John Zorn

Mix Tape #38 : Organ

Posted on by 5:4 in Mix Tapes | 4 Comments

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HCMF 2016: Walking with Partch, Klangforum Wien + Arditti Quartet

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 1 Comment

From queries to plings: following an opening night that raised more questions (and objections) than its respective composers perhaps intended, Saturday night at HCMF moved emphatically in the direction of the epic. Not simply in terms of duration, although that was certainly a factor: Claudia Molitor‘s 60-minute Walking with Partch, the world première of which was performed by members of Ensemble Musikfabrik, didn’t simply justify its duration but absolutely required it. Using a few of the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, the piece unfolds at a pace that allows everything, both the assortment of instrumental interactions and also the sounds themselves, time to speak, to resonate and to be considered. From the start, sporadic material from various players mixed with electronic textures, there was a clear sense of timbral connectivity, elements of imitation that later became more substantially worked into fully-fledged dialogues, usually but not always in the form of duos. While a great deal of Walking with Partch sounds like the product of structured and/or partially pre-planned improvisation, there were times when a broader impetus dominated the ensemble, such as when a strange triple metre initiated a kind of grotesque dance comprising distorted and contorted lines, or a later brass and bass clarinet trio that sounded like a disintegrated chorale. Read more

Tags: , , , , , ,

HCMF 2015: Eastern Waves, Arditti Quartet

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | Leave a comment

Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnikwas decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more

Tags: , , , , ,

Mix Tape #30 : Prime Numbers

Posted on by 5:4 in Mix Tapes | Leave a comment

For the new 5:4 Mix Tape, i’m not so much exploring a theme as a conceit. Mathematics has been a recurring feature of both my compositional and recreational activities lately, so for this new mix tape i’ve compiled a selection of music the titles of which incorporate the first 21 prime numbers. It was, i should say, quite a challenge, but the result is, i think, a highly stimulating mixture of exquisite non-sequiturs and unexpected aural connections. The mix is in part characterised by the presence of line, from a host of oblique angles, including jazz (Tartar Lamb II), avant-garde (John Zorn), math rock (Three Trapped Tigers), neo-Wendy Carlos retrosynthtronics (Laibach), indeterminacy (Kenneth Kirschner), counterpoint in extremis (Conlon Nancarrow), bassline-driven electronica (Last Step), post-romantic ecclesiastical dreaminess (Marcel Dupré) and lo-fi intimacy (Kid Koala). Elsewhere texture predominates, either with a harmonic underpinning (Ochre, Celer, Nine Inch Nails (but only just), Dick Mills, V/Vm) or from a percussive/glitch/noise perspective (At Jennie Richie, Ryoji Ikeda, Paul D. Miller, Bass Communion, @c). Read more

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

HCMF 2013: John Zorn day

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 1 Comment

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 & hardcore, & 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 (& 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 & manners in their work? why are so many content to be so safely consistent? It’s easy, & i say this both as a composer & as a listener—hell, & simply as a human being—to be daunted & 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, & 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, & some of it—particularly Femina, Rimbaud, Cerberus & the string quartets Memento Mori & 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 & 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 & 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 & a doll, plus a cluster of pedals & devices. All of which was brought to bear on Zorn’s material—comprising minimal specifications, both written & 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 & quotations, fastidious detail, moments of intense introspection, all taking place within a highly collaborative framework.

The piece that began the afternoon concert, Steppenwolf for solo clarinet, shed more light on the nature of Zorn’s music. Zorn is first & foremost a performer, & there are times in his work when the material is more interesting from the perspective of being played than being heard. Steppenwolf is just such a piece, little more than a fairly humdrum study in arpeggiation. This focus on the performer, or more specifically on one performer, recurred in a different way through several of the following pieces. The sense of a hauptstimme seems to be of importance to Zorn; in Occam’s Razor, a work for cello & piano that seamlessly integrates wild hand-smashing into bursts of lyricism, & ensemble works The Tempest & Baudelaire, one was always aware that, at any given moment, one voice predominated; it may be the fastest-moving hauptstimme in all music, passed from instrument to instrument at great speed, but not so fast that it couldn’t be grasped. Walpurgisnacht, a work for string trio inspired by the witchfest held on the eve of May Day, was an embarrassment of riches in this respect, the players clearly revelling in music that is obviously immense fun to play. Baudelaire (a counterpart to Zorn’s 2012 Rimbaud) was conspicuous by its intense complexity; only repeated listenings could even begin to peel apart & make sense of its extremely elaborate material. The Tempest, however, was more direct, romping through a cavalcade of allusive episodes, taking in jazz trios, abstruse duos (with shifting relationships) & a faux-Tudor morsel of pastiche; flautist Claire Chase made a strong impression here, ideally suited to music of such drama.

