UK

The Hafler Trio – An Answer

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Let’s turn our attention to drones. The respective roles of time and material are perhaps nowhere more controversial – and polarising – than in drone-based music. Even if you find yourself drawn into the complexities of one form of drone, another can push you away with its relative monotony. For precisely this reason, i’ve always been fascinated by drone music, and it’s an idiom that includes some of my absolute favourite compositions. i wrote about one of them some years ago as part of my ‘Contemporary Epics’ series: The Hafler Trio‘s miraculously wonderful ‘Trilogy in Three Parts‘. As well as being a work i return to very often, at the start of this year i had the pleasure of discussing it as part of an ongoing series of conversations between Andrew McKenzie and Thaddée Caillosse, exploring the Hafler Trio legacy. The episode in question focused specifically on the Trilogy, and our lengthy conversation touched on a considerable range of topics related to and arising from it, along the way revealing fascinating insights into the thought and compositional processes behind the music, plus more than a few tangential asides taking in philosophy, listening practices and love. Anyone interested in The Hafler Trio and wanting to glean more about McKenzie’s approach to his work may well find this conversation to be of interest. It’s available via the Simply Superior Bandcamp site, along with plenty of other juicy things pertinent to the entire Hafler Trio oeuvre. Dive in, and be prepared for a long swim.

Even more recently, McKenzie has dusted off and polished up his three contributions to the first series of releases by Fovea Hex. The Explanation, The Discussion and An Answer were originally released as limited edition bonus discs accompanying the EPs Bloom (2005), Huge (2006) and Allure (2007). While many Fovea Hex releases have included accompanying remixes of their music, the three Hafler Trio pieces are rather more ambitious, best regarded as self-contained electronic works into which fragments and morsels of Fovea Hex material have been to a greater or lesser degree folded, embedded and woven. A decade and a half on from their original release, McKenzie has released a standalone edition of these pieces under a new, typically Haflerian, collective title: This is Our Problem: What Will Our Joy Be Then?. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Yes (UK Première)

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One of the foci of this year’s Lent Series exploring larger-scale works is where time and material become convoluted. In the case of the next work i’m exploring, this kind of convolution applies not only to the music but also to the text that inspired it. Yes by Rebecca Saunders is a work derived from, rather than a setting of, the epic final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Comprising just eight thought ‘utterances’ – to call them ‘sentences’ isn’t quite right as they mostly lack closing (or indeed any) punctuation – yet extending for over 24,000 words, this episode is known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, a dream-like torrent of memory and reflection run amok, much of it highly emotionally- and/or sexually-charged. Parsing such an overwhelming outpouring of words is no easy task, and personally speaking i prefer to listen to it spoken aloud, transforming it into a stunning two-hour tapestry in which events from throughout Molly’s life are recounted in somewhat arbitrary, non sequitur fashion. While we can infer importance of these events from the simple fact they are being recounted, it can be more difficult to discern the relative significance of these events as well as their associated emotional baggage: love, rage, hope, regret, anguish and ecstasy are all in there, often simultaneously.

Saunders’ 75-minute response to the text creates a musical analogue of this experience. A work for soprano and 19 soloists, Yes disperses the players throughout the performance space, establishing a sound environment that the audience is positioned within. One could fancifully regard this arrangement as like sitting inside Molly Bloom’s head, being surrounded by her tangled criss-crossing recollections and sentiments fired out by the neural network of musicians all around us. My own experience of the work, at the UK première that began the 2018 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was very much like this. On that occasion i commented in my original critique how the visual aspect of the work – as with many of Saunders’ works – felt like a distraction, and spending more time with the piece since then has reinforced that impression. Yes was admittedly performed in relatively low light, but being able to listen without any visual distractions – not inappropriate, i think, as it would be pushing it to describe Yes as having a ‘theatrical’ performance aspect – has greatly enhanced and deepened the experience. Furthermore, while Yes is something of a synthesis of Saunders’ two compositional modes – the players either individuated (for 24 of the work’s 25 modules) or united (in single module Nether, the only part of the piece to be conducted) – sonically speaking it isn’t easy to tell where the music switches between these modes. Read more

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Howard Skempton – The Wells Service

