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Michael Finnissy – John the Baptist (World Première)

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A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – “above earth’s shadow…”

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It’s abundantly clear in the works explored so far in this Lent Series that Michael Finnissy has a keen interest in melody. The ways in which he presents, transforms and contextualises melody are often startlingly simple, but in the case of “above earth’s shadow…”, for solo violin and ensemble, it’s handled in a more complex way. Composed in 1985, the piece takes its title from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, specifically a passage from one of the work’s later ‘Memorable Fancies’ in which a visionary encounter with an angel takes place. It’s not without a certain degree of extreme surreal imagery, even by Blake’s standards (including vast spiders revolving on fiery tracks around a “black but shining” sun within an “infinite abyss”; you get the idea); the encounter is somewhat confrontational, culminating in the narrator grabbing the angel:

I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, & flew westerly thro’ the night, till we were elevated above the earth’s shadow; then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun;

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Michael Finnissy – A-lang Felton Lonnen (World Première)

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An interesting, small-scale example of Michael Finnissy‘s take on folk music is his re-thinking of the Northumbrian tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’ (“a long Felton lane”). Finnissy places the traditional Northumbrian pipes alongside piano, viola and cello, all of which initially sound saturated by the harmony, contours and the tone of the tune, which stands out in the foreground. The piano offers similarly decorative counterpoint, weaving around the pipes, while the strings lay down slow-moving sustained notes, effecting a kind of extension of the pipes’ drones. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Aijal

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On a number of occasions, informed by periods of time spent in Australia (due to a paucity of work opportunities in the UK), Michael Finnissy has composed works inspired by Aboriginal culture. Most of these date from 1982–3, one of the earliest being Aijal for oboe, clarinet and percussion, the title of which is the Australian Aboriginal word for ‘sky’. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Dust (World Première)

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Perhaps the key recurring characteristic of Michael Finnissy‘s music is an engagement with existing musical ideas, embracing (and that’s exactly the right word) folk and popular idioms. This engagement is nothing less than an audible wrangling with it from root to tip, as though Finnissy were handling it like plasticine, moulding it into new shapes while considering its constituent elements, in ways that are both analytic and playful. And, indeed, unpredictable, as is the case with his short work Dust, composed in 2008. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Wild Flowers

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Michael Finnissy‘s musical output is dominated by his works for piano, which to date number around 200, most for solo piano plus others for piano duet and two pianos. For many people, Finnissy’s most well-known work continues to be his first great piano cycle English Country Tunes, a 40-minute, eight-movement journey through music inhabiting the extremes of rage and sublimity. (Coincidentally, today is the 30th anniversary of the première of the final version of that piece, given by Finnissy himself at the BMIC in London). Although indicative of all his music, Finnissy’s works for piano, no doubt due in part to it being the composer’s own instrument, seem to tap to a greater extent into the most intimate and heartfelt aspects of his outlook, somehow finding an expressive modus operandi that’s simultaneously elemental yet agonisingly personal. In Finnissy’s hands, the piano finds both pain and ecstasy. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – n

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In a little over a month’s time, it will be the 70th birthday of British composer Michael Finnissy, and so this year’s 5:4 Lent Series is dedicated to a celebratory exploration of some of his work. Despite his pre-eminence in many compositional circles, Finnissy remains a distinctly neglected figure, rarely heard at the UK’s more prominent music festivals and stubbornly absent from the repertoire of most of our orchestras and ensembles. He continues to be represented best by the collection of independent groups and ensembles that have always recognised the imagination and radical outlook that epitomise his work, though this inevitably means his music remains unknown to the vast majority of the concert-going public. Over the next few weeks, i hope to shed a little light on the diversity of his output, and in the process perhaps challenge some of the misconceptions—usually concerned with excessive difficulty—that have ignorantly dogged his work. i should point out that i am by no means an expert in Finnissy’s music; it has simply fascinated and moved me repeatedly throughout the last twenty-or-so years since i first encountered it. In addition to the Lent Series, i’ll also be exploring the current catalogue of recordings available of Finnissy’s music, and all being well we’ll be recording a Dialogue together later in the year. Anyone wanting to get a good introduction and overview of the composer’s musical life can find a nicely succinct biography on Finnissy’s own website. Read more

