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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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Proms 2015: Cheryl Frances-Hoad – From the Beginning of the World (World Première)

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Relatively few of the Proms premières include vocal elements, which makes Cheryl-Frances Hoad‘s new work From the Beginning of the World, first performed last Monday, a very welcome exception to the norm. Initially billed as ‘Homage to Tallis’, her piece was nestled amidst a concert otherwise dedicated entirely to the great man’s music, a context that throws down a pretty substantial gauntlet. For inspiration, Frances-Hoad turned to Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s detailed account of the “great comet” visible across Europe in 1577. Insodoing, she is appealing both to an innate sense of wonder as well as to more polemical ends, setting words with connotations pertaining as much to present-day resource-depletion and asinine political shenanigans as to 16th century shock and awe. Read more

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Proms 2015: Gary Carpenter – Dadaville (World Première)

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Right, let’s get (belatedly) cracking. For a few years, the annual Proms season began with a première, which was nice but reduced the piece (or, at least, reduced composers’ aspirations) to a mere curtain-raiser. Gary Carpenter‘s Dadaville, which received its first performance in the opening Proms concert last week, did not begin the concert (that task fell to Nielsen), but the piece would in fact have worked wonderfully well as a concert-opening overture, but one with considerable chops and ambition. Read more

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Christopher Fox – Topophony (World Première)

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Back to Tectonics, and to one of the most beautiful new orchestral scores i’ve encountered in recent times. Christopher Fox‘s Topophony, for orchestra and up to three optional soloists (but not a concerto), operates in such a way that the conductor ensures that every beat is a different length. Beats are not of over-arching sonic importance, though, as the music speaks through slow, meditative swatches of instrumental colour, comprising textures of protracted, shifting pitches with a variety of surface articulations. These are often fascinating, conjuring up motors, the noise of something caught in bicycle spokes, the bell of an alarm clock: unpitched occasional worryings that become a delicate counterpoint to the rest of the orchestra which, apart from some moments when deep throbs threaten to overwhelm, comes across by contrast as rather distant (in both senses of the word). Read more

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Mica Levi – Greezy (World Première)

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Having referred to the cinematic qualities of some recent premières, it’s interesting now to turn to a composer whose music does not sound conventionally cinematic, yet who has become well-known in recent times for a film score. Jonathan Glazer’s 2013 film Under the Skin is a remarkable piece of work, simultaneously alienating (literally) and human, and emotionally-speaking both aloof and raw. Mica Levi‘s score was justifiably lauded for the way it not only integrated so seamlessly into Glazer’s unique world, but gave that world a particular tone of voice. Including it in my Best Albums of 2014 list, i commented how “[n]either sound nor structure are forced but instead play out in their own time frame, switching between the aural equivalents of vacant stares and creeping insect-like tremors and twitches. Music that embraces a very new notion of beauty.” The same can be said of her new work Greezy, premièred a couple of months ago in the first of two ‘Spectrum Of Sound’ concerts given by the London Sinfonietta. Read more

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Mark Simpson – Israfel (World Première)

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Another composer with somewhat filmic leanings is Mark Simpson, heard to good effect in his latest orchestral piece, Israfel, premièred last month at the City Halls in Glasgow. Simpson’s piece reminded me how long it had been since i’d revisited my well-thumbed copy of the works of Edgar Allan Poe; in his eponymous poem, Poe depicts Israfel—the Islamic “angel of the trumpet”—as an apogee of expressive potency and poetic inspiration, causing the very universe to quieten:

In Heaven a spirit doth dwell
‘Whose heart-strings are a lute;’
None sing so wildly well
As the angel Israfel,
And the giddy stars (so legends tell)
Ceasing their hymns, attend the spell
Of his voice, all mute.

One of the things i’ve particularly come to admire in Simpson’s music is the way he’s able to pack a lot of drama into relatively short periods of time, without sacrificing coherence. And that’s certainly the case with Israfel too, which covers a fair amount of ground in just 12 minutes. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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Patrick Nunn – Fata Morgana

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The next concerto in my Lent series is another involving solo cello, Fata Morgana by British composer Patrick Nunn. Composed in 2007, this short work—for cello, chamber ensemble and live electronics—takes its title primarily from the character of Morgan le Fay (known among many other names as Fata Morgana), who in Arthurian legend was a shape-shifting enchantress. The term is also used for a particular type of mirage effect, where objects at sea, visible just above the horizon, become significantly transformed due to the effects of light bending through thermal layers of air. The cello’s character throughout is or aspires to be melodic, and its role is emphatically in the foreground as an instigator of ideas. It emerges, at altitude, out of a strange and complex opening chord, whereupon its material is immediately resonated and expanded by the electronics. Despite calling it an instigator, there’s a somewhat pensive quality to the cello’s behaviour, placing notes and melodic gestures cautiously; this contrasts with the tendency of both the ensemble and the electronics, which feel highly sensitive to the cello’s slightest sounds, extending them while growing in intensity and pace all the time. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: James Dillon – Physis (World Première)

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To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:

In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.

In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more

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New releases: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir, Markus Reuter, Ensemble Musikfabrik, Arditti Quartet, Eric Craven, Audiobulb, Zbigniew Karkowski, Nordvargr, Stockhausen

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It’s a while since i’ve had a chance to survey new releases, so there’s quite a few that are overdue being highlighted. Some of them appeared on my recent Best Albums of the Year list, such as Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s Aerial, out on Deutsche Grammophon. As i’ve mentioned in my previous articles about Þorvaldsdóttir’s work, her overtly elemental music thrives in establishing environments where elements of certainty are both undermined and consolidated. Orchestral work Aeriality is a superbly lucid example of this, a work that seemingly keeps trying to reset itself via strong intervals like octaves, fourths and fifths, which are repeatedly overrun and infiltrated by tendrils of material, leading to fascinating passages of grey, almost blank obfuscation (a Þorvaldsdóttir fingerprint). Much of her work explores this friction between clarity and obscurity, variously weighted, and most of the works heard here begin shrouded in abstraction. But what’s so very refreshing about this is the absence of clichéd value associations: clarity here is no more positive a thing than its opposite. The interest, and it is considerable, lies in the juxtapositions and steady evolutions between states, a connotative mirror—if one wishes to see it as such—of Þorvaldsdóttir’s Icelandic heritage but just as much a liberated celebration of the primordial plasticity of sound. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Howard Skempton – Oculus (World Première)

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One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more

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Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols: Carl Rütti – In this season of the year (World Première); Harrison Birtwistle – O my deare hert, young Jesu sweit

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This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.

The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year.  Read more

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