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The pair of canticles used in a traditional Anglican choral evensong service effectively straddle the Christmas story, the Magnificat pointing towards it, the Nunc dimittis referring back to it. Their use in this service means that there must be literally thousands of settings of them, though, no doubt fuelled by the overtly conservative tone endemic to both that service in particular, and to contemporary religious music in general, the number of these setttings that are interesting, imaginative and individual is significantly smaller, the exception rather than the rule. One such exception is Howard Skempton‘s The Wells Service, composed in 2011.

i think it’s fair to say that Skempton’s approach to the texts is, in the best sense, something of an acquired taste. Not because it’s radical or wilful or arch or just weird, but because – as with so much of his output – it manages to combine great simplicity with a subtle kind of aloof calculation that makes it sound disarmingly strange. The Mag and Nunc are essentially two parts of a single, singular expressive act, grounded in a basic rhythmic language of crotchets and minims that Skempton uses to give the phrases a gentle elasticity. It’s in the way these phrases progress that the strangeness is most apparent. Skempton doesn’t particularly treat each canticle as a broad sweeping narrative but rather as a sequence of individual sentences that become connected through the unity of their language. It’s almost entirely syllabic, no repetitions or melismas, giving the canticles something of the air of chant; they don’t so much sound sung as recited. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Migrating Sounds

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i’m going to start with an observation, a complaint and a plea. Yesterday evening’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group featured four pieces of music that together lasted one hour and two minutes. The actual concert lasted more than double that length. It continues a trend that appears to be plaguing BCMG concerts more and more in which the duration of events has become in some cases massively extended due to the length of time being taken to set things up between pieces – exacerbated last night by having two intervals. Perhaps those organising BCMG concerts are trying to turn them into a whole evening experience, but for me it’s become an absurd example of (deliberately or otherwise) stretching out not very much music into very much concert. Not only does this break up the engagement factor – one’s focus being regularly interrupted – but it also makes for a huge contrast with pretty much all other contemporary music concerts i’ve attended lately (in the UK and abroad), most of which don’t even bother with an interval at all, even if the music lasts up to two hours. So my plea is that those who decide these things at BCMG acknowledge the fact that this approach needs to be, at least, massively reigned in, and that changeovers between pieces need to be quick and efficient – definitely without the need for an interval (or, indeed, two of them) to attempt to hide how long it’s taking. 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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Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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David Briggs – Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes (World Première)

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One of the minor passions of my listening life, which i rarely write about here, is organ music. It doesn’t come up very often in the world of contemporary music, but it did a couple of months back in the gala recital at this year’s OrganFest at Llandaff Cathedral. Performed by David Briggs, on the cathedral’s newly-installed instrument, the entire second half of the concert was given over to a brand new symphony completely improvised by Briggs, grandly titled Symphonie Improvisée on Three Welsh Themes. i’ve been fortunate enough to experience a number of Briggs’ live performances, and i’ve never heard any organist who has wowed me more – both his abilities at improvisation as well as his astonishingly effective transcriptions of well-known works of orchestral music (especially his Mahler symphony arrangements). The use of French in the title of this new improvised symphony connects the work to the 20th century French organ school tradition, though due to its three movement structure, and the nature of those movements, it resembles less the suite-like symphonies by the likes of Widor or Louis Vierne, being more closely-related to those of Marcel Dupré. Read more

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James MacMillan – Symphony No. 5 ‘Le grand Inconnu’ (World Première)

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Symphonies – one minute you think that no-one’s really writing them anymore, and then suddenly three of them turn up in quick succession. Of course, in reality the apparent lack of them may well be more to do with the fact that composers today are reluctant to title a work ‘Symphony’ (embodying as it does such an accumulation of historical connotation and baggage) in favour of something more personal and snappy, and less to do with a reality in which music that could be described as ‘symphonic’ is becoming a thing of the past. Either way, in the last few months three works bearing the name ‘Symphony’ have received their first performances, which i’ll be exploring in my next few articles.

