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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Gabriel Jackson – The Christ-child (World Première)

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A VERY HAPPY CHRISTMAS TO YOU ALL!

The tradition of commissioning a new carol each year for the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at King’s College, Cambridge, continued in 2009, with the renowned choral composer Gabriel Jackson chosen this year. His carol, The Christ-child,  uses an interesting text by G. K. Chesterton (The Christ-child lay on Mary’s lap), alternating external observations with parenthetical reflections. Jackson picks up the contrast (each parenthesis ending in soft humming), but placing it within a gradually intensifying context, with the key words “light”, “star”, “fire” and “crown” given especial emphasis; it’s a very successful setting, although the ending feels a little laboured, perhaps even forced (from the composer, not the choir).

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The Revelation

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Quite a few years ago, in the early 1990s, the BBC broadcast what i can only assume was one of the last productions to have involved the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. It was a one-off dramatisation of the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible, starring Derek Jacobi in the rôle of John the evangelist, accompanied by music composed by Radiophonic Workshop veteran Peter Howell. Howell’s music – akin more to a film score than the bleeps and noises of conventional Radiophonic fare – is a mixture of synthesisers and voices (performed by the BBC Singers) and, along with the striking sound effects, helps to bring this most abstruse portion of scripture alive in a powerful, vivid way. The dramatisation uses about a third of the text of Revelation from the King James Version, and is grand in scope beyond its 30-minute brevity, particularly in the opening of the Seven Seals, and the encounter with the Whore of Babylon. It’s preceded by a specially-written introduction to Revelation, read by Judy Dench. As the season of Advent is now upon us, shifting attention forward, to the future, there’s no better time to delve deeply into the Bible’s most challenging book. Read more

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25 years on: Propaganda – Dr. Mabuse and Bronski Beat – Smalltown Boy

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This year marks the 25th anniversary of two of the most striking songs of the 1980s—as well as being, in my opinion, among the best songs of all time.

The first is “Dr. Mabuse” by German synthpop outfit Propaganda, inspired by the character made famous by Fritz Lang. Released to a modicum of chart success in March 1984 (it reached No. 27 in the UK chart the following month), my first contact with the song was a few months later, on the compilation album Now That’s What I Call Music 3. Propaganda spent much of their time in the shadow of mightier acts; they hailed from Dusseldorf, home to none other than Kraftwerk, and during their time on the renowned ZTT label—formed out of the perfect collision of Paul Morley and Trevor Horn—continuously played second fiddle to Frankie Goes To Hollywood, whose song “Relax”, released a couple of months earlier, had taken the label into the stratosphere of success (aided in no small part by the BBC’s laughable “ban”). This, together with their particularly European (i.e. non-British) sound—crowned by Claudia Brücken’s sharply accented vocals—meant that Propaganda’s popularity in the UK never lived up to their merits. Not that they were the most imaginative band in the world; they certainly weren’t, but “Dr. Mabuse” is an outstanding song, surpassing everything they did after, and outclassing most other songs that year. A feature of the ZTT label—rarely an advantageous or helpful one—was that remixes of songs released as singles were made in abundance. Furthermore, the same version often ended up with a plethora of subtly different titles and accompanying verbiage, which may have been something to do with releases in different territories or even the label losing the plot (clearly the case on some occasions), but was most likely the influence of Paul Morley, someone not exactly known for restraint where words are concerned. “Dr. Mabuse” is no stranger to this melée of remixes and names, but thankfully not to the same extent as Frankie Goes To Hollywood; the number of versions is relatively low. Read more

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HCMF 2008: Markus Trunk, Richard Barrett, John Cage

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Returning to the (more recent) archives, here are some interesting works taking a look back at the 2008 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Markus Trunk‘s Parhelion is most striking for its extreme delicacy; after a while, the prominent celesta actually starts to sound loud. The material appears as though formed from gas, its opening textures swiftly dissipating into soft whisps of chord that engage and beguile the ear. This sort of ostensible simplicity requires its own kind of virtuosity—a single note played out of place, or too loudly, would irrevocably rupture its surface—and Apartment House deliver Trunk’s vision with flawless clarity. There really isn’t enough music like this around at the moment. Trunk’s music also featured in the hands of plus-minus ensemble, who performed Raw Rows. At first, it seems to bears no resemblance to the other work, being a highly rhythmic working out of scalic patterns. In its own way, though, it ploughs an equally ascetic, single-minded furrow, the scales gradually being stretched out to the point where every note becomes a minutely significant event. This is material that, again, requires the players to demonstrate virtuosity of time and coordination in order for these sparse, staccato notes to be perfectly synchronised—it’s exciting that music of this kind should be simultaneously so simple and so complex. Read more

