Thomas Adès

Mix Tape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mix tape is one i’ve been wanting to explore for a long while: the organ. It’s an instrument with which i’ve had a pretty infatuated relationship since my teenage years, both as a listener and as a very occasional practitioner (organ was my second study alongside composition during my first degree, and for a few years i co-directed a church choir). People tend to have a certain idea of what they think organ music is like. People tend to be wrong. i hope this mix tape will go some way to illuminate what the organ is capable of, what it can be, when wielded with real imagination. As always, the mix consists of personal favourites, encompassing a pretty wide range of approaches to the instrument. i’ve structured the mix in four sections, each lasting roughly half an hour.

The first is all about contrasts, alternating between vast tuttis and more restrained, inward modes of expression. The pieces by Bjørn Andor Drage and Marcel Dupré are more the latter; Drage, in particular, makes it sound as though the organ is struggling to speak, Dupré is more concerned with not so much presenting/shaping material as gently caressing it into new forms. Thomas AdèsPreambulum holds back just as much but is exercised with an incessant sense of child-like play. Naji Hakim is emphatically at the other end of the continuum, blurring the distinction between a fanfare and a toccata – both of which sound like they’re made out of laser beams – before launching into a frenzied series of final flourishes, and all in just two minutes. Judith Bingham and Petr Eben pass between these extremes. Bingham seemingly allows the music to do its own thing for the most part; there’s a really lovely sense of spontaneity, and the effusive climax two-thirds through feels like an entirely organic zenith. The sixth movement from Eben’s work about the life of Job alternates between dense quiet clusters and counterpoint before an ever-growing sequence of pulling shapes brings about a colossal musical crunch, as though an angel had misjudged its descent and slammed into the ground. This is followed by a section devoted to texture, in the form of dense walls and piercing clusters from John Zorn – treating the organ like a lab rat – and György Ligeti, cycling tonal colours from Charlemagne Palestine, and heaving wails and roars from the one and only Stefan Fraunberger, caught in a heroic struggle of WTF proportions in order to get a defunct instrument to do anything approximating coherence (and succeeding).

The mix then turns to ecstasy, captured in deliciously soft shimmerings in the exquisite opening to the middle movement of Sorabji‘s First Organ Symphony and the conclusion of one of Olivier Messiaen‘s late Méditations, both composers emphasising metric regularity to heighten the music’s inner power. Others cause their ecstasy to swell into apogees of overload, heard here in David Briggs‘ transcription of the Adagietto from Mahler‘s Fifth, a slow-burn from Louis Vierne that works an almost absurdly simple idea into a looming mountain of fire, and a wondrous back-and-forth from Pēteris Vasks, whose arrangement of his own Viatore (originally written for strings, but much more majestic in this version) often makes me think of Howard Skempton’s Lento, cycling round a common idea but always sounding somehow different and new. The last section is all about drama, often utilising the massive timbral pile-ups of the full organ. Edwin Lemare‘s transcription of Saint-SaënsDanse macabre is pure brilliance and to my mind works way better than the original, tapping into Gothic levels of sinister malevolence. i’ve included another slow-burner from Vierne, this time the second movement from his First Organ Symphony, a dazzlingly exciting demonstration of the dramatic potential and power of fugue. The counterpoint here is simply amazing, and the colossal, cluster-bomb climax will clear out any remaining cobwebs your speakers (or, indeed, your house) may have. Rarely-heard Soviet composer Eduard Khagagortyan gets seriously carried away in the opening movement of his Symphony No. 3, which i’ve included in its 8½-minute entirety partly because he is so rarely-heard, but mainly because the range of imagination in its convoluted narrative is so impressive, and Khagagortyan’s musical language is decidedly piquant, even downright tart. Simon Johnson‘s Holy Week improvisations recontextualise familiar melodies in an altogether new sonic environment to fittingly disconcerting effect, while David Briggs, at the console of Gloucester Cathedral in his own improvised Symphony, reinvents the French organ style in a slow movement that builds to a light-filled blaze of colours (you can hear the whole symphony here).

