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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

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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