Salvatore Sciarrino

Estonian Music Days 2017 (Part 1)

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i’ve recently got back from a few days in Tallinn, attending Eesti Muusika Päevad, the Estonian Music Days, the country’s annual celebration of contemporary music. Coming away from my first encounter with the EMD last year, and reflecting on the experience after, left me with mixed feelings. Estonian contemporary music is almost entirely unknown beyond its borders, with only Arvo Pärt and to a lesser extent Erkki-Sven Tüür being featured in concert programmes, both of them older generation composers (aged 81 and 57 respectively). It’s perhaps easy to understand, then, why the EMD almost exclusively focuses on Estonian music: if they didn’t, one might reasonably ask, then who would? So in this respect it’s worth pointing the finger in all directions away from Estonia, and asking why the interest doesn’t seem to be there. But there’s another aspect to this. The EMD’s attitude of introspective celebration – not so much an outlook as an ‘inlook’ – is perhaps partly responsible for this apparent external apathy. It’s easy to regard Estonian contemporary music, for the most part, as existing in a kind of hermetically-sealed bubble, ostensibly drawing on few of the compositional developments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Politics has a significant part to play here; Estonia’s complicated history, veering back-and-forth between foreign rule and independence, has resulted, not surprisingly, in a determination to establish and project a coherent national identity, which in some respects lacks the organic sense of development of less bruised nations. This is not to suggest there’s anything inherently artificial about this identity, not at all, but it goes a long way to accounting for the introspection i mentioned, not simply a desire or an impulsion but a necessity to say, boldly, “this is who we are – this is what we sound like”. From an outsider’s perspective, then, a considerable adjustment is needed when approaching this festival in order to contextualise its very particular kind of music-making and not simply regard it as being disinterested in wider contemporary compositional thought. Writing in Tempo back in 2008 (the last time the festival was featured) Peter Reynolds pondered that “Estonian music has tremendous energy and vitality at the present time, but it is not so clear if this can continue to develop if the country continues to operate in a vacuum”.1 As i’ve indicated above and will elaborate upon below, i don’t believe that it is operating in a vacuum, but Reynolds’ point remains a valid and an important one. 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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Mix Tape #32 : Best Albums of 2014

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HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone!

Many, many thanks to all of you who have followed the blog through the last 12 months, particularly to all those who have commented and tweeted in response or retort. As usual, here’s my new year mix tape featuring a track from all forty of my Best Albums of the Year. i said yesterday how 2014 had been a breathtaking year, and listening to this 3-hour condensed version of its best music, i really think that becomes obvious.

Enjoy! – and assuming you do, please support the artists wherever possible; links to purchase each of the albums can be found on the last two days’ articles.

Here’s the tracklisting in full, followed by the download link; and you can also stream the mix tape via Mixcloud. Read more

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Best Albums of 2014 (Part 2)

Posted on by 5:4 in Best of the Year | 3 Comments
* Please note this list has how been superseded by the one on the Best Albums of the Years page *

Bringing the main course to an end, here’s the conclusion of the countdown of my forty best albums of 2014. It’s been a breathtaking year.

20 | Salvatore Sciarrino – Cantare con silenzio

Easily one of the strangest albums of the year, from a composer who continues to push back the boundaries of what constitutes contemporary classical music. Two of the three works on the disc focus on the flute, sometimes violently foregrounding it while elsewhere it becomes lost amidst heavier forces. The oldest work on the disc, Berceuse, is wonderfully weird, summarised in my original review as “like a seething, roiling organic mass, acting in waves of dense, surging material, it’s as inscrutable as it is hypnotic”. [Presto Classical]

19 | Bass Communion – Box Set

This rather wondrous 4-disc box set brings together a considerable number of rarities from Steven Wilson’s Bass Communion back catalogue. The earliest dates from as far back as 1998, the first of the deeply impressive Indicates Void series based on individual instruments, all of which still sound overwhelmingly modern. In many ways the collection proves how polarised is the Bass Communion canon, not just encompassing but often directly addressing extremes of serenity and cacophany. Regardless of which end of the spectrum Wilson finds himself, his highly-sculpted results are staggering to behold. [Steven Wilson HQ]

18 | irr. app. (ext.) – The Jennies Made Me Do It {1}

Three pieces originating in Matt Waldron’s collaborations and split releases with the equally unhinged At Jennie Richie, they chart an ambitious path through highly complex sonic imagery. ‘Studio Backflow’, unusually for Waldron, is driven along by a relentless pulse, slowly processing past a kaleidoscope of manic sights; ‘Foregone And Ungotten’—the highlight of the disc—begins as a radiant texture before passing down into something altogether more sinister and strange, whereupon it fragments and roams around in a seemingly endless dark space. [Bandcamp]

17 | OY – No Problem Saloon

One of 2014’s most marvellous oddities, No Problem Saloon melds African & European styles and manners into a uniquely congruous confection. Unaffected almost to a fault, OY’s lyrics tackle subjects almost embarrassingly slight (the joys of afros and dreadlocks) as well as deeply profound, the latter captured in the album’s standout track ‘Doondari’, which recounts in detail the stages of the Fulani story of the creation of the world. From my review: “Essentially a slice of drum-pumped electronica, Frempong’s rapid meandering through the repetitions of the story resembles a scrambling recitative passing through an assortment of episodes that skew off at oblique angles, the references to creation & milk finally combining in the quiet wail of a baby.” [Crammed Discs]

