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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.”

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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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Vale of Glamorgan Festival: World Premières by Arvo Pärt and Arlene Sierra

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On 9 September, a concert given at the Vale of Glamorgan Festival of Music by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales with the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir, conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste, was for the most part concerned with the music of Arvo Pärt, featuring a new work commissioned by the festival, In Spe for wind quintet and strings. It’s a short piece, in which the winds take precedence at first: horn, oboe and bassoon take turns stating the work’s fundamental idea. The rest of the work is essentially a series of what E. E. Cummings might have called “nonvariations” on that theme; the melody is draped in constantly changing decoration, the voice moving between registers, inversions and retrogrades adding what little spice there is to be gleaned from Pärt’s agonisingly constricted use of material and harmony. Surprisingly, it all feels terribly technical; while the temptation with so much of Pärt’s music is simply to drift, switched off and blissed out, on the surface, i found myself pulled under during In Spe, staring at what lay beneath; i don’t think this is due purely to the paucity of invention on display in the work; Howard Skempton’s Lento goes round in even more demonstrably regular circles for much of its duration, but there the result is hypnotic and entirely convincing. Somehow, the material here all feels terribly workaday, almost like an exercise; unfortunately, as neither the inner workings nor their surface sheen are that interesting, this militates against In Spe, enfeebling it, even in its brief attempts at more dynamic strength. Arvo Pärt’s fans will be delighted; all the ‘tintinnabuli’ stuff is present and correct, and the piece presents them with absolutely nothing unfamiliar, nothing to think about. Read more

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Proms 2010: Stephen Montague – Wilful Chants (World Première) plus Takemitsu

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A world première from Stephen Montague is always an exciting prospect; while hardly an avant-garde figure, he’s highly unpredictable, and one imagines neither the BBC nor the audience could have envisaged what Montague would ultimately present them with in his new work Wilful Chants, given its first performance by the BBC Symphony Chorus with London Brass and O Duo, on 8 August. The work states its intentions immediately, opening with a hectic maelstrom of vocal sounds including half-whispered words, rolled ‘r’s, loud chanting, glissandos, whistles, guttural grunts and the like. The cumulative effect, driven along by a brisk pulse, is entrancing, even hypnotic, the ear constantly pulled left and right, by no means making out the filigree of details (which is hardly the point), but simply trying to hold on for the ride. A climax is reached, and things shift into pitched territory, the brass making uncanny, muted oscillations that suddenly bloom as a dark chorale, into which the choir is swiftly drawn, although remaining in the middleground at this point. A more simplistic chorale follows, sounding distinctly eastern-European; the occasionally half-heard brass oscillations keep things from becoming too conventional or familiar, however, and as the resultant high point appears to be becoming all too generic, it pulls itself apart before getting too portentous, dissolving in a new plethora of noises, accompanied by percussive clatterings. And in no time at all, the conventional trappings are long forgotten as merry mayhem breaks out everywhere, the two elements—noise and song—wonderfully blended in a thrilling street party of a finale. Read more

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Cut and Splice 2005: John Cage, Yasunao Tone, Signal (Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai & Olaf Bender)

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Returning to the archives, here’s an eclectic variety of electronic music from the 2005 Cut and Splice Festival in London, beginning with the archetypal cut and splice work, John Cage‘s Williams Mix. The piece sounds as wonderfully kaleidoscopic as ever, its fast-edit approach causing much the same effect as 4’33”, rendering no sound incongruous, and its all-too-brief duration still surprisingly modern after more than 50 years. In Paramedia-Centripetal by Japanese composer Yasunao Tone, the music emanates from Tone’s ‘performance’ on a graphics tablet of a number of calligraphic symbols, and i suspect this was more engaging to witness than it is merely to listen to; bereft of visuals, the material itches frenetically throughout, with occasional similarities to the sharp juxtapositions of Cage’s piece (and towards the end, to Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango), but ever with the sense that something important was missing. Indeed, after a while, the comparative similarity of the material coupled to its relatively narrow pitch range (deep bass sounds are virtually non-existent), and lengthy duration (almost half an hour) lend the piece a dull, even irritating quality.

The festival included a focus on three composers associated with the German Raster-Noton label: Frank Bretschneider, Carsten Nicolai (aka Alva Noto) and Olaf Bender (aka Byetone). An interview with Frank Bretschneider is illuminating, particularly when he speaks of the issues he and the related composers experienced when first presenting their music, and how it relates to electronic, contemporary and other traditions. Bretschneider comments on the disinterest shown by record labels towards their work, as it didn’t (he says) correspond to existing traditions in contemporary music; although why no-one felt the connection to minimalism is beyond me. With its emphasis on rhythm, and without depending on tired quasi-‘tonal’ harmonic ideas, it’s the kind of minimalism i can engage with; it’s “in your face”, confronting the listener with unavoidable glitches, blips and poundings, and all the better for it. Bretschneider’s untitled piece that follows is a superb example of this, exciting and irresistible, at times seeming to evoke the complexity of African drumming patterns. Read more

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