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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)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 4 Comments

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)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 15 Comments

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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