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Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 19 Comments

Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Music of a dark and difficult pathology: Tansy Davies – Spine

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

Anyone with even a mild interest in contemporary music can’t have failed to encounter the music of Tansy Davies. She’s clearly going through something of a vogue at the moment, the high-profile commissions (including the Proms and King’s College, Cambridge) and performances being complemented more recently by CD releases of her music. Last year saw Troubairitz, a disc by the impressive Azalea ensemble that focussed on several of her more well-known works, including neon and Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber and solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings and the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy and clarity seem to be important and significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, and which clearly go down well with audiences and ensembles alike. Spine is a more impressive disc than Troubairitz, which painted a somewhat one-dimensional portrait of the composer. As a whole, the scope of the nine works featured on this disc feels more expansive and thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices and objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes and Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark and difficult pathology. Read more

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Giving voice to the indescribable: Aaron Cassidy – The Crutch of Memory

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, Featured Artists | 7 Comments

There are times when a composer wins you over instantly, the cogency of their arguments captured in a transparent marriage of sound and idea that’s instantly familiar and welcoming. This has emphatically not been my experience with the music of Aaron Cassidy. Over the last few years, i’ve oscillated around Cassidy’s music with the regularity of a comet, never quite pulled into orbit (or should that be a collision?), but constantly drawn back nonetheless. With the release, a few months ago, of the first CD devoted to his music, i figured it was time to try to pin down my thoughts about what Aaron Cassidy is up to. The CD, The Crutch of Memory, focuses on works for one or two players, encompassing both Cassidy’s earliest music as well as relatively recent pieces, the latest of which is around three years old. Both the spread of output as well as the restricted forces involved make this a superb primer for Cassidy’s work.

To begin to understand his compositional approach, take a look at the score excerpt below, taken from Richard Barrett’s 1988 work for trombone and percussion, EARTH (click for high-res).

At this point, towards the end of the piece, the trombone’s music abruptly bifurcates into two staves, the upper showing the slide positions, the lower showing the harmonics being sounded. This fundamentally undermines the way a trombonist is used to playing, where these two parameters imply each other within conventional notation; yet by ‘decoupling’ those parameters, and destroying their traditional connection, Barrett creates a remarkable effect—which, in context, is both profoundly moving and deeply distressing—that could not have been achieved any other way.
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