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Hoping against hope: the soft, exquisite sorrow of Daisy Chapman

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What is it, i’ve often wondered, that makes melancholy such rich, fertile inspiration for art? Perhaps because in its impossibly deep, dark furrows—in the troughs of our experience—there simply is nothing else an artist can do, but (in whatever guise) sing. Art, after all, captures what words alone cannot; it goes beyond them and taps into something more honest, that must be expressed; E. E. Cummings alludes to this idea in one his poems, powerfully distancing it from mere speech: “wild (at our first) beasts uttered human words | —our second coming made stones sing like birds—”. Yet there is also, i would venture, something essentially optimistic, something hopeful in the very act of turning such black honesty into art: the fact that an artist sings, rather than—like most—simply curling up or lashing out, betrays more at the heart of it all; Cummings again, in the final two lines from his finest poem, says it best: “where everything’s nothing | —arise, my soul;and sing”. And from just such a place, doing just that is Daisy Chapman. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – The Wells Service

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Yesterday’s Choral Evensong came from one of our most beautiful cathedrals, Wells Cathedral, celebrating the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The canticles came in the form of Peter Maxwell-DaviesWells Service. The Magnificat is a dense and stodgy affair, briefly aerated with a treble solo; it’s a pensive, even an introspective setting, opting for restrained technicolour (the harmonies are sumptuously rich) rather than ebullience.

This is taken much further in the Nunc dimittis, which begins disarmingly simply before its phrases begin to become stretched out in deliciously poignant fashion, particularly in the doxology where, at “world without end”, the music halts as if to reflect at length on the closing words; it concludes with one of the most sublime settings of the word “amen” that i’ve ever heard.

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George Benjamin – Viola, Viola; Three Miniatures for Solo Violin; Into the Little Hill

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George Benjamin is one of the first contemporary composers in whom i became interested, as a teenager. It’s difficult to pin down or articulate quite what i find appealing in his music, and in fact reasonably often i’ve found myself ambivalent about certain pieces. There’s an intensity and earnestness of intention that can be a double-edged sword; his works may come across as somewhat over-wrought and rather too cerebral, but personally i would prefer that to something insufficiently considered any day. Whatever; here are three works from a concert given by Ensemble Modern at the Bockenheimer Depot in November 2007. Read more

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An absolute must-have: Steven Wilson – Insurgentes

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It may only be two-thirds of the way through January, but already i’m fairly sure that i’ve heard the album that’ll be my best of the year: Steven Wilson‘s Insurgentes. Wilson is the musician behind, among other acts, Porcupine Tree and Bass Communion, and Insurgentes—the first album he has released under his own name—brings together the best elements of those projects and much else besides. Strictly speaking, it was released last year, in a limited edition of 3,000 copies; the retail version was to have been released at the end of February this year, but appears to have been pushed back to March. However, in true Trent Reznor style, if you pre-order, you’re immediately given a link to download the entire album in mp3 format (256Kbps) to tide you over. Read more

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Ancient and modern: Unsuk Chin – Violin Concerto, Miroirs des temps; Chris Dench – Passing bells: night

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i’ve been a fan of Unsuk Chin‘s music ever since she returned to instrumental writing in the early ’90s with Akrostichon-Wortspiel. Her Violin Concerto is awash with invention; all the talk of open strings is simply an opening gambit, from where it departs into vivid and distinctly unfamiliar territory. Often, the use of open strings is redolent of Berg’s concerto, but it’s unfair to latch onto that association, as Chin really does operate in a world apart. It’s much more akin to Ligeti’s concerto, and Chin has acknowledged this, referring to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She’s also spoken of a desire to avoid a conventional orchestral sound through the introduction of ununusal instruments; the final movement of the concerto features steel drums, which inject a fittingly exotic and unconventional twist to the work as a whole.

