Switzerland

Michel Roth – Im Bau; Decoder Ensemble – Big Data

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Two discs from the Wergo label have lately been getting me thinking a lot about the relationship between content and meaning. Im Bau is the title of an electroacoustic monodrama by Swiss composer Michel Roth that takes its starting point from a short story by Franz Kafka (Der Bau). Quite apart from the piece itself, there’s an immediate challenge with regards to meaning stemming from the way the recording of the piece is presented. Rather than supplying a translation of the complete German libretto, Wergo has opted instead to provide a short synopsis of what’s going on in each of the work’s 15 “sound spaces” (Roth’s term). On the one hand, that’s simply not good enough, yet it nonetheless contributes something to the general tone of impenetrability permeating the piece.

The story, and Roth’s dramatisation of it, is concerned with the fearful ramblings of a creature that has constructed an elaborate underground burrow to protect itself from the outside world. Yet it’s not at all clear whether this perceived external threat is in any way real, or merely the product of an increasingly paranoid mind. The psychological state of the creature is intensified by a tinnitus-like perception that it experiences which, again, may be entirely internal in origin rather than being evidence of some kind of proximate presence. The work takes on an additional poignancy listened to at the current time, during the locked-down state of much of the world. From that perspective, it’s not difficult to imagine Kafka’s protagonist as someone hiding indoors away from society and all contact with the pandemic – and then going slowly mad. Read more

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HCMF 2019 (Part 2)

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It’s many, many years since i spent meaningful time in the company of music by Can, so i went to founder member Irmin Schmidt‘s HCMF piano recital last Thursday with precisely no expectations. What transpired was one of the most mesmerising, understated performances that i’ve ever witnessed in St Paul’s Hall. Though Schmidt was performing three works – derived in part from his album 5 Klavierstücke, released last year – they essentially coalesced such that they became three facets of a single train of thought. The innards of the instrument had been intricately prepared with an assortment of screws, rawlplugs and other gizmos, but this was a whole lot more than just a standard prepared piano. In the way Schmidt played, there was no qualitative difference between the prepared and natural notes – they all sounded as though they were an essential, intrinsic part of the piano’s tone of voice, so to speak, articulated with different kinds of timbre and pitch focus. Read more

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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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Proms 2019: Dieter Ammann – Piano Concerto (“Gran Toccata”) (World Première)

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None of the premières so far at this year’s Proms has left me with a more conflicted first impression than Dieter Ammann‘s new Piano Concerto, given its first performance on Monday by Andreas Haefliger with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sakari Oramo. The basis for that reaction is wrapped up in trying to decide whether the piece is full of contrasts or contradictions. Considering its essential behaviour, if were a 5- or even 10-minute work it would be quite easy to write it off as all – or at least predominantly – superficial froth. Yet at over 30 minutes’ duration, that’s not the case at all, it’s not a work that can be taken lightly. Yet the extent to which – and the way in which – it can be taken seriously is another quandary. One thing that’s certain, though, is the importance of its subtitle: “Gran Toccata” – any ‘toccata’ worthy of the name is going to consist of a fair amount of fleet-footed material that twists and turns in unpredictable ways. Ammann’s Piano Concerto doesn’t simply do this, it embodies this. Read more

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Forum Wallis 2019 (Part 2)

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The main focus during the five days of concerts at Forum Wallis was on ensemble and chamber music. An important and impressive feature of these concerts was their aesthetic diversity, not showing a marked preference for certain kinds of music-making. This resulted in extremely different – sometimes, practically opposite – works sitting side by side, providing a shifting and engagingly unpredictable experience. That being said, diversity of gender was overwhelmingly absent: just five of the 39 works performed during the festival were by women composers, a pretty bleak statistic that artistic director Javier Hagen would do well to significantly improve in future years.

Three ensembles were featured: two visiting, one in residence. On the opening night, Freiburg’s Ensemble Aventure performed a programme focusing on Latin America. The only piece that overtly referenced this was Javier Álvarez‘s well-known Temazcal for maracas and tape, and while from my perspective the piece, despite its age (composed in 1984), has lost none of its freshness and vitality, it was interesting to compare notes with a trio of young Mexican composers (taking part in the festival’s Composer Academy) who clearly found it rather more irritating, particularly its (to my mind) amusing, folk-infused conclusion. Either way, percussionist Nicholas Reed’s rendition of the work was excellent, not merely meticulous but extremely elegant. Both Leonardo Idrobo‘s macchina and Graciela Paraskevaídissin ir más lejos positioned their materials with utmost care. For Idrobo, the music lived up to its name, turning Ensemble Aventure into a machine-like mechanism that nonetheless exhibited a great deal of spontaneity and caprice; Paraskevaídis’ music was more emotionally-charged, caught between seriousness and volatility, never sounding portentous but packing a lot of emotional weight that interestingly never quite resolved into something concrete. Quema, a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon by Natalia Solomonoff, was similarly conflicted, alternating harsh, dissonant tuttis with more thoughtful, inward episodes where the players all felt constricted, as if struggling to make any sound emerge from their instruments; it was all marvellously dramatic. Read more

