vocal

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

Tags: , , ,

Kaija Saariaho – Adriana Songs (UK Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières | Leave a comment

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

Tags: , ,

Proms 2017: Gerald Barry – Canada (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | 11 Comments

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

Tags: , , , ,

Proms 2017: Anders Hillborg – Sirens (UK Première)

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

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

Tags: , , , , ,

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

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

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.

Read more

Tags: , , , , , ,

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

Tags: , , , ,

HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Festivals, Premières | 6 Comments

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

Tags: , , , , , ,

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.
Read more

Tags: , , , , ,

David Sawer – Flesh and Blood (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Premières, Thematic series | Leave a comment

For Remembrance Day, i’ve chosen a new work from David Sawer that engages with death and loss in a poignant but surprisingly passionate way. Flesh and Blood is a 25-minute dramatic scena for mezzo-soprano, baritone and orchestra, setting a text by playwright Howard Barker. Although not staged, the soloists do wear costumes and assume the roles of a soldier and his mother, the two of them exploring aspects of memory and resignation in the face of the Soldier’s imminent, permanent, separation and loss. That’s one way of looking at it, although the nature of the situation is nicely enigmatic; parts of the piece could just as well be taking place in absentia, within the Mother’s imagination, either in the wake of the news no parent wants to hear or with understandable dread at its fatalistic inevitability. Read more

Tags: , ,

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

Tags: , ,

Proms 2014: John Tavener – Gnōsis & Requiem Fragments (World Premières)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

In the wake of John Tavener‘s death in November last year, more mainstream music festivals have been rather tripping over themselves to offer posthumous tributes; the Cheltenham Festival devoted two concerts to his music last month, and the Proms has done likewise, including the world premières of two of Tavener’s last compositions, Gnōsis and Requiem Fragments. It makes sense to consider them together as, not surprisingly, they operate and speak with a markedly similar manner and tone of voice. Gnōsis, scored for solo mezzo-soprano, alto flute, percussion and strings, sets not so much a text as a small collection of words drawn from three religious traditions, Hindu (‘sat’ = ‘being’, ‘chit’ = ‘consciousness’, ‘ānanda’ = ‘bliss’), Christian (‘Jesu’ = ‘Jesus’) and Islam (‘lā ilāha illā-llāhu’ = ‘there is no god but God’). Requiem Fragments, for SATB choir, 2 trombones and string quartet, incorporates a few passages from the familiar requiem mass alongside a similar selection of words, in this case all Hindu: ‘Brahma’ (the god of creation), ‘ātma’ (the supreme reality/self), ‘Manikarnika’ (a renowned site for cremations) and ‘Mahapralaya’ (referencing a final absorption of everything back into the universe). Read more

Tags: , , , , ,

Brigitta Muntendorf – Sweetheart, Goodbye!

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

The next piece in my Lent Series is by German composer Brigitta Muntendorf, based in Cologne. Muntendorf’s work is heavily characterised by overt theatricality; three years ago, in Salzburg, Muntendorf premièred her first music theatre work Wer zum Teufel ist Gerty (YouTube), followed last year by Endlich Opfer, more substantial but nonetheless described by the composer as a “pocket opera”. In between the two, Muntendorf composed a remarkable electroacoustic piece for voice, mono loudspeaker and ensemble of eight players titled Sweetheart, Goodbye!. Her starting point was a chapter from James Joyce’s Ulysses, not so much ‘set’ as dramatised—the score specifies that the ideal vocalist would be “an actress with vocal training” rather than a singer—a process Muntendorf likens to “playing with emotions as material”. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Ana-Maria Avram – Nouvel Archae

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

Back to my Lent Series, and a rather beautiful work for voice and electronics by the Romanian composer Ana-Maria Avram. Also a pianist and conductor, Avram was born and studied in Bucharest, before moving to the Sorbonne in Paris to pursue a PhD in Musical Aesthetics. Avram directs the Hyperion Ensemble with her husband Iancu Dumitrescu, and together they promote themselves as composers of ‘hyper-spectral’ music, an extension of spectralism encompassing aspects other than just the harmonic, such as timbre and dynamics, and which is particularly interested in how sound operates within the live performance environment. She works extensively with electronics, and her compositional interests can be heard to good effect in her 1998 work Nouvel Archae for “computer-assisted” voice. Read more

Tags: , , , ,

Jennifer Walshe: Detleva Verens – Scintillia

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | Leave a comment

As it’s St Patrick’s Day, who better to feature next in my Lent Series than one of the most brilliant voices in Irish contemporary music, Jennifer Walshe. In appraising Walshe’s work, it’s impressive enough to consider just the seemingly boundless intricacies of her imagination. Famously, Walshe has fabricated the existence of a group of composers under the umbrella collective Grúpat, each with their own very extensive back-stories and discrete artistic personalities. Many of Walshe’s compositions are attributed to these Grúpat figures, pseudepigrapha that demonstrate her remarkable breadth of compositional interest. But equal to this imaginative power is Walshe’s virtuosity as a vocal performer; it’s not always clear what on earth is coming out of her mouth (or indeed why), but such questions are hard to formulate when one’s grappling with her incredible dexterity and stamina, both of which have practically become the stuff of legend. Read more

