UK

CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

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Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly. Read more

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National Maritime Museum, London: Hollie Harding – Melting, Shifting, Liquid World (World Première)

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Contemporary music taking place in unconventional places and spaces has to a large extent become the new normal, as has the concomitant tendency for composers to mould their creativity into site-specific works. A striking example of this took place last Saturday at the National Maritime Museum in London, for the first performances of Hollie Harding‘s Melting, Shifting, Liquid World. Harding is currently a PhD student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire – just a hop and a skip up the road from the museum – and her research is concerned with, among other things, “investigating space and action – movement – as elements of composition”.

For Melting, Shifting, Liquid World this basic premise has been shaped by concerns about climate change and ocean pollution. The piece is made up of three distinct elements. The first consists of a string orchestra, the members of which are dispersed throughout the performance space and who at certain points move around it. A solo electric viola is the second element, positioned at the centre of the space and acting to coordinate and cue the string players during the piece. On this occasion those parts were played by soloist Nic Pendlebury and the Trinity Laban String Ensemble. The work is completed by an electronic part heard by the audience through bone-conducting headphones, enabling one to to experience all three elements simultaneously. Use of this type of headphones wasn’t just a clever solution to the question of how to place the audience within three discrete layers of sound and perceive them all clearly and distinctly: spacial and directional sense is lost when sound is conducted in this way, resulting in a peculiarly intimate form of listening in which the sound appears to be materialising inside one’s head as if from nowhere. So the result was an entirely different, much more expansive sense of immersion than one usually experiences. Read more

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Borealis 2019 (Part 2)

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Nearly but not quite everything that took place at this year’s Borealis festival was light years away from the world of conventional concert performances. The most notable exception to this was the first event i attended, at the Nykirken on Friday evening, given by Sjøforsvarets musikkorps, the Norwegian Naval Forces Band, conducted by Ingar Bergby. They presented three works, two by Norwegian composers and the other by British composer James Clapperton. Written in 2012, Clapperton’s Doroga Zhizni was by far the most overtly earnest of the three pieces. A saxophone concerto written as a commemoration of the Siege of Leningrad, it was difficult to know to what extent this considerable layer of baggage helped or hindered the work. Which is not to say it wasn’t an enjoyable experience. Though its musical language was staunchly conservative, often channelling post-minimalistic prettiness, the interplay between soloist René Wilk (for whom the work was written) and the band was at times highly dramatic. This was the piece at its best; when Clapperton sought to tap into the emotional heft of his subject the music became a generic kind of insipid ‘In memoriam lite’, pseudo-emotive blather that did its inspiration neither any favours nor sufficient justice. It would perhaps have been best to hear the piece without any knowledge of its supposed backstory; as it was, reconciling what we heard with Clapperton’s aspirations proved all but impossible.

It was also quite difficult to square the notes for Therese B. Ulvo‘s Excavation – which spoke about digging away at the brilliance and beauty of the wind band, causing it to be “stripped down to its bones”, and exploring what remained – with the music itself, but in practice it hardly mattered. The piece threw together various opposites, initially managing to sound simultaneously refined and primitive (distantly evoking something of Stravinsky) and putting equal emphasis on melody and noise. In addition to this, while the band as a whole were generally in consensus about their activities and behaviour, the harmonic nature of the music floated completely freely. Only later did it more demonstratively draw nearer to the implications of its title, ideas becoming ‘stuck’ and being explored at length, almost as if they were being worn down and eroded. The weirdly fanfaric way Excavation developed a fin de siècle quality later on was fascinating and the latter half of the piece in particular was deeply engrossing, ultimately unleashing walls of noise so enormous they practically blew themselves out. Read more

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Naomi Pinnock – The field is woven (World Première)

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The inspiration for Naomi Pinnock‘s 2018 orchestral work The field is woven is a series of paintings from 1979 by Agnes Martin titled The Islands. From a distance, these paintings appear to be squares of off-white blankness, yet on closer inspection details become apparent, in the form of colours and carefully-arranged lines and grids. As in Pinnock’s earlier piece Lines and Spaces, this becomes the basis for music where ostensibly great simplicity belies quantities of underlying complexity.

