UK

Naomi Pinnock – Lines and Spaces

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It’s fitting that the first portrait disc devoted to the music of UK composer Naomi Pinnock should be titled Lines and Spaces. Not merely because one of the four works featured on the disc has that as its title, but due to the fact that every time i’ve listened to it it’s got me thinking about polarities. There’s a reference to the musical stave in that title, but it also alludes to one of Pinnock’s recurring inspirations, the work of artist Agnes Martin, whose paintings are characterised by the juxtaposition of line and space, usually within a soft, muted colour palette. Though the polarity seems obvious, my own experiences with Martin’s work in recent years have found the apparent opposite of elements to be more complex. Are the lines ‘material’ and the spaces ‘immaterial’ (in every sense of the word), or do the spaces exhibit a different kind of ‘materiality’? Furthermore, do the lines enclose space, exerting an implied inward force, or do they simply demarcate the bounds of the space, which exerts an implied outward force? Maybe it’s a bit of both; either way, the two are held in a perfect equilibrium, but one that paradoxically seems both taut and relaxed.

The same could be said for a great deal of Naomi Pinnock’s music. The most explicit example of this, unsurprisingly, is to be found in the title work, a piece for solo piano comprising three ‘spaces’ and three ‘lines’, performed here by its dedicatee, Richard Uttley. A work i’ve written about previously, its polarity is primarily heard in the contrast between these discrete kinds of music. The ‘lines’ consist of rapid middle C repetitions, each of which has a different element introduced at its centre – an octave displacement, adjacent pitches, and an oblique chord cutting across – resulting in a simple bare-bones drama. The ‘spaces’ are expansive; i likened them before to “droplets of harmonic colour like blobs of ink falling into water”, and while the essence of that is right, i realise that that description possibly suggests a disconnect between them, as if they were isolated motes of pitch unrelated to one another. The reality is that there’s a form of contemplation going on, a quiet wrangling with notes in which ideas don’t just connect but circle around in a way that suggests an underlying obsessive quality. There’s that equilibrium: taut and relaxed, the music sometimes temporarily fixated, sometimes breezily moving on. It’s worth emphasising that Uttley is the ideal pianist for music like this; i’ve always admired his ability to combine intricate precision with understated romanticism, which is the perfect combination for a piece like Lines and Spaces. Read more

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Outside-In: Monty Adkins

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Today’s addition to the Outside-In field recording compilation comes from Huddersfield-based composer Monty Adkins. Here’s Monty’s introduction

The recording was made in February 2019 during a residency in Reims. The short soundscape charts the route from my apartment to the studio space in which I was working.

Proceeding from the apartment through the beautiful old heavy wooden door that sealed the courtyard from the street beyond, up the Rue des Capucins and onto the Rue Hincmar, the soundscape slowly moves from relatively deserted streets to the busier central part of the city. Traversing the Rue Chazny brings the listener to the Rue Libergier and the stunning approach to the imposing 13th-century Gothic Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. The cafe cries, speeding moped over the cobbled streets and other quotidian sounds now seem distinctly otherworldly to me after almost three months of lockdown. The soundscape then charts the walk from the Cathédrale up Rue du Trésor before finishing at the Rue Carnot.

Listening back at this recording now I am struck by its simplicity, a normality I am sure we are all yearning for.

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Nokuit – Live at Cafe OTO

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While it remains impossible to experience live performances at the moment, i’ve been enjoying doing it virtually by immersing myself in Live at Cafe OTO, a recording of the half-hour debut performance given there in summer 2018 by sound artist Nokuit. i need to cut to the chase with this one: the thing i love most about it is the ambiguity of its tone. It’s an ambiguity nicely suggested in the cover artwork, where a dark, grainy image (possibly of a distant block of flats) is aggressively challenged by an explosion of impossible brightness in the foreground. A similar polarisation of black and white can be heard in the music, conveying both a Damoclesian dystopian doom alongside burning shafts of hopeful radiance. It makes for a highly dramatic, almost melodramatic, narrative, caught in a volatile space where we find ourselves pulled down, brought low, only then to be buoyed up and raised aloft, in every sense elevated.

