UK

Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Lennox Berkeley & Judith Weir

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HAPPY CHRISTMAS!. To celebrate the feast, here’s a selection from the renowned Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols that took place yesterday at King’s College, Cambridge.

After the fifth lesson came I sing of a maiden by Lennox Berkeley, a sublime creation, its ostensible simplicity containing some lovely harmonic piquancy. Berkeley was the first composer to be commissioned to write a new anthem for this service, back in the early 1980s, beginning an admirable tradition of commissioning a new work each year. 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. At the end of last month, Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ featured Chin’s more recent music. The 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 acknowledges this in her interview during the programme, where she refers to her piece as an ‘answer’ to Ligeti’s. She also speaks 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. 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. This performance of the Violin Concerto was given bu Hae-Sun Kang and the BBC Philharmonic, conducted by James MacMillan. Read more

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

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Here’s a recording of James MacMillan‘s most recent work, the String Quartet No. 3, premièred by the Takacs Quartet on 21 May, at the QEH in London. i don’t know either of MacMillan’s previous two quartets, but this new addition is a fairly ambitious work. MacMillan speaks 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. Read more

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Choral Evening Prayer (Buckfast Abbey): music by Philip Moore

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It’s been a while since i’ve featured Choral Evensong on here; they really haven’t been terribly interesting of late. However, today’s service of Choral Evening Prayer took place during the annual Exon Singers Festival from Buckfast Abbey in Devon. Buckfast is a place close to my heart; i’ve been there a number of times, and it’s a sublime, gorgeous place, with spacious gardens populated by a plethora of types of lavender, and its shop selling monastic goods from around the world, including the renowned and highly-charged liqueur Chartreuse. A thriving monastery, it’s not surprising that the worship from Buckfast should be measured and thoughtful, offered with the greatest of care, making it a dual delight for the listener, both in terms of style and content.

Focus of the service was on composer Philip Moore, former director of music of York Minster. Read more

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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

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 2 Comments

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. Read more

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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. Read more

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Music for Ascension Day: Patrick Gowers – Viri Galilaei

Posted on by 5:4 in Seasonal | 3 Comments

Forty days after Easter, today marks the Feast of the Ascension. Despite being one of the four ‘pillars’ of the Church’s liturgical calendar (along with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), this feast has never attracted composers quite as much as the others. i imagine it’s a combination of the relatively short shrift given to it in the Gospels, as well as – dare i say it – the slightly comic idea of Christ ascending into the clouds (there’s a well-known painting of this scene (i forget which), with Christ’s feet hilariously protruding from the base of a cloud). It’s no doubt the lack of alternative material that has led to Gerald Finzi‘s God is gone up becoming the sine qua non on this particular day. Not that that should take anything away from Finzi’s piece; it’s superb, and contains some of the most exquisite words ever set to music:

God is gone up with a triumphant shout:
The Lord with sounding Trumpets’ melodies:
Sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praise, sing Praises out,
Unto our King sing praise seraphicwise!
Lift up your Heads, ye lasting Doors, they sing,
And let the King of Glory enter in.

Methinks I see Heaven’s sparkling courtiers fly,
In flakes of Glory down him to attend,
And hear Heart-cramping notes of Melody
Surround his Chariot as it did ascend;
Mixing their Music, making ev’ry string
More to enravish as they this tune sing.

Read more

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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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Silent Song: James MacMillan – Cantos Sagrados

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If Good Friday is emotionally draining, Holy Saturday feels emotionally empty, numbed and spent. i never quite know what to do with myself on this awful day; everything, somehow, feels wrong, trivial or stupid. i imagine i’m not alone in this; perhaps it’s this feeling that explains the general liturgical silence draped over the day (the Dutch very appropiately call today ‘Stille Zaterdag’, ‘Silent Saturday’). One of the few composers to have confronted this kind of void, and – more importantly – the human motivations that cause it, is James MacMillan. Read more

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Stark and unanswerable: John Sanders – The Reproaches

