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. Read more

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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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Proms 2015: HK Gruber – into the open …; Hugh Wood – An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song (World Premières)

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Proms premières come in all shapes and sizes, and last week’s new works from HK Gruber and Hugh Wood were larger and more aspirational specimens. Scale and stature are different things, though, and despite their respective composers’ demonstrative ambition (and experience, composing veterans both), each of these pieces were hobbled by considerations that would have been less problematic in smaller-scale forms. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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Blasts from the Past: György Ligeti – Poème symphonique

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A couple of days ago marked the eighth anniversary of the death of Hungarian composer György Ligeti. To mark the event, and also begin a new occasional series on 5:4, i’d like to take a brief look back at one of the more enigmatic works of Ligeti’s career. Poème symphonique was composed in 1962, and is as much a piece of performance art as a musical composition. The performance specification is relatively straightforward: 100 mechanical metronomes are required, operated by 10 players, each metronome fully wound and set to its own tempo; all 100 are then released and allowed to tick freely until their mechanisms wind down. and that’s it, except your problems begin immediately, procuring and assembling 100 metronomes at one time and place being the most obvious. Not entirely surprisingly, the first performance triggered a fair amount of controversy, being as it was part of an official reception at the closing event of the 1963 Gaudeamus Courses and Concerts of New Music, in Hilversum, the Netherlands, an event involving local dignitaries and which was to be televised the following day. During the performance, protests broke out, and the broadcast never took place. Read more

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Tōru Takemitsu – From me flows what you call time (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Commemorations, Premières | 1 Comment

It was on this day, in 1930, that one of my favourite composers, the great Tōru Takemitsu, was born. So to mark what would have been his 82nd birthday, here’s one of his most spectacular orchestral works, the wonderfully-named From me flows what you call time. The title is taken from a poem by the Japanese poet Makoto Ooka, titled “Clear Blue Water”:

Summer trip to Switzerland:
in our bellies, sausages
eaten on the Zermatt terrace,
foot of the Matterhorn,
slowly turns into
heat: 1000 calories each.

As we climb up and up
the Furka Pass, my eyes
suddenly are perforated
by a billion particles
of heavenly blue:
across the valley a giant
mountain rampart:
The Glacier.

Swinging up its snow-
crowned sky-blue fist,
that ancient water spirit
shouts:

“From me
flows
what you
call Time.”

Down from that colossal
mass of shining ice
flows the majestic
River Rhone.

The piece is in part inspired by the Tibetan idea of the wind horse, an allegorical conception of the human soul, familiar to many in the well-known associated sequence of five coloured flags, representative of the elements: fire (red), water (blue), earth (yellow), sky (white) and wind (green). Takemitsu makes the number five significant; the work’s principal theme is essentially a five-note motif, and in addition to the orchestra he writes for a five-piece percussion ensemble. Percussion, in fact, dominates the piece, decked out with a plethora of exotic bells, chimes, gongs, singing bowls and drums to the point that it could almost be described as a percussion concerto. Nonetheless, though, the 30-minute work displays Takemitsu’s typically fine instrumental homogeneity, every instrument seemingly directed towards a common objective, albeit an objective that is often both nebulous and fluid. Takemitsu’s penchant for strolling around gardens when contemplating new compositions makes itself felt as much in this piece as in so many of his others, moving to and between a large number of ‘scenes’ or ‘vistas’, moments when his exquisite textural vagueness abruptly coalesces into something tangible. Read more

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 5. La coupure

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To describe the fifth work in James Dillon’s Nine Rivers, La coupure, as being ‘pivotal’ perhaps seems like a truism; it sits, after all, at the epicentre of the cycle. Yet it marks a timbral transition that will be felt on all the remaining pieces, namely the inclusion of electronics. Dillon’s relationship with electronics is not new (he attended IRCAM in the mid-1980s) but is evidently problematic, insofar as his feelings about the general state of electronic music are concerned. In an interview prior to last year’s world première, Dillon summarised that “…the problem with electronics is that it sounds like shit”, which is a refreshingly candid reaction to the bland, generic fare churned out by too many for too long. It’s also a useful caveat when approaching La coupure, a 50-minute work for percussion and electronics, suggesting we’re going to hear something a little different from the norm. The title means ‘the cut’, a reference to, among other things, the way rivers divide, and aspects of division preoccupy the piece throughout. The relevant stanza from Rimbaud’s Le Bateau ivre is particularly vivid:

