UK

Hope without hope: Mark-Anthony Turnage – L’espoir (from Speranza, World Première)

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There’s an interesting small addendum to be made to my article a couple of days ago, reviewing recent CDs. i commented that LSO Live has released the world première performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s large-scale orchestral work Speranza, but what the disc doesn’t contain is the entirety of the piece as heard on that first occasion. Anyone in the concert hall or who (like me) heard the live broadcast may be forgiven for feeling some dismay at discovering one of the most curious but lovely parts of the piece to be entirely absent from the CD release. Turnage initially conceived Speranza in five movements, each titled with the word ‘hope’ in different languages, and it’s the original fourth movement, L’espoir, which he appears to have decided to excise from the work. Considering the pair of interviews i’ve heard where Turnage discusses Speranza, one could perhaps have seen this coming; on both occasions (once prior to the performance, the other on the BBC’s The Strand Archive), Turnage’s description of the five movements rather skirts over the fourth, almost apologising for it, both in terms of compositional individuality—with reference to the use of borrowed melodies, which Turnage states “I did nothing to actually”—and also aesthetic, essentially dismissing it as “a real moody piece … more of a textural piece, which is unusual for me, just chords and rather desolate tunes”. Read more

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Alison Kay – Flux (World Première)

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Next in my Lent Series is a piece by a composer whose work i’ve encountered precisely once. Born in 1970, Alison Kay‘s studies took her from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama to the Royal College of Music to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and finally to Sussex University; since 2004 she’s been back at the RCM in a teaching capacity. Beyond this, neither i nor, it seems, the internet, knows much about Kay or her music, save for a short piece included on a 2001 NMC release, and this instructive quotational nugget:

I enjoy the physicality of music. In composition, the potential to craft and shape structures from the most intimate timbral nuance to the most intense, dramatic structural gesture opens endless possibilities. I try to create visceral, three-dimensional music that has the potential to encompass exciting rhythmical impetus, rich timbral and harmonic language, textural shapes and surfaces, and a sense of varying movement and weight through time. I always start from the perspective of the physical properties of instruments and performance spaces. I see the interpretation of my music by performers and listeners as an integral part of the compositional process.

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Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

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Today marks the first day of Lent, and as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion and standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom and harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:

why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Laura Bowler – Irresistible Demands of the Flesh (World Première)

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To bring this inverted Valentine Weekend to an end, i’m turning from the intimacy of duets to the large-scale, inflamed overload of the orchestra. Laura Bowler‘s Irresistible Demands of the Flesh is an audacious exploration in sound of the theatrical tenets of Antonin Artaud, specifically the desire to push performers to a point of extremity in order to unlock something fundamentally true. The piece (the title of which appears to be from an entry about Michel de Ghelderode in The Cambridge Guide to Theatre) in part achieves this through an avoidance of conventional notions of idiomaticism and performance, seeking to place the members of the orchestra emphatically outside their traditional comfort zones. It does much the same thing for the listener, coming across not so much the product of an act of composition as a 12-minute slab of spontaneously seething organic sound, elemental and overwhelming. Read more

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Valentine Weekend: Gavin Higgins – Three Broken Love Songs

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My Valentine Weekend continues today with an intimate survey by Gavin Higgins of a failed relationship, his Three Broken Love Songs, for basset clarinet and piano. Composed in 2006 for the clarinettist and composer Mark Simpson, the work falls into three movements, bearing demonstrably blunt titles. ‘…Two bottles of wine later…’ takes as its starting point the soaring opening glissando from Rhapsody in Blue (which, coincidentally, was premièred just over 90 years ago), but sidesteps Gershwin’s dancing airiness in favour of material that initially broods and swoops. Glissandi colour the clarinet’s melodic intentions repeatedly, indicative of an ongoing process of aural inebriation that culminates—responding to a heavy sequence of piano pounding—in a series of ecstatic shrieks. A climax indeed. Read more

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HCMF 2013 revisited: James Clarke – 2013-V (World Première)

