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
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