Miroirs des temps, with dense multi-part crab canons, is a compositional tour-de-force, but also rather strange. Composed for four solo voices (ATTB) and orchestra, it doesn’t begin in the most auspicious way, the singers sounding, frankly, drab against the gentle interest of the orchestra; and when it then lurches into pastiche, i admit i had to restrain myself from stopping listening. It broadens into more interesting areas, though, as it approaches its middle; the fourth movement, dark and indistinct, is especially exciting. But, of course, this is a “mirror of time”, and so the less interesting faux Machaut and drabness return as the work progresses; not her finest work, by any means, but equally not without some very special moments—it’s just a shame that they are only moments. Read more

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James MacMillan – String Quartet No. 3 (World Première)

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James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, was premièred a couple of months ago by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan spoke in his preliminary discussion (illustrated with examples by the Takacs) of the melodic, cantabile quality of the material, and this is highly evident throughout, especially in the lyrical first movement, the principal theme of which has a distinct Jewish flavour. Strange, disjunct gestures begin the second movement, ominous and disquieted. From them, melodic fragments appear, many of them cast from a similarly disquieted mould: the viola embarks on a short restless journey, buzzing like an angry bee; later all four combine to sound like a heavily wheezing concertina. On a couple of occasions, dance figurations try to assert themselves, only to be thrust brusquely back into the maelstrom and promptly dissipated; the movement ends much as it began, one of MacMillan’s most fascinatingly strange creations. The lyricism returns for the final movement, which is the most conservative and familiar of the three. It is all melody, led powerfully by the first violin, charting a trajectory into the most achingly high regions of its E string, its three companions forming a supportive trio at its base. At the summit, it repeats plaintively, and everything turns harmonic, fading into transparency.

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The ambient tradition: black on black – Lustmord and the dark side of ambient

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At its best, ambient descries a vista that is vast in scope, epic in scale, often ablaze with light. However, light presupposes darkness (check Genesis if you don’t believe me) and likewise all landscapes have their shadows. From the deepest of them (perhaps their very source), comes the voice of Brian “Lustmord” Williams, ascending like a black, primordial plume. If dark ambient can be said to originate with anyone, Lustmord must be one of the prime contenders. But “dark” in more than just the most obvious, superficial sense; from his earliest experimental releases, Lustmord has unswervingly focused his attention on the blacker regions of existence and experience. Titles such as Paradise Disowned, Heresy, The Place Where The Black Stars Hang and The Monstrous Soul are poetic and wildly evocative, conjuring up worlds that are no less infinite, but of a very different hue. This is mirrored in the sources of his material, emanating from crypts to caves to slaughterhouses, from deep within a shelter to deep beneath the sea; in the preparation for his canvasses, Lustmord goes to remarkable and highly symbolic lengths to acquire his pigments. It has to be said, though, that Lustmord’s dark ambient associations occasionally lead him in an unhelpful direction. Akin to the teenage goth, some of his works sound almost like a parody, their darkness taken to ludicrous extremes, in the process losing all semblance of seriousness and intensity. The most glaring example of this is the relatively recent Rising, a document to Lustmord’s performance at a Church of Satan event in 2006. Both this album and its successor, Juggernaut, suggest an unfortunate development, the music sounding like it is trying rather too hard to affect an air of menace. His earlier creations are far more natural and more genuinely unsettling, their textures effortlessly blending in an aural equivalent of the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. Like Reinhardt, one can skim the surface of the work, allowing its essential tone to envelop the senses; or one can examine more closely, and find layers that at first seemed impenetrably hidden—another example of the dual properties of the “ambient tradition”. Read more

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David Briggs – Symphony in Four Movements

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A former Director of Music of Gloucester Cathedral, David Briggs has made something of a name for himself as a creator of large-scale improvisations. From a compositional standpoint, they’re generally contrived and unoriginal; Briggs – like fellow organist Wayne Marshall – has a penchant for creating music in the styles of others, rather than forging an individual style of his own. Also like Marshall, his musical personality tends toward the extravagant, but while in Marshall’s playing the results are reckless and repulsively showy, Briggs manages to focus this quality, bringing a breathless exuberance to his performances. Most remarkable of all, though, is his technique with the instrument, which is simply amazing. Read more

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Bitter and strong: the legacy of Dubstar

