vocal

HCMF 2019 (Part 2)

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It’s many, many years since i spent meaningful time in the company of music by Can, so i went to founder member Irmin Schmidt‘s HCMF piano recital last Thursday with precisely no expectations. What transpired was one of the most mesmerising, understated performances that i’ve ever witnessed in St Paul’s Hall. Though Schmidt was performing three works – derived in part from his album 5 Klavierstücke, released last year – they essentially coalesced such that they became three facets of a single train of thought. The innards of the instrument had been intricately prepared with an assortment of screws, rawlplugs and other gizmos, but this was a whole lot more than just a standard prepared piano. In the way Schmidt played, there was no qualitative difference between the prepared and natural notes – they all sounded as though they were an essential, intrinsic part of the piano’s tone of voice, so to speak, articulated with different kinds of timbre and pitch focus. Read more

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Stuart MacRae – Prometheus Symphony (World Première)

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i’m concluding this brief look at three recent new symphonies with one by another Scottish composer, Stuart MacRae. As in James MacMillan’s latest symphony, MacRae has also turned to mythology for inspiration, drawing on the ancient Greek tale of Prometheus. According to legend – as recounted by 8th century poet Hesiod – Prometheus created humanity from clay, and then gave to them fire that he had stolen from the gods, in order to enable their development towards civilisation. Zeus, king of the gods, retaliated by punishing Prometheus by binding him to a rock and each day sending an eagle that would devour his liver, which would rematerialise overnight. An immortal being, Prometheus’ fate was therefore potentially an eternal one, though – spoiler alert – he would subsequently be liberated, several years later, by Heracles.

That final part of the tale falls outside the scope of MacRae’s Prometheus Symphony, which briefly features the words of judgement from the gods before focusing almost exclusively on Prometheus’ lengthy soliloquised response to them. Structured as a diptych, the first half utilises excerpts from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as translated by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, in addition to MacRae’s own words, while the entire second half is a setting of Goethe’s eponymous 1774 poem. In essence, then, the symphony is a protracted expression of bitter lament and angry resolve, given bifurcated voice via soprano and baritone soloists.

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Centrala, Birmingham: Illuminate Women’s Music

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In Birmingham last Saturday i caught the latest concert in the current season by Illuminate Women’s Music, touring six UK towns between September and November. As the name implies, the purpose of Illuminate Women’s Music is to shine a light on women composers and performers, featuring a mixture of new repertoire and neglected works from the past. It’s an important, much-needed initiative, and it was heartening to see Birmingham’s Centrala struggling to contain the size of the audience. For Illuminate’s second season the focus is on music for soprano and/or strings, performed by an eponymous bespoke quartet alongside Canadian soloist Patricia Auchterlonie.

One general observation: while i know some strangely prefer their concerts historically homogeneous – i.e. preferring to keep ancient and modern separate – it worked well in this concert combining contemporary music with pieces from previous centuries. New music is arguably more diverse than it’s ever been, so stylistic gear-shifting has long been de rigueur for anyone attending contemporary music concerts. But in any case, a significant part of the point of Illuminate’s concerts is to help flesh out and expand the all-too-easily accepted narrative of music history, in which a great many significant people and compositions have ended up sidelined, forgotten or erased. Read more

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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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CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Celebrating Sir Harrison Birtwistle at 85

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The latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, last Sunday, was an extended celebration for the 85th birthday of Britain’s most radical musical octogenarian, Harrison Birtwistle. In fact, the occasion was marked by not one but two back-to-back concerts, the first of which gave prominence to performers taking part in the ensemble’s NEXT scheme, coaching early-career instrumentalists. In addition to eight works by Birtwistle, the concerts included music by Rebecca Saunders and Australian composer Lisa Illean. Read more

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Proms 2019: John Luther Adams – In the Name of the Earth (European Première); Louis Andriessen – The Only One (UK Première); Freya Waley-Cohen – Naiad (World Première)

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The latest crop of premières at the Proms have encompassed extremes of scale and duration. John Luther AdamsIn the Name of the Earth received its first European performance at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday by no fewer than eight choirs, comprising 700 singers. At a little over three quarters of an hour in duration, it’s by far the longest new work to be heard at the Proms so far. The UK première of Louis Andriessen‘s orchestral song cycle The Only One – lasting a mere 21 minutes – also took place yesterday, and earlier today the shortest of them all, Freya Waley-Cohen‘s 8-minute chamber work Naiad, received its world première at Cadogan Hall. Reflecting on these three pieces together, never has it been more true that size isn’t everything.

