orchestral

Brett Dean – Fire Music (UK Première)

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Today is Australia Day, so i’m marking the occasion with an orchestral work by one of the country’s most well-known composers, Brett Dean. Fire Music was composed in 2011 as a response to the disastrous ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires that spread across Victoria in February 2009. At least, that was the starting point, involving discussions with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, though the piece swiftly took on its own internal logic and narrative not so much irrespective of but in parallel with its emotive point of inspiration. In this respect, it’s interesting to note that, in addition to being a regular orchestral commission (by the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra), Fire Music was also commissioned by Australian Ballet for a choreography by Graeme Murphy titled Narrative of Nothing. Nonetheless, Dean has stressed the personal connection to the 2009 tragedy that certain aspects of the work hold for him, stating that some of the work’s material includes “specific musical evocations of the event; for example, the extended electric guitar solo about halfway through the piece evolved as a musical interpretation of the momentous, dizzying heat that greeted Victorians on the morning of February 7th, 2009”. Dean has augmented the orchestra with three satellite groups that surround the audience: two trios (flute, trumpet and percussion) on each side and a string quartet behind. Read more

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Michael Pisaro – fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) (World Première)

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i’ve been spending time with assorted premières from last year, and among the more striking is the most recent—and, in fact, the final—addition to American composer Michael Pisaro‘s ongoing fields have ears series of works. Pisaro’s notion of the ‘field’ comprises a grid arrangement, the vertical rows corresponding to the players and the horizontal columns to divisions of time. Subtitled ‘constellation, monarch, canyon’, fields have ears (10) is a work for piano and orchestra, and Pisaro treats each of the 63 orchestral players as an independent sound source (forming an instrumental parallel to the field recordings and noise that accompanied the solo piano in the first fields have ears work, dating from 2008), with just a single type of sound at their disposal, not necessarily anything to do with their nominal instrument: flute 1, for example, is instructed “shaking paper lightly” while the bass clarinet has “plastic bag, light movements”, and so on. Each player makes three sounds throughout the work’s duration, only one of which is allowed to develop—the emphasis at the individual level is for the most part simply on the sound itself, which is either switched ‘on’ or ‘off’. Read more

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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Proms 2016: Tom Harrold – Raze (World Première)

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Quite apart from the manifold inherent issues with which the occasion has long been afflicted, the Last Night of the Proms hasn’t exactly acquitted itself with particular brilliance as far its annual opening world premières are concerned. Consider the last few years’ efforts from Eleanor Alberga, Gavin Higgins, Anna Clyne, Peter Maxwell Davies and Jonathan Dove, and you’re looking at a list of bland, lowest-common-denominator fripperies bound for oblivion. Mark Simpson’s splendid work sparks, from the 2012 season, is a lone exception to this, and so it’s nice that it now has a worthy companion in the form of this year’s offering, Raze, from Scottish composer Tom Harrold, performed with a seat-of-the-pants ferocity by the BBC Proms Youth Ensemble with members from the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. Read more

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Proms 2016: Julian Anderson – Incantesimi (UK Première)

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As the end of the Proms draws nigh, the new works seem to have been taking on an increasing delicacy. And, to a large extent, simplicity, Julian Anderson‘s Incantesimi taking inspiration from the orrery, a mechanical reproduction of the the solar system, showing the position and motion of its planets and moons.

Anderson’s Incantesimi, performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle (for whom it was written; they gave the first performance in Berlin in June), doesn’t so much emulate an orrery as allude to its machinations. To that end, while there isn’t a convincing sense of recurring, concentric ideas (despite the programme note’s claims), there are clearly differentiated ideas at play; furthermore, although these ideas aren’t particularly interesting in themselves, the way Anderson juxtaposes them is far more engaging, and it’s at this level of what one can imagine Messiaen calling a ‘counterpoint of personnages’ that Incantesimi works strongest. The most prevalent idea is a never-ending line on the cor anglais, which makes its way over and under everything else. Much of this “everything else” is, in contrast to a great deal of Anderson’s previous work, pleasantly ambiguous, occupying a dark and mysterious soundscape launched from a rather fantastic opening, slow, low and laden with contrabassoon and double bass growls.

The work’s different ideas tend to have distinct timbral/registral qualities, enabling the piece to play with notions of density and stratification; every now and then this results in a compressed pile-up, in due course answered by more separated, sparser material. Anderson’s use of the orchestra has some nice moments of novelty, particularly a very strong episode a little over halfway through, where vast amounts of wind and gesture are met with what sound like car-size hailstones falling from on high, interspersed with brief glimpses of high string fragility. What all this amounts to is hard to say; it may not be terribly profound, but beneath its shifting surface details, the piece does have some depth. And while Incantesimi as a whole isn’t exactly memorable (though moments like i’ve just described certainly are), yet the looser approach to structure, allowing the piece to feel relatively mobile and spontaneous, is demonstrably effective. It would be nice to hear what happens if Anderson loosens the reins still further.


Programme Note

I hear a special quality in the way the Berlin Philharmonic colours slow music. I also think Sir Simon Rattle has a wonderful way of carrying and characterising long lines. There’s rhythm and flow. So I decided to write something showing off that. In Incantesimi, I use five musical ideas that orbit each other in ever differing relationships, somewhat like planets in an orrery. The cor anglais plays a special role with recurring solo lines. The work is an eight-minute span of time on the outside, but it gives a sense of being much more expansive, which is an illusion only music can give.

—Julian Anderson


Julian Anderson – Incantesimi
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Proms 2016: Piers Hellawell – Wild Flow; Emily Howard – Torus (World Premières); Marlos Nobre – Kabbalah (UK Première)

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The most recent Proms premières have demonstrated particularly keenly the highly differentiated approaches being taken by this year’s crop of composers, and while some works at first glance appear to be nothing but effervescence and froth, closer examination proves otherwise. In the case of Piers Hellawell‘s new orchestral work Wild Flow, dedicated to and given its first performance by the Ulster Orchestra, conducted by Rafael Payare, there’s plenty of froth, though it’s been whipped up into a particular dense and sticky consistency. Composed also to mark his own 60th birthday, Hellawell’s aim was to write “immediate” music that “wants to uplift and exalt the spirit”. Four of the work’s five movements are fast and energetic, around a slower central section. The opening, to a clanging bell, suggests the first round in a boxing match, and while Wild Flow isn’t exactly pugilistic, it certainly displays a kind of Varèsian muscularity crossed with a curiously gymnastic melodic attitude. Music seeking to float like a butterfly, sting like a bee, perhaps? Read more

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Proms 2016: Helen Grime – Two Eardley Pictures (World Première)

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A pair of paintings by Scottish artist Joan Eardley constitute the starting point of Helen Grime‘s new two-part work, premièred last week at the Proms, Two Eardley Pictures. The paintings are of the same place, the Scottish coastal village of Catterline (where Eardley lived and worked), painted from similar but subtly different viewpoints, both portraying its houses and fields beneath the sullen grey of a heavy, immense winter sky. They’re beautiful images, conveying a directness and authenticity that immediately pull one into their biting chilly freshness. It takes a certain amount of goodwill to find parallels in the music Grime has composed; aesthetically, it often sounds worlds apart from Eardley’s winterscapes. Read more

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