Simon Cummings

Electric Spring 2018

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Huddersfield is supremely talented at providing distractions (and shelter) from the vicissitudes of winter: HCMF does the honours at the start of the season, in late November, whereas at the other end, in late February, it falls to the university’s annual five-day festival of “electronic sonic exploration”, Electric Spring.

There are various reasons why over the last few years i’ve grown to love Electric Spring. First, it’s the mix of familiar and – most often – unfamiliar names: at most festivals one encounters the same composers again and again, and it’s exciting to have minimal use for one’s expectations. Second, it’s a festival that’s prepared to take big risks: of course, they don’t always work, but its preparedness to go places and try things fearlessly is so admirable, and whichever way the results go, they’re often spectacular. Third, i’ve rarely encountered such inordinate attention to detail in concert giving: everything from the sound system – based around HISS, the ultimate wet dream for surround sound enthusiasts – to the lighting to the stage presentation and everything else is always carefully considered and clearly matters enormously to everyone involved in putting the festival on. And fourth, which only makes my third reason more remarkable, all of the concerts are free, making Electric Spring, besides all else, an amazing act of generosity. Read more

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Mix Tape #42 : Late Night

Posted on by 5:4 in Mix Tapes | 1 Comment

As part of 5:4‘s tenth anniversary celebrations, i’m going to be putting out a new mix tape each month throughout 2018. While they’re quite time-consuming to curate and create, they’re also a lot of fun, and it’s been clear for a long time that the mix tapes are a popular feature on the blog. The very first of my mix tapes dates from the earliest weeks of the blog’s existence, back in February 2008, and for this new mix tape i’m paying homage to myself with a return to that original theme, music for late night listening. In fact, the whole idea of putting out mix tapes began due to the fact that i already created various playlists in iTunes with specific themes or to suit specific listening contexts, and the one i listened to most regularly at that time was a late night one.

The structure of this two-hour mix is four 30-minute sections, each of which is started by a piece by Dick Mills, one of the composers who worked at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop; each of the pieces featured here are inspired by astronomical phenomena. Section one is mostly about establishing the tone of the overall mix, focusing on a number of tracks that act via wave-like swells or soft pulses (Bass CommunionBreaking, Venetian Snares, Hecq, Alva Noto) – there’s something intrinsically restful about this kind of behaviour – alongside more mellifluous or amorphous music (Bernat Vivancos, Jonathan Coleclough, Brian Eno). Section two tilts the mix into darker territory, passing through hauntology (The Caretaker), ominous noir (Angelo Badalamenti & David Lynch), convoluted field recordings (Christopher McFall) and edgy dark ambience (Ektoise, Aphex Twin).

Section three is the most variegated and, in the best sense of the word, inscrutable, encompassing blank fields of reverberant electronics (Error Genético), slowly shifting, somewhat impenetrable clouds of pitch formations (Kenneth Kirschner, Benjamin Dauer), intense meditations, one long, one short (Mirjam Tally, Nicolas Obouhow) and acousmatic sound-theatre (Kreng). Section four initially takes the mix through its most broken-up textures yet, from both experimental electronic and doomjazz perspectives (Andrew Liles, The Thing With Five Eyes) before bringing it back to stability and calm, through a series of more peaceful ambient-esque pieces (Simon Cummings, Fovea Hex, Ochre). i’ve concluded with a second track by The Caretaker, one that i’ve listened to countless times just before settling down for sleep, bringing the mix to a decidedly poignant end.

The accompanying artwork uses a photograph of the night sky that i took in July 2015. As usual, the mix tape can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud; here’s the tracklisting in full, including links to obtain each of the albums: Read more

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Kantos Chamber Choir – The Silver Stars at Play

Posted on by 5:4 in Advent & Christmas, CD/Digital releases, Seasonal | 1 Comment

‘Tis the season and all that, and while the majority of festive new releases are concerned with reheating the usual fare, there’s one new Christmas disc that i particularly want to single out. Called The Silver Stars at Play, it’s a collection of 23 contemporary Christmas carol settings, performed by the Manchester-based Kantos Chamber Choir, conducted by the choir’s founder Elspeth Slorach. i won’t go into my usual level of depth about the disc due to the fact it includes a setting of my own, and while i’ve long regarded objectivity and impartiality to be pretty mythical and irrelevant, for obvious personal reasons i would of course love everyone to go out and support the disc by buying as many copies as possible.

