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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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The Barbican, London: Ryoji Ikeda – Music for Percussion / datamatics [ver. 2.0]

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Last Sunday, the Barbican in London was treated to an evening of music by Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda. For much of Ikeda’s career, he’s created a unique kind of electronic music, blending the aloof coldness and potential impenetrability of the most raw sounds – sine tones and noise – with more warm and accessible extra-musical associations derived from aspects of the world around us: temperature, time, space, and above all, data. More about that later. Ikeda’s compositional interests go beyond electronics, though, demonstrated in the first half of the concert which was devoted to his recent Music for Percussion (released on CD earlier this year on Ikeda’s own Codex Edition label), performed by members of Swiss percussion collective Eklekto. This is not the first time Ikeda has ventured into writing for acoustic forces; his 2002 album op. features three works for strings (the first of which i directed the UK première of a few years ago) – works that, considered retrospectively, are at some remove from Ikeda’s usual tone and aesthetic.

The four works that comprise Music for Percussion are much more closely aligned to the rest of Ikeda’s output. The most obvious thing they clarify is his indebtedness to minimalism: the opening section of Body Music [For Duo], featuring isolated claps that slowly coalesce into a concrete rhythmic pattern, could hardly evoke more instantly Steve Reich’s seminal Clapping Music. Yet where Reich was presenting something nascent, germinal, arguably more a concept than a deeply engaging composition, Ikeda’s Music for Percussion is a logical extension and, more importantly, an analogue of his work in electronics. Those claps in Body Music are swiftly supplemented with an assortment of thigh slaps and foot slams to elicit the same kind of stripped-back timbral palette employed in his intricately rhythmic electronic work. However, whereas on disc the connection to Ikeda’s earlier music is emphasised yet further by the dry clarity of the performance, watching Alexandre Babel and Stéphane Garin negotiate their way through the formidable complexities of its constantly varying rhythmic patterns bestowed on the music a palpable frisson of instability – even fragility – that’s entirely absent from Ikeda’s electronic oeuvre. Performed without music, facing towards the audience rather than each other, Garin and Babel were simply mesmerising to watch. Read more

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Proms 2017: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Hibiki (European première)

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The music of Mark-Anthony Turnage has been on my mind quite a bit of late. i’ve been revisiting my aged CD of his seminal work Three Screaming Popes, released 25 years ago, which was also the first piece of Turnage’s i ever heard performed live, during my undergrad days in Birmingham. Thanks to Simon Rattle, during that time there were lots of opportunities to hear Turnage’s music, and the abiding impression i got was of a composer committed first and foremost to lyricism. Of a smoky, earthy hue, to be sure, and at times downright caustic in nature, but equally capable of astonishing tenderness and beauty. Borrowing liberally from blues and jazz, and often characterised with improvisatory élan, Turnage – i still mean early Turnage – made us re-think what melody was, in a way that was simultaneously rooted in layers of compositional tradition and performance practice yet so fresh and pungent as to be shocking (literally; i can still vividly remember the shock i felt in those long-ago concerts).

These qualities have hardly deserted Turnage over the years, though there are times when it’s seemed he’s more interested in rhythm than melody, particularly in two of his demonstrably less successful Proms premières, Hammered Out and Canon Fever. That path seems to lead Turnage only to empty bombast and pastiche, whereas when his lyrical side predominates – as in the recent string quartet Contusion, and even more in his wondrous 2012 orchestral work Speranza – the results are overwhelmingly powerful. This is also what we find in Turnage’s Hibiki, which received its first European performance at the Proms a little over a week ago. Hibiki was commissioned by Tokyo’s Suntory Hall to mark their 30th anniversary. Turnage conceived the work as “a consolation following loss” in the wake of the disastrous tsunami that struck the country after the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, causing enormous damage and meltdowns at three reactors at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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In memoriam: Toru Takemitsu – Seasons

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An anniversary i wasn’t able to observe due to being engrossed in my Lent series was that of the death of Tōru Takemitsu, who died a little over twenty years ago, on 20 February 1996. i can still remember the day vividly; at the time i was an undergraduate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and as i was walking to the library someone came rushing over to tell me he had died. It’s fair to say that, among the composers (and also some of the percussionists), the news of Takemitsu’s passing was a profound shock, and the rest of the day felt black and mournful. Just like one of his great sources of inspiration, Olivier Messiaen, no-one sounds like Takemitsu – only an idiot would try to – and few have been able to compose music that so completely and simultaneously embraces austerity and playfulness within a cross-cultural intermingling utterly filled with an innate sense of beauty and wonder. For myself, barely a week goes by when i don’t find myself in the company of his music, and i never, ever experience it as anything less than genuinely miraculous. Read more

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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Dai Fujikura – Recorder Concerto

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A general shift in register now, from low to high, and to a pair of concertos using a reduced orchestra comprising just strings. Dai Fujikura seems to have written his Recorder Concerto despite himself, describing his initial view of the instrument as a pretty negative one. What makes the piece so interesting, i think, is the way Fujikura seems to have overcome that rather awkward starting position. It’s a little hard to articulate, but one’s attention is drawn not so much to the material he has composed for the instrument but to the instrument itself and the way it is behaving. In other words, it feels more a concerto about the recorder than what the recorder is playing. Sort of.

In terms of what actually happens, the setup is pretty simple, with the soloist taking the lead, their articulations serving as a model for the strings. Fujikura makes that very clear at the outset, low flutterings on the recorder translating into tremolandi in the strings; the recorder progresses to a melody made up of fragmented moments, and the strings’ material is equally fractured. Fujikura allows this kind of thing to play out at various points throughout the piece for minutes at a time, enabling two things to happen. Read more

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