Jakob Ullmann

Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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

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

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

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

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

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HCMF 2015: Konus Quartett, Daniel Buess & Aleksander Gabryś, Ensemble CEPROMUSIC, Jakob Ullmann

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

A feature of many of this year’s HCMF concerts has been a blurring of the distinction between pitch and noise, but the midday recital given by Swiss saxophone group Konus Quartett tilted the focus firmly back on pitch. Both works, Jürg Frey‘s Mémoire, horizon and Chiyoko SzlavnicsDuring a Lifetime (each being heard in the UK for the first time) sought to examine pitch as a constant, prevalent thing in its own right as well as an element with wider harmonic implications. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Shorts

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Being a Cotswolds lad, born and raised, i’d have to liken HCMF’s ‘Shorts’ day of free miniature concerts yesterday to a long walk over the hills, with spectacular vistas yet passing through numerous fields randomly distributed with large cowpats. In each field, you pick a direction and stick to it, with obvious consequences. In short, we all ended the day a little muckier than we’d started. Read more

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Mix Tape #29 : Best Albums of 2013

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year, Mix Tapes | 2 Comments

A very HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all!

i want to say a big thank you to everyone who’s followed 5:4 in the last year, & especially to those of you who’ve posted comments & tweets in response. There are lots of exciting things planned for 2014, so watch this space.

In the meantime, continuing the 5:4 annual tradition, here’s the new mix tape, celebrating the music in my Best Albums of the Year list. A little something from each album, seamlessly stitched together & lasting a little under 3 hours. Enjoy!—& if you do enjoy what you hear, links to purchase the music can be found on the previous two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full:

Read more

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Best Albums of 2013 (Part 2)

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* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Bringing 2013 to an end, here’s the final part of the best albums of the year. Go on, give your ears a treat, they deserve it. Read more

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HCMF 2013: n s m b l

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 6 Comments

All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss & 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 & 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, & 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.

Having said that, perhaps even Ullmann would consider disinterest a step in the right direction from the outright hostility that has dogged his work in the past. Son Imaginaire III is a case in point; last night’s performance was the third attempt to give the piece a successful première, the previous two being mocked & laughed to the point of being abandoned. The bone of contention in Ullmann’s work is its challenging modus operandi, utilising extremely quiet sounds as the basis for large-scale forms. In some ways, this can be heard as a continuation (or elaboration) of the paradigm shift initiated by John Cage in 4’33”. In that piece, no sound was capable of being extraneous; in Ullmann’s music, any quiet peripheral sounds can be inferred as part of the deliberate musical act taking place: a chair squeak, a muffled cough, a phone vibration, a gust of wind against the windows, they all become plausible components of Ullmann’s loose-weave texture. They, too, are incapable of being extraneous.

But i don’t want to push that connection too far; there is, after all, a world of difference between silence & near silence. The title is instructive—suggesting both “imagined sound” & “his imagination”—as it describes very literally the effect of listening in such a rarefied context as this. The strain of having to listen out for exceptionally quiet sounds makes it all too easy for the imagination to overclock itself, so to speak, to the point where, in such a liminal state, it’s possible to imagine things that aren’t there. It reminds me of the film Paranormal Activity, where lengthy scenes take place in which, essentially, nothing happens, but there are omnipresent omens suggesting that, at some point soon, something very odd indeed will take place. Our eyes scour the frame—the door, the bed, the floor, the corridor, the sleeping couple—fuelled by a heightened mix of excitement & expectation; & here, too, one can all too easily imagine things that are not there. Did the blanket move? Is that a shadow? Did something rustle? Transpose that to the concert hall: Did the cello play a harmonic? Is that the sound of wind through the instrument? Was that a twang on the piano? Often, they’re questions impossible to answer; Ullmann’s music is so perfectly poised at the cusp of sensibility that the space becomes positively electrified with sonic potentialities, real & imagined.

It’s a considerable challenge as much for the performers as the audience; French group n s m b l (10 points if you can say that out loud) handled it with admirable coolness, & can now bask in the renown of being the first ensemble in almost a quarter of a century to have been able to bring this remarkable piece to fruition. Those of you who weren’t there, you have no idea what you missed.

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Minimal & dangerously liminal: Jakob Ullmann – fremde zeit addendum 4

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 2 Comments

Despite the fact that writing about amazing music is such an unalloyed pleasure, there are times—many more times than i would care to admit—when the music skitters away, becoming elusive when confronted by one’s attempts to speak of it. Perhaps there’s no dishonour in being confounded by glory, but the frustration has never been more acute than when trying to write about the music of Jakob Ullmann. Including the outstanding fremde zeit addendum 3CD boxset of his music near the top of my 2012 Best Albums list wasn’t just an act of fitting celebration but also of defeat; the bland paragraph i wrote to accompany its entry came after umpteen doomed attempts at something more substantial earlier in the year. So when the Edition RZ label recently sent me their latest release of his music, fremde zeit addendum 4, it seemed only fitting to try again.

For anyone unacquainted with Ullmann’s music, there are equivalent points of entry to be found in any of the releases Edition RZ has put out over the last few years, A Catalogue of Sounds, voice, books and FIRE 3, the aforementioned boxset as well as this new CD. It’s worth mentioning that Edition RZ—one of the most forward-looking of labels in any case—has been essentially a lone advocate where Ullmann is concerned; considering how many of his works remain unperformed & recorded, other labels would be wise, finally, to catch on. For there is something truly extraordinary going on in Jakob Ullmann’s music, music that positions itself in a place that is both minimal & dangerously liminal. Read more

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