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Anna Clyne – The Seamstress (UK Première)

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The annual 5:4 Lent Series is almost upon us, but in the meantime one of the more striking premières i’ve heard recently is a new work for violin and orchestra from US-based British composer Anna Clyne. The work’s title, The Seamstress, comes from W. B. Yeats’ eponymous poem (see below), where a song is made into a coat “Covered with embroideries / Out of old mythologies”; the garment is subsequently robbed, yet the songmaker rather sanguinely concludes “there’s more enterprise / In walking naked.” Clyne’s song takes the form of what she calls an “imaginary one-act ballet”, with five distinct movements, the last recapitulating the first. The temptation would be to describe it as a violin concerto, but in many ways it really isn’t; the solo violin is by no means more important or significant than the orchestra at all times, indeed for much of the piece there’s a strong sense of duet, with the soloist frequently yielding centre-stage. All the same, the violin certainly acts in ways that could be called catalytic, instigating ideas and often leading the way elaborating them. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols (King’s College, Cambridge): Richard Causton – The Flight (World Première)

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A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:

Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.

I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.

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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

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The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more

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The Dialogues: John Wall

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i’m delighted to be able to present the latest instalment in my occasional series The Dialogues. In this episode, i’m in conversation with the composer and performer John Wall, whose work i’ve very deeply admired for many years. Wall and i got together over the summer, and our conversation took place within his studio, affording him the opportunity to illustrate our discussion with numerous audio excerpts, many of which are included in the edited recording. In addition to exploring the techniques and development of Wall’s 22-year career in electronic music—during which time he has gradually evolved from working with chunks of sampled acoustic sound into a world constructed from tiny electronic slivers—we explore a variety of associated topics, including sampling, compositional decision-making, collaborations and many other related issues.

In addition to those played by Wall himself, i’ve included in the Dialogue a liberal selection of pertinent excerpts from throughout his output to clarify and elaborate upon some of the points made. A complete list of these excerpts can be found below along with their timings in the audio. The Dialogue can be downloaded from the link below or streamed via MixCloud. All of the music discussed can be obtained via Wall’s Bandcamp site; his collaborations with Alex Rodgers are also available from the Entr’acte label.

Finally, i must say a huge thank-you to John Wall and his partner Kay for their time and hospitality, and also to Allon Kaye at Entr’acte for his assistance. Wall’s amazing music deserves to be known about, heard and appreciated by a significantly wider audience, and it’s my sincere hope that this Dialogue can be a helpful and tantalising starting point for the unitiated, and provide some interesting insights to those already familiar with his work. Read more

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Proms 2015: B. Tommy Andersson – Pan; Guy Barker – The Lanterne of Light (World Premières)

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Homage, allusion and evocation have all been heavily foregrounded in many of this year’s Proms premières, and the most recent pair are in no way an exception. Swedish composer B. Tommy Andersson has turned to the Greek god Pan for inspiration in his eponymous latest work for organ and orchestra (not, according to Andersson, a concerto) while British Jazz musician Guy Barker has turned to an early 15th century tract classifying the seven deadly sins as the basis for his new trumpet concerto The Lanterne of Light. Read more

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Proms 2015: Christian Mason – Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand (UK Première)

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One of the smaller Proms premières, Christian Mason‘s Open to Infinity: A Grain of Sand was commissioned as a part of this year’s 90th birthday celebrations for Pierre Boulez. Fittingly, its world première was given by Boulez’s very own Ensemble Intercontemporain at the Lucerne Festival; its first UK performance at the Proms, a few days later, was given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Thierry Fischer. Mason describes the work as having a twofold connection to Boulez, first in terms of the work’s engagement with twin perspectives, focusing on both intricate detail and broader structural durations (the title derives from this, drawing on the opening line of Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand”), as well as the use of crotales, involving all 15 players, a reference to Mason’s recollections of Boulez’s orchestral work Le Visage nuptial.
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Proms 2015: Anders Hillborg – Beast Sampler (UK Première); Raymond Yiu – Symphony; Alissa Firsova – Bergen’s Bonfire (World Premières)