16 | Senko – Dronetudes

Despite the title of Danish musician Daniel Kosenko’s latest album, drones are not the primary focus of Dronetudes. Some of these absorbing studies do involve them, draped like large swatches of fabric across each other to create extended forms that shift and shimmer. Beats predominate too, though, existing both in sympathy with and counter to this slower material, and Kosenko clearly revels in the disjunct interrelationship, heard to best effect in ‘karpus trio’—a track that clearly can’t sit still—and album opener ‘wolfsong’, the underlying light of which is continually flecked and tickled by surface-layer beat tracery. [Hymen]

15 | John Pickard – Gaia Symphony / Eden

John Pickard’s magnum opus for brass orchestra and percussion has been given a superb new recording by the Norwegian Eikanger-Bjørsvik Musikklag. Although daunting in terms of both scale and scope, the Gaia Symphony is an immensely accessible and immediate work, carving “huge, rough shapes but handles them as though they were fluid, forming them into pounding rhythms and pseudo-fanfares” (from my review). Anyone potentially put off by the thought of 65 minutes of brass music: think again – Pickard has revivified the medium for the 21st century in this astounding piece. [Presto Classical]

14 | Joseph Trapanese, Aria Prayogi & Fajar Yuskemal – The Raid 2 (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)

One of 2014’s most exhilarating movies needed nothing less than a score that matched it in terms of both violence and dexterity. What it got was easily the year’s most breathtaking soundtrack, one that moved and acted with the skill of the film’s hero, Rama – biding its time (and thereby tapping deeply into the emotional subtexts that run like threads throughout) before unleashing onslaughts of unimaginable ferocity and virtuosity. Music remade as a martial art. [Amazon]

13 | Markus Reuter – Sultry Kissing Lounge (Crimson ProjeKCt Tour 2014)

Superficially similar to the EP of tracks recorded in Australasia (included in my Best EPs of the Year list), this extended set originating in European concerts goes very much further and deeper. ‘Patricia’ sets the bar very high, filled with surging triadic waves that continually hint at but thwart any cadential connotations; ‘Lorena’ opts for a vaguer harmonic language that threatens to be dragged into the depths. All 13 of these remarkable improvisations are outstandingly beautiful, crowned by Reuter’s thrilling white-hot guitar improvisations, frenzies shaped into melodies like strands of lightning from a Tesla coil. [Iapetus]

12 | St. Vincent – St. Vincent

Something from Annie Clark’s collaboration with David Byrne seems to have rubbed off, as her latest album has a distinctly heavyweight lollop in its step from the get go. Songs like ‘Rattlesnake’, ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Digital Witness’ are punchy as hell, eat beat like a slap in the chops. Her experimental nature still pervades every song, making even relatively conventional numbers like ‘Psychopath’ sound oblique; standout track ‘Bring Me Your Loves’ encapsulates the album, pushed along with military precision while exploring unexpected side alleys en route. Not a verse-chorus structure in sight. [Amazon]

11 | John Cage – Works for Two Keyboards • 2

Xenia Pestova, reigning queen of the toy piano, reunites with Pascal Meyer on this superb second survey of John Cage’s two-keyboard music. In my review i remarked how their performance of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos “is as fascinating as it is laugh-out-loud hilarious, their navigation through Cage’s indeterminate score resulting in a mercurial kind of halting hocket between the toy pianos & an array of bizarre sounds.” The prepared piano music is no less striking (and more gamelan-like than ever), testifying to the continual freshness and unpredictability of Cage’s music. [Amazon] Read more

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HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 9 Comments

Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more

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New releases: ensemble/orchestral

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The majority of new releases to have come my way recently have featured music for ensemble and/or orchestral forces, each disc of which is usually devoted to the work of a single composer. The opportunity to scrutinise an individual’s work in great depth at times turns out to be something of a mixed blessing. This is definitely the case with NMC’s recent disc of Helen Grime‘s music, Night Songs. i’ve enjoyed and written about Grime’s work on a number of occasions, but this album—which, helpfully, arranges its contents in chronological order—contextualises those works such that rather glaring problems instantly emerge. Chief of them all is the extreme narrowness of Grime’s compositional language, with regular recourse to precisely the same mannerisms and tropes in pretty much every piece. Take a drawn-out melodic line, put it mid-register and not too loud, adorn it with sharp staccato notes (woodwind or pizzicato strings) and far, far beneath it have grumbling deep bass phrases. This kind of thing has worked for Oliver Knussen, and on the basis of this disc, Grime seems to feel compelled to introduce this same device into everything she writes. It’s an irritation that gets compounded by the timidity of Grime’s orchestral writing; not merely her safe, familiar use of the instruments, it’s the lack of anything approximating a release, a true letting-go of control, that makes the majority of the seven works on this disc feel so thoroughly grounded. Striving for equilibrium doesn’t require one to be so equivocal. Read more

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Salvatore Sciarrino – Responsorio delle Tenebre

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In recent times, one of the Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino‘s significant interests has been the life and music of his compatriot Carlo Gesualdo. Sciarrino’s opera Luci mie traditrici, composed in 2003, explored the events surrounding Gesualdo’s murder of his wife and her lover, and two years earlier he wrote a small choral work in response to the composer’s much-lauded setting of the Tenebrae services.

However, Sciarrino’s Responsorio delle Tenebre does not, in fact, draw on the texts used in Tenebrae (or indeed Gesualdo’s music), but is a setting of Psalm 54. The text, uttered in the midst of “strangers” and “enemies”, is a rather desperate plea for vindication and rescue, and Sciarrino’s approach is simultaneously robust and vulnerable. Each of the seven verses is sung twice (in the order 1-2-3-1-2-3-4-5-6-4-5-6-7-7), oscillating between a stark, bold delivery using plainchant and a quavering collection of overlapping wails and sobs, focussed on and around a single note. Read more

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