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Seasonal | 6 Comments

Each year, on this, its most solemn day, i used to travel to Gloucester Cathedral for the morning Liturgy. Their approach, while lacking a true sense of the abject, was fittingly sombre, particularly at the service’s central point, the Veneration of the Cross. The moment is crushing enough, filing to the high altar to face the Cross and all it signifies, but the Cathedral then crowns it by performing John Sanders‘ setting of The Reproaches. The Cross before me; Sanders’ music behind me; on all sides the unavoidable, unanswerable, questions posed by the refrain:

O my people, what have I done to you? How have I offended you? Answer me! Read more

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Hoping against hope: Thomas Adès – Gefriolsæ me

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It was at a concert in the spring of 1995 that i first encountered the music of Thomas Adès. The piece was Living Toys, and it was significant to my own development as a composer; i came away from the concert with a new vigour, determination and excitement about the music i wanted to create. Tom and i became mild acquaintances, and i even went to spend an afternoon with him in Cambridge, to discuss my work. While i don’t follow his music as closely as then, i still find it fascinating, and feel he’s one of this country’s more interesting composers.

A CD of Living Toys was released in 1998, and tucked quietly onto the end of that disc is a short work for male voices, entitled Gefriolsæ me. The text is an Anglo Saxon rendering of part of a verse from Psalm 51, a psalm that, due to its powerful penitential sentiments, is closely associated with Lent:

Gefriolsæ me of blodum, God hælu mine.
(“Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God my saviour.”) Read more

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Autechre, and the Question of Quaristice

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases | 9 Comments

Prior to the launch of Quaristice, Autechre‘s Sean Booth said the following, in an interview with Clash Magazine, concerning the issue of whether to buy the digital download or the physical CD:

It makes no odds to me. Actually, it does; I’d prefer (people) to download it than buy it physically. It fits our agenda much better that way. Our plan has never been to produce CDs – it’s always been about making music. If there’s a way of charging for it and getting the content to people, then we’ll adopt whichever is the most transparent. The actual product is the FLAC file – but I don’t object to those who want to own something that they can hold.

In itself, this is a valuable and thought-provoking addition to the debate which has been rearing up increasingly often over the last few years. But returning to this specific example, i think one needs to consider Booth’s comments in the light of the fact that Quaristice has been released in two editions, the latter of which – including a bonus CD of re-worked and alternative versions of the tracks on the main album – was a limited edition of only 1,000 copies, with no digital download option. Is it me, or is there a contradiction here? That tracks of such quality and importance – both within Autechre’s oeuvre and electronic music more widely – should be denied to the majority of their listeners seems clearly at odds with Sean Booth’s intentions. If we are to take Booth at his word, that Autechre is only concerned with “making music” and getting it out by “the most transparent” methods possible, it’s ridiculous to release a special edition of the album in this way. Furthermore, copies are already appearing on eBay for sums well in excess of £100 (they were sold for £25), which makes Autechre’s claimed intentions even more ludicrous. Of course, the special edition could be a ruse by Warp to increase interest and generate extra income; but somehow i doubt it, as Warp has always (seemed to) put its artists’ intentions as paramount. Read more

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Delicate and damaged; broken and beautiful: Burial

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Listening to as much music as i do, it’s quite rare to come across something that’s truly surprising. While surprises aren’t as rare as shocks (which are becoming extinct, it seems), they’re elusive nonetheless, and when they do happen it’s exciting and compelling. Those two words apply well to the music of Burial, who emerged seemingly from nowhere in late 2005. Things haven’t changed much since then; somehow, he’s managed to remain anonymous – a handful of people, apparently, know who he is – which is a remarkable achievement. Not as remarkable an achievement as his music, however, which breaks apart the relatively flimsy ideas of dubstep and garage, and creates delicate, damaged objects from the pieces. In fact, brokenness is a quality that pervades all his work, an innate sense of the tragic; Burial is casting his eyes over the world around him and clearly finds the spectacle saddening.

It takes someone with acute sensibilites to say something so stark and emotive through a music of this kind; all the more reason, i suppose, why such a critical source as The Wire named Burial’s eponymous first album as its 2006 Album of the Year. From the opening, untitled, track onwards, there’s an air of mystery cloaking his music, and yet simultaneously it sounds very familiar, very British (a title like “Gutted” affirms its Englishness). Listening to Burial is to be transported to the streets of a city suburb, beneath nocturnal rain; the most telling tracks bespeak devastation in very different ways. Read more

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