percussion

HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: Investigations

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It’s not unusual, considering HCMF’s openness to stepping outside the bounds of convention, for a new work at the festival to have to overcome how extraordinary it is. That was certainly the case in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where Christian Marclay‘s Investigations received its world première. It wasn’t just that the piece had been hyped up beforehand, but the more simple fact that it’s not every day you get to see twenty pianos – two grands, 12 baby grands and six uprights – used in a composition. Even before the music had started, and for some time after, one had to overcome the mere spectacle of it. This very evidently could be felt among the audience, who took some time to progress from marvelling at the number of pianos and laughing at the unusual antics of the pianists, to settling down and starting to engage more meaningfully with the music.

The piece uses 100 photos of pianists in the act of performing as its ‘score’; this set of images is given to each of the twenty pianists who then need to interpret the photos and notate below the image their rendition of what’s happening. These 100 pages of ‘score’ are played through by each pianist independently; obviously, this allows for considerable variation in the work’s duration, and on this occasion it lasted around 50 minutes.

Marclay could hardly have titled the work better. From the outset it was clear that this was a lot more than just the sum of each individual pianists’ investigations (though it was that), being a much broader experiment investigating, among other things, the fundamental music-making progression from interpretation (of the score) to reproduction (performing it) to accumulation (combining with others). This last aspect was the most unexpected; while each pianist articulated their material independently, they nonetheless were intimately involved in each others’ performances, since a great many of the interpretations required two or more pianists in order to execute them. Regardless whether one focused on individual players or widened the scope to listen to assorted sub-groups or everyone, Investigations exposed the way that any creative act can be regarded as an agglomeration of small details, combining and coalescing to form larger shapes and structures. The primary way the piece did this was by being both an atomisation, constructed from a total of 2,000 individually perceptible musical moments (20 players x 100 images), and a distillation, each pianist seeking to present the essence of what is captured in each image – resulting in an overall emphasis on gesture as the fundamental musical building-block. (If a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, perhaps a composition of 2,000 ideas starts with a single gesture.) That’s not especially new or revelatory, of course, but the particular way it was teased out and manifested in Investigations was fascinating, reinforced further by the way the material petered out as each pianist finished, throwing yet more emphasis on the importance of each and every gesture. Read more

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The Barbican, London: Ryoji Ikeda – Music for Percussion / datamatics [ver. 2.0]

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Last Sunday, the Barbican in London was treated to an evening of music by Japanese composer Ryoji Ikeda. For much of Ikeda’s career, he’s created a unique kind of electronic music, blending the aloof coldness and potential impenetrability of the most raw sounds – sine tones and noise – with more warm and accessible extra-musical associations derived from aspects of the world around us: temperature, time, space, and above all, data. More about that later. Ikeda’s compositional interests go beyond electronics, though, demonstrated in the first half of the concert which was devoted to his recent Music for Percussion (released on CD earlier this year on Ikeda’s own Codex Edition label), performed by members of Swiss percussion collective Eklekto. This is not the first time Ikeda has ventured into writing for acoustic forces; his 2002 album op. features three works for strings (the first of which i directed the UK première of a few years ago) – works that, considered retrospectively, are at some remove from Ikeda’s usual tone and aesthetic.

The four works that comprise Music for Percussion are much more closely aligned to the rest of Ikeda’s output. The most obvious thing they clarify is his indebtedness to minimalism: the opening section of Body Music [For Duo], featuring isolated claps that slowly coalesce into a concrete rhythmic pattern, could hardly evoke more instantly Steve Reich’s seminal Clapping Music. Yet where Reich was presenting something nascent, germinal, arguably more a concept than a deeply engaging composition, Ikeda’s Music for Percussion is a logical extension and, more importantly, an analogue of his work in electronics. Those claps in Body Music are swiftly supplemented with an assortment of thigh slaps and foot slams to elicit the same kind of stripped-back timbral palette employed in his intricately rhythmic electronic work. However, whereas on disc the connection to Ikeda’s earlier music is emphasised yet further by the dry clarity of the performance, watching Alexandre Babel and Stéphane Garin negotiate their way through the formidable complexities of its constantly varying rhythmic patterns bestowed on the music a palpable frisson of instability – even fragility – that’s entirely absent from Ikeda’s electronic oeuvre. Performed without music, facing towards the audience rather than each other, Garin and Babel were simply mesmerising to watch. Read more

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Proms 2018: Simon Holt – Quadriga; Suzanne Farrin – Hypersea (World Premières)

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Last Monday at Cadogan Hall, percussionist Colin Currie and the JACK Quartet combined forces to perform two works from the ’80s by Xenakis and two world premières, by Simon Holt and Suzanne Farrin. The points of inspirational origin of these pieces were somewhat different from what one usually encounters in new music, Farrin turning to an interpretation of humankind’s emergence from the oceans (and what we may have brought with us – see her answers to my pre-première questions for more details), while Holt’s is the only piece i’ve ever encountered to draw on the movements of classical dressage.

