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
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 (one assumes), 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
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
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
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 & insight into sacred thought & action that made him entirely unique, & 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 & 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 & 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
Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir & orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy & reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus & Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner & Michael Seal) & a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives & 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 & philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism & 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 & 6) love—are all deeply significant & 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 & 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.
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 & mysterious, the men & 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 & death. Read more