Thomas Adès

Mixtape #49 : Untitled

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For the latest 5:4 mixtape, i’ve turned my attention to that most elusive of artistic statements, the untitled work. When i set out to assemble a shortlist of pieces in my library that had adopted the word ‘untitled’, it wasn’t immediately obvious what i’d find. Yet, with one or two exceptions and to varying extents, untitled tracks tended to yield a very particular type of soundworld: generally dark and/or monochrome in terms of their tone, tenor or palette, with slow, patient use and deployment of sound, often including extended periods of quietness, overall lending the music a pensive, deliberate quality. Above all, i found these pieces to be music highly abstract in character, and while use of the word ‘untitled’ can often provoke frustration when we encounter it in works of art (“doesn’t the artist know what they’re trying to say?”), the intangibility of such music seems to strongly justify the suitability of this word. However, artists use the word ‘untitled’ in ways that are as playful and deceptive as they can be aloof and distancing, and for this mixtape i’ve therefore included not only tracks that are simply untitled but also tracks that use the word ‘untitled’ as part of a longer title as well as untitled segments of larger titled works.

In the first hour, having begun with something of a red herring by Hecq, i’ve concentrated on calmer, darker examples that tend to focus on explorations of texture, from both static and variegated perspectives. Near the centre of the mix is the unexpurgated 15-minute Untitled Drone by Aidan Baker that isn’t just the highlight of his wonderful 2009 album Blue Figures, but one of the most beautifully coruscating exercises in slow-burning ambient that i’ve ever heard. In the wake of this, in the second half i’ve explored untitled tracks that are generally brighter and more colourful, introducing more beat- and pulse-based pieces, some of which even feature vocals (a real rarity in the world of ‘untitled’ music, it seems), and more overt use of instrumental sounds, both raw and cooked.

Throughout the mix, there’s a wide temperature range demonstrated in these pieces, from the warmth (not always gentle) and/or balmy intimacy found in pieces by, among others, Subsea, Zbigniew Karkowski & Kelly ChurkoJames Clarke, Sea Oleena, Ochre, Aphex Twin and 36 to the varying forms of chilly remoteness, some of it seriously aggressive, exhibited by the likes of Noto, CD-R, AutechreHelena Tulve, Nordvargr, Lethe and Christopher McFall & Ben Fleury-Steiner. And that playfulness i mentioned before – plus a fair amount of inscrutability – can be heard manifesting particularly in tracks by Natasha Barrett, John Wall & Alex Rodgers, Marc Behrens, DJ Yo-Yo Dieting, Øyvind Torvund and John Oswald.

Ultimately, though, i don’t want to labour these descriptive terms or indeed the putative aesthetic connections i’ve been making between them, as they may belie the fact, as i said at the outset, that these are above all strikingly abstract pieces of music, and their ostensible lack of a title (if indeed that is what it is) is perhaps all that needs to be said about them.

Two-and-a-half hours of unidentified musical objects; here’s the tracklisting in full, together with links to obtain the music (interesting to note how many of them are available free of charge: another ‘untitled’ connection…?). Due to the inherent ambiguity of some of the track titles, where relevant i’ve also included in the tracklisting the track numbers. As always, the mixtape can be downloaded via the link below or streamed via MixCloud. Read more

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Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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Mixtape #38 : Organ

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The theme of the new 5:4 mixtape 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 mixtape 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. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: 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, and having crunched the results in a variety of ways, here’s a summary of what you thought. Read more

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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 and 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 and 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 and enormous gift at writing for voices, particularly in the context of a large orchestral palette. Few conductors tackle his music better than Adès himself, and it was he who directed the première, performed by Christianne Stotijn and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, and just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—and 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, and 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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