Rebecca Saunders – traces (UK/Austrian Premières)

Posted on by 5:4 in Anniversaries, Lent Series, Premières | 9 Comments

Rebecca Saunders at 50Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so to mark this milestone the 5:4 Lent Series will this year be dedicated to her music. Over the course of the next six weeks, i’ll be looking at a number of her pieces in some detail, as well as providing a survey of her work as represented by CDs and downloads. Although Saunders is British born, her music is neglected in the UK; with the exception of Huddersfield, which has consistently provided a platform for her, performances in Britain are infrequent, and premières – notwithstanding last month’s at the Wigmore Hall, a real rarity – are virtually non-existent. It’s perhaps not surprising that Saunders’ music should be better known on the continent, particularly in Germany where she has long resided, but it’s disappointing (though not surprising) that one of the UK’s most renowned and radical compositional figures should be so ignored on her home turf. Furthermore, there has been relatively little serious discussion of her work, so my hope is that this series can go some way to improving that situation.

i’m going to begin with traces, a work that originally dates back to 2006 but was revised in 2009, a process that bumped it up from being for chamber to symphony orchestra. One reasonably expects different performances of the same piece to shed new light and tease out extra details, but in the case of traces that’s true to a surprising degree. i first got to know the piece from the UK première at the 2009 Proms, but some time after i heard a broadcast of the Austrian première and realised i hadn’t really got to know it at all, as it sounded so different. More recently, there was a third opportunity to hear the work when it was performed in Glasgow in 2015 (possibly the Scottish première), which only confirmed the fact that there’s something about traces that makes it seem almost entirely reinvented with each new performance – or, and this is perhaps more pertinent, that there’s something akin to a game of Chinese whispers going on. Read more

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Estonia in Focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Symphony No. 9 ‘Mythos’ (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | Leave a comment

i’m now turning my attention this weekend to Erkki-Sven Tüür, a composer whose work in many respects sounds distinctly different from a lot of Estonian contemporary music (and as i’ve previously mentioned, he remarked to me last year that he feels himself to be something of an outsider). To get the 100th anniversary festivities of Estonia’s declaration of independence up and running, Tüür was commissioned to compose a new work, which received its world première a few weeks back. The combination of this being Tüür’s ninth symphony, and also being part of an important national celebration, have evidently guided Tüür towards writing a work of considerable epic scope. Subtitling the work ‘Mythos’, Tüür’s Symphony No. 9 is a 35-minute, single-movement work that to an extent sets itself apart from the most familiar aspects of his compositional style. Instead of a preponderance of rhythmic and gestural cavorting, Tüür has created a large-scale slab of meticulous musical evolution through shifting textures and atmospheres. Read more

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Jasun Martz – A Retrospective: Non-Finito; Alchemy; Corrosion; Chroma; The Pillory; The Battle

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 6 Comments

Another unusual release i’ve received recently came from Jasun Martz, a US musician and artist of whom i was previously unaware, but a quick search online reveals has apparently been involved in music for almost 50 years, with a variety of both classical and pop/rock connections. What i received consisted of six discs – Non-Finito, Alchemy, Corrosion, Chroma, The Pillory and The Battle, released through January to July this year as an in-depth retrospective of Martz’s output – together with a poster and an original painting by Martz, upon which is attached a ‘Certificate of Art Appraisal’, confidently informing me that its appraised value is no less than $15,000. Ch-ching! The discs are housed in slim digipaks, fronted with further paintings by Martz (all self portraits), and their respective album titles are all prefixed by the phrase ‘Solo Exhibition’, implying that each disc is in fact the sonic component of an audiovisual work (of which the cover may or may not constitute the only visual element). So far, so relatively straightforward.

However, progressing through these six discs it quickly becomes apparent that their contents are connected, with various titles recurring on different albums in partial or completely different forms. So the listening experience has a secondary layer of detective work, puzzling over and deducing the connections between these different manifestations. By the end, i can honestly say they’re easily among the most convoluted interconnecting and overlapping collection of pieces that i’ve yet encountered. Part of that convolution is, depending on your perspective, unnecessary, and there’s a certain amount of duplication – even redundancy – but Martz has clearly aimed to make each disc as long as possible (they’re between 68 and 79 minutes’ duration), and while the discs together constitute Martz’s retrospective – a larger 8-CD box set will also be available at the start of next year – each disc also acts as a smaller-scale retrospective, focusing on specific aspects of his output (in theory; in practice the distinctions are negligible). Read more

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Proms 2017: Lotta Wennäkoski – Flounce (World Première)

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After eight weeks of (for the most part) serious music-making, the Last Night of the Proms, quite reasonably, is primarily disposed to the aim of letting of steam and just having fun. For the contemporary composer chosen to get the evening going each year, the enormous sense of occasion – even more so than at the first night – must be so impossible to ignore (and why would you?) that one can’t help wondering to what extent they feel their creativity is being given an opportunity to shine or simply go through the expected motions. Harrison Birtwistle’s Panic, from the 1995 Proms, remains a benchmark for ruthless originality in this concert, though it’s worth remembering that that particular piece was not a concert-opener, but occupied a prime position later in the concert. How nice it would be if the tradition of commissioning a world première for the last night could return to being a more major work in the concert rather than the amuse-bouche that the Proms seems to believe is sufficient. Perhaps then composers could do their own thing both more expansively and in the way they’d really like, although the experience and aftermath of Panic may well have scared off the Proms organisers for good on that score. (Apropos: i wonder what would shock people today?)

