Sweden

HCMF 2019 (Part 1)

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Last week i was able to catch a couple of days of the shenanigans going on at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. It was strange not to be doing my usual thing of setting up camp for the whole shebang, but quite apart from it being better than nothing, experiencing a festival in microcosm like this is somewhat revealing. More than perhaps most music festivals, going to HCMF involves becoming a prospector, panning for gold in its welter of content. Personally, i’ve tended to find the nuggets of gold to be relatively few and far between, but when you find them it’s usually a pretty overwhelming experience, easily among the most memorable i’ve ever had. This proved to be the case again this year: some was worthless, some looked like gold but on closer inspection was just superficially shiny – and every now and then the festival really hit the jackpot.

Apropos: Termite Territory, by composer-in-residence Hanna Hartman, receiving its first UK performance on Thursday afternoon by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. It looked at first glance to be a not particularly promising mucking around with close-miced bits of corrugated cardboard. However, its highly episodic structure – each episode involving a different approach to the way the cardboard was wielded by the five players – turned out to be deeply engrossing. Read more

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Nordic Music Days 2019 (Part 1)

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Founded in 1888, the annual Nordic Music Days is one of the oldest contemporary music festivals in the world. It’s a peripatetic festival, moving from place to place each year, and for 2019 – surprisingly, for the first time – it moved north of the Arctic Circle, to the small town of Bodø (‘boo-duh’) in the north of Norway. As its name suggests, the festival is an opportunity for composers and performers from throughout the Nordic region to meet, collaborate and showcase to the wider world the range and diversity of their music-making.

The country that unfortunately came off worst this year – with disappointing consistency – was Denmark. Niels Lyhne Løkkegaard took no fewer than 50 triangles for his Triangular Mass – and then gave them little more than a continual, barely-changing tremolando for ten minutes. That was boring enough, but the fact that the work was conceived to be performable by any group of people, irrespective of musical training, only made such basic material seem not merely deficient but patronising; non-musicians are capable of a great deal more than just that. Loïc Destremau‘s string quartet Spoken Music had more going for it, but it was one of a number of pieces at NMD 2019 that became so interested in either technical or extra-musical elements that their actual musical interest was greatly reduced. In this case, while Destremau’s exploration of how speech can modulate conventionally-performed materials by the quartet was an interesting idea, the actual resulting music was extremely dull. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 2)

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A golden rule in cinema is “show, don’t tell”, reminding the director it’s invariably more subtle and effective to avoid directly stating the things you want the audience to consider and instead to incorporate them into the medium itself, in the process allowing for a more subtle, rich and wide-ranging interpretation of meaning. Following on from my considerations yesterday about the relationship between music and images, the latter of which had had a damaging effect on the former in some of the works performed at this year’s Ultima festival, i wonder whether an inverse of that rule would work well in music: “tell, don’t show” – tell us in sound the things you want to say, don’t put them up explicitly in front of us as words or images. To this end, the works that made the deepest and most profound impact during Ultima’s opening weekend were ones that sidestepped visual stimuli and engaged directly with the invisible and the intangible. Read more

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Proms 2019: Peter Eötvös – Alhambra; Tobias Broström – Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul (UK Premières)

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The last two premières at the Proms have both been concertos: Alhambra, the third violin concerto by Peter Eötvös, and Nigredo: Dark Night of the Soul, a double-trumpet concerto by Swedish composer Tobias Broström. It’s been interesting to note how their overall approach to narrative is, at a fundamental level strikingly similar, while their respective modus operandi could hardly be more different.

As the name suggests, the inspiration for Eötvös’ Alhambra is the eponymous ninth century palace in Granada. By his own admission, Eötvös hadn’t been to visit the Alhambra before writing the piece (his first time in Granada was at the work’s world première earlier this month); the concerto is instead an imaginary walk around the palace complex and grounds. The nature of this walk, emphatically led by the violin throughout (with a scordatura mandolin as an occasional sidekick), is capricious. Its outlook is divided, inexorably drawn back and forth between impulses that tend to the reflective and the jaunty. The oscillating effect of this is demonstrated in the opening minutes: the violin’s opening solo, ostensibly searching, is suddenly forgotten in a flash of flamboyance; withdrawing inward, the music then opens out into a high register burst of lyricism, surrounded by chiming percussion – something that will recur several times during the piece – before descending into a rollicking sequence of pure merriment with the rest of the orchestra.

