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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

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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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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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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

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

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 by the BBC Singers, conducted by Philippe Bach, which was broadcast in February this year.

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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Morton Feldman – Bass Clarinet and Percussion

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 2 Comments

As Lent has now entered Passiontide, it’s time to crank things up a notch, so the next piece in my Lent series is by one of the great masters of compositional discipline and restraint, Morton Feldman. There aren’t many composers about whom one can say that they’re able to tap into something truly ‘other’, but this uncanny quality is a consistent trait of Feldman’s music, in particular the pieces he composed late in his life. In a seemingly counterintuitive move, Feldman gradually increased the duration of his compositions while radically paring back their content, the works becoming increasingly single-minded, focused (even fixated) on a small number of simple ideas. By composing for very small forces (typically no more than half a dozen players), Feldman confined these ideas to a severely restricted palette, resulting in some of the most ascetic music ever written.

Bass Clarinet and Percussion—even the titles became simplified—was composed in 1981, six years before Feldman’s death. As its bald, functional name indicates, the piece comprises two instrumental parts, the latter of which is essentially a single voice divided between two percussionists. Lasting around 19 minutes, Feldman structures the piece as a series of broad episodes, each differing from its neighbour by small adjustments in the performance manner of the clarinet and the choice of percussion instruments. As such, the two voices are fundamentally different; while the percussion vary in terms of both timbre and technique, the bass clarinet is comparatively changeless, its variety limited to just pitch and octave. In addition, the percussion material is, by its very nature, made up of attacks, while the clarinet’s music lacks any hint of attack, its notes drifting in and out with rounded edges. Read more

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