Jonathan Harvey

The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there.

But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”.

From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

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For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended, it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity. Read more

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New releases: Matthias Kaul, Ensemble Musikfabrik – works by Cage, Hosokawa, Harvey, Poppe, Saariaho & Nunes

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Three recent releases on Wergo have stayed true to the German label’s tendency to go above and beyond one’s expectations. It’s hard to say which is more remarkable, John Cage or percussionist Matthias Kaul, on Cage After Cage, an album featuring renditions of six of the composer’s works for percussion, dating from as far back as 1956 to as recent as 1990. In many respects, the collection as a whole can be heard as tapping (literally) into the very essence of what percussion is, namely the banging, scraping and rubbing of objects. The range of sounds and timbres captured here borders on the encyclopaedic, even in otherwise modest contexts, such as Kaul’s version of Composed Improvisation (1990) for solo snare drum. i’m not sure i actually heard anything approximating to a snare anywhere in the piece; instead, following a collection of friction noises with light ricochets, comes a high chord(!), perfectly in tune, spacially-separated hocketing impacts, and a descending Shepard tone-like sequence of strikes. In other words, sounds that defy one’s understanding of a snare drum, articulated and excited via an assortment of unconventional triggers (including, by the sound of things, an ebow). Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Parallel Colour

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You’d have been forgiven for expecting last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—titled “Parallel Colour”—to be primarily concerned with harmony, or failing that, timbre. But in fact the overriding connection between many of the six featured works was stark economy of means. It’s a phrase that sounds intrinsically praiseworthy, yet the boundary between music sounding impressively restrained (concentrated) and oppressively constrained (dull, lifeless) is a complex one, infinitely thin and all too easy unwittingly to cross. For Jonathan Harvey, whose short solo clarinet piece Cirrus Light was given an intense and excellently controlled performance by Timothy Lines, despite considerable limits of pitch range, dynamic and articulation, the music never felt anything other than entirely free and unbounded. Read more

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

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To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself – irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity – is perhaps the most fascinating and engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music. Read more

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Symphony Hall, Birmingham: Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir and orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy and reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner and Michael Seal) and a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives and hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths and philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism and Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth and 6) love—are all deeply significant and important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion and feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Royal Banners Forward Go

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As Lent moves into Holy Week, a hymn regularly sung is “The Royal Banners Forward Go”, composed as far back as 569 by the then bishop of Poitiers, Venantius Fortunatus. The text commemorates the crucifixion, opening in strikingly vivid fashion:

The royal banners forward go,
The cross shines forth in mystic glow;
Where he in flesh, our flesh who made,
Our sentence bore, our ransom paid.

It’s not a text that seems to have appealed to many composers down the ages, a notable exception being Franz Liszt, whose Via Crucis (discussed briefly in 2009) opens with a fortissimo rendition of this hymn. Much more recently, in 2003 Jonathan Harvey composed a new setting using the English translation by J. M. Neale.

Despite lasting barely four minutes, Harvey creates an atmosphere both intense and mysterious, the men and women answering each other in stately rising fifths. Only gradually do they move out of reverential shadow, drawn out by the descriptive references to Christ on the cross; the forced tutti Harvey creates captures well the ambivalence of Holy Week, its ultimate tone of celebration violently militated against by the preceding downward spiral into suffering and death. Read more

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Jonathan Harvey – The Annunciation (World Première)

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Today is the First Sunday of Advent, and with it comes the first carol service of the new Church year, once again from St John’s College, Cambridge.

This year’s newly-commissioned carol came from Jonathan Harvey, who explored the Annunciation through words by the Orcadian poet Edwin Muir. It’s a stunning text, and Harvey clothes it in an emphatically melodic music, passing it between solo voices, creating an intimate effect. Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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Mixtape #4 : Miniatures

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This new mixtape began life as one of my playlists on iTunes, which simply specified that it should only include tracks under two minutes in duration. Surprisingly, 815 tracks from my music library fulfil this criteria, amounting to over 15 hours of music. Not surprisingly, this playlist makes for an eclectic and surreal listen, while at the same time providing a kind of ‘distillation’ of the music that i love. Here then, is a selection from that playlist, with a slight emphasis on music i’ve listened to more recently; almost 70 minutes of music stitched together with the aid of a variety of delightful advertisement spots by the wonderful and very innovative Raymond Scott. What this lot tells you about my music collection is anyone’s guess…

Here’s the complete tracklisting: Read more

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Mixtape #3 : Bells

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Being Easter week, it seems appropriate that this new mixtape should focus on the sound of bells. As usual, the following selection reflects my recent listening, with one or two old favourites thrown in for good measure; one hour of gloriously eclectic resonance and reverberation. Bathe in the overtones…

Here’s the full tracklisting: Read more

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