Veljo Tormis

King’s Place, London: Theatre of Voices – Baltic Voices

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Personality and connection tend to go hand in hand. This is just as true for getting to know a person as it is for getting to know a piece of music: we’re drawn towards or pushed away according to the ways in which its personality – its qualities and characteristics, the way it behaves – is conveyed to us. I was reflecting on this during last Friday’s concert at King’s Place featuring Paul Hillier’s vocal group Theatre of Voices, performing a sequence of choral works from Estonia and Latvia (although titled ‘Baltic Voices’, the concert did not include anything from Lithuania; a work by Rytis Mažulis was dropped from the programme). We heard works by five composers, and it was particularly interesting to note the marked differences in their respective musical personalities – informed in part by their relationship to earlier forms of music – and the effect this had with regard to engaging with and feeling connected to the music.

A context for this was provided by the opening piece on the programme, The Bishop and the Pagan by Veljo Tormis. Detailing the exploits of an ill-fated English missionary’s pilgrimage to Finland in the 12th century, Tormis initially mirrors the age of the story by employing a musical language shaped by the melodic contours of chant and the perfect fifth-laden harmonic strictures of organum. But from the outset it’s clear that Tormis is not engaging in some kind of postmodern exercise in pastiche. If anything, these overt allusions to earlier music turn out to be a ruse, gradually becoming more and more strained and contorted, peppered with obsessive syllabic repetitions, brief garbled asides and startling chord clusters soaring overhead. The result came across not so much as a conflict of musical languages but as both a homage to and an expansion of an earlier idiom, conveying a personality that was both solemn and, here and there, quite tongue-in-cheek. It was easy to connect to music that sounded so personal. Read more

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World Music Days 2019, Estonia (Part 4)

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Aside from the chamber concerts, by far the most dominant force at this year’s World Music Days in Estonia was choral music. i’ve written before of my admiration of Estonia’s choral tradition – both the standard of its choirs (including, in my view, two of the very best in the world, Vox Clamantis and the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir) and the approach to choral writing by many of its composers, new and old – but this year, as with everything else, the concerts did not primarily feature home-grown works but were filled with music from around the globe. When the conjunction of text, music and choir is as its best, something genuinely magical can happen. Unsurprisingly, the festival had its share of pieces aspiring to that magic: some succeeded, many more failed, but a few clearly deemed it unnecessary to work for, or in any way earn, that magic, expecting it simply to happen on command. Two of the most glaring examples occurred in back-to-back concerts during the opening weekend, on Saturday evening. Estonian Peeter Vähi and Belgian Wim Henderickx both evidently believed that all it took was the throwing together of a few quasi-religious words, tropes, and mannerisms with a can-do evangelical attitude in order to directly summon up the numinous. Hardly: in the case of Vähi’s Siberian Trinity Mantra (a world première) it felt surprising, considering its purportedly earnest Buddhist underpinnings (explained at great length in a tl;dr programme note) how massively self-important and self-indulgent it was; Henderickx’s Blossomings. Three Prayers for a Better World was equally off-putting and fatuous, a simplistic blend of pseudo-‘holy’ blather so cheap and shallow it sounded like some kind of infernal Sven Grünberg / Eric Whitacre mash-up. Both works were lazy, pious and nauseating. Read more

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Mixtape #44 : Spring

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For my April mixtape, i’ve gone for a seasonal theme, exploring music that references and/or alludes to aspects of spring. While all the seasons are, by their nature, in a continual state of flux, i’ve personally always tended to think of spring and autumn as being ‘transitional’, more obviously progressing between opposite poles of light and warmth. Therefore, i’ve opted for a quite polarised collection of music, some of which can be heard from a cheerful, upbeat, thank-god-it’s-not-winter-anymore angle (Syd Dale, Barbara MorgensternJohn ZornThe Bad PlusDeerhoofVeljo TormisHenry ManciniC Duncan) while others are more reflective and contemplative (Clint Mansell, Wendy CarlosGalina GrigorjevaKim CasconeGreg HeadleyAndrew LilesClara Iannotta, frostbYte, Haruomi Hosono, Shigeru Suzuki & Tatsuro YamashitaHelen GrimeKeith BerryMichael OlivaShane CarruthScott WalkerPaddy Kingsland). Brian Reitzell is something of an odd one out, in full-on sinister mode, while John Oswald‘s madcap overclocked version of the Rite of Spring is one of my favourite sections from his gleefully demented Plunderphonics album.

Starting the mix, and at half-hourly intervals, i’ve indulged my love of birdsong by including some (from the British Library‘s collection) that are particularly appropriate to the season of spring in the UK, beginning with a wheatear followed by a nightingale, a swallow and finally a cuckoo, which brings the 90 minutes of seasonal sonification to an end. The mixtape can be downloaded or streamed below; here’s the tracklisting in full, including links to obtain the music. The cover artwork is a photograph i took in the early spring of 2012, at Painswick Rococo Gardens; those of you who know your flowers will recognise, carpeting the ground, a multitude of snowdrops, a long-established symbol celebrating the season of spring. Read more

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