James MacMillan‘s Symphony No. 5, premièred in August, takes as its theme the religious notion of the Holy Spirit. To this end, MacMillan structures the work in three movements each of which is devoted to one of its mythical physical attributes: wind (or breath), water and fire. The subtitle of the work, Le grand Inconnu (the great unknown), is an associated term, borrowed from the French because MacMillan could not find an equivalent in English. It’s a choral symphony, involving both a chamber choir and a chorus, but instead of directly setting a text MacMillan has taken words from the Bible, John of the Cross, and the 9th century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus to form a composite text mingling English, Latin, Hebrew and Greek. Read more

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Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

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In Birmingham last Saturday i caught the latest concert in the current season by Illuminate Women’s Music, touring six UK towns between September and November. As the name implies, the purpose of Illuminate Women’s Music is to shine a light on women composers and performers, featuring a mixture of new repertoire and neglected works from the past. It’s an important, much-needed initiative, and it was heartening to see Birmingham’s Centrala struggling to contain the size of the audience. For Illuminate’s second season the focus is on music for soprano and/or strings, performed by an eponymous bespoke quartet alongside Canadian soloist Patricia Auchterlonie.

One general observation: while i know some strangely prefer their concerts historically homogeneous – i.e. preferring to keep ancient and modern separate – it worked well in this concert combining contemporary music with pieces from previous centuries. New music is arguably more diverse than it’s ever been, so stylistic gear-shifting has long been de rigueur for anyone attending contemporary music concerts. But in any case, a significant part of the point of Illuminate’s concerts is to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history, in which a great many significant people and compositions have ended up sidelined, forgotten or erased. Read more

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Proms 2019: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you who took part in this year’s Proms première polls. As ever, there was a stark imbalance in the number of votes certain works received, but interestingly, whereas in previous years this tended to be focused on works performed earlier in the festival (since there was more time available to vote for them), this year more than ever there was a much more even spread throughout the season as a whole, including pieces premièred quite late. Not surprisingly, it was the better-known composers and/or the most substantial works that garnered the greatest number of votes, while the four short pieces commissioned to ‘respond’ to music by Bach received least interest of all – which arguably says something about how worthwhile it was for the BBC to continue to flog that particular horse.

Speaking of disinterest, it was one of those Bach-related works, Ailie Robertson‘s Chaconne, that received the biggest ‘Meh’ response overall, closely followed by Freya Waley-Cohen‘s Naiad, while at the opposite extreme, the work that proved most divisive was Tobias Broström‘s Nigredo – Dark Night of the Soul, with opinions strongly polarised. But away from the shrugs and the bickering, here are the main winners and losers of this year’s Proms, as voted for by you. Read more

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Ultima 2019 (Part 1)

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When you listen to music what do you see? What does music look like, and what do images sound like? What’s the relationship between musical and visual stimuli? These questions became something of a recurring consideration during the three days of concerts i attended recently during the opening weekend of the 2019 Ultima festival in Oslo. To be more specific, these questions were caused by the prevalence of visual elements incorporated into many of the pieces being performed. While in some cases the music was enhanced, elsewhere it proved a great deal more problematic.

The most egregious example unfortunately came on the festival’s opening night, at a concert in the city’s grand Konserthus devoted to just a single piece, the world première of Lyden av Arktis (Sound of the Arctic) by Lasse Thoresen. Even before the Arctic Philharmonic began to play, issues were already raising themselves. Thoresen had provided not so much a programme note as an extensive blow-by-blow account of each and every detail of its highly programmatic narrative, inspired by and seeking to depict aspects of Arctic landscape, nature, experience and heritage. Quite apart from the fact that this is the worst possible form of programme note – effectively telling the listener (spoiler alert!) what they should be listening out for and how it should all be interpreted – the only meaningful way to have engaged properly with its tl;dr contents would have been to follow along with the text during the performance, which in the darkened hall would in any case have been impossible. Read more

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Proms 2019: Daniel Kidane – Woke (World Première)

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Perhaps there’ll come a time when it’s possible to mention the Last Night of the Proms without also mentioning, usually in the same sentence, the word ‘tradition’. This is not that time. Whatever you may think of its entrenched traditions, one of the Last Night’s better ones has been the tendency in recent years to commission a new work to get the party started. Unfortunately, the majority of the chosen composers have opted into a parallel tradition: composing something trivial, frivolous and forgettable, the musical equivalent of a party popper, all streamers and flashes and a short burst of hot air.

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Proms 2019: Bach Night

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Here we go again. Four of the last premières at the Proms were the product of the festival’s irresistible inclination not to allow composers to just write what they want to write but to force them to ‘respond’ to earlier music. Last year, the most prominent example of this was The Brandenburg Project, and this year they’ve sought to repeat the idea on a smaller scale. Bach Night, which took place last Wednesday, included the first performances of four pieces each of which was composed in response to one of J. S. Bach’s orchestral suites. Performed by the period ensemble Dunedin Consort, conducted by John Butt, all the pieces were around three minutes long, compelling the four composers – Nico Muhly, Stevie Wishart, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae – to create not so much responses as brief reactions.