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José Manuel López López – Horizonte Ondulado

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My ears have recently been extensively tickled by the sound of percussion, courtesy of Horizonte Ondulado (Undulating Horizon), the latest release from the always interesting Neu label, exploring five works for percussion by Spanish composer José Manuel López López. As always, Neu have lavishly produced the album in a beautiful slipcase containing a 60-page book discussing the music, though i have to say on this occasion i found myself unconvinced – and in some cases downright turned off – by López López’s in-depth explanations. They’re interesting from an anecdotal perspective, but what’s going on in these pieces is for the most part sufficiently straightforward to make the lengthy accompanying discussions feel excessive, almost as if they’re trying to prove a point.

The music itself, performed by percussion group Drumming and Miquel Bernat, is highly engaging, generally concerned with structures demarcated by different kinds of behaviour or texture. In the case of African Winds II for two marimbas and vibraphone, the result is a cross between a moto perpetuo and a stream of consciousness, utilising an attractive harmonic language that’s mobile yet feels fundamentally grounded. Despite being somewhat monotonous as it progresses, there’s a distinct sense of fun running throughout. Solo marimba piece Ekphrasis establishes something akin to a stasis, though created from material that’s tremulous and halting in nature, the instrument seemingly half in shadow. Very gradually López López develops this into an attractive, contrapuntal soundworld that retains something of the vagueness from earlier, passing through various passages of ticking-over tremolos. Read more

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Brian Ferneyhough – Fanfare for Klaus Huber

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Today is the 75th birthday of one of the UK’s most consistently remarkable, bewildering, surprising and moving composers, Brian Ferneyhough. By way of a miniature celebration, here are two recordings of his shortest composition, Fanfare for Klaus Huber for two percussionists. It’s a piece i feel somewhat connected to: composed in 1987, the first performance took place in December 1989, at the Musikhochscule in Freiburg (by Ensemble Recherche), and the UK première was organised by myself, given at the Birmingham Conservatoire on 12 December 1996, by Thallein Ensemble (whom i was directing at the time). The work lasts for only a minute, and is concerned with presenting ‘unique sonorities’ as Ferneyhough describes them, each of which is only heard once. From a timbral perspective, this means that each performance of the Fanfare is likely to sound entirely unique, though structurally it falls into five clear sections.

These two performances of the piece were given by the Guildhall Percussion Ensemble as part of the Barbican’s ‘Total Immersion: Percussion!’ day in January 2015. The range of sonorities used rather wonderfully gives the impression that the players were wielding the innards of assorted clocks and timepieces, an impression strengthened by the way Ferneyhough progressively slows down the durations in several of the sections, which here sound like clockwork mechanisms winding down. Much of the writing is very delicate, occasionally punctuated with loud accents, manifesting in these performances via crash cymbals, some particularly strident toms and a rather spectacular whistle. Read more

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In memoriam: Toru Takemitsu – Seasons

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An anniversary i wasn’t able to observe due to being engrossed in my Lent series was that of the death of Tōru Takemitsu, who died a little over twenty years ago, on 20 February 1996. i can still remember the day vividly; at the time i was an undergraduate at the Birmingham Conservatoire, and as i was walking to the library someone came rushing over to tell me he had died. It’s fair to say that, among the composers (and also some of the percussionists), the news of Takemitsu’s passing was a profound shock, and the rest of the day felt black and mournful. Just like one of his great sources of inspiration, Olivier Messiaen, no-one sounds like Takemitsu – only an idiot would try to – and few have been able to compose music that so completely and simultaneously embraces austerity and playfulness within a cross-cultural intermingling utterly filled with an innate sense of beauty and wonder. For myself, barely a week goes by when i don’t find myself in the company of his music, and i never, ever experience it as anything less than genuinely miraculous. Read more

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Proms 2015: Bertram Wee – Dithyrambs (World Première)

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If there’s one thing that pretty much all of the new works at the Proms tend to suffer a lack of, it’s humility; that’s not to suggest this is down to their respective composers (in most cases), but the act of presenting a première usually finds itself festooned in generous quantities of hype and hullabaloo, which only occasionally turn out to be justified. So Singaporean composer Bertram Wee‘s new work Dithryambs, premièred by Evelyn Glennie last Monday at Cadogan Hall, therefore came as a welcome and very refreshing exception to this razzmatazztic norm. Composed for the relatively unfamiliar aluphone—a clattersome instrument made (as the name implies) from aluminium, resembling B-movie flying saucers, arranged like a set of crotales and sounding like a cross between bells and car hubcaps—Dithyrambs is essentially a study, seeking to tease out and have fun with a variety of facets yet without overstaying its welcome.
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