UK

Naomi Pinnock – The Field is Woven (World Première)

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

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

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James Clarke – Untitled No. 9 (World Première)

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

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Dark Music Days 2019: Zoë Martlew

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

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

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Dark Music Days 2019: Icelandic Guitar Trio

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

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

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The Dialogues: Lee Fraser

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i’m really happy to be able to present the next instalment in my series The Dialogues. This time i’m in conversation with UK composer Lee Fraser, whose music has been consistently blowing my mind for the last few years. The first album of his music, Dark Camber, was my best album of 2014, and his latest, Cor Unvers, released earlier this year, is just as impressive. Despite this, Fraser currently remains a relatively unknown figure, and my hope is that our Dialogue will go some way to shed more light on his music – which, both in terms of how it’s created and what it does, is seriously unlike the majority of electronic music regularly heard in most concert halls – and increase appreciation and understanding of his work. At time of writing, Fraser’s output is relatively small (a mere 10 compositions), but the imagination and power of these pieces reinforce my long-standing belief that it’s the composers who compose comparatively little – as opposed to churning out vast quantities on an endless production line – who invariably create by far the most compelling and potent music.

We got together at his home at the start of October, and i want to thank both Lee and his partner Caterina for their hospitality, and for allowing so much time for our discussion. i’m especially grateful to Lee for being prepared to talk at such length about his work; i hitherto knew almost nothing about his approach to composition, and it was fascinating to learn so much more about his musical outlook and methods. And if this Dialogue whets your appetite, his activities can be followed on his website, and to obtain one of the few remaining copies of each of his albums, Dark Camber is available via Bandcamp while Cor Unvers can be had from Discogs (best if you’re within the UK/Europe) and Ge-stell or Careful Catalog (outside Europe).

As usual, i’ve inserted numerous excerpts throughout our conversation to elucidate some of the points being discussed; a full list of these can be found below, together with the time in the audio when they occur. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the link below or streamed via Mixcloud. Read more

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Kenneth Hesketh – In Ictu Oculi

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One of the things i’ve noted previously when writing about the larger-scale music of Kenneth Hesketh – which in general i’ve admired very much – is its tendency toward what i’ve called “laser-sighted focus”. This peculiar kind of über-clarity is exhibited in many of Hesketh’s works from the noughties, and from my perspective has proved problematic, not only becoming rather tiring, but actively working against what seemed to me to be the composer’s more fundamental (and engaging) instincts for more unconventional, nebulous forms of drama and narrative. So it’s interesting to be able to compare then and now with a new disc of more recent orchestral works released last month on Paladino Music. The three featured works, performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Christoph-Mathias Mueller, were all composed during the last few years, and right at the outset it’s abundantly clear that much has changed, about which more in a moment.

If there’s a weakness shown here, it’s only to be found in Of Time and Disillusionment, where one encounters (in the first and fourth movements) vestiges of the kind of crystal-clear, spiky, spritely material so beloved by mainstream British composers, energetic Faberian froth that invariably sounds hackneyed and empty. However, and this is also something i’ve mentioned before, both the nature and the treatment of such material in Hesketh’s music has always managed to save it from ever sounding commonplace or generic, and the same is true here. The fourth movement, in particular, keeps veering away from mundane frivolity into weird asides, where we find burbling bassoons together with a soft glockenspiel (hard to tell if they’re in a dialogue or just blatantly ignoring one other) or a lovely kind of snappy swagger, where the orchestra sounds like they’ve drunk rather too much and are now trying to pick a fight. Far more telling, though – even more than the delicious traces of (French-inspired) opulence that are a definite Hesketh fingerprint – are the surprising levels of violence that rear up from time to time, yanking the structure around with such force that, if it wasn’t for the music’s traces of playfulness and retreats into delicacy, one might start to feel intimidated. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

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My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.

i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces. Read more

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