Simon Steen-Andersen

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

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

New releases: Simon Steen-Andersen, Monty Adkins & Stephen Harvey, Jennifer Walshe

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 6 Comments

My round-up of the most interesting new releases this time features three objects: a film, a box and a book, each desirable for very different reasons. The film, available from Dacapo Records, is a much-to-be-celebrated DVD release of Simon Steen-Andersen‘s bewilderingly marvellous work Black Box Music. The memory of my first encounter with the piece at HCMF 2012 is still very vivid, and that’s entirely due to the skilful blend of wit and virtuosity that is encapsulated both within and without the box. It’s true that Steen-Andersen’s work doesn’t always hit home as successfully as this, but that criticism seems almost churlish when confronted by the frankly amazing breadth of his imagination. In Black Box Music, a solo performer directs and interacts with two spatially separated groups of instrumentalists; these directions and interactions come via a camera feed from inside the titular box, filming the soloist’s hands. Cast in three movements, it progresses from a kind of ‘warming up’ to a dazzling display of apparent cause and effect, the soloist’s gestures seemingly eliciting certain types of material and behaviour from the players; but there are times when this becomes subverted, suggesting the relationship is rather more complex than seemed at first. Read more

Tags: , , ,

HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 10 Comments

Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

Tags: ,

Simon Steen-Andersen – String Quartet No. 2 (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in HCMF, Lent Series | Leave a comment

If there’s one thing practically guaranteed every year at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, it’s the presence of a string quartet that approaches the medium from a radical perspective, one that does away, almost entirely, with its traditions & connotations. The next work in my Lent series focussing on new quartets is just such a piece: Simon Steen-Andersen‘s String Quartet No. 2, given its first UK performance at HCMF 2012 by the Bozzini Quartet. It wasn’t so very long ago, writing about another recent quartet, Hans Abrahamsen’s String Quartet No. 4, that i critiqued quite harshly music that stretched its modest quota of restricted material far, far too thinly, with mind-numbing results. By contrast, Steen-Andersen demonstrates that it’s possible to confine almost every aspect of the work while maintaining high levels of invention & interest.

Read more

Tags: ,

HCMF 2012: Oslo Sinfonietta

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF | 1 Comment

Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory & then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words & gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, & when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on & around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. But at the introduction of the text, this not especially inviting material fell back, everyone’s attention now focussed on the words appearing on the wall in front of us, which was divided in two, with one irrational interlocutor occupying each half. Initially, their conversation was bipped out by one singer at a time, one word at a time, but after a while loud electronic pulses took over. The content of the conversation was so fascinating, & so starkly in relief, that it made the accompanying music not so much irrelevant as unnoticed. That in itself, i think, proves it fitted what was going on—if not, it would surely have proved distracting. As it was, the half-baked discourse at the centre of Gradients was able to ring out loudly, confusing & amusing in equal measure. One can only wonder about the long-term value & power of a work like this, but last night, it certainly proved compelling.

Rather than words & syntax, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music had the grammar of gesture in its conceptual sights. A 40-minute work in three sections, it divided the Oslo Sinfonietta into three groups, placed at the sides & rear of the space. At the front, dead centre, was the titular box, with two holes into which the ‘conductor’ put both hands. This was facing away from the audience, but the contents of the box—the conductor’s hands, plus assorted ephemera & some curtains at the front—were hugely projected onto the entire wall. The first part, ‘Ouverture’, established the ‘grammar’ i mentioned before (although ‘rules of the game’ would describe it just as well), the conductor pointing towards different groups to elicit a response, &/or making different shapes & signs with his hands to trigger specific events. It initially seemed as though this was overlong, an entertaining idea stretched too thinly, but the subtlety of Steen-Andersen’s design slowly became apparent. At one point, the relationship between the musicians & the conductor lost all synchronicity, leading one to question exactly who was leading whom, or indeed if there was a ‘leader’ at all. i couldn’t decide whether the title of the second part, ‘Disambiguation’, was intended ironically, because the sheer range & complexity of hand shapes & gestures, as well as the speed with which they progressed & the tautness of the resultant interactions between the various groups, were all dazzling; perhaps they were only able to dazzle precisely because there was no longer any ambiguity. Only the last section, ‘Finale’, seemed to come unstuck; it was definitely overlong, in part due to some technical issues within the box, which by this stage had been festooned with elastic bands, motors with strings striking suspended cups &, at the last, a balloon, & getting all this in place meant the focus became a little lost. But Black Box Music is such a joyous riot of humour & unbridled joie de vivre that it simply didn’t matter; that it also demonstrated formidable technical prowess while asking some searching questions along the way only makes Simon Steen-Andersen’s achievement all the more astonishing. A truly unforgettable performance.

Tags: , ,