Proms 2017: Missy Mazzoli – Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) (European Première); Catherine Lamb – Prisma Interius V; Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch – The Minutes (World Premières)

by 5:4

The last three Proms premières, though very different in some respects, shared some important things in common. All of them, Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres) by Missy Mazzoli, Prisma Interius V by Catherine Lamb and The Minutes by Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, eschew silence and focus primarily on harmonic movement – or, more specifically, on the (juxta)positioning of pitches to harmonic ends. In tandem with this, they also all broadly adopt an approach that treats the performance space as a vessel into which sound is poured.

For Missy Mazzoli, the space was, literally, space, her music cast “in the shape of a solar system” (her words). The piece began life in 2013, in a version for chamber orchestra that she later expanded to full orchestra, and which was first performed in February last year. Drawing on the double-meaning of ‘sinfonia’, which in Italian used to refer to the hurdy-gurdy, this can be felt in the way pitches are drawn-out and sustained and slide, and in the small ornamental embellishments (ever so slightly redolent of James MacMillan) that are quickly established to be one of the work’s most characteristic musical elements. In its own particular way, the music clearly wants to sing – its melodic urge is paramount – but the way it does this is always in relation to and as a somewhat secondary consideration to its harmonic foundation, which is mobile yet attracted to certain fundamentals, drifting between poles of tonal certitude. Only gradually does Mazzoli introduce hints of rhythmic or metric momentum – initially through sporadic brass reports and bass pizzicati – but it’s not until around halfway through that she breaks things up with a new idea, an iambic motif that sets up the first real sense of impetus. Even as the piece thenceforth finds its way to a broad climax – a violin melody erupting with the glossy sheen of a film score – one began to wonder what it all really amounts to. There’s nothing remotely off-putting about it, yet the prettiness that it exhibits for so long is weirdly vacant, exhibiting a kind of shining vagueness. The closing minutes are memorable, particularly the unexpected and effective use of a lion’s roar, as well as the accented chords that emerge towards the end in the midst of an ongoing mess of twiddles in the middle-distance, so it never quite causes one to glaze over. We’ll have to take the references to a solar system on trust, i think – nothing about the music brought anything of the kind to my mind – but either way, it’s a pleasant enough bit of ephemeral ear candy. Its first European performance was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Karina Canellakis.

The performance space/vessel into which Catherine Lamb’s music was poured was the Tate Modern’s Tanks. The fifth (and, so far, shortest) of her Prisma Interius series of works, involving a synthesizer that Lamb has devised with partner Bryan Eubanks that processes external, real-world sounds into ‘tonal material’ incorporated into the music, the extent to which the piece projected harmony as its raison d’être was essentially absolute. A shared, repeated pitch becomes split, the interval widening and complicating to the point that it becomes a cluster. Lamb uses it in the foreground as a kind of mildly assertive source of dissonant surges in contrast to a ‘purer’ consonant texture behind. Two layers, yet they feel connected, particularly at around the halfway point when the piece arrives at a kind of ‘dirty’ dominant 7th chord, that shortly after – paradoxically – turns into its own resolution. This seems to be the essence of what the harmony is now doing, simultaneously stable yet fundamentally provisional, suggesting a liminal point between finality and flux. It’s a hypnotic effect, all the more so in this first performance by the London Contemporary Orchestra, conducted by Robert Ames, where there’s a strong sense of proximity, everything sounding very close, such that the distinction between foreground and middleground is minimal. Listening to Prisma Interius V feels like observing a complex natural process; a fascinating experience.

What Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch poured into the space of The Tanks at Tate Modern was akin to a gas. A late addition to the concert, her piece for string ensemble The Minutes – ‘minute’ as in very small – also receiving its world première (conducted by Hugh Brunt), was stripped back and austere. There were two clear episodes. In the first, somewhat wan string pitches are sustained, continually begging the question of whether or not they’re forming a coherent or recognisable chord. That’s the basis of this work’s attitude to harmony, made yet harder to parse through its regular pulling away and subsiding or pausing in brief hiatuses. At one point it becomes what we might call vaguely ‘fifthy’, and eventually – a little after the midpoint – arrives at a rich, almost consonant chord (‘dirtied’ in a similar way to Lamb). The second episode now begins, where a barely-pitched rhythmic scratching starts – sounding as though there were barely any rosin left on the bow – coloured by faint implications of harmonics and/or pitch, while more emphatic chords and dyads are overlaid. It’s an engrossing texture and an unexpected direction for the piece to take, dissolving into the vaporous whisper of mere friction. Though by far the least ambitious and demonstrative of these three premières, I can’t help feeling it made the most immediate and long-lasting impression. Not so much a miniature soundworld as a piece that seems to miniaturise us, the audience, whereupon its diminutive extent suddenly becomes surprisingly imposing.


Missy Mazzoli - Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)
  • Loved it! (24%, 7 Votes)
  • Liked it (24%, 7 Votes)
  • Meh (31%, 9 Votes)
  • Disliked it (7%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (14%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 29

Loading ... Loading ...


Catherine Lamb - Prisma Interius V
  • Loved it! (14%, 3 Votes)
  • Liked it (32%, 7 Votes)
  • Meh (23%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (14%, 3 Votes)
  • Hated it! (18%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 22

Loading ... Loading ...


Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch - The Minutes
  • Loved it! (35%, 8 Votes)
  • Liked it (17%, 4 Votes)
  • Meh (22%, 5 Votes)
  • Disliked it (9%, 2 Votes)
  • Hated it! (17%, 4 Votes)

Total Voters: 23

Loading ... Loading ...

Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I liked the Mazzoli, I thought it was more than ear candy.


I agree with the article. For me Mazzoli’s emotion never feels quite believable. Often it feels like the tension evaporates too early, and we are left basking in some kind of undeserved feel-good-about ourselves-ness. But I wouldn’t describe it as ear candy. If it’s not interesting, it’s not candy for me.

[…] Missy Mazzoli‘s Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres), a work i explored previously following its performance at the 2017 Proms. Then i referred to its “shining vagueness”, but it’s interesting how, in this […]

Click here to respond and leave a commentx