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Proms 2019: Errollyn Wallen – This Frame is Part of the Painting; Joanna Lee – At this man’s hand; Jonathan Dove – We Are One Fire (World Premières)

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Three of the last four world premières at the Proms have been vocal works, two of them for unaccompanied choir, the other for voice and orchestra. One of the choral works, Jonathan Dove‘s We Are One Fire, was commissioned as a birthday present for the 90th anniversary of the BBC Symphony Chorus. Dove turned to playwright Alasdair Middleton for a text that could serve as both a response to and an echo of the sentiment in Schiller’s Ode to Joy, celebrating humanity’s “shared ancestry”. Apparently, Dove wanted to compose “something joyous and tribal, but not using (or copying) any traditional music from another country”. It’s bizarre, then, that what Dove has created is so slavishly generic in its musical language.

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Dark Music Days 2019: Dúplum Dúó

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Tuesday evening at the Dark Music Days brought Dúplum Dúó – comprising soprano Björk Níelsdóttir and violist Þóra Margrét Sveinsdóttir – to the somewhat lugubrious setting of Iðnó, one of Reykjavík’s many bars and cafés that also serve as concert spaces. Þóra Margrét didn’t get much of an opportunity to let rip in the recital, while Björk’s voice was mesmerising and often surprisingly powerful, yet it was the understated theatricality of her performance that proved most telling.

Despite the brevity of the four premières they performed, some of them made for a frustrating experience. Sveinn Luðvík Björnsson‘s setting of Shakespeare’s 39th sonnet, consisting of a few half-hearted viola bleats either side of an entirely spoken recitation of the text, almost sounded like the work of a complete musical novice (though hearing Shakespeare recited with an Icelandic accent was admittedly rather lovely). Sóley Stefánsdóttir‘s Parasite should have included electronics but I learned afterward that these had been removed at the last minute – which perhaps explains why the music had sounded provisional and insufficient. Aart Strootman boldly took on the challenge of setting Baudelaire. In many respects his Flowers of Evil nicely captured the atmosphere of the text, in conjunction with a tape part conjuring up a kind of dreamy reverie with clear underlying passion. The piece was undoubtedly overlong and became monotonous in its latter half, though the way Strootman introduced ferocity and a distinct acidic quality at the work’s end – nicely alluding to the bitterness and desperation implied in the poem – made for a superb conclusion. Read more

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Alexander Knaifel – Lukomoriye

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What is it that holds music together? How loosely can it be structured and/or organised, and at what point does its integrity irrevocably break down? When does intense earnestness become perceived as affectation? When does patience cease being a virtue and become a problem, even a handicap?

i found myself pondering all of these questions, and many more besides, as i’ve been spending time in the company of Lukomoriye, the most recent disc of music by Russian composer Alexander Knaifel, released by ECM. The nature of those questions indicates a problematic and perhaps ultimately negative listening experience, so i should stress at the outset that it wasn’t actually like that at all. Knaifel’s music was new to me, and for better or worse i’d forgotten the information from the press release that had whetted my appetite, so i hadn’t really known what to expect. In a nutshell, Lukomoriye is probably the strangest thing i’ve listened to this year, and possibly the most fascinating too.

In hindsight, it’s unexpectedly helpful that the accompanying booklet doesn’t go into the usual kind of detail about the compositional thinking behind the eight works on this disc. There are, in fact, no details at all apart from the texts associated with each piece, and one tiny but crucial nugget of information literally relegated to a footnote, which i’ll come back to shortly. To say that what one finds on Lukomoriye is music of extreme quietness would not exactly miss the point but could potentially be misleading. This is, without a doubt, very quiet music, but of a markedly different order than that inhabiting the work of, say, Jakob Ullmann or some of the Wandelweiser composers or the world of lowercase.

