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Páll Ragnar Pálsson – Atonement

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One of the first works of contemporary music that i ever got to know was Dérive 1 by Pierre Boulez. i fell for the piece pretty hard, and one of the main reasons for that infatuation – which hasn’t really subsided in the decades since – was the way Boulez constructs pretty much the entire fabric of the work from tremulous fibres that constantly vibrate, shimmer and thrum as if an electric current were coursing through them. Paradoxically, a palpable stillness emerges despite all this surface movement (not unlike the surface of water covered in pond skaters), creating a soundworld pulsating with life while conveying an air of quiet solemnity. A similar quality permeates the five chamber compositions on Atonement, a new portrait disc of music by Icelandic composer Páll Ragnar Pálsson.

The connection is reinforced by the fact that all of these works use a similar instrumental line-up to Derive 1, performed in this recording by Iceland’s premier new music group, Caput Ensemble. All but one of them also feature a voice – soprano Tui Hirv, the composer’s wife – exploring texts that draw on folk hymns, Icelandic poetry and the screenplay of Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker. The nature of the active/static paradox is arguably most telling in the one instrumental work, in no small part because of the challenge thrown down by its title: Lucidity. On first contact, it’s tempting to consider that there’s something ironic about the idea of clarity or revelation coming from its tangled textures. But, it seems to me, the essence of what makes all five of these pieces tick is to be found in this piece. There’s the distinct sense that what we’re hearing, what the ensemble is doing, is less about cause than effect: an inner response to an outer stimulus, like a mind or soul being made to shake and resonate by something external. It’s rather like hearing the output of a seismograph – not an unreasonable analogy for a composer who has also written pieces titled Quake and Afterquake – with each instrument’s tremulant material the indication of some deep, profound movement. Read more

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Franui – Ennui

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If you’ve been finding that the current state of lockdown and isolation has been making you feel bored or world-weary, then Ennui, the latest release by Austrian ensemble Franui might just be exactly what you need – regardless whether that’s empathy or escapism. Franui are well-known for their arrangements and adaptations of classical music, and these form the foundation of the album. However, these adaptations – including Mozart, Bartók, Schubert, Schumann and Satie – are all decidedly off-kilter, exacerbated by being juxtaposed and mashed together such that they often feel as if their notes are literally sliding around (or even off) the page. That’s one part of Ennui; the other is a series of pithy spoken texts, drawing on and/or freely adapted from the likes of Georg Büchner, Kierkegaard, Matthias Claudius, Walter Benjamin and John Cage, each of which has something to say on the subjects of listlessness, weariness and boredom.

Combined together in this way, the album brings to mind the left-field absurdist wit of William Walton and Edith Sitwell’s Façade (now almost a century old). If this suggests that Ennui can be regarded as an “entertainment”, that is most definitely the case. The ensemble’s treatment of the original music – often drawn from their composers’ ‘occasional’ works, such as divertimenti – is deliberately amusing, though it’s important to stress that it’s not played for laughs. Indeed, there are times when it’s like listening to someone blind drunk trying to communicate something deadly serious, conveying a disconcerting form of black humour. And there are times when its kilter is not remotely off, such as in the central movement ‘Teure Mutter’ [dear Mother] that hypnotically melds together fragments of a funeral march with echoes of the grotesque double bass ‘Frère Jacques’ melody from Mahler’s First Symphony. Likewise, the album’s closing piece, based on Mozart, though titled ‘Ouverture ennuyeuse’ [boring overture] is nothing of the kind, being one of the prettiest things i’ve heard in a while, a kind of tired, soothing lullaby. Read more

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Harrison Birtwistle – Semper Dowland, semper dolens (World Première)

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Last autumn, when i began thinking about this Lent Series, one of the first works i intended to include was by Harrison Birtwistle, his opera The Last Supper. However, in light of the events that have transpired in the last couple of months, and which now overshadow everything, i’m instead going to explore a different work of Birtwistle’s that i found myself drawn to again on Tuesday morning, in the wake of the previous evening’s announcement of the more stringent living conditions in the UK. Subtitled ‘theatre of melancholy’, Semper Dowland, semper dolens is a 45-minute work for voice and small ensemble that, as its name makes clear, draws heavily on the music of Renaissance composer John Dowland. Dowland himself wrote a piece bearing that title (which translates as “always Dowland, always doleful”) that was published in a 1604 collection Lachrimæ or seaven teares figured in seaven passionate pavans. Birtwistle’s work dates back a little over a decade, and is structured as an extended sequence alternating instrumental episodes and songs. The episodes are based on and named after the septet of pavans featured in the 1604 collection:

  1. Lachrymæ Antiquæ (“old tears”; the music of which would subsequently become the well-known song Flow, my teares)
  2. Lachrymæ Antiquæ Novæ (“old tears renewed”)
  3. Lachrymæ Gementes (“sighing tears”)
  4. Lachrymæ Tristes (“sad tears”)
  5. Lachrymæ Coactæ (“forced tears”)
  6. Lachrymæ Amantis (“a lover’s tears”)
  7. Lachrymæ Veræ (“true tears”)

Interspersed between these episodes are six Dowland songs, five of which are taken from his three books “of Songs or Ayres” published between 1597 and 1603: Come, heavy Sleep from Book 1, I saw my lady weep and Sorrow, stay from Book 2, and Lend your ears to my sorrow and I must complain from Book 3. The sixth song is In darkness let me dwell, one of Dowland’s most famous songs that was published separately a few years later. While the instrumental episodes are a more personal response to the Dowland material, Birtwistle’s approach with these songs has been simply to arrange them for voice and harp, leaving them otherwise unaltered. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Yes (UK Première)

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One of the foci of this year’s Lent Series exploring larger-scale works is where time and material become convoluted. In the case of the next work i’m exploring, this kind of convolution applies not only to the music but also to the text that inspired it. Yes by Rebecca Saunders is a work derived from, rather than a setting of, the epic final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Comprising just eight thought ‘utterances’ – to call them ‘sentences’ isn’t quite right as they mostly lack closing (or indeed any) punctuation – yet extending for over 24,000 words, this episode is known as Molly Bloom’s Soliloquy, a dream-like torrent of memory and reflection run amok, much of it highly emotionally- and/or sexually-charged. Parsing such an overwhelming outpouring of words is no easy task, and personally speaking i prefer to listen to it spoken aloud, transforming it into a stunning two-hour tapestry in which events from throughout Molly’s life are recounted in somewhat arbitrary, non sequitur fashion. While we can infer importance of these events from the simple fact they are being recounted, it can be more difficult to discern the relative significance of these events as well as their associated emotional baggage: love, rage, hope, regret, anguish and ecstasy are all in there, often simultaneously.

Saunders’ 75-minute response to the text creates a musical analogue of this experience. A work for soprano and 19 soloists, Yes disperses the players throughout the performance space, establishing a sound environment that the audience is positioned within. One could fancifully regard this arrangement as like sitting inside Molly Bloom’s head, being surrounded by her tangled criss-crossing recollections and sentiments fired out by the neural network of musicians all around us. My own experience of the work, at the UK première that began the 2018 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, was very much like this. On that occasion i commented in my original critique how the visual aspect of the work – as with many of Saunders’ works – felt like a distraction, and spending more time with the piece since then has reinforced that impression. Yes was admittedly performed in relatively low light, but being able to listen without any visual distractions – not inappropriate, i think, as it would be pushing it to describe Yes as having a ‘theatrical’ performance aspect – has greatly enhanced and deepened the experience. Furthermore, while Yes is something of a synthesis of Saunders’ two compositional modes – the players either individuated (for 24 of the work’s 25 modules) or united (in single module Nether, the only part of the piece to be conducted) – sonically speaking it isn’t easy to tell where the music switches between these modes. Read more

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Kenneth Kirschner – January 1, 2019

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It’s the first day of Lent, and also therefore the start of this year’s 5:4 Lent Series. Three years ago my focus was on miniature works, and for 2020 i’m going in the opposite direction, exploring compositions that occupy larger-scale durations. However, this is not simply about pieces that are ‘epic’ (something i’ve examined before) but more about the way time is used (by the composer) and perceived (by the listener). For that reason, in general i’m not going to be looking at sectional works or cycles, which are lengthy simply because they’re made up of numerous individual component parts, or operas, which are invariably longer due to the fact that it takes a while to tell a decent narrative. That being said, there will be exceptions to both of those exclusions.

