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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.

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Morton Feldman – Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety

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To begin the final week of my Lent Series, i’m turning to a curious little miniature by Morton Feldman. Composed in 1970, Madame Press Died Last Week at Ninety is a work for a small, unusual ensemble of 2 flutes, horn, trumpet, trombone, tuba, celesta, bells, 2 cellos and 2 double basses. The titular dedicatee, Vera Maurina-Press, was in fact Feldman’s childhood piano teacher (from the age of 12), about whom he spoke very affectionately in a short essay from the early 1960s: “It was because of her – only, I think, because she was not a disciplinarian – that I was instilled with a sort of vibrant musicality rather than musicianship.” And a decade later, his warmth for her remained strong: “Radical composer, they say. But you see I have always had this big sense of history, the feeling of tradition, continuity. With Mme. Press at twelve, I was in touch with Scriabin, and thus with Chopin. With Busoni and thus with Liszt. . . . They are not dead.” Read more

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Beguiling/bemusing, pretentious/profound: the continuing challenge of Wandelweiser

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There’s a lot of music that i don’t write about. That’s kind of an obvious, even stupid thing to say: what i mean is that there’s a lot of music that i listen to that i don’t then write about. Invariably it’s due to some fundamentally problematic aspect that makes recommending it to others less of a necessity than a slightly cruel prank. Before i continue (and momentarily to digress), i must stress that i generally avoid thinking of composers in terms of trends, ‘schools’, ‘isms’ and other group terms that bundle them together due to some spurious connection, but considering the particular composers i’m writing about today have deliberately grouped themselves together, it seems appropriate to regard them in that way. To continue then: Wandelweiser. There’s a lot of Wandelweiser that i’ve listened to that i haven’t written about. A lot. And this fact has strangely been gnawing away at me recently as i’ve been pondering the latest batch of CD releases to have come from the Wandelweiser stable. To be fair to myself, i haven’t avoided them entirely: before HCMF 2015—at which Jürg Frey was composer-in-residence—i examined some of the then recent output from both him and a couple of other Wandelweiser composers, and there’s been a sprinkling of subsequent encounters, all i now realise also in conjunction with events going on at Huddersfield. This belies the fact that i have actually listened to an immense amount of their output, and it struck me recently that, instead of avoiding writing about it due to the conflicted reactions it so often engenders, perhaps that’s a worthwhile, even an important subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. Read more

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Michael Pisaro – fields have ears (10) (constellation, monarch, canyon) (World Première)

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i’ve been spending time with assorted premières from last year, and among the more striking is the most recent—and, in fact, the final—addition to American composer Michael Pisaro‘s ongoing fields have ears series of works. Pisaro’s notion of the ‘field’ comprises a grid arrangement, the vertical rows corresponding to the players and the horizontal columns to divisions of time. Subtitled ‘constellation, monarch, canyon’, fields have ears (10) is a work for piano and orchestra, and Pisaro treats each of the 63 orchestral players as an independent sound source (forming an instrumental parallel to the field recordings and noise that accompanied the solo piano in the first fields have ears work, dating from 2008), with just a single type of sound at their disposal, not necessarily anything to do with their nominal instrument: flute 1, for example, is instructed “shaking paper lightly” while the bass clarinet has “plastic bag, light movements”, and so on. Each player makes three sounds throughout the work’s duration, only one of which is allowed to develop—the emphasis at the individual level is for the most part simply on the sound itself, which is either switched ‘on’ or ‘off’. Read more

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New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more

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Proms 2015: Jonathan Newman – Blow It Up, Start Again; Eric Whitacre – Deep Field (European Premières)

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Composers say one thing; their music does something else. It’s nice when the two fit together, or at least fall broadly into the same conceptual and/or aesthetic ballpark. But they don’t always. Not by a long chalk.
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Alvin Lucier – Slices

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 3 Comments

It’s Ash Wednesday, and therefore the start of my annual Lent Series, which this year i’m devoting to contemporary concertos. i’m going to treat the term ‘concerto’ with a certain amount of latitude, focusing primarily on works where one or more soloists act in relation to a larger body of players.

To begin, a relatively simple but beguiling work for cello and orchestra by Alvin Lucier, composed in 2007. The title, Slices, is indicative of the relationship that the soloist has with the orchestra, which is presented here in oscillating modes of action. Initially, the orchestra forms a tight 53-note chromatic cluster (one pitch per instrument; the orchestra comprises 53 players); over this—barely audible at first—the cello picks out isolated pitches, moving in an expanding wedge formation. Gradually it becomes clear that the pitches played by the cello are being removed from the orchestral cluster, leaving erased pitch slices that over time become increasingly wide, until eventually nothing is left. Then the whole process is put into reverse, the cello again placing disjunct pitches that now magically hang in the air as members of the orchestra sustain them, slowly accumulating into another dense cluster; at its zenith, the process reverses once more, and the cello picks apart the cluster, reducing it to nothing. Read more

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George Crumb – Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century | 1 Comment