In some respects the opening work on the album, O Comforter, Knaifel’s 1995 choral setting of a prayer to the Holy Spirit, is different from the majority of what follows. There are no challenging issues of integrity or coherence here, the choir maintaining a consistent, unwavering solidity throughout (which in retrospect, for all its softness seems almost deafening compared to the other pieces). But behaviourally speaking the nature of the choir’s slow homophony is revealing: it’s almost as if each voice is waiting for someone else to move first rather than choosing to initiate movement themselves. This makes the work’s gradual chord progressions feel not simply painstaking, but almost painful. It communicates something that typifies this album as a whole: a sense of necessity – a burning need and/or desire to express these things – yet from a place so completely overwhelmed that the actual act of expression becomes agonisingly arduous. It’s as if the music were emerging from exposed nerve endings: excruciated music we might call it. Read more

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Proms 2018: Iain Bell – Aurora; Nina Šenk – Baca (World Premières)

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The interplay of performing relationships has been at the centre of the last two Proms premières. Iain Bell’s Aurora, a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, given its first performance on 29 August by Adela Zaharia and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, seeks to pit the soloist as a figure of light against an orchestra associated with nocturnal darkness and varying quantities of concomitant danger. Read more

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Gigs, gigs, gigs: Night Liminal; Who knows if the moon’s

Posted on by 5:4 in Announcements, Premières | 1 Comment

A couple of performances of my work are coming up soon. Most imminently is the #EarBox series of art and music performances organised by the University of Kent. Their next event features my 2012 ambient work Night Liminal in conjunction with a new exhibition titled Extending the Frame. It’s taking place at 1.10pm on Thursday 24 May at Studio 3 Gallery, in the University’s Jarman Building, and admission is free. Further details can be found on the University’s music department blog, and you can read all about Night Liminal here.

To mark the occasion i’ve created a 50% discount code for the digital download of Night Liminal, valid until the end of this month. Head over to the Bandcamp page and when adding to the cart enter the code earbox to get the discount.

And next month soprano Jessica Summers will be giving the world première of my song for solo voice Who knows if the moon’s. Despite lasting a mere two minutes, this little song – a setting of E. E. Cummings’ well-known poem – is a piece i once thought i’d never complete. It dates back to my undergraduate days; i broke off working on it in May 1995 following the abrupt death of my father, and could never bring myself to return to it. It then sat around for nearly two decades until i rediscovered the sketches and finally managed to complete it during my PhD at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. Partly because of how personal it’s become, i’ve not shown the piece to many people, but i’m delighted that Jessica will finally be performing it; it really is high time i let go of this music.

Accompanied by pianist Jelena Makarova, the concert is one of Jessica’s Living Songs recitals, and takes place at 1.15pm on 12 June at St Mary-at-Hill Church in London. The concert also includes music by Debussy and Stuart MacRae. More details can be found at the church’s website, and the Living Songs project can be followed on Twitter at @LivingSongs21.

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Estonian Music Days 2018 (Part 3)

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Over the last few years, i’ve been repeatedly impressed – no, flabbergasted – at the ingenuity, imagination and beauty that seem to typify Estonian choral music as well as distinguish it from pretty much everywhere else. It’s by no means the most experimental music to come out of the country, but the subtle way many Estonian composers explore and redefine notions of consonance and dissonance, as well as ways to structure a musical narrative, are consistently impressive.

However, by way of balance it’s only fair to recount that this year’s Estonian Music Days afforded me the opportunity to hear one of the most entirely terrible vocal compositions that i have ever encountered. Completed in 1987, Songs of Death and Birth by Estonian composer Kuldar Sink (1942–95) is a song cycle for soprano, two flutes, guitar and cello exploring five texts by Federico García Lorca. In his programme note, Sink claims that “… it would be misleading to think that I imitate the style of flamenco.” No, it absolutely wouldn’t: virtually the entire piece is a non-stop stream of appropriated and ersatz materials that cleave slavishly to Spanish musical idioms and mannerisms. It doesn’t help Sink that George Crumb’s Songs, Drones and Refrains of Death, composed almost two decades earlier, definitively brought the same texts to life in the most vivid and stunningly original way. By contrast, Sink’s song cycle sounds like an early student exercise in pastiche, rendered all the more wretched due to being not just incredibly boring but so impossibly overlong as to be downright sadistic. One can hardly fault the members of Yxus Ensemble for simply doing what the score told them to do, yet soprano Iris Oja (looking as if she’d just walked off the set of Bizet’s Carmen) unleashed her mediocre material with such impassioned zeal that it felt malicious and personal, seeking only to wound and offend. Thankfully, this was the only concert at EMD to exhibit such tenacity-destroying malignance. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Skin (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | 1 Comment