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Proms 2019: Jonny Greenwood – Horror vacui (World Première)

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Any kind of sound processing – human, mechanical, digital – is a response of some kind: taking a signal, possibly analysing it, before doing something with it or to it. The latest new work at the Proms, Jonny Greenwood‘s Horror vacui, takes this as its starting point and modus operandi. In essence a violin concerto (subtitled “for solo violin and 68 strings”), the music extends the conventional concerto relationship of the one pitted against the many by drawing for inspiration on forms of sound processing, some physical, such as the ‘Palme’ speaker of the Ondes Martenot with its resonant strings, and some electronic, including delay, reverb and stretching. This melding of acoustic and electronic is fundamental to the work as a whole, which seeks to use the former to emulate and transcend the, as Greenwood sees it, limitations of the latter. Another inspirational element comes from the title, referencing kenophobia, the artist’s desire to avoid at all costs empty space. Read more

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae

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This evening’s Prom is titled ‘Bach Night’, and in addition performing several of JSB’s Orchestral Suites the Dunedin Consort will also be giving the world premières of four new works that take their inspiration from some of the Suite’s movements. As an upbeat to that, here are the answers to my pre-première questions from two of the featured composers, Ailie Robertson and Stuart MacRae. Many thanks to Ailie and Stuart for their responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: John Luther Adams – In the Name of the Earth (European Première); Louis Andriessen – The Only One (UK Première); Freya Waley-Cohen – Naiad (World Première)

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The latest crop of premières at the Proms have encompassed extremes of scale and duration. John Luther AdamsIn the Name of the Earth received its first European performance at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday by no fewer than eight choirs, comprising 700 singers. At a little over three quarters of an hour in duration, it’s by far the longest new work to be heard at the Proms so far. The UK première of Louis Andriessen‘s orchestral song cycle The Only One – lasting a mere 21 minutes – also took place yesterday, and earlier today the shortest of them all, Freya Waley-Cohen‘s 8-minute chamber work Naiad, received its world première at Cadogan Hall. Reflecting on these three pieces together, never has it been more true that size isn’t everything.

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Proms 2019: pre-première questions with Freya Waley-Cohen

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This afternoon’s Prom, the last of this season’s concerts at Cadogan Hall, features the newly-formed Knussen Chamber Orchestra. Alongside various works by the man himself, there’s also the world première of a short new work by one of Knussen’s former students, Freya Waley-Cohen. In preparation for that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions together with the programme note of her piece, Naiad. Many thanks to Freya for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2019: Jocelyn Pook – You Need to Listen to Us; Alissa Firsova – Red Fox; Ryan Wigglesworth – Piano Concerto (World Premières)

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A few weeks back, when critiquing Hans Zimmer’s short work Earth, i almost held back from writing about the piece as it was taking place in a concert for children. i couldn’t help wondering to what extent it was fair to hold up something so intentionally superficial to critical scrutiny. Yet why should music composed with children in mind feel the need to resort to superficiality? Isn’t that making some fairly hefty assumptions about what children can engage with, enjoy and understand? In the case of Zimmer, the question is essentially moot, as Earth didn’t make any concessions at all to the children at the concert – except insofar as literally everything he’s composed in recent years has been an abject concession: to creativity, originality and imagination. Perhaps that suggests his film music makes that same assumption about what adults can engage with, enjoy and understand – indeed, perhaps it compounds its fundamental problems by making this assumption about children and then seeking to treat adults in the same way. But i’m digressing; that’s a discussion for another time; suffice it to say that, at his Proms appearance, Zimmer just sounded like Zimmer, regardless of who happened to be in the room, young or old.

Yet these same questions raised their head again at the Proms last Sunday, at an event called ‘Lost Words’, another concert aimed primarily at children (and/or treating adults like children). The concert was a uniquely bizarre mélange of cloying, alarmist, nostalgic propagandising about the environment, nature and language. It was a performance as difficult to negotiate as it was to stomach, including two world premières, by Jocelyn Pook and Alissa Firsova, performed by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain with the Southbank Sinfonia, conducted by Jessica Cottis.

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