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

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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

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Brigitta Muntendorf – Sweetheart, Goodbye!

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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

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Ana-Maria Avram – Nouvel Archae

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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

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Jennifer Walshe: Detleva Verens – Scintillia

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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

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Naomi Pinnock – Words (World Première)

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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

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

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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

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Ferneyhough Week – Missa Brevis

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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…

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