That being said, while music of this ilk is inevitably going to be a somewhat polarising affair, what makes this collection so worthwhile is its general avoidance of the kind of mawkish sentimentality and blank enthusiasm that one encounters in far, far too much Christmas music. In place of the former are broad, rich harmonic palettes, tonal but occasionally wayward. Andrew Cusworth‘s Of a rose synge we is the most sumptuous example of this, as well as being the most externally calm, though everything about it suggests inner joy and ecstasy. Matthew Coleridge‘s short but expansive and beautiful Balulalow is only marginally less lush, flirting with (but, mercifully, not embracing) the kind of harmonic writing redolent of US choral composers. John Turner‘s brave attempt at a new setting of Away in a Manger (retaining the established rhythmic scheme) is simpler, as is Peter Parshall‘s That yongë child, to gorgeously tranquil effect, while another lullaby, Mark Hewitt‘s Silent Night, rather nonchalantly sets out as though it’s nothing to do with the original carol before a number of dropped hints lead to a thorough reworking of it, its harmonies and rhythms both wonderfully convoluted. My own Infant holy, Infant lowly stays true to the original Polish melody (though using the correct original descending line as opposed to the misprinted version that one usually hears), with new harmonies designed to gently emphasise elements of the text.

However, it’s not all blissed-out devotions and adoration. Read more

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New digital EP: Studies, vol. 1

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It’s been a while since my last CD release, so i’m especially pleased to announce that, a few days ago, i brought out a new EP, the first in an ongoing series. Those of you familiar with my earlier electronic work will know that there’s been a tendency to embrace extremes. My last two discs, Night Liminal and Dither • Pother • Roil exemplify that pretty strongly. For the last couple of years, my electronic music has turned away from this mode of expression, focusing instead on a more indirect, allusive type of utterance, which has its roots in one of my earliest electronic pieces, Triptych, May/July 2009, as well as the Simulated Music cycle.

This has resulted in a growing collection of Studies, pieces that primarily explore my interest in structuring sound materials from an initially visual perspective, many of which i regard as something that might be called ‘Op Music’, a sonic equivalent of Op Art. Diverse in character, some highly abstract, others moving through clear progressions and processes of evolution and development, these Studies are all entirely synthetic, sculpted from raw electronic sounds without use of existing sound materials. As in much of my earlier work, the juxtaposition of pitch and noise and the reappraisal of what defines each (and their boundaries) continue to be recurring features of these pieces.

i’ll be making a selection of these Studies available in an ongoing series of digital-only EPs, the first of which, vol. 1, is now available, from my Bandcamp site (which includes lossless) as well as iTunes and Google Play. For those of you who like to try before you buy, the EP can be streamed via Spotify (embed below).

The accompanying artwork is by the Polish generative artist Tomasz Sulej, whose work i find inspiring and very beautiful, and which makes a perfect analogue for the soundworld of the Studies.

Further volumes of these pieces will be released during the months ahead.


New digital release: Could you not watch one hour with me?

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Available today for free download is Could you not watch one hour with me?, a conceptual work i created a couple of years ago. Inspired by an act of worship that takes place today, Maundy Thursday, the material heard in the work comprises a one-hour recording made during The Watch, a night vigil that has no formal liturgy or structure, consisting solely of the silent thought, meditation, worship and prayer of the faithful. Presented in this context, my intention is to confront the connotations of that question, exploring notions of substance and absence, silence and sound, focus and lassitude, emptiness and the sacred. The work revisits from a fresh perspective the well-established idea that there is no such thing as silence. It also throws down a challenge in its title, asking, even daring the listener to sacrifice an hour to an end that may appear futile or meaningless. It is my sincerest hope that, in rising to that challenge, one might discover a depth and richness that transcends the silence, and perhaps even a glimpse of the holy.