Beginning the sections and exemplifying them are pieces by Charles Tournemire, who in my view is one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, and – bizarrely – remains almost entirely unknown beyond devotees of organ music. A late figure within the French organ school, he was a significant influence on Messiaen, particularly with regard to improvisation. A self-confessed mystic, Tournemire was responsible for creating one of the longest and most inventive compositional projects ever undertaken: L’Orgue Mystique, a fifteen-hour cycle of music (in 51 parts) inspired by the plainsong melodies used throughout the Catholic Church’s liturgical year. When his music does occasionally appear in organ recitals or church services (his non-organ music pretty much never does in the UK), it tends to be only the huge final movements that end each part of the cycle. i’ve included two of these: his enormous, borderline overexcited improvisation on the ‘Te deum’ melody, which only survived thanks to Maurice Duruflé transcribing the piece from a recording (played here by Jane Watts in what is surely the most exhilarating recording of it by anyone), and his yet more furious Postlude for the Sunday in the Octave of Ascension, which in terms of both the extraordinary use of harmony – pushing tonality far beyond breaking point, essentially redefining it on the fly – and drama – each successive episode getting more carried away than the previous one – make it seem all the more incomprehensible that his music should be performed so infrequently and his contribution to twentieth century music be so unknown. But his quieter music, which dominates most of L’Orgue Mystique, is just as potent. His take on the Easter Communion chant quickly moves away from melody into a kind of semi-frozen (or should that be transfixed?) textural miasma, whereas the Offertory from the twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost becomes a soft, dreamy act of the purest tenderness. The mix ends with another Communion, from the feast of Pentecost itself, Tournemire reworking it into music of remarkable, balmy stillness, as though brilliantly illuminated from above, its chords shimmering with warmth. Genius.

A little over two hours of music that pulls out both the real and the imaginative stops; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to buy the music. As ever, the mix can be downloaded or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Spring 2017

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There are lots of exciting events coming up in the next few months, approaching new music from a plethora of different angles.

Next month the Royal Opera House will be giving the first UK performances of Thomas AdèsThe Exterminating Angel, based on Luis Buñuel’s splendidly off-kilter movie. Premièred last summer in Salzburg, it’ll be receiving half a dozen performances at Covent Garden from late April to Early May. With a libretto by Tom Cairns, featuring the likes of (among many others) Anne Sofie von Otter, Christine Rice, Sophie Bevan, John Tomlinson and Thomas Allen, and directed by the composer, it should prove quite a spectacle. Well over a decade after witnessing the first performance of Adès’ last opera, The Tempest, i’m still somewhat in two minds about it, so it’ll be fascinating to see where he’s coming from in this new operatic work.

The Another Timbre label is taking over Café Oto for three days at the start of May, with a series of concerts to tie-in with their new five-disc set of music by Canadian Composers (a review of these is coming soon). Works by Linda Catlin Smith, Isaiah Ceccarelli, Marc Sabat, Martin Arnold and Chiyoko Szlavnics will all be featured in these concerts, plus a couple of pieces by fellow Canadian Cassandra Miller and not-remotely-Canadian Jürg Frey. Tickets are £8 a pop or £21 for the lot.

Looking ahead to July, the details of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival have been announced this week. The festival’s engagement with contemporary music – which, let’s remember, was its original purpose – has become highly tenuous in recent years, but there’s one or two concerts to look forward to. At the safer end of the spectrum, Estonia’s E STuudio Chamber Choir will be showing there’s more to their country than just Arvo Pärt, also featuring music by Estonians Cyrillus Kreek and Veljo Tormis. As someone who’s spent a fair bit of time with Estonian music during the last year, this is going to be good (though, fair warning, you’ll also need to contend with some Whitacre). Pianist William Howard is performing a recital titled ‘Love Songs’, including works by Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Piers Hellawell, Howard Skempton, Joby Talbot, Judith Weir and Michael Zev Gordon, a number of them receiving first performances. Joby Talbot’s music is also being performed by vocal ensemble Tenebrae, presenting his hour-long Path of Miracles. And towards the end of the festival, the Piatti Quartet will be presenting music by Joseph Phibbs and Mark-Anthony Turnage plus a new work from Darren Bloom. There are other assorted new works dotted elsewhere, and as ever there’s the annual Composer Academy for early-career composers, this year being mentored by Michael Zev Gordon.

And there are some extremely interesting events beyond these shores. Next month, Louth Contemporary Music Society is presenting the world première of James Dillon‘s latest piece, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments. A work for soprano and a small ensemble of five players, as the title implies Dillon has drawn on ancient texts attributed to Orpheus, alongside poetry from the father of the sonnet, Petrarch, Apollinaire and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. The concert is being given by Crash Ensemble with soprano Peyee Chen, who will also be performing a rendition of the Three Songs by Ukeoirn O’Connor (actually by Jennifer Walshe), of which Chen gave a fittingly weird and wonderful performance at last year’s Alba New Music festival. Taking place as part of the Drogheda Arts Festival, on Ireland’s east coast, the concert is on Saturday 29 April in St Peter’s Church and tickets are a measly €10.