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New releases: Miguel Angel Tolosa, Giulio Aldinucci & Francis M. Gri

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Ephimeral is a recent release of electronic music by Spanish composer and sound artist Miguel Angel Tolosa. Tolosa first got my attention in 2015 with Loner, his superb collaboration with Ingar Zach (which ended up on my Best Albums of 2015) and this disc has got me just as excited. That title, though i’m unsure whether the spelling is implying something specific, hints at the fact that half of the ten pieces on the disc are very short, barely clocking two minutes’ duration. Some are a bit too ephemeral for their own good, but this is due simply to the fact that what Tolosa is doing feels too interesting to be curtailed like this. ‘Musgo’ (Moss) and ‘Allá lejos’ (Far away) are cases in point, the former an intense, dense noise-based texture within which clear bands are detectable as well as different behavioural elements – some rumbly, some granular – with a clear sense of restraint shown in the lower frequencies, while the latter is characterised by a glitched, regular pulsing in the midst of a throbby floating texture. ‘Tropismos’ (Tropisms) and ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (Light and mobile, shadow) are even shorter, together lasting less than three minutes, but they go even further in presenting assertive ideas that are instantly engaging. Keeping these four pieces as brief as this is clearly Tolosa’s point, so one must be content to relish and revisit their fleeting moments; in ‘Pálida y móvil, sombra’ (which lasts 72 seconds), Tolosa is even sufficiently courageous to allow a substantial portion of silence to intrude. There’s truly something marvellous and mysterious going on in these miniatures.

What makes their brevity uncomfortable is because Tolosa’s soundscapes feel instinctively meditative. They’re not really ‘ambient’ in the familiar sense of that word – they’re too consistently interesting for that – but their immersive qualities are considerable. This is music to bathe in. Read more

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Louth Contemporary Music Society: Silenzio Festival, Dundalk

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In terms of outlook (non-partisan), commitment (total to the point of absurdity) and above all its track record during the last eleven (essentially unsung) years, Louth Contemporary Music Society unquestionably deserves to sit alongside the very best contemporary musical festivals. Its most recent, Silenzio, which took place last weekend in Dundalk, on Ireland’s east coast, only cements that fact yet more solidly. The focus on this occasion was the music of Salvatore Sciarrino – making his first appearance in Ireland – coupled with the world première of a substantial new work from Swiss composer Jürg Frey. At first glance, the pairing of Frey and Sciarrino seemed somewhat arbitrary, though as things turned out there was an unexpected aural connection in at least one piece (though it didn’t exactly work in either of their favours). The festival was once again populated by a spectacular collection of interpreters of contemporary music, including clarinettist Carol Robinson, flautist Matteo Cesari, Quartetto Prometeo, percussionist Simon Limbrick and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The festival began in the narrow confines of Dundalk Gaol with an evening of Jürg Frey’s music. It opened with As imperceptibly as grief, a setting for solo soprano of Emily Dickinson’s poem, and in hindsight it was this opening song that carried the greatest weight of the concert, though not due to anything radically different about its music. As one might have expected from Frey, the piece unfolded in a calm, unhurried manner. Initially, the space was ‘setup’ via the soprano – Hélène Fauchère, in a tour-de-force display of infinite control – slowly placing evenly-spaced quasi-isolated notes in the air. Two ‘parts’ were present: syllables of the text on one pitch, open vowels a semitone higher, an oscillation that soon became more melismatic. As in many of Frey’s pieces, it was permeated with a sense of profundity, one that was heightened by these moments of melisma. At one point in particular (before the text moved from the afternoon to dusk), the song became captivated in an extended ‘ooh’ episode that suggested pure ecstasy, as though Fauchère were caught in a private emotional reverie or possessed by a vision. On a more musical level, it displayed an intense enjoyment of sound itself, both its mere presence and its tangibility – tactility even – wanting to linger over its pitches as well as the movement between them. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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Proms 2012: Richard Dubugnon – Battlefield Concerto (UK Première)

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Concertos are a regular feature among the new works heard at the Proms, but it’s rare to hear one for two pianos; Richard Dubugnon’s Battlefield Concerto, composed for those most characterful and quirky of siblings, Katia and Marielle Labèque, was therefore a refreshing break from the norm. It was given its first UK performance a little over a week ago by the Labèques with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, directed by Semyon Bychkov. Read more

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