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If there’s one thing that unites almost the entirety of the contemporary music spectrum, it’s a fondness for allusive titles. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, of course, but it can have the unfortunate side effect of encouraging too many listeners to switch off a portion of their critical faculties, under the illusion that all that needs to be done is to match aspects of the content to the title and the piece will thus have been ‘understood’. But at HCMF 2013, Brian Ferneyhough—no stranger to titles as multi-faceted as his music—remarked on the disjunct of sorts between title and content, speaking of his personal need for something titular before any meaningful compositional work can begin, yet stressing the fact that this subsequent process involves significant quantities of improvisation and spontaneity, indicating the title in no way dictates or necessarily even guides the subsequent material. Nonetheless titles, whatever the composer’s intent, conjure up something that simply cannot be ignored when listening to the music. To obviate this potential programmatic distraction, James Clarke has adopted an altogether more aloof approach. A glance at his list of works reveals a striking change from 2006 onwards, his composition titles moving from the exotic (Twilight / Dämmerung) to the obtuse (Untitled No.1) to the clinical (2006-K – ‘K’ indicating that the work was composed for Klangforum Wien), redolent of those given by Xenakis to his stochastic works of the 1950s. This has been Clarke’s approach ever since, a simple statement of the year and a letter hinting at some aspect of the instrumental line-up, thereby avoiding all allusive implications. Read more

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Proms 2013: John Woolrich / Tansy Davies – Variations on an Elizabethan Theme (World Premières)

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Last Saturday’s Proms matinee focused on a work created 60 years ago to mark the Queen’s coronation. Instigated by Benjamin Britten, he and five other composers each wrote a variation for string orchestra based on the Irish tune ‘Sellenger’s Round’; titled Variations on an Elizabethan Theme, the complete suite was given its first performance in June 1953 in a concert marking the coronation at that year’s Aldeburgh Festival. For last Saturday’s Proms performance, given by the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by Paul Watkins, the suite was expanded with two additional variations, composed by John Woolrich and Tansy Davies. Read more

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Proms 2013: Diana Burrell – Blaze; Edward Cowie – Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef (World Premières)

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Last Monday saw a world première at each of the day’s Prom concerts. Having recently returned from Norway myself, the afternoon concert in Cadogan Hall was especially welcome, featuring the Norwegian brass group tenThing, led by Tine Thing Helseth; for them Diana Burrell had composed a new work, Blaze. The evening performance was given by the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda, including the première of the first work in a new orchestral cycle by Edward Cowie, Earth Music I – The Great Barrier Reef. Read more

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Proms 2013: David Matthews – A Vision of the Sea (World Première)

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Down the road in my old stamping ground of Cheltenham, there’s an art exhibition regularly to be found in the town’s sumptuous Imperial Gardens. The exhibition is for those with an urge to put paintbrush to canvas, resulting in a desultory cluster of dog portraits, depictions of Cotswold stone houses festooned in technicolour flora, landscapes dripping with more water than colour, pastel cloudscapes, a few rash stabs at abstract expressionism and—incongruously, considering the town’s distance from it—paintings of the sea. Perhaps you can see where i’m going with this. There are, admittedly, occasional gems to be found amidst the the borrowed imagination, the second-rate technical skill, the pastiche sensibility and the instinct for superficial gratification, but it’s rare for even these works to escape the pull of their less ambitious companions. Memories of this exhibition came flooding back as i sat through the world première from last night’s Prom, David MatthewsA Vision of the Sea, performed by the BBC Philharmonic under Juanjo Mena. Read more

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Mixed but strong & accessible: Joseph Phibbs – The Canticle of the Rose

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A few weeks back, NMC Recordings brought out the latest in their ongoing ‘Debut Discs’ series, this time devoted to the music of Joseph Phibbs. It’s an ambitious album, presenting two lengthy song cycles alongside a cluster of additional songs and a pair of instrumental works, focusing on soloists Helen-Jane Howells and Michael Chance, with the Navarra String Quartet.

The opening piece, Flex for violin, cello, flute and piano, arguably serves as a paradigm for much that follows. Inspired by the physicality of movement, Phibbs likens it to a “miniature chamber ballet … reflecting an underlying sequence of dances”. This is explored via a sequence of episodes that swing back and forth between poles of firm insistence—fiery rhythmic poundings forcing the music along—and soft passages of demonstrably lyrical character. There’s a strong sense of continuity between these respective types, but the regularity of their structural oscillations gradually works against the overall sense of motion in the piece as a whole. They seem to cancel each other out, leaving Flex feeling like a rather histrionic kind of equilibrium. The first of the two cycles, The Canticle of the Rose for soprano and string quartet, experiences a similar problem. Its six songs draw on one of England’s most beguiling and bemusing poets, Edith Sitwell, encompassing a wide range of emotional intents. Phibbs embraces their contemplative character, and he’s at his most interesting when conjuring up the strange, semi-static environments that permeate the cycle. Elsewhere, in the more rapid songs, there’s a kind of over-familiarity to the material (plus predictable word-painting) that lessens their interest and at times even lends them a certain generic quality. The back and forth in mood causes the cycle to wrong-foot itself, resetting the atmosphere too readily, but it’s especially uncomfortable at the end, when two bold, harrowing songs (‘Gold Coast Customs’ and ‘The Canticle of the Rose’) have their potency shattered by the cycle’s light, whimsical epilogue. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Tree of Strings (UK Première)