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 3)

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This year’s World Music Days featured a substantial amount of music involving electronics. That being said, relatively few of the fixed media works made as strong an impression as those combining electronics with acoustic instruments. A notable exception was Marianna Liik‘s Mets [Forest], one of several pieces during the festival that, due to the organisers’ need to cram in such a large number of works, ended up being shoe-horned into incongruous contexts. Liik found her music bizarrely serving as the overture to an afternoon of wind and brass music (the previously-discussed concert given by the Estonian Police and Border Guard Orchestra), yet while it took far too many members of the audience far too long to realise the piece had even started – prompting a member of festival staff to eventually stand up and silently shush them(!) – nothing could detract from its evocative power. Beginning from tiny snufflings and shufflings, conjuring up imaginary ‘creatures’ lurking throughout the space, Liik combined these with longer, sustained pitches that sounded vocalised yet seemed almost like an incidental consequence of wind blowing. Kept at something of a distance for most of its duration, Mets built to a hugely overwhelming climax that demonstrated how much potential energy had been locked away, just waiting to be released. Read more

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Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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ionnalee – Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten

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The fact that i’ve only written about Swedish musician Jonna Lee‘s music very occasionally belies the fact that i feel she’s one of the most inventive singer-songwriters at work today. This has been the case from the outset of her revamped career in late 2009, when she was posting anonymous YouTube videos that got everyone wondering who on earth was creating this stuff, through her three albums as iamamiwhoami, all of which have featured towards the top of my Best Album of the Years lists: kin in 2012, bounty in 2013 and Blue in 2014. Since then, she’s undergone something of an enigmatic identity shift, combining her old and new personas into ionnalee, a hint that her work is now a bit more personal.

Her new album, Everyone Afraid To Be Forgotten, is released today. i’ve been listening to it a lot throughout this week, and while it’s still early days in terms of really getting to know its fifteen songs, first impressions indicate that, despite her name change, they’re a clear continuation and development of the characteristics that made her music as iamamiwhoami so fresh and exhilarating. Above all, i was struck again by the way that although Lee uses conventional verse-chorus structures in her songs, they never sound remotely formulaic. That’s partly due to the creative ways that structure is used, confused and occasionally abused in her work, but mostly down to her unique mixture of irresistible beat and bass combinations and anthemic choruses, presented with utterly forthright conviction. Read more

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Proms 2017: Andrea Tarrodi – Liguria (UK Première)

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Last night saw the second UK première by a Swedish composer at this year’s Proms, this time from Andrea Tarrodi. For those unfamiliar with her work, the key part of her responses to my pre-première questions was the reference to her parallel passion for painting, plus the related fact that she continues to “connect music with images and colours”. Though she didn’t use the term, in essence she’s an impressionist, creating musical canvasses that evoke, allude and suggest, according to an underlying semi-programmatic scheme. She’s also something of a minimalist, not simply in obvious cycling rhythms and consonances (which she uses sparingly and loosely), but in a slim-line approach to material, setting up ideas and motifs that are then re-used and re-worked, sometimes at length. That may suggest that melody is of lesser importance to Tarrodi, yet her use of motifs is often such that they are either a nascent form of a melody or capable of being easily expanded into one. Another way of putting it would be to regard her approach to melody as being compact and somewhat implicit. Highlands, her cello concerto written in 2013, is a revealing case in point, in which the soloist engages in some lengthy passages of melody (particularly the lengthy cadenza halfway through) – generally more lyrical than virtuosic – but most often is involved in intricate, complex textures with the rest of the orchestra which highlight a simple recurring motif, characterised by a falling minor third.

Originally written for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra (who premièred it in 2012), Tarrodi’s orchestral work Liguria demontrates precisely the same compositional outlook and approach. Named for the Ligurian Sea in the Mediterranean, it depicts Tarrodi’s memories of a time when she visited the area. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Andrea Tarrodi

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Swedish composer Andrea Tarrodi‘s orchestral piece Liguria, composed in 2012, receives its first UK performance at this evening’s Prom concert. Her music is new to me and, i’m sure, to many others, so her answers to my pre-première questions provide some invaluable background information, along with her programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Andrea for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Proms 2017: pre-première questions with Anders Hillborg

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Despite being composed and first performed nearly six years ago, and also being released on CD in 2015, Swedish composer Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, a large-scale work for two sopranos, chorus and orchestra, hasn’t yet been performed in the UK. Until, that is, this evening, when it finally receives its UK première at the Proms by Hannah Holgersson and Ida Falk Winland with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. In preparation, here are Hillborg’s answers to my pre-première questions. Many thanks to Anders for his responses and to Sam Wigglesworth at Faber for his kind assistance. Read more

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Beguiling/bemusing, pretentious/profound: the continuing challenge of Wandelweiser

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There’s a lot of music that i don’t write about. That’s kind of an obvious, even stupid thing to say: what i mean is that there’s a lot of music that i listen to that i don’t then write about. Invariably it’s due to some fundamentally problematic aspect that makes recommending it to others less of a necessity than a slightly cruel prank. Before i continue (and momentarily to digress), i must stress that i generally avoid thinking of composers in terms of trends, ‘schools’, ‘isms’ and other group terms that bundle them together due to some spurious connection, but considering the particular composers i’m writing about today have deliberately grouped themselves together, it seems appropriate to regard them in that way. To continue then: Wandelweiser. There’s a lot of Wandelweiser that i’ve listened to that i haven’t written about. A lot. And this fact has strangely been gnawing away at me recently as i’ve been pondering the latest batch of CD releases to have come from the Wandelweiser stable. To be fair to myself, i haven’t avoided them entirely: before HCMF 2015—at which Jürg Frey was composer-in-residence—i examined some of the then recent output from both him and a couple of other Wandelweiser composers, and there’s been a sprinkling of subsequent encounters, all i now realise also in conjunction with events going on at Huddersfield. This belies the fact that i have actually listened to an immense amount of their output, and it struck me recently that, instead of avoiding writing about it due to the conflicted reactions it so often engenders, perhaps that’s a worthwhile, even an important subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. Read more

