You’d have been forgiven for expecting last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group—titled “Parallel Colour”—to be primarily concerned with harmony, or failing that, timbre. But in fact the overriding connection between many of the six featured works was stark economy of means. It’s a phrase that sounds intrinsically praiseworthy, yet the boundary between music sounding impressively restrained (concentrated) and oppressively constrained (dull, lifeless) is a complex one, infinitely thin and all too easy unwittingly to cross. For Jonathan Harvey, whose short solo clarinet piece Cirrus Light was given an intense and excellently controlled performance by Timothy Lines, despite considerable limits of pitch range, dynamic and articulation, the music never felt anything other than entirely free and unbounded. Read more
Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focussed on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he & five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich & Tansy Davies.
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 & King’s College, Cambridge) & 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 & Salt Box. Now NMC Recordings has brought out Spine, a disc that presents more ensemble works alongside a number of chamber & solo pieces. The popularity of Tansy’s music is perhaps easy to understand; stylistically speaking, her work is accessible, eschewing both the trappings & the vernacular associated with the avant-garde. Immediacy & clarity seem to be important & significant aspects of her music, qualities that perhaps originate in her prog-rock youth, & which clearly go down well with audiences & 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 & thoughtful, more mature. There’s a demonstrable effort in most of the pieces to root or at least connect modernity to concepts, practices & objects from an earlier time, such as shamanism (Iris), ritualism (Dark Ground), fossils (spine) as well as existing musical material (make black white; Loopholes & Lynchpins). The result is music of a dark & difficult pathology. Read more
It’s Boxing Day, so as usual on 5:4 here’s music from yesterday’s broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.
The highlight was this year’s commissioned carol, composed by Tansy Davies, setting Christina Rossetti’s poem Christmas Eve. Considering Tansy’s previous output, which consists largely of hard-edged, punchy instrumental works, it was hard to know quite what to expect. On the one hand, Christmas Eve is a definite stylistic departure, but on the other, it’s a seriously beguiling one. In parallel with the text, the piece blows hot and cold through the opening stanza, exploring some intriguing and paradoxical contrasts: “Christmas hath a darkness/Brighter than the blazing noon”. In the first line of each phrase, Tansy establishes a series of winding, independent strands, lingering over the words (finally – a composer unafraid to repeat whole lines of text!); these strands are then pulled together, creating some marvellous chords, before the choir erupts with the answering line. Read more
The prepenultimate première at this year’s Proms was one i’ve been very much looking forward to: Tansy Davies‘ Wild Card, receiving its first performance this evening. i’m fortunate to have had a number of lengthy conversations with Tansy in the last year or so, and her compositional mind is an attractive combination of frivolous spontaneity and thoughtful deliberation. This engaging dichotomy is also brought to bear in her new work; indeed, as she says beforehand, speaking of the tarot cards that inspired it, “they’re all about systems and games, patterns…”.
It opens with the Devil card, the bass clarinet luxuriating in a kind of rude profundity. Melodies quickly develop, doubled on multiple woodwinds (strings form a backdrop), calling and swooping above the rhythmic patterns laid down by the percussion (the High Priestess and the Magician, perhaps). Texture is apparently just as important as tunes, though, and as the melodies subside, harp and piano introduce a series of rough, blurting gestures, the percussion tickling from behind. The two are then brought together; over an insistent bongo, the woodwinds bleat a fragmented tune, swiftly restoring the melodic ideas from earlier. In just a few minutes, Davies has made it clear hers is going to be a diverse piece, chopping and changing with serious alacrity. But likewise, what also becomes clear is that the programme note—in which she carefully describes her musical interpretation of each of the 22 tarot cards—could be a tad dangerous, potentially lulling the ear into perceiving Wild Card as a purely episodic piece—a kind of test where one listens out for and mentally ticks off each card as it appears. But Wild Card is more—well—wild than that; Davies has constructed a far more complex work than first impressions suggest, the ideas relating to individual cards by no means confined to neat, tidy episodes but recurring, quixotically, when it seems appropriate (or even inappropriate). Read more