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A couple of summers ago, the Beloved and i could be found on a small boat offshore from the idyllic town of Portree, on the east coast of the Isle of Skye. Taking in caves and sea eagles, we sailed along the edge of the smaller island of Raasay, a sparsely-populated but beautiful sliver of land nestling between Skye and the Scottish mainland. This remote place was home to Harrison Birtwistle during part of the 1970s and ’80s, and is central to the last string quartet i’m featuring in this year’s Lent series, his Tree of Strings, composed in 2007. The title originates in a poem written by another Raasay resident, the renowned Hebridean poet Sorley Maclean (whose work i highly recommend), and the piece seeks to tap into both subjective memories and objective history of Raasay, a place that, despite its diminutive size, saw its fair share of drama, both with respect to the Jacobite conflict as well as piracy. Read more

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James Dillon – String Quartets No. 5 (World Première) and No. 6 (UK Première)

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Despite their official numbering, the last two string quartets written by Scotland’s most brilliantly inventive composer, James Dillon, were actually composed the opposite way round to how they appear. His String Quartet No. 5 was originally begun as a gift for the Arditti Quartet, to celebrate their 30th anniversary. However, Dillon ultimately put the work aside unfinished, before returning to complete it a few years later, sending it to Irvine Arditti unannounced, now as a gift for their 35th anniversary. In the intervening period, Dillon had already completed what would subsequently be called his String Quartet No. 6. Regardless of the numbers, though, the two works have much in common, in terms of duration (each lasting around 15 minutes) as well as the type and treatment of their material. Read more

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Christopher Fox – Chambre privée (World Première)

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Imagine a culture in which the string quartet has no history. No Haydn, no late-Beethoven, no Bartok, no Eleanor Rigby. How would a group of four string players – why four? why not? why two violins? maybe the bass player couldn’t get up the stairs… How would a group of four string players know what to play, how to play together?

The next work featured in my Lent series is Chambre privée, a new quartet from Christopher Fox which was premièred at Huddersfield last November. It’s a piece i find interesting, but not really at all for the reasons the composer is intending. The trouble is that potentially fascinating conceit described in the programme note—or, rather, the sounds his quartet makes with regard to that conceit. Their behaviour for much of the piece is, as Fox states, “tentative”, guarded even. But not, as one might imagine, toward one another; on the contrary, the quartet immediately coalesces into a homogeneous unit articulating an extended series of soft, meticulously placed chords. Why do they act together? why are they so cautious? so restrained? so careful? The chords themselves aren’t particularly suggestive of anything, per se (although the ear makes a progression of sorts from them), yet they overwhelmingly sound sculpted, considered, not at all the product of spontaneity arising from the blank pages of non-history. Being spontaneous doesn’t necessarily connote chaos, of course, but—considering these players have supposedly nothing upon which to predicate their actions—is it really commensurate with instantaneous, long-term order? Read more

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Simon Holt – Two movements for string quartet

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My Lent string quartet series continues with a most unusual work from Simon Holt. Its title, Two movements for string quartet, seems uncharacteristically abstract for Holt, but its content is rooted in the evocative imagery of Emily Dickinson’s poetry (the piece is, in fact, the second in Holt’s five-part ‘a ribbon of time’ cycle inspired by Dickinson’s work). The poem in question is ‘Dying’, composed in 1863, a sombre text made all the more troubling by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes, turning the text into a fraught sequence of breathless utterances.

