UK

The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

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The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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New release: ma

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In a few days’ time, my most recent cycle of electronic music will be released by the adventurous Portuguese label, Crónica. The title of the cycle is the Japanese word (ma), which is difficult easily to translate into English. The concept it embodies is a spatial one, specifically the gap between two discrete structural parts or elements, with associated connotations of an interval or pause. In his book Silence in Philosophy, Literature, and Art, Steven Bindeman has described 間 as “the simultaneous awareness of form and non-form … Ma is not created by compositional elements, but takes place in the imagination of someone who experiences these elements. Therefore it can best be defined as the experiential place that is held by an interval.” As such, 間 is often regarded as an embodiment of ‘negative space’, where the apparent absence of substance or form or sound is rendered concrete and tangible.

Those of you who have followed my work over the years may occasionally have heard or seen reference to something i was working on with a provisional title ‘TACET.’, which was originally intended to be an enormous project containing many hours of music. However, as this music was born out of and confronts a very difficult and painful period of my life, i eventually realised that it wasn’t particularly healthy to persist with the project beyond a certain point. My response to this period took shape through meditation on the concept of 間, in which silence is not a simple absence or emptiness but rather becomes a focal point, with a shape, character, and energy that all contribute to a larger whole.

The composition process began with recordings that i made during a traditional Anglican service of Evensong. Everything was then removed from the recordings with the exception of the brief silences that fall between the various sections of the service, fragments of sound capturing echoes, resonances, and glimpses of ambience. These fragments were then used as the sound palette for a series of improvisations that formed the basis for each of the pieces in the cycle. They were subjected to extensive processing and sculpting, and are only occasionally heard in their raw state.

The concept of 間 implies a certain degree of tranquillity and calm, but the emphasis in this music is focused on connotations of negativity. Put simply, this is (from my perspective, at least) angry music, veering between nervous, fretful twitching and unbridled, distorted ferocity. Rage and obsession are recurring traits throughout, manifesting in harsh, acidic, repetitive clatter and throbbing pulses, and even in the more quiet passages – of which there are very many – the music is designed to emphasise tension, unrest and a pervading sense of ominous dread. Listening through headphones or in an extremely quiet space is especially recommended due to the quiet and subtle material that features in some of the pieces.

In its final form, 間 comprises eight works, lasting around an hour, many of which take their titles from poems by E. E. Cummings:

  1. mightily forgetting all which will forget him (emptying our soul of emptiness) priming at every pore a deathless life with magic until peace outthunders silence
  2. }rest{
  3. i see thee then ponder the tinsel part they let thee play
  4. from Silence; of Nothing
  5. O visible beatitude sweet sweet intolerable!
  6. Negative Silence (detail)
  7. [ULTRA]—infra
  8. what neither is any echo of dream nor any flowering of any echo (but the echo of the flower of Dreaming)

There is, i hope, some semblance of catharsis running through the cycle, and despite my above description of the nature of the music, there’s also a great deal of beauty – and, at the last, peace – to be found along the way.

Crónica are releasing 間 as a limited edition cassette (containing a miniature bonus track hidden at the very end of side B, which encapsulates the essence of the entire cycle) as well as a digital download. Further details and information can be found on the Crónica website as well as their Bandcamp page. i also have a small supply of the cassettes, so if you’d prefer to buy them directly from me (£7 plus postage), then just send me a message either from here or here.

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Rebecca Saunders – Skin (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

Rebecca Saunders at 50

…this is the room’s essence
not being
now look closer
mere dust
dust is the skin of a room
history is a skin
the older it gets the more impressions are left on its surface
look again…

These words, spoken by the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s 1975 play The Ghost Trio, were “the absolute catalyst” for the work with which i’m ending my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders, Skin. It’s another of her works about which i’ve written previously, following its UK première at HCMF 2016, though as will be clear from that article the extent to which i was knocked sideways by the piece didn’t exactly lend itself well to writing anything beyond a relatively superficial marvelling at its nature and impact. It’s very good, therefore, to return to Skin and explore it a little closer and deeper. Completed in 2016, it’s the first of her works to feature a solo voice and a sung text, in contrast to the three previous occasions (mentioned in my previous article) when she’s used small groups of voices in an essentially timbral/textural role. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 4)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Before i conclude my survey of the available recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i want to flag up some omissions. There are three works that i’m not able to discuss at this point as i haven’t yet got hold of copies of the discs on which they’re featured: rubricare (2005) which is on Harmonia Mundi’s About Baroque double album, as well as CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 (1995) and company (2008), included on the 1996 and 2008 Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik CDs. If and when i eventually obtain these discs, i’ll review them together at a later date. There’s also one other piece of hers that’s been released very recently, which i’ll be discussing in my final article in this Lent Series.