Tags: , , ,

Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series, Premières | Leave a comment

Today marks the first day of Lent, and as the start of the season so nicely coincides with International Women’s Day this coming Saturday, for this year’s 5:4 Lent Series i’m going to celebrate music by women composers. To begin, a thoroughly enigmatic work from Naomi Pinnock, Brit-born but now living in Berlin. Words, completed in 2011, was composed while Pinnock was a participant in the London Sinfonietta’s ‘Blue Touch Paper’ programme. The piece establishes an uneasy relationship with familiarity, beginning with the instrumentation, which, alongside a pair of clarinets, percussion and standard-issue five strings, are to be found an accordion, cimbalom and harp, in addition to a baritone soloist who acts as figurehead for the ensemble. The coupling of a singer with that innocently simple title is deceptive; Pinnock’s text exists as a collection of semantically sequestered fragments, a boiled-down distillation of meaning into, yes, words—but words that together pack all the concise, clusterbomb power of Samuel Beckett:

why solve a night without why without silence without why nothing why again nothing why Read more

Tags: , , ,

Proms 2013: Charlotte Seither – Language of Leaving (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

What is this “I”: is it my physical presence, is it the temporality in which I stand and pass away, is there an independence of my thoughts from that which I am, or is my entire being merely a fiction of me myself?

This metaphysical conundrum is the starting point for Language of Leaving by the German composer Charlotte Seither, given its world première at the Proms last Wednesday by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers conducted by Josep Pons. It’s a question as circular as it is taxing, subjective and strange, and Seither’s gambit is to seek a way into it via speculative music, avoiding a direct mode of expression in favour of a large tapestry of weird, fantastical sonics, equal parts humanistic, supernatural and magical. Setting a text would be impossible in a context such as this, so Seither instead uses words by Francesco de Lemene in the most oblique and intangible way, reducing them to a collection of hints, glimpses and afterthoughts. Read more

Tags: , , , , ,

Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Featured Artists | Leave a comment

From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form and text so embedded in the development and consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, and the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations and legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:

[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions and liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, and still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…

Read more

Tags: , , ,

Proms 2012: Simon Bainbridge – The Garden of Earthly Delights (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Festivals, Premières | Leave a comment

The final Proms Matinee last Saturday week featured one of the more substantial and aspirational of this season’s new works. Simon Bainbridge has turned for inspiration to one of art’s most well-known and -loved works, Hieronymus Bosch‘s The Garden of Earthly Delights (image), seeking to bring it alive as a chamber cantata. Composed for countertenor and mezzo-soprano soli with a modestly sized ensemble and additional chorus, it was given its first performance by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Nicholas Collon. Read more

Tags: , , , , , ,

Proms 2012: Michael Finnissy – Piano Concerto No. 2, Harrison Birtwistle – Gigue Machine (UK Premières) & Brian Elias – Electra Mourns (World Première)

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

Last weekend’s Proms Matinee, given by the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Clark Rundell, was the concert i had been most eagerly awaiting in this year’s season, featuring as it did some of my favourite composers and three premières. Back in April i opined that this concert “may just turn out to be the highlight of the whole season”; i think that prediction was pretty close to the mark. Read more

Tags: , , , , , , ,

John Cage – The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs

Posted on by 5:4 in Lent Series | 3 Comments

Austerity is probably not the first characteristic that would come to mind when describing the music of John Cage, and yet that’s precisely what dominates his short song The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, composed in 1942. The text is extracted from a passage (on page 556) of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

night by silentsailing night…
Isobel…
wildwoods’ eyes and primarose hair,
quietly,
all the woods so wild, in mauves of
moss and daphnedews,
how all so still she lay neath of the
whitethorn, child of tree,
like some losthappy leaf,
like blowing flower stilled,
as fain would she anon,
for soon again ‘twil be,
win me, woo me, wed me,
ah weary me!
deeply,
Now evencalm lay sleeping; night
Isobel
Sister Isobel
Saintette Isobel
madame Isa
Veuve La belle

Cage sets these words for voice and piano, on both of whom he imposes severe restrictions; the singer has just three pitches at their disposal (F#, G# and C#) while the pianist isn’t even allowed to open the lid, playing instead on the outside of the instrument. Cage flirted with strict pitch restrictions a few years earlier in the Five Songs for Contralto (song no. 3, “in Just-“, also uses just three pitches), but the atmosphere he establishes here is much more sombre and unsettling. The voice is instructed to sing without vibrato, and the result is a strange cross between sacred chant and folk song, somehow elegant and crude simultaneously. Read more

Tags: , , , ,