And in May there’ll be the annual Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik, which i’ll be experiencing for the first time. This year’s sextet of concerts is jam-packed with exciting propositions: i’m particularly looking forward to three premières: Brian Ferneyhough‘s Umbrations, The Tye Cycle by the Ardittis, Paul Hübner and the JACK Quartet performing Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume and Clara Iannotta‘s piano and ensemble piece Paw-marks in wet cement. Above all, though, it’ll just be great to have the opportunity to encounter totally unexpected music from composers whose work is entirely unknown to me. That’s definitely not something we get sufficient opportunities to do in Britain.

Apropos: i’ll be heading off to Tallinn again early next month for the Estonian Music Days. The festival’s engagement with new music is exceptionally diverse and forward-looking, very much more so than we usually encounter here in the UK. Among this year’s highlights: vocal group Vox Clamantis who (foreshadowing E STuudio Chamber Choir’s Cheltenham gig) will also be performing Pärt and Kreek, together with a new work from Galina Gregorieva; the first performance of Peeter Vähi‘s An April Night’s Dream for keyboards, percussion, phonogram and city sounds will be taking place in the late evening on the roof of the Estonian National Opera house(!); and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir will be giving a thoroughly eclectic concert of works by Jonathan HarveyLigeti and Sciarrino alongside premières from local composers Tatjana Kozlova-JohannesEvelin Seppar and Mirjam Tally. But i suspect the biggest highlight of all will be the event given by the country’s National Symphony Orchestra, in an all-Estonian programme featuring three world premières together with the Fourth Symphony by the great Lepo Sumera as well as Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s Cello Concerto. It’ll no doubt be absolutely exhausting, but wonderful. They really know how to do a music festival in Tallinn.

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Moments of Weightlessness, Music for Piano and Film

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Cheltenham Music Festival got both seriously and playfully pianistic on Sunday. And theatrical too, first in a 50-minute dramaturgical discourse from experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls, and later in a recital by Clare Hammond including two works involving film. Nicolls’ Moments of Weightlessness was a genuine curiosity, insofar as it wasn’t exactly a concert or a piece of performance art, but was instead something beyond either. From one perspective, it was a kind of statement of intent, a demonstration of the aesthetic, the capabilities and the potential of the unique new piano Nicolls’ has developed over the last few years, an instrument that brings to mind the vertical arrangement of the ‘giraffe piano‘, erected on a large steel frame that enables it to be moved and rotated on its axis. Read more

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Proms 2013: the premières – how you voted

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Now that a fortnight has passed since the deafening broohaha of the Last Night, it’s time to look at how you, esteemed readers, have voted in the 5:4 Proms polls. 545 votes were cast this year, & having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought.

Worst New Work

Nishat Khan/Pete Stacey – The Gate of the Moon (Sitar Concerto No. 1)

The Proms première quality control took a real nosedive this year, & no-one can blame you for voting this hackrag as the worst of them. As i mentioned at the time, fingers need to pointed as much at Pete Stacey (who appears to have done most of the actual ‘hard’ work) as Nishat Khan, for creating one of the most ghastly examples of culturally confused, ingratiating sonic ghee you’ll ever have the misfortune to hear. Perhaps there’s a place in society for music that actually makes you feel more stupid while you listen to it (e.g.), but that place really shouldn’t be the Proms.

Runners Up

Diana Burrell – Blaze
Anna Clyne – Masquerade
Gerald Barry – No other people.

i know, right? So it seems when composers aren’t interested in either shocking or flattering us, they’ll opt simply to bore us with half-baked banalities. Not, it has to be said, terribly unpredictable in the case of a couple of these composers, but that doesn’t stop it becoming rather cuttingly irritating as the minutes slowly tick past. It would be pushing it to call Anna Clyne’s Last Night barnstormer “banal”, but it certainly lacked anything approximating originality, so it’s hardly surprising you voted so strongly against it.

Best New Work

Colin Matthews – Turning Point

86% of you gave a positive response to Colin Matthews’ new work, & even though it wasn’t my favourite of the premières, i can see where you’re coming from. Surprise & no little relief accompanied my experience of listening to the piece, particularly due to its refreshing (if rare) determination to avoid Faberian blandaties. “There’s a kind of majesty to it” i opined at the time, & that view hasn’t changed; the kind of dramatic rug-pulling Matthews comes up with, coupled with his nicely effective problem-cum-solution structure, go a long way to making this his most imaginative new work in a long time.