As it’s Hallowe’en, with All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days closely following (and Remembrance Day a little after that), i’m going to tap into the prevailing temporal undertone and explore a few pieces concerned one way or another with the subject of death. To begin, a piece that is wholeheartedly concerned with that subject—and which is also, i think, highly suitable in character to Hallowe’en itself, George Crumb‘s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed over a six-year period, completed in 1968. For his theme, Crumb turned once again to the poet whose words he set repeatedly through the 1960s, Federico García Lorca, utilising a curious ensemble comprising baritone, electric guitar, electric double bass, amplified piano/electric harpsichord and two percussionists. As is usual for Crumb, the players are all compelled to go beyond their regular call of duty, with everyone playing some percussion as well as singing at various points. Read more

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Proms 2014: Judith Weir – Day Break Shadows Flee (World Première), Zhou Long – Postures (European Première) & John Adams – Saxophone Concerto (UK Première)

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The latest round of Proms premières got one thinking about the relationship between expectation/innovation and engagement. It was Judith Weir‘s new work that got this particular ball rolling around the mind. A composer already at the less adventurous end of the new music spectrum, in recent years her music has increasingly seemed imaginatively torpid, practically treading water. Day Break Shadows Flee, composed for and premièred by pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, went to essentially no lengths at all to challenge that assessment. Read more

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Morton Feldman – The Swallows of Salangan (European Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Premières | 2 Comments

One of the most beguiling and enigmatic premières i’ve encountered in recent times took place at Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival in March, heard for the first time outside the USA no fewer than 54 years after its composition. There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for this considerable feat of procrastination; Morton Feldman‘s The Swallows of Salangan lasts a mere nine minutes, and even though the instrumentation is unusual—a chorus, plus 5 flutes (4 regular, 1 alto), 5 trumpets, 2 tubas, 2 pianos, 2 vibraphones and 7 cellos—it’s not something that would tax any established ensemble or orchestra. There must be another reason for such lackadaisicality, and one can’t help wondering whether it has more than a little to do with the nature of the music itself; i described it ‘beguiling and enigmatic’, but there’s equally a kind of aloof impenetrability that one can imagine many listeners might find not merely unappealing but downright off-putting. Yet if knees can be convinced to bend rather than jerk, there are—as always with Feldman—strange and unfamiliar rewards aplenty to be found. Read more

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Proms 2013: Frederic Rzewski – Piano Concerto (World Première) & Gerald Barry – No other people. (UK Première)

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Prophets, visionaries, seers, they’re an acquired taste, are they not? Often they get relegated to an idealistic niche characterised as “head in the clouds”—yet a more careful survey reveals that most luminaries are among the most earthly-wise and practical of people. This difficult-to-digest paradox coloured much of the music at yesterday’s late night Prom, which, alongside Feldman’s timeless Coptic Light, featured the UK première of Gerald Barry‘s 2009 work No other people. and the first performance of Frederic Rzewski‘s new Piano Concerto, performed by the composer with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Volkov. Read more

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Proms 2013: Philip Glass – Symphony No. 10 (UK Première)

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In previous years, some readers will have noticed that there have always been a few Proms premières about which i haven’t written. Jazz-related works, being somewhat removed from my zone of interest and expertise, are ignored, along with re-discovered works from many decades ago (e.g. Britten’s Elegy for strings, receiving its first performance at the end of this month), contemporary cashings-in of earlier music (e.g. Anthony Payne’s latest ‘effort’, a rehash of Vaughan Williams songs being performed next month) and works by cartoon characters (e.g. the concerto ‘by’ Wallace, heard last year). Beyond these omissions, i’ve never overlooked a work for reasons of quality, as some of my less praiseworthy articles will bear witness. But never have i been more tempted to do this than when confronted by Philip Glass‘s latest contribution to the repertoire, his Symphony No. 10, given its UK première at Wednesday’s late night Prom by the Aurora Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

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John Cage – String Quartet in Four Parts

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In addition to intimacy, the string quartet is a medium capable of remarkable levels of austerity. It’s no surprise, then, that John Cage turned to the quartet as the vehicle for a work in which, “without actually using silence, I should like to praise it” (as Cage wrote to his parents, prior to starting the piece). A few years earlier, in 1947, Cage had composed his first orchestral work, The Seasons, using a technique that he described as a ‘gamut’. This involved the pre-composition of a collection of materials—chords, gestures, solitary sonic moments—that had no relation to each other. These would then become the entire repertoire for the compositional act, Cage choosing from this collection of materials as the mood took him. The gamut technique was an important step towards the aleatoric methods Cage would explore in the next stage of his output, and it’s heard with perhaps the greatest clarity in the work he wrote next, the String Quartet in Four Parts, composed in 1950. Here, Cage created a library of chords, and then a melodic line; to harmonise this melody, Cage called upon whichever chords supported the melody’s current pitch (the same chords always fixed to the same pitches). In addition to use of the gamut, the work also draws on the seasons for inspiration, being in four movements each of which is dedicated to one season. The reference to silence in the above quotation is arguably as much about motion as the actual presence or otherwise of sound itself. Indeed, the titles of the first three movements indicate a gradual tendency towards motionlessness: ‘Quietly Flowing Along’ (summer), ‘Slowly Rocking’ (autumn), ‘Nearly Stationary’ (winter). But another kind of silence evoked in the work is that of self-expression. By drastically restricting the composer’s palette to a small pool of disjunct fragments, the gamut technique to no little extent confounds most conventions of what might otherwise pass for “expression”. This is mirrored in an instruction to the players that they not only avoid vibrato but use minimal weight on the bow, resulting in a cool, detached, rather other-worldly sound, often sounding poised to evaporate. Read more