I know the skies bursting with lighting, and the waterspouts
And the surf and the currents; I know the evening,
And dawn as exhalted as a flock of doves,
And at times I have seen what man thought he saw!
(translation by Wallace Fowlie)

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James Dillon – Nine Rivers (World Première) – 1. East 11th St NY 10003

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Having spent last week in the company of some ‘contemporary epics’, and with today being the composer’s 61st birthday, it seems an appropriate time to explore one of the most ambitious compositional endeavours of the contemporary age: James Dillon‘s Nine Rivers. i can’t be the only person for whom Nine Rivers had almost assumed the status of legend. i first read about it in the mid-1990s, in Richard Toop’s article “Four Facets of the ‘New Complexity”, published in Contact way back in 1988. The first work in the cycle was completed as long ago as 1982; over the years i often wondered if Dillon would ever complete the cycle, and one can only imagine there may well have been times when the composer himself wondered the same. Then again, in conversation with Toop Dillon admitted to “a personal problem I have about being incredibly lazy”, going on to explain his method for kick-starting the creative process, beginning with technical considerations, calculations, instrument ranges and characters and so on. “Lazy” hardly seems the right epithet for the composer of a 3-hour cycle of music, although perhaps one shouldn’t be too surprised that it took until the year 2000—a period of 18 years—for all nine compositions to be completed. The fact that it then took a further decade for the first complete performance of Nine Rivers is less understandable, and betrays the fact that, despite being one the UK’s most innovative and thought-provoking composers, Dillon continues to receive a feeble amount of respect and recognition on his native shores. Cries of “’twas ever thus” are simply not good enough, and only highlight even more brightly the cultural myopia and intellectual moribundity that has dogged the UK (by which i mean England (by which i mean London)) for as long as i can remember. Nonetheless, apathy towards Dillon has extended north of the border, the most notoriously toxic example being that of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, who failed so utterly in their shoddy, philistinic butchering of Dillon’s Via Sacra in 2005 that the BBC refused to allow the recording to be broadcast. Dillon was quoted as being “left with an overwhelming feeling of sadness”; it was surprising he didn’t just punch conductor Alexander Lazarev’s lights out. Thankfully, last year’s world première of Nine Rivers—which took place in Scotland, in Dillon’s home city, at the Glasgow City Halls—fell to performers of infinitely superior ability and outlook: members of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Singers, Les Percussions de Strasbourg, and the one-man percussive marvel that is Steven Schick, who shared conducting duties with Jessica Cottis. All told, Nine Rivers lasts just a smidge over three hours, and while many of the constituent pieces follow each other without a pause, i hope i’ll be forgiven for breaking that continuity and exploring the cycle over the next nine days. Read more

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Barbican, London: Unsuk Chin – Total Immersion

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Yesterday was a long day, spent in the company of the music of Unsuk Chin, the latest composer to be featured in the Barbican’s ongoing Total Immersion series. In some ways, it feels like Chin’s music has been around forever—or, at least, for the last 20 years, since Acrostic-Wordplay first become well-known—yet the paucity of performances of her music in the UK (despite the fact that almost none of the pieces heard throughout the day were new to these shores) mean she’s remained at a distance; serious kudos to the Barbican, then, for hosting such a deserving occasion in this, her 50th year. Lasting from 11am to 10.15pm, the day comprised six events: three concerts, two talks and one film, oscillating about the assorted performance spaces deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Barbican Centre. Most striking of these were the two orchestral concerts, featuring the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Symphony Orchestra respectively. To say the Sinfonietta tackled ‘smaller’ pieces would be to do them something of a disservice; even when composing for reduced size ensembles, Chin never really composes ‘small’ music, and in any case, her well-known penchant for extensive percussion meant that the kitchen department always occupied the majority of the stage. Speaking of which, one of the talking points of the day was the fact that the stage of the Barbican Hall had needed to be extended by around 6 metres in order to provide sufficient space for all the performers and instruments in the evening concert; due to this, the Barbican made the irrational decision to block off the entire central section of the stalls, relocating all of us who had seats in that area to the sides. The words “health and safety” were mentioned, but it was abundantly clear that an over-cautious approach had been taken, and there was a large amount of audible disgruntlement in the audience. Read more

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