Rebecca Saunders at 50

…this is the room’s essence
not being
now look closer
mere dust
dust is the skin of a room
history is a skin
the older it gets the more impressions are left on its surface
look again…

These words, spoken by the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s 1975 play The Ghost Trio, were “the absolute catalyst” for the work with which i’m ending my Lent Series celebrating the music of Rebecca Saunders, Skin. It’s another of her works about which i’ve written previously, following its UK première at HCMF 2016, though as will be clear from that article the extent to which i was knocked sideways by the piece didn’t exactly lend itself well to writing anything beyond a relatively superficial marvelling at its nature and impact. It’s very good, therefore, to return to Skin and explore it a little closer and deeper. Completed in 2016, it’s the first of her works to feature a solo voice and a sung text, in contrast to the three previous occasions (mentioned in my previous article) when she’s used small groups of voices in an essentially timbral/textural role. Read more

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Kaija Saariaho – Adriana Songs (UK Première)

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Hyvää itsenäisyyspäivää, Suomi!

Today is an important day for the country of Finland, marking the 100th anniversary of their declaration of independence from the Russian Republic. To mark the occasion i’m turning to one of Finland’s most celebrated composers, Kaija Saariaho, specifically to an intense song cycle she composed in 2006. Adriana Songs for mezzo-soprano and orchestra, began life in Saariaho’s opera Adriana Mater (set to a libretto by Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf); of the opera’s seven tableaux, she adapted material from the odd-numbered movements – Clartés, Deux cœurs, Rages and Adriana – to form this four-movement cycle. The subject matter is grave in the extreme: set in the context of war, the character of Adriana is raped by a man from her immediate community, becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, Yonas. To protect him from the truth, Yonas’ family pretend that his father died heroically, but when the truth emerges, in Yonas’ late teens, he decides to track him down and kill him. Eventually, when Yonas finally confronts his father he discovers the man is blind, and decides to spare his life, returning home to his mother. Read more

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Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

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They may start to behave in ways that are challenging and distressing, both for themselves and those around them. For example, they may:

  • become restless or agitated
  • shout out or scream
  • become suspicious of others
  • follow someone around
  • ask the same question repeatedly.

It is important to look at why the person is behaving this way and try to identify which needs are not being met. This will mean trying to see things from their perspective as much as possible. Meeting a person’s needs appropriately can make these behaviours easier to cope with, or prevent them from happening in the first place.

The above words are paraphrased from guidelines on how to respond to someone grappling with the effects of dementia. They’re a useful starting point, i think for considering the output of Gerald Barry, particularly his most recent offering, Canada, premièred at the Proms last Monday. For while Barry himself may not display the signs of this affliction (though, listening to his painfully weird pre-concert interview with Louise Fryer, one wonders), his music most certainly does. It’s perhaps the archetypal ‘Marmite music’: you either think it’s the best thing since – and the perfect accompaniment to – sliced bread, or a ghastly streak of shit-coloured malevolence that you wish with all your being had never come into existence. Read more

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Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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It’s quite unusual to be sitting down to enjoy the Proms première of a piece you already know quite well. But that was the case with Anders Hillborg‘s Sirens, which received its first UK performance a couple of days ago by Swedish sopranos Ida Falk Winland and Hannah Holgersson with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by James Gaffigan. Fifteen months ago, when reviewing its CD release, i found Sirens to be deeply problematic, so it was good to be able to revisit the piece afresh, in a new performance.

As the title suggests, the work’s theme is taken from Homer’s Odyssey, recounting the adventures of Odysseus as he seeks over a ten-year period to return home to Ithaca, to be reunited with his family. One of the more memorable trials he faces is confronting the Sirens, dangerous beings who entice sailors to their doom with intoxicatingly lovely music. Following advice from Circe (who, in an another memorable scene earlier, temporarily turns half of Odysseus’ comrades into pigs), they survive the encounter by stuffing beeswax into their ears, blocking out the music, though Odysseus, evidently of the ‘look but don’t touch’ inclination, has himself tied to the ship’s mast in order to experience the music while being unable to act upon it.