Saunders’ earliest acknowledged composition is Behind the Velvet Curtain, a work for trumpet, piano, harp and cello completed in 1992, available on a recording by – yet again – Ensemble Musikfabrik, as part of the Musik In Deutschland 1950–2000 series. There’s something sketch-like about the piece, almost a kind of testing of certain ideas – ideas that would turn out to have great significance in her work – in order to experiment with their behaviour and operation. The most obviously nascent idea exhibited by the piece is an emphasis on certain pitches, acting as roaming focal points which the four players continually follow and assemble around. There’s a playfulness about this, with each shift in the focus being initiated – ‘suggested’ might be a better word in most cases – by one of the players, becoming the basis for a short episode of varying clarity. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Alba (UK Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50As i’ve noted in previous articles in this Lent series, there are very strong and clear themes and interests – obsessions, even – running through Rebecca Saunders‘ music, with concomitant aspects of overlap and even tautology from work to work. In this respect, Saunders’ entire output can be heard as the ongoing, evolving dogged pursuit of certain lines of enquiry, but in the case of three particular works – the concertos Still (2011, violin), Void (2014, percussion duo) and Alba (2014, trumpet) – Saunders has grouped them together into a discrete series, in which the title of each work “defines a condition, or state, of absence in relation to sound, to space and to colour, respectively”.

While colour has hardly been absent as an active element in Saunders’ music in recent years, it’s been less explicitly signalled than during the first decade of her output (1994–2005), when a large number of her works directly referenced colour in their titles. ‘Alba’ is the Latin for ‘white’, and this is not the first time she has been inspired by this colour, exploring it previously in albescere (2001) – a wondrous work for 12 instruments and 5 voices that’s crying out to be released at some point – as well as a more recent composition, White (2016) for double-bell trumpet solo. Though there are clear similarities in their titles, Alba is at some considerable remove from the soundworld of albescere. Both works draw for inspiration on Samuel Beckett – as do the other concertos in the series, Still and Void – in the case of Alba words from an early poem of the same name (published in Beckett’s 1935 anthology Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates). However, whereas albescere has a distinct air of contemplation running through it – characterised more by its periods of gentleness and restraint than by the gruff eruptions that punctuate them – Alba is a work articulating relentless energy. The title and content of Beckett’s poem allude to the Old Provençal poetic form that has similarities to the aubade, being a song of two lovers lamenting their forced separation in the early hours of the morning (the implication being that their love is illicit, the pre-dawn separation being for fear of being discovered). However, Saunders has appeared to focus more on the implications of the word ‘alba’ from the perspective of its colour connotations, as summarised in her programme note:

Devoid of shade and greyness, white is notably ardent, the colour of fury.

Read more

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Rebecca Saunders on record (Part 3)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50Continuing my survey of recordings of Rebecca Saunders‘ music, i’m looking today at a cluster of pieces featured on compilations as well as a couple of standalone releases. The last work i wrote about, still, initially bore the provisional title rage, and while Saunders ultimately pulled back from this in favour of something more ostensibly benign, on two other occasions she has given works a similar title: fury. The earlier of the two, for double bass solo, dates from 2005. Saunders clearly has a certain fondness and/or fascination with the double bass, which has been used prominently in many of the works i’ve discussed so far in this Lent series, often making a defining contribution to their respective soundworlds. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – still (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders at 50The next piece i’m looking at in my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders is something of an exception on 5:4, as it’s a work i’ve written about before. Saunders’ violin concerto still dates from 2011, and i explored the piece six years ago, following its first UK performance at the Barbican in February 2012. The world première, performed by the same forces – soloist Carolin Widmann and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sylvain Cambreling (Lionel Bringuier directed the UK première) – took place several months earlier, on 29 September 2011 at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, as part of that year’s Beethovenfest. It’s fascinating to return to this piece and appraise it afresh, both from the perspective of that alternate performance as well as with regard to Saunders’ other work.

Once again – it’s tempting to say ‘as ever’ – Saunders draws on Samuel Beckett for inspiration: the title of the work comes from Beckett’s short story Still, the final lines from which Saunders quotes in the preface to the score:

As if even in the dark eyes closed not enough and perhaps even more than ever necessary against that no such thing the further shelter of the hand …
Leave it so all quite still or try listening to the sounds all quite still had in hand listening for a sound.

This is expanded upon in Saunders’ usual way through having meditated upon the meaning and connotations of the word ‘still’, which she likens to “unchanging, ongoing, with an exhausting insistence, always, in essence, the same”, “stasis … two starkly contrasting states, in a fragile state of equilibrium” and “the framing of sound with silence, of ‘stillness’ imagined – silence being an endless potential, waiting to be revealed and made audible”, leading to a behavioural character summarised as “pulling gently on the fragile thread of sound, drawing out from the depths of imagined silence; or alternatively, sound erupting from the stasis of relative silence”.

Read more

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