk singer, nor does she feel part of a tradition)—despite their proximity in an apparently alien context—were loudly and proudly proclaimed seemingly at every moment. It was, in short, an almost incredible blending of ancient and modern ideas, an enterprise made all the more successful and telling by the contributions of such figures as Brian Eno, Colin Potter, Carter Burwell and The Hafler Trio‘s Andrew M. McKenzie, who also mesmerisingly reworked each EP for an accompanying CD series.

That choice of title, Neither Speak Nor Remain Silent, could not have been chosen more wisely; it encapsulates perfectly the paradox confronting the listener in Fovea Hex’s music. On the one hand, as already stated, the folk elements are emphatically foregrounded, and folk music is at its heart communal music, not to be sat back and listened to, thought about and critiqued; on the contrary, it invites our participation, we are compelled to join in, to speak. Yet equally emphatic is a profound sense of ritual—not exactly a religious sense, it’s more diffuse and unfocused than that, but nonetheless a potent, perhaps pagan forcefulness that invokes a rather different kind of response. Rituals are communal acts too, of course, but participation here has more ebb and flow; at times, whether by rubrics or by our inner sense of the numinous, we are compelled to be silent. This unique, magical paradox has returned in dazzling fashion on Fovea Hex’s new album, Here Is Where We Used To Sing, released last month. Read more

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