i’m beginning this year’s Lent Series with a recent work by a composer who has made me think more about time than anyone else: Kenneth Kirschner. Kirschner’s work has intrigued and fascinated me for many years. On the one hand, in many respects i feel i know it well; i’ve spent time with everything he’s made available over the last couple of decades – which, depending how you classify what counts as a ‘composition’, amounts to as many as 185 pieces – and have written about his music on numerous occasions, most extensively in the 2014 book Imperfect Forms: The Music of Kenneth Kirschner (available as a free PDF download). It was Kirschner’s work that inspired and helped shape my thinking about what i ultimately called the ‘steady state’, the structural concept in which short-term change and long-term stasis combine to create a never-/ever-changing musical tapestry that’s always the same, yet always new. That description could almost be said to apply to Kirschner’s output itself; many of his compositions evoke, allude to or at least resemble many of his other compositions: always the same, yet always new. Yet for all the knowledge and familiarity with it, Kirschner’s music keeps you on your toes, regularly coming as a surprise. Always the same, always new. Read more

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Jennifer Walshe – A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance

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There are times, believe it or not dear reader, when i honestly wonder if i’m starting to get a little bit jaded. Listening can feel like a chore, and the endless parade of the novelty and the newfangled can blur into a torrent of ‘musica generica’ that becomes (at best) boring and (at worst) suffocating. Enter Jennifer Walshe. If there’s one artist whose work is always guaranteed to beguile, intrigue and fascinate, it’s Walshe. Above all, she is endlessly refreshing, presenting unexpected ideas in unexpected ways that are often as hilarious to experience as they are engrossing and confusing.

To say her latest release is no exception is to put it very mildly indeed. It’s essentially a collision between acoustic, in the form of Walshe’s voice, and electronic, in the form of machine learning duo Dadabots. The latter set to work training their neural network on recordings of Walshe singing through centuries’ worth of music history. The first remarkable product of this unique collaboration is A Late Anthology of Early Music Vol. 1: Ancient to Renaissance, 40 minutes of sonic disjecta membra that Douglas Adams might have described as being almost, but not quite, entirely unlike vocal music.

Anyone with a passing understanding of machine learning from the perspective of music will perhaps know what to expect here. Machine? – check; learning? – hmm, not so much. The extent to which it’s obvious in these 17 tracks that their origins lie in Jennifer Walshe’s vocal cords varies extremely widely. Not that that matters, of course; what’s more important here isn’t the fidelity of the process but the evolution of the process, the ongoing strenuous effort being made to attempt to parse, understand and reproduce – and then beholding the startlingly marvellous results in all of their discombobulating ineptitude. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 2)

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As i mentioned previously, allusions to or evocations of nature were few and far between at this year’s Dark Music Days, indicating the strength and diversity of Iceland’s more searching, abstract approach to composition.

This seemed to be precisely the point of Sigurður Árni Jónsson’s Illusion of Explanatory Depth, premièred by the Iceland Symphony Orchestra conducted by Bjarni Frímann Bjarnason as part of ‘Yrkja’, an annual programme to support up-and-coming composers. More than most works I heard at this year’s festival, the piece was clearly all ‘about’ sound itself, articulated via an involving conversation between sections of the orchestra. It was exceptionally dynamic, fluctuating between overblown bursts of pseudo-romantic passion – principally heard in a short, recurring motif – and extended sequences of exploratory convolution. Over time, the orchestra never idling for a second, it created the distinct sense of an intense inner turmoil, governed by spontaneity – yet this sense was regularly challenged by that uncanny recurring motif. A fascinating piece. The same couldn’t be said for the other ‘Yrkja’ work, Lo and Behold by Eygló Höskuldsdóttir Viborg. Nominally taking inspiration from Werner Herzog, the piece was a pure slice of the kind of saccharine fare one is forced to endure throughout pretty much any nature documentary these days. It’s hard to find musical aspirations such as these admirable, particularly when they’re so overtly manipulative; it was like being continually poked: “be uplifted, be amazed, be joyful, be happy”. NO. Read more

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Dark Music Days 2020 (Part 1)

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It no doubt goes without saying that Iceland’s Dark Music Days festival is primarily named for the fact that it takes place in January, when the amount of daylight the country receives is minimal. In a less literal sense, though, musically speaking there’s a lot to be said for listening in the dark. I don’t just mean the obvious, actually sitting in darkness – the way that last year’s Dark Music Days got up and running – but I’m also thinking of the relationship we have with music, our expectations and considerations of it prior to, and during, the act of listening. Personally, I increasingly find that knowing less beforehand, going into a concert ‘cold’ without consulting programme notes and the like until afterwards, is a valuable, even vital, way to approach new music. Read more

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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

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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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