Richard Barrett

Recognition, raw ambition and raw power: Alba New Music 2017

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Last weekend brought the welcome return of Alba New Music, Edinburgh’s nascent new music festival. Having got the ball rolling with a bang last year, the 2017 festival as a whole felt more focused, in part due to deliberately having something of a thematic thread running through it. With an emphasis on Brian Ferneyhough, featuring two of his electroacoustic works – Time & Motion Study II and Mnemosyne – that thread might appear to be simply about memory, but was actually more nuanced (and less passive) than that, above all emphasising recognition. This is the key to both those pieces, and it was also fundamental to some of the other music heard throughout the festival.

It’s forty years since Time & Motion Study II for cello and electronics was first unleashed on the world, but it’s also ten years since Neil Heyde and Paul Archbold released their DVD of the work (now available for free download via iTunes). There’s no such thing as a ‘definitive’ performance of any piece, of course, yet personally speaking, i’ve come to regard Heyde and Archbold as having got so inside the essence – technical, psychological, emotional – of this particular work that since 2007 i’ve come to think of them as its most ‘authentic’ mouthpiece. Their Friday evening performance – in the stark but attractive space of the City of Edinburgh Methodist Church (an ideal locale for new music concerts) – only confirmed that assessment. It’s worth noting that the reputation of this piece (underlined by the fact that Ferneyhough considered titling it ‘Electric Chair Music’) results in one expecting violence—and only violence. Yet as in so many of his works, much of the music is highly lyrical, albeit often strained and plaintive. Furthermore, there’s something ghostly – literally, quasi-paranormal – about the way parts of the cello’s material are retained and broadcast back, materialising as if from nowhere at both a physical and temporal distance from the soloist. Watching Heyde and Archbold in action, i initially found myself anxiously pondering whether the performance was too slick, too accomplished, whether they’d even managed to make Time & Motion Study II seem (dare i say it) easy. Certainly by the time the piece arrived at its brilliant and beautiful episode of near-stasis, sustained pitches resonating from cello and electronics in apparent sublime sympathy, its reputation felt distant, almost forgotten. Yet all this is a trap, one that Ferneyhough lays and which Heyde and Archbold executed with almost insouciant ease. Now, the violence: and immediately the enormous technical difficulties of the work became utmost apparent, Heyde caught up in an epic struggle, fighting against pretty much everything: his material, the electronics, his instrument, his very self. The angry vocalisations, heavily distorted, only made the violence more desperate and intense. Few works leave an audience as stunned, drained and exhausted as its performers, but Time & Motion Study II still has that power. It felt hard to find the energy even simply to applaud. Read more

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Mix Tape #37 : Best Albums of 2016

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year, Mix Tapes | 3 Comments

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

i’m starting 2017 in the usual way, with a mix tape bringing together one track from each of the forty albums on my best of 2016 list. i’m sure posterity will come to regard last year as something of a trough in human history, but this mix tape does at least testify to the fact that it also contained some truly marvellous wonders. i hope you find these three hours of music a nice distillation of the aural magic that was made in 2016; links to buy each of the albums can be found in the last two days’ articles.

The mix tape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud; here’s the tracklistening in full: Read more

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Best Albums of 2016 (Part 1)

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i’ve long wondered whether there’s any justification—or, indeed, any point—in making end of year lists, particularly when, as usual, there’s a pile of as yet unplayed discs staring down at me from the shelf above my desk. But, for all its provisionality, the following list will serve as a good starting point for anyone wanting an eclectic, considered, non-partisan take on the best of this year’s albums. Besides, lists are cool. So to begin with, here’s the first part of my current favourite forty albums of 2016, counting down from 40 to 21. i’ve included links for the albums, each of which is the lowest price currently available; most are streamable or can at least be previewed, so if you like what you hear do please support these fine artists.
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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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

A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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New releases: NEOS box sets – Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 3: Ensembles

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What with the increase in listeners turning away from physical releases in favour of digital downloads, and in light of yet another (admittedly somewhat spurious) article this week offhandedly proclaiming the imminent death of the album, the efforts of German label NEOS to put out large, lavish box sets are both absurd and marvellous in their optimistic enthusiasm. No other label does contemporary music like NEOS; in terms of quality and quantity, they are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, with an immense breadth of scope that’s doggedly committed to some of the most risk-taking, experimental music-making going on anywhere.

It’s NEOS who are responsible for issuing annual accounts of the goings-on at the Donaueschinger Musiktage (this year’s begins in a little over a week). The 2014 festival is represented, as usual, with a box set of four discs, though on this occasion the fourth disc is a DVD. The set features twelve large-scale compositions (many of them world premières), running to nearly seven hours of music, affording one the rare opportunity really to immerse oneself in a festival; for once, the cliché that it’s the next best thing to actually being there is entirely true. It would take a dissertation to discuss them all, but there are several that stand out more than the rest, such as Friedrich Cerha‘s Nacht for orchestra, seemingly split down the middle with its first half occupied with complex textures moving from high to low registers. The second half is sparer and more melodic, and has something of the searching freedom that typified the free atonal period; it’s really very lovely, with a later sense of poised tension released in a last-minute burst. For the first 90 seconds of Hanspeter Kyburz‘s Ibant obscuri, barely anything happens; but then, suddenly, it lurches out of the shadows, and the sheer size of his large orchestra makes itself intimidatingly felt in loud shrieks and thrusting accents (i’m not doing justice to it, it sounds literally massive). A bit like Cerha, its latter half has a melodic urge, seeking expression amidst a chaos of wonderfully unpredictable turbulence (including something akin to a wobble-board duet). The final few minutes are thrilling, ending in dazed repetitions of a single low note. Read more

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Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in HCMF, Premières, Thematic series | 2 Comments

To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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Richard Barrett – 13 selfportraits (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in HCMF, Lent Series | 5 Comments

The next quartet i’m including in my Lent series is one that i’ve been grappling with for over a decade. When Richard Barrett’s 13 selfportraits was given its first UK performance at the Huddersfield Festival in 2002, i can’t have been the only person in the audience to have been struck hard by its apparent impenetrability. That’s not an epithet one would usually associate with Barrett; there’s layer upon layer of intricacy and connotation in his work, but almost always borne by material that’s both immediate and strikingly emotional. Put crudely, grasping exactly what Barrett’s on about isn’t always straight forward, but getting where he’s coming from certainly is. All of which makes the 13 selfportraits even more of an unusual and inscrutable entity.

It’s perhaps not unreasonable to find the work problematic; in his programme note, Barrett addresses this when explaining its structural aspects:

Although it does indeed consist of thirteen structural elements (of widely differing durations), these do not follow each other in sequence but are often fragmented, alternated, superimposed and so on; one of them is distributed throughout the work’s duration, ending as well as beginning it, and reappearing within and between the others. So it is neither a composition in several independent parts nor a single unfolding time span, but a combination of the two.

I am rather intrigued by the fact that exactly the same music might be described as “confused and incoherent” or on the other hand “a sequence of exquisite miniatures” depending on whether it presents itself in the form of separate “movements” or not. (Imagine, for example, playing Webern’s op.10 without any breaks between the pieces, or even overlapping them…) The present work attempts not to define itself one way or the other, so that if it does sound confused, then perhaps it might be exquisitely so.

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