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Proms 2015: B. Tommy Andersson – Pan; Guy Barker – The Lanterne of Light (World Premières)

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Homage, allusion and evocation have all been heavily foregrounded in many of this year’s Proms premières, and the most recent pair are in no way an exception. Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has turned to the Greek god Pan for inspiration in his eponymous latest work for organ and orchestra (not, according to Andersson, a concerto) while British Jazz musician Guy Barker has turned to an early 15th century tract classifying the seven deadly sins as the basis for his new trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light. Read more

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Proms 2015: Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première); Raymond Yiu – Symphony; Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Premières)

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The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova. Read more

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Albert Schnelzer – Tales from Suburbia (World Première)

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Premières – there have been some interesting ones of late, so let’s get back to them. It’s almost five years since Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer has been featured on 5:4, when his quirky orchestral work A Freak in Burbank was played at the 2010 Proms. A few weeks ago, his new work Tales from Suburbia received its first performance at the Barbican, by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kirill Karabits. Similarities between the two works are strong; clearly, one of Schnelzer’s most overt stylistic traits—one that may prove off-putting for some—is a resemblance to the world of film scores. In the case of Tales from Suburbia, this seems even more prominent, as there is a deliberate sense of narrative at play; Schnelzer has described the piece as being “like a diary”, referring to his own suburban experiences, although noting that they are “not a paradise … it can be a frightening place”.

Depending on your perspective, and whether you tend to judge glasses as being half full or empty, the piece either takes this as its default position, with dark, mysterious, ominous passages being the norm, offset with sporadic, ephemeral episodes that aspire to, but cannot sustain, lyrical outbursts. Or, on the other hand, Tales from Suburbia can be heard as a work where lyricism is the thread running throughout, grappling with occasions where the line is lost in more blunt and generalised material, characterised by rhythmic drive and/or sullen uncertainty.
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Seasonal favourites: Jan Sandström – Det är en ros utsprungen

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One of the composers most strongly associated with this time of year is Michael Praetorius. His music dates from the early 17th century, and he is particularly well-known for his prolific treatments of Protestant hymns and songs. He harmonised numerous Christmas carols too, and there’s a kind of bold swagger to Praetorius’ approach that has no doubt helped to keep his music so beloved and oft-performed down the centuries. Composers have frequently arranged Praetorius’ music, and my fifth seasonal favourite is an impressive reimagining of one of the carols most associated with Praetorius, Es ist ein Ros entsprungen.

Swedish composer Jan Sandström will perhaps forever be known best for his wild and wonderful Motorbike Concerto, but his reworking of Praetorius’ material, known by its Swedish name Det är en ros utsprungen, is no less impressive. Composed in 1990, Sandström divides the singers into two choirs and then sets to work, seemingly stretching the original to infinity. Surrounded by voices that are static, Praetorius’ chords steadily make progress through what quickly becomes a vast ambient soup, a mystical cloud of notes hovering at the boundary between familiarity and strangeness. i wonder whether Sandström was influenced by the resurgence of ambient music that began in 1990, but regardless, the soundworld of his setting remains current, even prescient (today, bedroom composers would simply put Praetorius’ original through sound-stretching software for not dissimilar results). In such a highly immersive and intense atmosphere as this, the temptation is to linger, but Sandström bravely restricts himself to just one of the carol’s three verses; admittedly, its four-minute duration never feels enough, but each one of those minutes restores a badly-needed sense of wonder back to Christmas choral music. Read more

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Proms 2011: Anders Hillborg – Cold Heat (UK Première)

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Monday evening’s Prom brought one of the pieces i’ve most been looking forward to hear in this year’s season, the first London performance of Cold Heat by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg. Few composers in recent times have revivified the Straussian idea of the symphonic poem more effectively than Hillborg, although his approach avoids overtly programmatic ideas. Hillborg prefers more abstract but no less evocative subject matter, and this train of compositional thought is continued through the fifteen minutes of Cold Heat, which was performed by one of the groups who commissioned the work, the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich, directed by David Zinman. Read more

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Proms 2010: Albert Schnelzer – A Freak in Burbank (UK Première)

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A week ago at the Proms—a more innocent time, before seemingly everyone started talking about Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new work for all the wrong reasons (Beyoncé) instead of the right ones (it’s crap)—came the first UK performance of Swedish composer Albert Schnelzer‘s wonderfully-titled A Freak in Burbank. Schnelzer is at pains to stress the connection he feels in this work to director Tim Burton, desiring it to exhibit a parallel kind of quirkiness to that found in Burton’s movies. The work began with Joseph Haydn as an inspiration, but while the size of the orchestra is of late 18th century dimensions, Haydn as an explicit point of reference is more-or-less lost entirely—Schnelzer’s half-apology that Haydn’s influence remains in “the use of G.P. and the transparent textures” isn’t terribly convincing. Read more

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