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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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Coppice – Surreal Air Fortress

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For many years now i’ve been following the output of Joseph Kramer and Noé Cuéllar’s experimental duo Coppice. Their music is not only difficult to categorise, utilising a vast array of appropriated, re-purposed, handmade and/or otherwise kludged bits of elaborate mechanical paraphernalia, but also impossible to predict. ‘Frictional’ is a word that would once have gone some way to characterising the basis of their sonic palette, but over the last few years the range and nature of the sounds they’ve employed has expanded to the point that, if you weren’t told what was being used, it would be nigh-impossible to work out. And Coppice (not unlike Matmos) have always been supremely good at detailing the appliances they wield, testifying to the sense of pride the duo has in them, and in the case of their latest release, a 30-minute album titled Surreal Air Fortress, the list of ‘instruments’ is typically eclectic, including a ‘reconstituted copper plate’, a ‘barbed object’, ‘pining object’ and ‘dead air object’, a ‘Prepared pump organ’, a ‘fake Leslie Cabinet’ and ‘fake Rhodes’, a ‘modified boombox’ and some ‘no-kink corrugated tubing’. Such a variety of sources points to either the kind of pell-mell whimsy where random things are thrown together, or to a fastidious, considered approach to the juxtaposition of elements. i think there’s a bit of both, actually – even at their most austere, Coppice display more than a trace of caprice – though overall it’s the apparent care taken in the creation of their music that’s most evident and consistently impressive.

Even making allowances for Coppice’s unpredictability, Surreal Air Fortress came as a genuine surprise. There are words! They sing!! Described by Cuéllar and Kramer as “songs for physical modelling and modular syntheses”, the essence of the two tracks on the album undeniably fits within an expanded notion of ‘song’. Each takes the form of a triptych, only the first of which, Privacy and Difference, contains words. The opening section establishes a paradigm for the whole album, specifically an intriguing lack of clarity about whether it’s the duo or their apparatus that’s the driving force, making most of the decisions. Indeed, ‘decisions’ may not really be the best word, as one of the key attributes of Surreal Air Fortress overall is incidentality: a strong sense that the collection of pulsed episodes we pass through – to call them ‘beats’ would be absurd, and even describing the music as ‘rhythmic’ is stretching a point – have emerged inadvertently as a by-product of the literal machinations of the equipment. Read more

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The Tolmen Centre, Constantine: Kevos – From this world to the next

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 1 Comment

The extent to which contemporary music is well-represented in ‘the provinces’ of the UK, away from major cities, is extremely variable and in the case of Cornwall it’s not really pushing a point to describe it as being almost non-existent. Kevos (Cornish for ‘contemporary’), a six-piece ensemble formed in 2016 by Patrick Bailey (who directs the group) and dedicated to new music, is therefore not merely an honourable exception to the rule, but something altogether more rare and vital. Nominally based in Truro, in the middle of Cornwall, Kevos take a peripatetic approach to their concerts, performing as far afield as Newlyn to the west, Falmouth to the east and the lovely Kestle Barton arts centre to the south (not far, in fact, from the most southerly point of the British mainland). Kevos’ geographical scope is matched by the repertoire they take on, which in the last year has included music by Steve Reich, Alison Kay, Berio, Charlotte Bray, Richard Causton and Judith Weir. Kevos clearly set their sights ambitiously high, and deserve huge amounts of kudos and encouragement for what they’ve achieved thus far.

A few nights ago i was fortunate to catch the last concert of their current season, titled ‘From this world to the next’, this time taking place at the Tolmen Centre in the tiny village of Constantine. Kevos’ concerts occasionally feature electronic music alongside instrumental works, and they opened with Jonathan Harvey‘s Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco. Whenever i’m about to be confronted by this piece – so familiar and, composed in 1980, increasingly un-contemporary – i instinctively wonder whether it has anything left to give. Personally speaking, i’ve heard it in practically every possible context, both in concerts and at home, in small halls and vast spaces, through speakers and headphones, in its original 8-channel version and condensed down to stereo. Yet when the piece plays and the bell and the boy sing out once again, i find that that familiarity is at once reinforced and completely undone. Somehow it continues to speak with incredible freshness and vitality; despite its 38 years of age, it could almost have been composed last week. Furthermore, despite not having the finest of sound systems, its rendition in the Tolmen Centre – heard in its full, 8-channel glory – was nonetheless compositionally crystal clear, demonstrating Harvey’s sense of inquisitive play in his treatment of harmonics and morphemes, as well as the work’s sublime balance of densities and registers. The polarised conclusion, high cluster-chords intoned over the low tolling bell, was so striking it suggested that not only does Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco have plenty more to give, but that we never really know the piece in its entirety; just like all those complex overtones of the Winchester bell on which the work is based, there’s always so much more to be discovered within. Read more

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Robert Scott Thompson – Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees, William Price – Rush Hour

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A couple of noteworthy albums of electronic music by US composers have found their way to me recently. Of Natural Magic and the Breathing of Trees by Robert Scott Thompson was released last year and pretty much tells you everything you need to know in that title. Aesthetically, the five pieces contained on this album are a melding of acousmatic and ambient, with some implied whiffs of new age, quasi-spiritual incense thrown in. On the one hand, there’s something rather dated about the timbral palette of these works – it wouldn’t have been a surprise to learn they were composed in the mid-1990s – but this isn’t necessarily an issue (indeed, of itself this could be regarded as appealing) and in any case the way the ambient outlook – which dominates overall – is fleshed out with acousmatic details makes this a negligible concern.

This ambient outlook manifests primarily at a structural level. Put simply, there’s a looseness to the structure of these pieces such that their moment-by-moment activity is more significant – or, at least, attracts more focus – than their long-term direction. It’s not unreasonable, in fact, to say that many of them don’t have a clear overall sense of direction, and the extent to which this feels problematic varies from piece to piece. In the case of the title work, it is a problem; there’s a lot to enjoy – the mix of cimbalom- and bell-like pitches interspersed with soft bursts of turbulence, and particularly the way Thompson creates ‘melodies’ apparently from the noise of metallic friction – but due to its half-hour duration it ultimately comes to feel meandering and inconsequential, which for a work evidently seeking to tap into a certain meditative quality is pretty fatal. By contrast the 10-minute Magiae Naturalis really works; bringing to mind the earlier music of Adrian Moore, its ambient mindset is more potent playing out within a much shorter time-span. Read more

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Town Hall, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Carter

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts | 1 Comment

i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Aaron Cassidy – The wreck of former boundaries/Liza Lim – How Forests Think

Posted on by 5:4 in CD/Digital releases, HCMF | 2 Comments

Later today i’ll be jumping in the car to begin my annual pilgrimage to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and it seems appropriate to conclude this week’s revisiting of previous years with mention of a recent CD featuring two larger-scale works that both received their first UK performances at last year’s festival. It’s pretty common to hear new music at HCMF and then lose all sight and sound of it for years afterward, due to a lack of further performances on these shores or a CD release. So it’s unusual and enormously welcome that within a year of hearing Australia’s foremost contemporary music ensemble ELISION perform Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think, both are available on a CD released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records. Moreover, the recording is of that very same live performance at HCMF 2016 which, considering how exciting and immersive that concert was, makes it even more of a treat.

i discussed both pieces at length in my original review of the concert, and while this isn’t a new performance, this recording offers a fresh perspective of each piece, one that at times draws significant contrasts with the experience of hearing them live in St Paul’s Hall last November. Lim’s piece in particular left me with a lot of questions and concerns, some of which have been addressed by the CD. Read more

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