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Proms 2017: Thomas Larcher – Nocturne – Insomnia (UK Première) & Michael Gordon – Big Space (World Première)

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Listening to two recent Proms premières back-to-back, Thomas Larcher‘s Nocturne – Insomnia and Michael Gordon‘s Big Space, turned out to be thought-provoking in ways that i’m sure are entirely unrelated to the composers’ intentions. The reason is that both pieces seem to be poles-apart approaches to creating the musical equivalent of the same thing – an extended road to nowhere – provoking the same response: a hefty shrug. i was going to say these pieces left me floundering, but in truth there’s little in either of them that’s tough to deal with, except insofar as neither provides much beyond or beneath what’s happening on their respective surfaces. Read more

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Cheltenham Music Festival: Love Songs

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Last night saw the second concert of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival to be almost completely devoted to contemporary music. i described the previous one, with E STuudio Youth Choir, as being “a mixed bag of confections”, and the same applies to this event, a piano recital titled ‘Love Songs’ by William Howard. The location and context were perfect: the Pillar Room in Cheltenham’s grand Town Hall, a relaxed space that, following a sweltering day, throbbed with humid heat.

Howard has commissioned an assortment of composers to write short works that could be described as love songs, but a couple of points about the outlook of this project are immediately problematic. First, Howard makes some decidedly odd introductory remarks, claiming that, due to the associations of the ‘song without words’ form with the Romantic era, to “commission a piano love song from a living composer might seem eccentric, or, in the case of a composer who writes abstract music, a meaningless or impossible challenge”. This was backed up by composer David Matthews’ programme note, which alleges that the “Romantic musical language of the 19th and early 20th centuries was ideally suited to the love song, far more than the various languages of our own day”. Both of these statements are the rankest fallacious nonsense. The expression of love, i would venture to aver, has been around for rather longer than the brief Romantic era, and does not have to come pre-packed with its aesthetic, style, manner and content already determined; when it does, it’s as impersonal and generic as a Hallmark™ greeting card. Second – and in light of the first point, this becomes more understandable – the range of composers chosen by Howard, though diverse, is demonstrably conservative in style, and while this is not a slight on any particular composer featured, it does a disservice to the much wider range of composers working today who presumably find no difficulty in being of a more ‘abstract’ musical disposition while still being able to both experience and express love. Read more

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Louth Contemporary Music Society: Silenzio Festival, Dundalk

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In terms of outlook (non-partisan), commitment (total to the point of absurdity) and above all its track record during the last eleven (essentially unsung) years, Louth Contemporary Music Society unquestionably deserves to sit alongside the very best contemporary musical festivals. Its most recent, Silenzio, which took place last weekend in Dundalk, on Ireland’s east coast, only cements that fact yet more solidly. The focus on this occasion was the music of Salvatore Sciarrino – making his first appearance in Ireland – coupled with the world première of a substantial new work from Swiss composer Jürg Frey. At first glance, the pairing of Frey and Sciarrino seemed somewhat arbitrary, though as things turned out there was an unexpected aural connection in at least one piece (though it didn’t exactly work in either of their favours). The festival was once again populated by a spectacular collection of interpreters of contemporary music, including clarinettist Carol Robinson, flautist Matteo Cesari, Quartetto Prometeo, percussionist Simon Limbrick and Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart.

The festival began in the narrow confines of Dundalk Gaol with an evening of Jürg Frey’s music. It opened with As imperceptibly as grief, a setting for solo soprano of Emily Dickinson’s poem, and in hindsight it was this opening song that carried the greatest weight of the concert, though not due to anything radically different about its music. As one might have expected from Frey, the piece unfolded in a calm, unhurried manner. Initially, the space was ‘setup’ via the soprano – Hélène Fauchère, in a tour-de-force display of infinite control – slowly placing evenly-spaced quasi-isolated notes in the air. Two ‘parts’ were present: syllables of the text on one pitch, open vowels a semitone higher, an oscillation that soon became more melismatic. As in many of Frey’s pieces, it was permeated with a sense of profundity, one that was heightened by these moments of melisma. At one point in particular (before the text moved from the afternoon to dusk), the song became captivated in an extended ‘ooh’ episode that suggested pure ecstasy, as though Fauchère were caught in a private emotional reverie or possessed by a vision. On a more musical level, it displayed an intense enjoyment of sound itself, both its mere presence and its tangibility – tactility even – wanting to linger over its pitches as well as the movement between them. Read more

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Christian Wolff – Spring (UK Première)

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Tomorrow is the summer solstice, which technically makes today the last day of spring. To bid farewell to the season, here’s a very interesting orchestral work titled Spring by US composer Christian Wolff. Composed in 1995, Spring was Wolff’s first orchestral piece, and in it he experimented with indeterminate elements, combining them with more conventionally notated and performed (i.e. conducted) music. Despite its title, there’s no extra-musical programme attached to the piece, and each of the four movements is unnamed. Despite its non-programmatic nature, though, Wolff is clearly engaging with existing musical materials with a view toward a kind of Ivesian mash-up as well as varying forms of obfuscation, disintegration and, perhaps, refinement. Maybe Wolff was wondering what might ‘spring’ forth from these processes of experimentation. There’s certainly more than a hint of alchemy to it all, which over the course of the four movements becomes intensified, with the results bearing a concomitantly less obvious connection to their source materials. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 2)

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In the late evening of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik‘s opening day, inside the town’s small but elegantly decorated Johanniskirche, the JACK Quartet gave the world premières of a pair of works of an entirely different disposition from that of Ferneyhough and Birtwistle, heard earlier that afternoon.

Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi‘s Pathos of Distance essentially re-programs the string quartet such that the cello becomes a conspicuous rogue element. Through a mixture of whirling, clicking, whirring and croaking wald teufels (a.k.a. forest devils or, most appropriately, frog callers) and more protracted, harmonic- and tremolando-laden bowed materials, the upper strings were clearly well-disposed to work together, sharing and imitating. Whereas the cello – visually enhanced by Kevin McFarland’s unique attire, jacket-less with shirt sleeves rolled up – took on the role of ‘bovver boy’, grinding, twanging, buzzing and poinging his strings, de- and re-tuning them, often situated four or five octaves below the rest. Both the exploration of this relationship – which did vary, and at times all four players were clearly united – as well as Bianchi’s intricate and imaginative textural narrative were engrossing, right up until the somewhat ritualistic final minutes, including a wave of ‘roars’, a viola and cello duet (the viola now also detuned, and played with a cello bow!) and a concluding flurry of ratcheting. Thoroughly immersive and, in the best possible sense, entertaining. Read more

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Amber Priestley – floors are flowers — take a few

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i’m ending this year’s Lent series with a beautifully weird little piece by USA-born, UK-based composer Amber Priestley. The work takes its title – floors are flowers — take a few – from an equally short poem by US poet Shel Silverstein, ‘Enter This Deserted House’:

But please walk softly as you do.
Frogs dwell here and crickets too.

Ain’t no ceiling, only blue.
Jays dwell here and sunbeams too.

Floors are flowers – take a few
Ferns grow here and daisies too.

Swoosh, whoosh – too-whit, too-woo
Bats dwell here and hoot owls too.

Ha-ha-ha, hee-hee, hoo-hoooo,
Gnomes dwell here and goblins too.

And my child, I thought you knew
I dwell here… and so do you.

Read more

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