At the start i spoke of the challenge of reconciliation in John Zorn’s music; this concert—& The Tempest in particular—demonstrated that what unites it all, the common ground in every Zorn composition, is that he is never ever precious with material. It’s stuff to be played with, moulded, mucked about with & discarded when necessary without any fuss. Furthermore, that stuff can be made from nothing or fashioned from memories, offcuts &/or re-creations of extant materials, & treated in exactly the same way, juxtaposed according both to Zorn’s innate impulses & the inherent suggestions of those materials themselves. Such an utterly non-prissy attitude is disarming but very refreshing—&, to return to an earlier point, intimidating. When the Arditti Quartet performed the highly variegated piece The Alchemist in the evening concert, the work’s sheer imaginative range was so overwhelming that it was tempting to dismiss it as a hodgepodge, a kind of scrapbook of elements, but that’s more a consequence of overload than discernment; it’s so very much more than that. Pandora’s Box, receiving its UK première, is not so different. With the addition of a soprano (performed here by the incomparable Sarah Maria Sun, surely one of the most thrilling of all singers involved in contemporary music), the intensity of the singer’s delivery was sometimes all that stopped the work’s crazed conflictions from entirely derailing itself. That & its astute dramatic sense, pulling us in & pushing us away such that we become riveted to the unfolding narrative, its corresponding music lulling us with utter beauty & then ripping it away.

For me, the most perfect marriage of drama, imagination, complexity & directness came in the late evening concert, devoted to three of Zorn’s recent works for female voices. Performed not by an existing choir but a group of individual singers—i desperately want to call them ‘The Zornettes’—who have come together specifically to bring these pieces to life, their facility with such difficult choral writing at times seemed hard to believe. The three works presented—the European première of Madrigals (completed earlier this year), the UK première of Earthspirit & the Holy Visions cycle—share certain mannerisms. Most prominent is a delightfully playful form of broken arpeggios that sound like a cross between the Swingle Singers & 80s UK vocal group The Flying Pickets, notes fired back & forth between the singers, demanding perfection both in terms of intonation & rhythm. Often, Zorn allows this material—which might be dismissed as being of secondary importance, music for accompaniment—to play out for some time, perhaps simply because it’s such fun. But when Zorn lets rip, the singers, as one, erupted in sublime orgasmic coruscations, filling the air with such white-hot intensity that it practically burned the ears with molten shimmer. Holy Visions is a trifle more formal, charting a carefully structured journey through a sequence of Latin verses in homage to Hildegard of Bingen, but even in this somewhat ritualised context, the lightness & sense of carefree abandon heard earlier persisted as an omnipresent undertone, occasionally spilling onto the surface & causing the text to splash out as whispers, speech & assorted gasps & exhalations. i stopped writing about most choral music on 5:4 a long time ago simply because it has become so completely stale in this country. If what we heard in our cathedrals & churches up & down the land sounded even remotely like this, then i might never write about anything else.

The day ended with a new part to the Hermetic Organ project, Zorn himself manning the console of the St Paul’s Hall instrument. Dressed in a hoody, his appearance from behind resembled that of a mad monk, not so much playing the organ as riding it, frantically altering combinations, chord clusters & rates of tremulant, turning deep wind stops into hydraulic battering rams that threatened to tear the hall down to its foundations while a chorus of flutes & tiny bells chirruped its demise. It was an astonishing end to a truly mind-boggling day.

Tags: ,