Posted on by 5:4 in Retrospectives | 6 Comments

A few months back, the announcement was made that Dubstar were at work on a fourth album, due for release this year. This came from Steve Hillier, brains of the outfit, who has, in the intervening years since Dubstar’s departure from the music scene, continued to maintain webpages connected with their music. Perhaps Hillier’s prevalent nostalgia is what has kickstarted the Dubstar motor once again, or perhaps they just couldn’t help themselves (real musicians never can); either way, things are afoot. i think that history – with all the old-fashioned benevolence of a grandmother – has been kind to Dubstar: they are encased within a memory that finds playful melodies and darkly acerbic lyrics conjoined, a paradox perfectly encapsulated in the person of singer Sarah Blackwood, her strongly northern dialect colliding with her angelic, unwavering soprano voice. Dubstar, in short, are like one of Grayson Perry‘s ceramics, discreetly placing disturbing imagery within a context that at first seems familiar and safe. It’s been interesting, then, to revisit all their old releases, many of which have been untouched on the CD shelves for far too long; ten singles (all long out of print), three albums, plus one or two other odds and ends, totalling a little over seven hours of music. Released over a five-year period, this is a fair achievement. But how does the music acquit itself now? What is Dubstar’s legacy? Read more

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Ensemble Exposé: Brian Ferneyhough – Incipits (UK Première) plus Davies, Xenakis, Barrett, Dillon and Sørensen

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Here’s a real treat for those who prefer their contemporary music to be at the more intellectually rewarding end of the continuum. It’s music from a concert given at the ICA in London by Ensemble Exposé (plus violist Garth Knox), under the direction of Roger Redgate, who also discusses the music being performed. The concert explored works by diverse composers, from the relatively gentle and meditative soundscapes of Paul Davies and Bent Sørensen to the more densely intricate textures of James Dillon and Richard Barrett (Barrett originally co-founded the ensemble with Redgate); Xenakis, as ever, stands apart, uniquely indescribable. It culminated in the first UK performance of Incipits by one of the greats of contemporary music, Brian Ferneyhough, a fascinating work exploring different ways to start a composition. Also included is a lengthy interview with the composer including a number of other short pieces.


Paul Davies – Genji’s Visit to Utsusemi


Iannis Xenakis – Embellie

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.


Richard Barrett – Anatomy


James Dillon – Siorram


Bent Sørensen – Funeral Procession

The audio has been removed as a commercial recording is now available.


Brian Ferneyhough – Incipits (UK Première)

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Versions, versions everywhere (plus a red herring): Autechre – Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae

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Early yesterday morning, after a number of the wrong kind of glitches at Bleep.com, the final tracks of Autechre‘s Quaristice.Quadrange.ep.ae became available. Versions, versions everywhere: and with this – after 44 tracks, totalling almost 5 hours – i think one can assume that the Quaristice project is at an end. i, for one, have found it to be a fascinating and thoughtful journey. As a whole, the project poses the question of whether any of the tracks from the original release should be regarded as ‘definitive’, or instead that all of the versions are different but equally significant expressions of a common (or even an uncommon) idea. My impression is that both contain some truth; there’s clearly some connection intended to be made, as the track titles bear similarities that invite comparison. Like its predecessor, Quaristice (Versions), then, this album may be heard both in its own context, as well as the wider one encompassing all three Quaristice releases. Read more

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Thomas Adès – These Premises Are Alarmed, Concerto Conciso, Asyla (World Premières)

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i’ve been interested in Thomas Adès‘ work for many years, so here are recordings of the world première performances of three of his compositions. The tale behind his miniature orchestral work These Premises Are Alarmed is interesting, if disappointing. Adès was commissioned to compose a piece for the series of three inaugural concerts at Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall, which opened in September 1996 (i was fortunate enough to attend these concerts). For some time beforehand, the word was circulated that Adès was at work on a piano concerto, which – in Classical fashion – he would direct from the keyboard. As the concert approached, however, rumours began to fly that Adès was having difficulties with the piece and things seemed to be getting rather desperate. Eventually, all that could be salvaged from the project was a mere three minutes of music, a pretty meagre offering (George Benjamin, also commissioned for these concerts, wrote Sometime Voices, a substantial work). It’s difficult to be too praiseworthy about These Premises Are Alarmed; the orchestration is interesting and lively, but there’s the ever-present sense that this is material pieced together in haste. Nonetheless, it’s a testament to Adès’ abilities that the result has such aplomb. It was premièred at the Bridgewater Hall on 12 September 1996 by the Hallé Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano.