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

This breathless quality is brought to bear on Holt’s first movement, titled ‘Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz’. The music is drawn from an opening solo on the viola that begins rapidly but loses momentum quickly, eventually stopping. It then relaunches with the rest of the quartet, and it’s this pattern of behaviour—quick commencements that founder; intense, rapid material becoming light and sporadic—that pervades the entire movement. At times there’s an onomatopoeic quality, the instruments overlapping and nuzzling each other, creating buzz-like clashes. As it progresses, the material feels more deliberate, jutting, pointed, as though rudely carved in the air. Lumbering tuttis eventually come to dominate, but the quieter passages are more striking, particularly a curious episode halfway through, when the music falls into a slow, gentle rocking (to be echoed later). This, together with the heavy conclusion, the quartet petering out and sagging, shivering, onto their final chords, go a long way to capturing the unsettling atmosphere of Dickinson’s text. Read more

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Thomas Adès – Arcadiana

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Being Ash Wednesday, today marks the start of Lent; last year i spent the season exploring a variety of choral and vocal works, but this year i’m going to focus attention on the string quartet. To begin, one of my favourite contemporary quartets, Thomas AdèsArcadiana, composed in 1994 for the Endellion Quartet, who gave the first performance in November. My first encounter with the work was the following summer, when the Endellions brought it to the Cheltenham Music Festival; it made a very deep impression on me then, and it still does today.

Adès conceived the piece as a series of short evocations, each of the seven movements being “an image associated with ideas of the idyll, vanishing, vanished or imaginary”. As such, fantasy and allusion are richly present throughout, Adès deliberately intimating at various composers while refraining from obvious quotation. The opening movement, ‘Venezia notturno’ (all of the odd movements reference aquatic subjects), is the least assertive of them all, undulating arpeggios and a lilting leitmotif sitting beneath a fragile duet. In truth, though, the whole texture is as fragile as crêpe paper, and just as translucent; there’s a flash of something half-familiar—and it’s gone, washed away in the momentarily aggressive coda. ‘Das klinget so herrlich, das klinget so schon’ is a title directly drawn from Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, and Papageno’s bells seem to be the source here, with the Queen of the Night putting in an appearance right at the end. ‘Auf dem Wasser zu singen’ switches to a Schubert lied as inspiration, the downward pattern of the well-known piano part becoming a preoccupation of the entire quartet, first as onomatopoeic pizzicato drips, eventually as a more passionate cascade; it’s the first time in Arcadiana that the quartet becomes really substantial. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Plötzlichkeit (UK Première)

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A principal thread running through much of Brian Ferneyhough’s music is one that plays with notions of linear narrative. It has been present as far back as the Sonatas for String Quartet, composed in 1967, which intercuts two entirely separate materials, one strictly serial, the other intuitive. Incipits (1996)—drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on a winter’s night a Traveller’—sidestepped narrative completely through an examination of ways a composition can be started, and we’ve already seen how Exordium employs a radically abstracted example of this, providing an anthology of fragments from which the listener is left to derive their own kind of narrative. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

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From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form and text so embedded in the development and consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, and the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations and legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:

[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions and liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, and still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…

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Ferneyhough Week – Prometheus

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Today i’m going to focus on a relatively early work of Ferneyhough’s, Prometheus for wind sextet, composed in 1967. It’s not a piece that’s performed terribly often, nor is there much information about it, i suspect in part due to how early it was composed (when Ferneyhough was just 24 years old, the same year he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music). The piece seems to have been created via a decision-making process with deliberately limited options; the number of alternatives available at any given point would vary, Ferneyhough selecting from them intuitively. Prometheus is therefore a work that could have turned out entirely differently, as the composer explained in an interview with Philippe Albèra:

The score as it now exists is thus one expression of a field which could, theoretically, have produced quite a different set of results entirely. The title of the piece reflects this openness, the protean quality of my frame of reference.

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Ferneyhough Week – Exordium

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La terre est un homme is an unusual work in Brian Ferneyhough’s output, inasmuch as he has only written for orchestra on two occasions (his other orchestral work will be featured later this week). The string quartet, on the other hand, is a medium to which he has turned on no fewer than eight occasions. In 2008, Ferneyhough composed a short work for string quartet to mark Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. Lasting around nine minutes, Exordium—subtitled (rather pretentiously) ‘Elliotti Carteri in honorem centenarii’—is a more extreme rendition of the kind of disjunct presentation heard in his 1996 work Incipits (featured on 5:4 back in 2008). The programme note provides some unexpected context:

In common with many medieval grimoires and books of spells, Exordium elevates the non-sequitur to a formal principle. Consisting of more than forty independant fragments, the work might thus be seen as a special case of ‘sympathetic magic’.

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