Nonetheless, one or two of the commissions in recent years – i’m thinking particularly of Tom Harrold’s Raze (2016) and Mark Simpson’s Sparks (2012) – have demonstrated the capacity and the courage to try and squeeze some imagination into their tiny sliver of the evening. And the same was true of last night’s curtain-raiser, Flounce, by Finnish composer Lotta Wennäkoski. Read more

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Proms 2017: Hannah Kendall – The Spark Catchers (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms | 2 Comments

The latest orchestral work by British composer Hannah Kendall received its first performance a couple of nights ago at a late night Prom given by Chineke! Orchestra, the flagship orchestra of the Chineke! Foundation, established a couple of years ago “to provide career opportunities to young Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) classical musicians in the UK and Europe”. As she described in her answers to my pre-première questions, her new piece The Spark Catchers takes its inspiration and title from a poem by Lemn Sissay. The text pays homage to the London matchgirls who in 1888 went on strike in protest at their long hours, meagre pay and dangerous working conditions, involving serious, potentially fatal, risks to their health. Throughout the poem, Sissay plays on the triple-meaning of the word ‘strike’, alluding to the industrial action as well as the motion that causes matches to ignite (in hindsight, i wonder whether ‘Strike’ would have been an even more suitable title for Kendall’s piece), but most specifically the call that went up in the factory when a loose spark shot out, threatening to set everything ablaze, whereupon one of the women would leap to catch the spark before it could touch anything. Requiring a remarkable combination of reflexes and dexterity, Sissay praises “the magnificent grace / The skill it took, the pirouette in mid air / The precision, perfection and the peace.” Read more

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Proms 2017: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms | 2 Comments

Last night saw the second UK première by a Swedish composer at this year’s Proms, this time from Andrea Tarrodi. For those unfamiliar with her work, the key part of her responses to my pre-première questions was the reference to her parallel passion for painting, plus the related fact that she continues to “connect music with images and colours”. Though she didn’t use the term, in essence she’s an impressionist, creating musical canvasses that evoke, allude and suggest, according to an underlying semi-programmatic scheme. She’s also something of a minimalist, not simply in obvious cycling rhythms and consonances (which she uses sparingly and loosely), but in a slim-line approach to material, setting up ideas and motifs that are then re-used and re-worked, sometimes at length. That may suggest that melody is of lesser importance to Tarrodi, yet her use of motifs is often such that they are either a nascent form of a melody or capable of being easily expanded into one. Another way of putting it would be to regard her approach to melody as being compact and somewhat implicit. Highlands, her cello concerto written in 2013, is a revealing case in point, in which the soloist engages in some lengthy passages of melody (particularly the lengthy cadenza halfway through) – generally more lyrical than virtuosic – but most often is involved in intricate, complex textures with the rest of the orchestra which highlight a simple recurring motif, characterised by a falling minor third.

Originally written for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premièred it in 2012), Tarrodi’s orchestral work Liguria demontrates precisely the same compositional outlook and approach. Named for the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean, it depicts Tarrodi’s memories of a time when she visited the area. Read more

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Proms 2017: Harrison Birtwistle – Deep Time (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Proms | 2 Comments

It’s easy to believe – even take for granted – that we ‘get’ Harrison Birtwistle. He represents a lot of things to a lot of people, but the tendency is to conflate the man and his music, mix in stereotypes drawing on his age and northern heritage, and arrive at a surly amalgam that, crudely stated, neither gives nor takes any shit. Very many years ago, as a callow student volunteering at the Cheltenham Music Festival, i was charged with attending to Birtwistle during his time in the town, which ultimately consisted of a brief greeting followed by my being told in no uncertain terms that he did not need looking after, and off he went. So i certainly know all about the brusqueness of the man, but his music has always been another, entirely separate, matter. To me, its primary characteristics are an earthiness, an inclination to sing in the midst of turbulence, a strong sense of persistent determination, and an urgent, passionate humanity yearning to be unleashed no matter what. These qualities have permeated his works performed at the Proms in recent years – particularly The Moth Requiem, the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra and Angel Fighter – and they manifest again in his most recent orchestral work, Deep Time, given its first UK performance at the Proms last Sunday.

That being said, there were occasions during the work where i found myself wondering if what i was hearing really was by Birtwistle. But not early on, the music establishing a dark admixture of rumble and grumble within which nascent ideas take shape. It’s a beautifully measured and arresting introduction, the strings clambering up and out of this claustrophobic gloom with such oomph that it almost seems as though, two-and-a-half minutes in, we’re already reaching a climax. But this is a mere overture to the more complex behaviour that forms the firmament of Deep Time. Birtwistle’s programme note speaks of the piece sitting alongside The Triumph of Time and Earth Dances due to its twin temporal and geological concerns. This finds expression in a fascinating underlying order that evidently has a pulse at its core, though sufficiently subterranean that it’s often masked, inaudible or simply forgotten about. Yet it finds expression in another way too, in a remarkable sense of architectonic plasticity, as though the bedrock of the piece were warping and stretching, with concomitant effects occurring on the surface. On this surface, when pulse isn’t pushing through, a plethora of melodies break out (those from a soprano sax are especially striking), invariably short-lived, broken up by unpredictable surges and lunges or multi-layered textures from the full orchestra. Read more

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