The work is dedicated to the memory of Rudolf Otto.

For more information and to download, click here.

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New CD coming soon: Dither • Pother • Roil

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In a week’s time, a new CD of my electronic music will be released, titled Dither • Pother • Roil. It contains three distinct but related pieces, which began life in a series of improvisations made in early 2008. Somewhat inexplicably, i promptly lost the recordings and forgot all about them until the start of this year; between February and October i then extensively reworked and developed them into their final, very elaborate forms, which together last around 49 minutes. Here’s a smidgeon from the blurb-spiel:

There are ways in which this trio of works relates to and draws upon both the techniques and sentiments of my earlier electronic music. There are echoes of the shifting abstractions of the Simulated Music cycle, as well as the large-scale sculptural elementalism heard in the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars and ‘Icon’, the central panel in Triptych, May/July 2009. But above all, Dither, Pother and Roil explore (for me) new methods and an expanded mode of expression.

Dither was finished first, and is concerned primarily with material that writhes and roars at its own prevarication. Here’s part II:

Pother continues the thread established in Dither, becoming increasingly fraught and portentous. This is part I:

Roil was the last to be completed, and is the longest and most complex of the three. A multi-layered noisescape, Roil is by far the most unrestrained piece i have ever composed, whipping up elements of Dither and Pother into a clamorous torrent of frenzied outrage. Here’s part IV:

The accompanying artwork explores details from a recent painting by the young American artist Claire Uhle. Titled ‘Well, everything’s moving so slow in this life time.’, the painting goes a long way to capturing everything that Dither, Pother and Roil are seeking to convey (click for high-res).

The CD comes out on 20 November in a numbered limited edition of 50 copies. For more information and to order a copy, click here. A digital download version will also be available.

In other news, my previous CD Night Liminal is now available as a digital download as well. There are also a few CDs left; details about both can be found here and here.

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New CD out today – Night Liminal

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i’m delighted to announce that today sees the release of my latest CD, Night Liminal. Here’s a bit of blurb from the spiel:

For the last four years, my electronic music has been to a large extent founded upon noise. Whether sculpting large, primordial shapes from it (Triptych, May/July 2009), pitting it against pitched material (the Ceiling stared at me but i beheld only the Stars) or allowing it to do its own thing (Simulated Music), noise has been the principal vehicle for my electronic music. Even in my most gentle work (The Stuff of Memories), noise has been present, colouring and caking the music in sonic detritus.

Night Liminal is different. Lasting a little under forty minutes, the work is a stark contrast to these intense noisescapes, signalling both a return to and a reclamation of my æsthetic roots, embracing the quietude of ambient music. For the first time, the material is gentle, soft-edged and peaceful—even relaxing. That, at least, is its first impression; but the work’s inspiration is more subtle and ambivalent than that. Night Liminal is partly inspired by the ancient monastic service of Compline, which takes place as day is ending. Both the service and its setting confront head-on the perils heralded by twilight.

Being in a sacred space at dusk is a profound and paradoxical experience, comforting yet unsettling. One is caught between light and darkness, between the vast expanse of tradition and the contemporary mystery of the moment. The night can be a dangerous and uncharted place; my hope is that this music can become an integral part of the gloaming, teasing out and resonating with both its delights and its uncertainties in a gentle act of provocation and peace.

Provocation may seem incongruous in the context of ambient music, but Night Liminal’s soft, slow-moving textures echo this; warm and melodic, sometimes dark and disquieting, they afford the listener a dual experience of rest and reflection.

Night Liminal is dedicated to the memory of Jehan Alain.

As usual, the CD is a limited edition of 50 numbered copies; to order a copy, go here.

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