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More from The Pipettes – two live concerts

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As an addendum to yesterday’s post, here are two excellent recordings of The Pipettes performing live. The first comes from the 2007 South By South West festival in Austin, Texas; two excellent reviews of the concert – with great pictures! – can be found here and here. The concert includes two non-album tracks, “Guess Who Ran Off With The Milkman?” and “True Love Waits Patiently For A Miracle”. Read more

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The Pipettes: changing once again

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i’m in mourning at present. A few days ago, it was announced that two members of The Pipettes, RiotBecki and Rosay, are leaving “to pursue other musical projects”. i’ve nothing against change, of course, and in their five years The Pipettes have already experienced a fair amount of alterations, but these two together with Gwenno seemed to have achieved the ideal balance. Although there’s more than a whiff of being another pre-fab band (a fact their name hints at), they demonstrate an originality and talent which sets them apart from anything remotely ‘plastic’. The three-part harmonies that fill their early 50s-/60s-inspired miniatures are sumptuous, showing these girls really can sing, not merely perform (though they do perform brilliantly too, playing their own instruments and performing retro dance numbers). All the more sad that changes are afoot; the replacements are to be Anna and Ani (Gwenno’s sister), and according to Gwenno, the trio is demoing 20-25 new songs. Writing about the situation on the band’s website, Gwenno sounds both optimistic – “People may be confused by such a drastic change in line-up but please rest assured – if we were to be an imitation of ourselves we would stop” – and tantalising – “…we’re incredibly excited to be working toward bringing you a new album that will be unlike anything we (or anyone else) have ever done”. A change is probably a good thing; Rosay’s voice, in particular, has been central to the current Pipettes sound, so it’ll be interesting to hear how the new trio will sound. Either way though, The Pipettes as i’ve known and loved them are no more…

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Vitrolic, bitter and brilliant: Transvision Vamp – Velveteen

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When i was 16, i bought my first CD player. At the time – and i’m conscious how old i feel saying this – it was still a real novelty for anyone my age to possess their own CD player, and it was one of the (mercifully) few times when i was the centre of attention, everyone wanting to experience the clarity of digital music. At the same time, i bought 4 CDs, the start of a collection that i now have neither the time nor the inclination to count. Among those four was Transvision Vamp‘s second album Velveteen, that had been recently released (also among the four was Martika’s self-titled debut album, but we all make mistakes). My interest in Transvision Vamp began when their first single, “I Want Your Love” was released the previous year. Both the song, and its accompanying video, are breathtaking; it’s one of those amazing moments when you hear a song by an artist you’ve never encountered before, and the experience is totally enthralling. i can’t recall another female vocalist who was quite like Wendy James at that time: she snarled and screeched and screamed, she was the archetypal rock-chick, full of froth and feist, and she oozed sexuality (i admit i had many posters of her on my wall). One of the reasons why their sound was so refreshing, i think, is because it was at a time when the acid-house scene was reaching its peak, and the so-called “Madchester” bands were beginning to become really popular, a style of music that, with a few exceptions, i found bland, generic and – worst of all – eager to please. So Transvision Vamp’s combination of rock with (rather mild) punk was an exciting break from the norm. Read more

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Leave your high hopes at the door: Portishead – Third

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Engaging with music (or any of the arts) is one of the greatest, most edifying experiences life has to offer. Arguably the most insuperable barrier to this engagement is expectation. It’s a mistake that arises all too easily; our past experiences (pleasurable or otherwise) construct the likelihood of a similar future, resulting in a travesty of closed-minded thinking, masquerading as openness. But any encounter, afflicted with the weight of expectation, is distorted before it has even begun. Portishead‘s new album, Third (released on 28 April), causes this temptation to rear its head in a particularly powerful way. Their eponymous last release, in 1997, ranks as one of the most brilliant and original albums by any artist of the 20th century; that, followed by a 10-year wait for new material, makes the likelihood of expectations very high. But we must leave any and all such high hopes at the door; back in the 90s Portishead got our attention by surprising us, made their mark through a focused, confident and innovative single-mindedness of expression. The most we can allow is to anticipate something of quality; anything more is an affront to their artistry – indeed it is the ultimate insult, demanding from them what we want to hear. Third – like any other release by any other artist (indeed, any encounter of any kind) – must be approached on its own terms, and be allowed to express itself in whatever way it needs to; our expectations can only stifle and obfuscate (or, worse, judge) what we are hearing. Read more

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