To experience Hillborg’s Sirens, in a literal sense we the audience assume the role of Odysseus (referred to by his Roman equivalent of Ulysses in the text), and Hillborg – or, rather, the singers and orchestra – become the Sirens. One’s response to the piece entirely depends on the extent to which you either are or aren’t ‘seduced’ by it. i’ll come back to this shortly. Read more

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Proms 2017: Roderick Williams – Là ci darem la mano (World Première)

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As i noted in my introduction to his answers to my pre-première questions, until the announcement was made about this year’s Proms in April, it had passed me by completely that Roderick Williams, as well as being one of Britain’s most well-known singers, is also a composer. Unsurprisingly focused on vocal and choral music, he stated that his compositional starting point is often the text, and that’s the case in his new work too, a madrigal setting of ‘Là ci darem la mano’, words by Lorenzo Da Ponte that originally formed part of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni. The words are a duet between the eponymous protagonist and Zerlina, whom Giovanni attempts to seduce despite her already being betrothed to the peasant Masetto. You can regard this as playfully or as seriously as you like, but there’s more than a slight ‘Carry On‘, nudge nudge wink wink character to it.

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John Tavener – Cantus mysticus (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | 1 Comment

i’ve been exploring the extensive 5:4 archive of recordings of premières recently, listening to both brand new and older works, and was pretty startled to encounter Cantus mysticus, by the late John Tavener. A work for clarinet and soprano soloists with a string orchestra of violins and cellos, it was composed in 2004, first performed the following year at the Cuenca Religious Music Week, in Spain. Three years later it received its UK première at the Proms, and in 2010 its first performance in the USA, but for the last seven years it’s sat dormant. Considering Tavener’s popularity both during his latter years and since his death, this seems strange – particularly as Cantus mysticus lasts only eight minutes – though it possibly has something to do with the very peculiar nature of the piece.

For much of the last two decades of his life, Tavener’s compositional practice was relatively standardised and predictable. If it had anything approximating an evolution, it was more to do with extra-musical than musical concerns, as Tavener shifted somewhat away from the more tangible (i.e. readily explainable) aspects of religious dogma in favour of ‘esoteric metaphysics’. (This evolution would finally move into an intense exploration of human suffering in the wake of Tavener’s own close call with death in 2007.) Personally speaking, this late shift came as something of a relief, though primarily because the particular combination of the abstract and the abstruse embodied within esoteric metaphysics render it far more inert (and that’s really not intended as a euphemism for ‘meaningless’) than Tavener’s more ostentatiously overt theological outlook of earlier years. Put more crudely – though no less accurately – this shift removed some of the unctuous sanctimoniousness of those earlier works, which from an extra-musical perspective, makes them very much more palatable. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

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My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focusing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more

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Richard Barrett – Opening of the Mouth (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | 2 Comments

To bring my little ‘death season’ to a close, a major work that confronts the subject in the most breathtakingly imaginative and radical way. Richard Barrett‘s Opening of the Mouth, composed over a five-year period from 1992-97, is a daunting work even to begin to write about, partly due to its scale—lasting a little over 70 minutes—but perhaps more due to its material intricacies and structural ingenuity, both of which invite various ways to be parsed. From one perspective, the work is a cycle, comprising a host of discrete compositions, many for solo instruments: abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben for percussion solo, CHARON for bass clarinet, Largo for soprano, koto and cello, Schneebett for soprano, mezzo-soprano and ensemble, Tenebrae for mezzo-soprano, electric guitar, ensemble and live electronics, knospend-gespaltener for C clarinet, air for violin and von hinter dem Schmerz for amplified cello, in addition to two electronic works, Landschaft mit Urnenwesen and Zungenentwürzeln. Barrett does not simply tessellate these pieces to make a larger whole—far from it: they occur simultaneously as well as consecutively, sometimes whole, sometimes fragmented, overlapping and interweaving with each other and with new material, Byzantine architecture rendering convoluted music of utmost sophistication.
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