Runners Up

Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto
Helmut Lachenmann – Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied
Thomas Adès – Totentanz

No arguments here; i enjoyed all three of these works immensely, & they each seem to yield more & more on further listenings. It’s shameful that it took until Helmut Lachenmann’s 78th year before he was featured at the Proms (& 33 years since the Tanzsuite was first heard), but perhaps one should just celebrate the happening rather than picking fights about the wait. i still can’t quite get my head around what Rzewski’s up to in his Concerto; time will tell. As for Totentanz, maybe some of the backroom sneering that’s been a perennial accompaniment to Adès’ career might shut up for a bit in the face of what is a breathtaking addition to the repertoire. i don’t trot out words like ‘masterpiece’ very often, but i cleave firmly to my initial view of the piece, it really does seem to have that written all over it.

As to my own peeves & faves, the ‘new’ works by Philip Glass & David Matthews left me, literally, shouting at the speakers. i’ve wasted enough words on those twin monstrosities, so no need for anything more here, except to say i’m bewildered at the amount of support Glass’ music continues to ‘enjoy’; a little over half the votes for that piece were positive. Go figure. Turning to the triumphs, in addition to the Adès & Lachenmann scores, another favourite of my own this year was a piece that seems to have been skirted over by most of you who voted: Edward Cowie’s Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Perhaps that was due to a lack of listeners—the title, implying it can be filed under ‘eco-message’ possibly doesn’t help—but if so, that’s a shame, as Cowie’s music manages to get his point across purely through a sense of celebration & wonderment, & his sonic language is disarmingly but invitingly complex. If you haven’t checked it out yet, be sure to do so, as it’s a rather rarefied delight.

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Proms 2013: Thomas Adès – Totentanz (World Première)

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Hot on the heels of the large-scale work of Helmut Lachenmann’s a few days ago, tonight’s Proms première was even more ambitious, Thomas AdèsTotentanz. Composed for a large orchestra with mezzo-soprano & baritone soloists, Adès has set to music a sequence of German verses known as the Lübecker Totentanz, originally composed in 1463 to accompany an artwork created the same year at the Marienkirche in Lübeck by Bernt Notke. Sadly, the artwork was destroyed during World War II, but images of it remain, as do the texts, depicting death interacting with a collection of diverse characters, including a monk, a king, a doctor, a knight, a merchant, a maiden & even the pope, interactions that inevitably result in terrorised laments at the protagonists’ prospect of impending doom (the entire text, in its original Middle Dutch with an accessible English translation, can be read here; a high resolution photo of the wonderful original artwork is available here). Clocking in at just over 30 minutes—considerably less than the inflated estimate of 45 minutes in the Proms guide—Totentanz is the latest in a succession of works that together demonstrate Adès’ innate & enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, & it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn & Simon Keenleyside (who famously portrayed Prospero in Adès’ opera The Tempest) with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Arcadiana

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Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral & vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas AdèsArcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, & it still does today.

Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy & allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios & a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, & just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—& it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, & Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial. Read more

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Thomas Adès – The Fayrfax Carol

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In many of the hymns & carols sung throughout the Christmas season, alongside the idyllic, intimate nocturnal depictions of stables & shepherds can be found pointed references to the bleak fate of the child lying in the manger. Sometimes, these are sung again during Passiontide, making for a particularly painful connection: “see the child” becomes “behold the man”. With that in mind, then, the next piece in my Lent series is Thomas Adès’ setting of the anonymous 15th century ‘Fayrfax Carol’. Adès wrote the piece in 1997, as that year’s commissioned work for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols at King’s College, Cambridge. From the perspective of Christmas music, you’d be hard pushed to find a piece of more anguished character.

The text describes a dream featuring the Holy Family. The recurring refrain, as spoken by Mary, is a touching lullaby to her son, but this is interspersed with some terse comments between Mary & Joseph. Mary’s feelings are ambivalent—“She sang lullay / And sore did wepe”—& she seems to find the context in which her son (no less than “a Kyng / That made all thyng”) has been brought into the world to be unfitting of his status. Yet the infant himself intercedes, imploring his mother to “Amend your chere”, explaining that not only is it his Father’s will, but that he is destined for very much worse, remarkably described as “Derision, / Gret passion / Infynytly, infynytely”. The child’s words end with clarification, that his dreadful end will achieve something utterly triumphant: “Man to restore”. Read more

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