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The latest spate of Proms premières have made for an interesting contrast in terms of abstract versus concrete ideas. At the former end of the continuum—where else would you find him?—was Anders Hillborg and his latest orchestral piece Beast Sampler; at the latter end was Raymond Yiu‘s Symphony, a large-scale work for countertenor and orchestra; somewhere in between was Bergen’s Bonfire, a new symphonic poem from Alissa Firsova. Read more

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Proms 2015: Michael Finnissy – Janne (World Première)

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Three years ago i remarked how the performance of Michael Finnissy‘s Piano Concerto No. 2 was only the composer’s second appearance at the Proms, opining that “one can only hope he will be much better represented in years to come; he is truly one of our best”. It’s therefore wonderful that Finnissy has been commissioned for this year’s Proms season, producing a work that forges a connection of sorts with Sibelius, whose music occupied the rest of the concert. Titled after Sibelius’ affectionate nickname, Janne is somewhat special in Finnissy’s output, as it is only the ninth time that he has written for orchestra, a curious fact in itself for a composer whose worklist currently comprises in excess of 320 pieces. Having hitherto flitted between large and chamber-size orchestras, for Janne Finnissy has utilised the same modest forces used by Sibelius in the brace of symphonies (numbers 3 and 4) performed either side of it.
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Proms 2015: Colin Matthews – String Quartet No. 5 (European Première); James MacMillan – Symphony No. 4 (World Première)

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At the start of last week, the Proms saw important premières from two veterans of new music, Colin Matthews and James MacMillan. Both composers have a demonstrative relationship with music from earlier times, producing work that often seeks to find a comfortable marriage of old and new, looking back and forth simultaneously. The titles of both pieces bear some witness to this too, ostensibly bald, functional titles yet which carry centuries’ worth of connotation and legacy. Read more

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Proms 2015: Luke Bedford – Instability; Anna Meredith – Smatter Hauler (World Premières)

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Stability, progression, continuity, predictability, coherence: these concepts jostle, intermingle and regularly find themselves redefined in a lot of new music. And in two recent Proms premières, they felt overtly prominent, Luke Bedford‘s Instability and Anna Meredith‘s Smatter Hauler. This prominence was partly deliberate and partly due to the extreme contrasts these pieces exhibited. In the case of Meredith’s piece, given its world première by the Aurora Orchestra (who, it should be pointed out, performed from memory—if only more orchestras would be up for this), the stated aim was associated with musical ideas being ‘stolen’ by different groups of instruments (the title being a reference to Victorian handkerchief thieves, mentioned in a Sherlock Holmes novel). An interesting aim, yet in practice the aural result was a simple gradual yielding between centres of distinct behavioural activity, like slowly shifting one’s gaze from group to group. In more imaginative hands, it might have proved effective; but here, the predictability in the work’s systemic approach combined with materials woefully in want of a cogent, compelling idea, simply led to a dull descent into increasingly blank forms of inarticulate bludgeoning. Rarely has a creative vacuum made so much empty noise. Read more

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Proms 2015: Betsy Jolas – Wanderlied (UK Première), Shiori Usui – Ophiocordyceps unilateralis s.l. & Joanna Lee – Hammer of Solitude (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms Matinee concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted by Franck Ollu, featured several world and UK premières, which together gave one pause for thought with regard to the relationship between surface materials and their deeper impulsion. Their respective points of inspirational departure were extremely varied, encompassing a peripatetic storytelling cellist, an examination of a parasitic fungus and an intense miniature song-cycle.
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Proms 2015: HK Gruber – into the open …; Hugh Wood – An Epithalamion, Or Mariage Song (World Premières)

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Proms premières come in all shapes and sizes, and last week’s new works from HK Gruber and Hugh Wood were larger and more aspirational specimens. Scale and stature are different things, though, and despite their respective composers’ demonstrative ambition (and experience, composing veterans both), each of these pieces were hobbled by considerations that would have been less problematic in smaller-scale forms. Read more

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