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Royal Opera House, London: Thomas Adès – The Exterminating Angel (UK Première)

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Among the plethora of quasi-quotations that litter (and that is the right word) Thomas Adès‘ operatic ‘take’ on Luis Buñuel’s cinematic masterwork El ángel exterminador, there was one quotation missing that, had it appeared at the very start, would have made at least the first two acts make total sense: the Looney Tunes opening titles. Surprisingly – and, actually, it was a very pleasant surprise – The Exterminating Angel bears a much closer similarity to Powder Her Face than The Tempest; in terms of compositional technique, his new opera is clearly an extension of The Tempest, but its overall tone and attitude is very much more that of his debut opera. Yet the key word here is ‘similarity’: Powder Her Face was sarcastic but subtle and sophisticated, the bite of its wit matched by an undeniable aesthetic elegance and dazzling compositional ingenuity. Those are not words that suit The Exterminating Angel. From the outset, Adès seems to feel his characters are inhabiting a cartoon, the music often literally following their movements, replete with orchestral crashes to coincide with the character of Raúl being slapped about the face(!). The quotations Adès draws on – familiar fare: waltzes, Spanish outbursts, faux-Romantic piano variations, etc. – don’t so much flesh this out as act like musical Post-It notes to make quick and dirty allusive connections in lieu of something more considered and musically argued.

When not behaving like this, the music regularly took on a curious habit of treading water. It’s interesting to note Adès’ words in his conversation with Christian Arseni (originally published to coincide with the Salzburg première performances, and reproduced on this occasion): “When you’re writing an opera, the composer’s job is to write music that gets you from moment A to moment B to moment C…”. Adès seems to have meant that very literally, producing great tracts of material that one can only meaningfully describe as ‘underscore’. Sometimes this material undergoes the chord progression processes that now typify his work, and in Act 1 in particular they were so aurally transparent that following their movement provided some interest, but elsewhere the music at times exhibited such neutrality that the singers felt entirely disconnected from it, as though skimming above the accompaniment’s surface. Read more

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The Dialogues: Monty Adkins

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It’s a real pleasure to present a new instalment in my occasional series The Dialogues. This episode is in conversation with composer Monty Adkins, whose music i’ve written about many times on 5:4 and hold in very high regard. Our discussion explores a wide range of topics, including the fundamental aspects of Adkins’ compositional aesthetic, the history and development of his practice, the influence of visual art throughout his output alongside musical influences, considerations of beauty, narrative vs. abstract approaches to composition, the relationship between and implications pertaining to ‘authentic’ and artificial sonic environments, types of listening, perceptions of time, notions of the sacred, the imposition (and benefits) of compositional restrictions, the organisation/structuring of non-teleological music, combining electronics with live instruments, and Adkins’ relationship with the listener. In the course of our conversation, several articles and papers written or co-authored by Adkins are referred to; all are freely available to download, and links to all of them can be found below.

As before, i’ve included numerous excerpts of Adkins’ work throughout the Dialogue in order to illustrate or clarify what we’re talking about; a complete list of the excerpts is below, with links to buy/stream the albums from which they come. As usual the Dialogue is available to download or you can stream it via MixCloud. Despite the considerable length of our conversation, both Adkins and i felt afterwards that there was much more to talk about, so there may well be a second part at some point in the future.

i want to thank Monty for generously giving me so much of his time, and for being prepared to talk so openly (and for so long!) about his life and work. The trajectory his music has taken over the last twenty years is markedly different from many involved in electronic music, and i hope both newcomers and long-standing fans of his work will find our discussion as fascinating and illuminating as i did. Read more

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Dave Price – Twitcher

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The next miniature work in my Lent Series is something a little different from the norm. Dave Price uses an array of game calls and bird whistles in conjunction with a piccolo to create his taut, playful and at times downright hilarious three-minute Twitcher.

Those of a prog rock disposition may find Pink Floyd’s Several Species of Small Furry Animals coming to mind during the work’s long opening section, cycling rhythmic ideas hocketed left and right with all manner of unexpected punctuations, embellishments and hiatuses. After about 80 seconds, everything gets significantly cranked up: the metre becomes shorter and seemingly quicker and there’s less overall sense of rhythmic control, finally leading to a prolonged eruption of wild wails, squeals and ratchet bursts. Price lets out all the pent-up tension with a violent bang, whereupon the piece discovers an altogether new kind of order, the piccolo articulating a Latin-like melody, the music no longer twitching but swaying and dancing to a close. Read more

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Peter Maxwell Davies – Unbroken Circle

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The next of my Lent Series miniatures is Unbroken Circle, a four-minute piece for alto flute, bass clarinet, viola, cello and piano by Peter Maxwell Davies. It was composed in 1984, a year that would prove to be an anguished one for Max: his mother, Hilda, had a severe stroke midway through the year (from which she would never recover, dying nearly two years later) and his father, Tom, perhaps in response to this, collapsed and died a few months later, on Christmas Eve. Unbroken Circle slightly predates these twin tragedies, receiving a private first performance on 1 June of that year (in Bath, where the work’s dedicatee, William Glock, was being awarded an honorary doctorate; the public première took place on 30 November), yet the distinct air of soft melancholy that permeates the work seems to foreshadow the events that were soon to come. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Double Hocket

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Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out.  Read more

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Howard Skempton – Here’s the Tender Coming (World Première)

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Back to the Lent Series, and to a completely charming and surprisingly poignant little miniature by Howard Skempton. Here’s the Tender Coming is a Northumbrian folk tune, and Skempton’s arrangement of it dates from 2011, appropriately written for Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell plus the addition of a string quartet. Despite the cheeriness of the tune, the song is distinctly melancholic: the ‘tender’ of the title refers to the approaching ship—to all intents and purposes a prison—that, following the actions of the press gangs, would take away men by force to fight in the war against the French.

Here’s the tender coming, pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we do then?
Here’s the tender coming, off at Shield’s Bar,
Here’s the tender coming, full of men-o’-war.

The song is especially potent (and, one assumes, quite unusual) as it’s written from a woman’s perspective, capturing her utter desperation at the thought of losing, literally, the bread-winner of the family.

If they take thee, Geordie, who’s to win our bread?
Me and little Jackie better off be dead.

Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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