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In Memoriam: Elliott Carter – Heart, not so heavy as mine

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Words by E. E. Cummings that came to mind last night following the first reports of the death of Elliott Carter, at the age of 103. i know i wasn’t alone in feeling an intensely heavy sadness at the news; one tended to think Carter was so single-mindedly alive that death couldn’t quite see the point in claiming him. But Carter is, at last, gone from us, and to mark his passing, here’s a relatively early work of his that seems rather fitting. It’s from a concert in February this year given by the BBC Singers conducted by Philippe Bach.

Carter’s setting of Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘Heart, not so heavy as mine’ dates from 1938. It embraces the wistful sentiment of the words, the first two stanzas preoccupied by a single tonality (B-flat minor), as though grounded, fixed in place. As the words start to become imaginative, freed from their present isolation, Carter immediately switches to lively counterpoint and a wider harmonic palette, the voices now soaring over thoughts of birds and brooks, in a burst of reverie that’s all the more moving in light of its conclusion; for, just as it reaches a climax (“Without the knowing why”), the bass and tenor voices immediately return to the opening stanza, instantly bursting the song’s bubble. These words continue to infiltrate the optimistic coda, but Carter ultimately avoids ambivalence by letting the major tonality prevail.

It’s a piece that smiles albeit with tears in its eyes, which perhaps couldn’t be more appropriate. Very truly, a great man is gone.


Text

Heart, not so heavy as mine,
Wending late home,
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune,—

A careless snatch, a ballad,
A ditty of the street;
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet,

It was as if a bobolink,
Sauntering this way,
Carolled and mused and carolled,
Then bubbled slow away.

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why.

To-morrow, night will come again,
Weary, perhaps, and sore.
Ah, bugle, by my window,
I pray you stroll once more!

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Conlon Nancarrow (arr. Yvar Mikhashoff) – Study No. 7

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Today is the 100th anniverary of the birth of North America’s most singularly unorthodox composer, Conlon Nancarrow. Born in Arkansas but spending most of his life in Mexico, Nancarrow’s legacy is dominated by the large number of studies he composed for the player piano. His compositional practice was a punctilious and painstaking one, establishing the rhythms and pitches of the piece and then slowly punching them as holes into the roll of piano paper—perhaps the earliest example of a composer using a ‘program’ to create instrumental music (interestingly, Nancarrow’s first such study dates from the late 1940s, the same time that computer programming was becoming a practical reality). Barely acknowledged until the last twenty years of his life, Nancarrow’s work eventually became recognised for what it is: a dazzling and entirely unique enigma, as well as the most thoroughgoing and fundamental re-evaluation and re-thinking of counterpoint since the time of J. S. Bach. Read more

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Proms 2012: Eric Whitacre – Higher, Faster, Stronger; Imogen Heap – The Listening Chair (World Premières)

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Yesterday’s late night Prom focused on the USA’s most popular manufacturer of choral music, Eric Whitacre. Featuring his own choir joining forces with the BBC Singers and ensemblebash, the concert included two world premières, a new work of Whitacre’s own plus an arrangement by him of a new song by the UK’s most brilliantly eclectic chanteuse, Imogen Heap. Read more

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Emancipated beats: voidesque – as if it never existed

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Despite my fondness for more avant-garde beat-oriented music, for a long time it’s been disappointing to see the current state of such idioms overshadowed by its champions. The likes of Aphex Twin, Autechre and Aaron Funk have, on the one hand, deeply moved and inspired composers and musicians to seek to explore what can be done with beats that doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with dancing, while on the other hand intimidating these same musicians to the point of pastiche and parody. It’s possible to count the really imaginative beat-artists of the last decade on one hand. All the more reason, then, to celebrate someone who brings some fresh invention to the genre.

Derek Jeppsen is a composer based in San Diego, California, a recent graduate in electroacoustic composition, and he piqued my interest when i read the description of his first release:

The album is really quite simple, and draws from certain things that may seem antiquated (drum samples), but this collection is about staying away from my “sound art” experiments and academic work. Many “popular” idioms make it to my music (use of a beat, repetition, etc.), but also many things that wouldn’t fit that context, especially in the rhythmic and form realms (polymeter, metric modulation, tempo changes), which often reflect the fact that I play Javanese gamelan professionally. The album is generally about creating an atmospheric artistic space, and including some stylized elements from dance music. There are also moments about randomness and aggression, and one of the tracks is an algorithmic composition, generalizing “beats” and playing with modal melodic generation.

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