The music emerges out of Cafe OTO’s murmuring ambiance into a mess of squeaky friction and unintelligible speech, a disorienting but engaging opening that soon finds stability in a powerful 2-note (major third) bass oscillation. Even as early as this, though, there’s an ominous tinge to this stability, and it’s hard to say whether it’s a relief or not to return to the more confusing melée of elements that eventually causes it to break down, channelled through a forceful column of noise. This intense balancing act continues through similarly sharp contrasts of clarity and (un)certainty: a beautiful, intense early climax around nine minutes in, laden with squelch and pounding impacts, breaks apart and suddenly everything is just ticking over, pulled back but poised. A new semitone oscillation starts up, its tones rippling with distortion like beams of light too bright for dark-adapted eyes to be able to register them properly. Read more

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Yfat Soul Zisso – Together, alone

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At the moment, stuck in the lockdown with no foreseeable end, i’m experiencing (like, i imagine, many people) good days and bad days – the former when my mind is focused and energised, the latter when it feels flat and enervated. It’s a situation that’s made a chamber work i heard last October take on a richer meaning. Together, alone by Yfat Soul Zisso is a piece that very obviously channels disquiet, discomfort and pain, drawing on the sensation of feeling isolated even when surrounded by others. It’s a sense of dislocation and separation that i recognise myself, one that has taken on extra dimensions in the current climate when the word “social” can hardly be uttered without being followed by “distance”.

The piece has a Skempton-like simplicity – by which i mean it’s deceptive, not actually simple at all. That being said, Zisso’s music is also very clear and immediate. Initially, we hear an F-sharp minor chord sequence; it’s stable, yet at the same time it’s obviously fragile, sounding desperately elegiac. Over time that stability is revealed to be, depending on your perspective, either precarious or downright non-existent. Two unities come undone: the players no longer operate as a group, by turns breaking off independently, in the process thinning out the chords and questioning the group’s actions; and the harmonic integrity of those chords is made oblique by an increasing intrusion of microtones. The result is a blurred semblance of something identifiable, like trying to see clearly through eyes filled with tears. There’s an implied frustration underpinning and/or arising from this, made plain in the agonising sequence of repeated chords that ends the piece, hammer blows that just feel completely numb. Read more

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John Tavener – Flood of Beauty (World Première)

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i’m bringing this year’s Lent Series to an end with the last large-scale work by one of Britain’s most strange and singular composers, John Tavener. Tavener died in November 2013, and in some respects it would be hard to go out with a bigger bang than with Flood of Beauty which, though composed many years earlier (between July 2006 and July 2007), only received its first performance in the autumn of 2014. At 104 minutes’ duration, the piece is significantly shorter than many of Tavener’s multiple-hour works – none more so than the 7-hour behemoth The Veil of the Temple (2001) – but the piece is nonetheless massive in its own right, and for reasons other than just its (still very lengthy) time-span.

In his later life, the nature and articulation of Tavener’s religious outlook became increasingly nebulous and non-specific, moving away from clear Orthodox inspirations to embrace other modes of thought and belief, ultimately favouring of a more Universalist mindset. In terms of the effect that this had on his work – from both compositional and listening perspectives –  i’m not sure it really made that much of a difference. As i’ve discussed previously, Tavener always tended to take a de facto approach to the presentation of religiosity in his work. Far from attempting to sonically contextualise his beliefs – for example, dramatising them, or at least giving them a kind of parabolic or allegorical quality – he instead presented them in an unequivocal, fait accompli fashion, likening this to the experiencing of entering an Orthodox church and being instantly surrounded and enclosed by decorative glory. In practice, the experience was usually akin to skipping over the first two volumes of Dante’s Divine Comedy and leaping straight into the Paradiso; if transcendence is all you’re after then perhaps the result is satisfying enough – you get, in essence, what you came for – though one can’t help feeling that the culmination of Dante’s experience is so much more emotionally (and, if you like, spiritually) meaningful and relatable in light of the incredible journey to arrive at that point. Perhaps Tavener felt that the real world – the concert hall, and the audience sitting within it – was the context to which his music provided some kind of contrasting quasi-divine apogee. But for me, the way his music always tended to hit the ground running, so to speak – assuming rather than demonstrating; taking for granted rather than attempting to convince – seemed the epitome of preaching to the converted: perfect if you already shared his outlook; alienating and downright eccentric if you didn’t. This applies to a great deal of his work (and not only his, of course), both the more purely Orthodox as well as the later, more Universalist compositions, so from a listening perspective the only significant change in this regard is the sense that the music has undergone a shift from what we might conventionally regard as ‘sacred music’ to something less easily categorisable, though aesthetically sharing aspects of New Age music. In this respect, a title like Flood of Beauty is telling; it evokes… something, though what that something is is ill-defined and subjective. Read more

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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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