It’s arguably less meaningful here to talk about formal structure and shape, which seem to be a secondary (perhaps even incidental) consideration, than about the arrangement of ideas. The opening portion of the work, which lasts around five minutes, involves various ‘bands’ of chords slowly juxtaposing and colliding. While they exist outside a harmonically-rooted world, there’s nonetheless a palpable sense of stability: dissonances sound like dissonances and are swiftly ‘resolved’ after appearing, and furthermore the entire music appears to be rocking and pivoting on and around a single, fixed axis. This develops from oscillating into a kind of call and response between sections of the orchestra, the beginning of a dialogue of sorts that toys with the possibility of what plausibly appear to be chord progressions, but this turns out to be an illusion. Instead, the work arrives at a gently undulating hocketing that gradually muddies the clarity of its tonal makeup while increasing the rate of its exchanges. In the bigger scheme of things everything is still moving at a pretty lethargic pace, but within the context of The field is woven this sequence sounds positively hurried. Read more

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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British composer James Clarke‘s output has moved away from having poetic or allusive titles, and for the last 12 or so years his works have either been given a codename indicating the year followed by a letter (e.g. 2013-V) or are simply ‘Untitled’. The fact that the latter are numbered suggests, if not continuity, then at least a putative connection, though the instrumentations of the Untitled works vary widely: a large ensemble (No. 1), piano and orchestra twice (Nos. 2 and 8), solo piano on three occasions (Nos. 3, 5 and 7), voices and string quartet (No. 4) and soprano and five players (No. 6). The latest, Untitled No. 9, composed in 2017, is Clarke’s first to be written solely for orchestra. It’s an episodic and elemental piece, two qualities that are in many ways at odds, the episodic structure indicating organisation and clarity, acting in opposition to the elemental nature suggesting wildness and untempered behaviour. Brought together in Untitled No. 9, the result is unsettling yet beguiling, and in an unexpected way they end up complementing each other. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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One of the plagues that continues to afflict most contemporary music festivals is ‘première-itis’, an acute obsession with presenting loudly-trumpeted world premières at the expense of providing opportunities for second, third or indeed nth performances. It was a relief, therefore, that this year’s Dark Music Days (which was otherwise similarly infected) included a number of concerts ​with virtually no premières at all, the first of which was a recital given last Thursday by UK cellist Zoë Martlew.

The concert took place in the imposing cuboid space of Kaldalón Hall, part of Reykjavík’s flagship concert hall complex Harpa, with a programme focusing on Danish and Norwegian music. However, it was a piece by English (Denmark-based) composer Juliana Hodkinson that turned out to be the most flamboyantly memorable, though not primarily for musical reasons. Titled Scrape, it lives up to its name by stipulating that the cellist should scrape heavily not just their instrument but also against a piece of metal, which Martlew had realised with a cheese grater tied to her right foot. The first attempt to perform the piece ended after just a few seconds when Martlew’s bow was spectacularly shredded, its horsehair loosely flapping around; it was hard to tell whether this was a direct consequence of its grinding against the strings or just a coincidence. The second attempt, Martlew having dashed off-stage for a replacement, was more successful inasmuch as the bow held together, although the cheese grater was now doing its best to rebel against Martlew’s actions, turning at 90° to her foot, thereby making it difficult to control. Whether all of this effort was worth it is a good question. Scrape could (charitably) be described as a celebration of the essence of music-making, of the friction essential to the production of all sound, though the way its relentlessly screeching soundworld soon lost much of its impact and power plus the lack of a cogent shape or structure made the piece an exceedingly dull experience. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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On Wednesday, the Dark Music Days moved out of Reykjavík to the arts centre of Hafnarborg in the neighbouring town of Hafnarfjörður, where the Icelandic Guitar Trio – Þórarinn Sigurbergsson, Þröstur Þorbjörnsson and Svanur Vilbergsson – gave a recital featuring three native works alongside music from the UK and USA.

The Icelandic pieces shared a general tendency towards the conservative and traditional. This was most demonstrably the case in Fimm Skissur [Five Sketches] by Hildigunnur Rúnarsdóttir, composed in 2016 but only now receiving its first performance. Everything about it felt rooted in convention, from the fast-slow alternations of its movements to the language of its lyricism, which veered between cheerful Classical simplicity and a more intricate Baroque tendency. The piece was most interesting in the two slow movements where the music sounded least like an exercise in pastiche. The Andante won me over due to the fastidiousness of its counterpoint, which proved hypnotic, while the Lento exhibited a soft delicacy that was particularly lovely at its dying away conclusion. The rest was simply too generic and impersonal to make any kind of meaningful connection. Ari Hálfdán Aðalgeirsson‘s Gaia, another première, was also characterised by fastidiously-composed material, as if each and every note had been positioned and aligned with the greatest care – though never sounding remotely finicky or theoretical. The piece was occasionally a little withdrawn and perhaps a touch backward-looking, but its lightness was very attractive, as was the nicely unpredictable waywardness it exhibited, which kept sidestepping one’s expectations. Read more

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