On the latest issue of Tempo

 

The October 2014 issue of Tempo has just dropped through the door, I think the fifth since its editorship passed from Malcolm Macdonald to Bob Gilmore last year. And it’s another good one: Gilmore is doing great stuff there. In his editorial he notes that one of the things he wanted to do with Tempo upon taking over was to shorten its remit 50 years closer to the present (ie music post-1950 rather than post-1900), and I’m liking the renewed focus very much indeed.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Jennifer Iverson’s article on ‘Ligeti’s Dodecaphonic Requiem’, even if that is at the old end of the new music shelf. A lot of ideologically-driven guff gets spouted about Ligeti turning his back on serialism, and with it the tide of European music history towards the postmodern light. There are enough clues in the Requiem to suggest to anyone who cares to look (as Jonathan Bernard and others have briefly done before now) that this is a simplistic analysis at best, written in favour of a ‘them and us’ narrative that doesn’t reflect what composers actually did. It’s nice to see someone like Iverson sinking their teeth deep into the notes.

Tempo 270 also marks Macdonald’s passing, from cancer, earlier in the year. He was already unwell when he gave up the reins at Tempo, but after 40 years’ service at the journal, nearly all of those as its editor, I believe he felt that it was time to say farewell in any case. The issue contains a tribute from Gilmore, as well as well-chosen memorial texts from some of Tempo‘s most involved authors of recent years. In this, and in the way in which Gilmore has invigorated the journal in his still short tenure, it is a fitting tribute.

Help fund the first Heather Roche composition competition

Clarinetist Heather Roche is crowdsourcing a brand new composition competition. Heather is one of the hardest working young players in the business, and most people involved in new music – particularly in central and northern Europe – will know her for her dedication and enthusiasm for creating new repertory, as well as her talents as a player. (If you’re a clarinetist yourself, or a composer who might one day write for the clarinet, you must read her encyclopedic blog posts on contemporary clarinet technique.)

Here’s what she says about the competition:

I want to find six outstanding young composers who are deeply interested in engaging with the clarinet in order to produce new work. I’m going to offer them the opportunity to collaborate intensely, and we’re going to produce concerts and high quality live recordings.

A venue for the premiere in London in early 2016 has already been confirmed, and I’ve also lined up an all-star jury to help me decide on the winners…

What I need to do first is to raise the funds to award each selected composer €1,000 as a commission before they write their piece. That means I need to try to raise €6,000 in the next 40 days! Please, please consider making a donation. More information about the competition and how it’ll work is available here.

Thank you for your support!

Best wishes,

Heather

Wandelweiser’s Minnesota debut

Word from Crow With No Mouth promotions that the Wandelweiser group will be making its Minnesota concert debut later this month. Here are the details from the event blog:

our wandelweiser festival program will consist of the premiere of nine new pieces, written by nine composers integral to the wandelweiser collective, especially for our weekend. this is likely the largest such contribution to a wandelweiser event in the U.S., and we are excited beyond measure at this privilege.

the composers contributing pieces are: Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti, Manfred Werder, Eva-Maria Houben, Stefan Thut, Dante Boon, Johnny Chang and Michael Pisaro.

the ensemble:

jürg frey (clarinet)
katie porter (bass clarinet / clarinet)
erik carlson (violin)
greg stuart (portable or light percussion, gravity and friction (bowing), electronics)
nomi epstein (piano, inside piano, varia)
dante boon (piano)
michael pisaro (electric guitar, sine tones)

composer eva-maria houben will be attending the concerts.

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the concert schedule is as follows:

saturday september 27th ~  concerts at 4 and 8 p.m. (doors at 3:30 and 7:30)

sunday september 28 ~ concert at 1 p.m.(doors at 12:30)

please note: the concerts will start at their scheduled time; due to the very quiet nature of the music, late admission will likely mean no admission until a break in the program.

admission is $10 per concert, pay at the door.

program details for the nine pieces receiving their premiere to follow.

all events at studio z in lowertown st. paul; directions here.

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the wandelweiser festival is made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, and support by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia

More information about the concerts here.

Talking at the RNCM

On 1st October I’m going to be presenting as part of the RNCM’s Research Forum series. Mine is the first of this year’s series, and I’m going in big with an attempt to untangle the mess that it is contemporary music history.  If you’re in or around Manchester and fancy a sneak preview of the book, this is your chance.

Talks start at 5.15pm in the RNCM lecture theatre, last about 45 minutes with plenty of discussion afterwards, and are open to the public. Full details are here.

We Break Strings Kickstarter campaign

Earlier in the summer I was approached by the writer Thom Andrewes to be one of a number of interviewees for a new book on London’s alternative classical music scene, to be published to mark the 10th anniversary of Nonclassical.

It was fun to do, and the book, called We Break Strings, includes some terrific photos by Dimitri Djuric. (There’s one of them above.) It’s due to come out later this autumn. I’ve aired some differences of opinion with Gabriel Prokofiev here recently, but I’m all for musical diversity and was there at some of the very first NonC gigs. And as a record of a moment, of a short and exciting and rapidly changing time, I believe this will be a fascinating and valuable book.

Anyway, there’s a Kickstarter campaign to get the final printing costs together to produce what is promised to be a high quality tome, of the sort that is commonplace for the visual arts but all too rare for music. You can back it here for the next four weeks.

The book will be launched in October, accompanied by a week-long exhibition and residency at the Red Gallery in Shoreditch from 20th October. I’ll be there on the 23rd as part of a pre-concert panel discussion. More details on that to follow nearer the time.

Włodzimierz Kotoński, 1925–2014

Sad news from Adrian Thomas that the Polish composer Włodzimierz Kotoński has died, aged 89.

Along with Jan Krenz (b.1926) and Bogusław Schaeffer (b.1929), Kotoński was the last major surviving Polish composer born before 1930.  He was renowned as a composition teacher at the Music Academy in Warsaw and his roster of pupils reads like a list of many of the most significant Polish composers born after World War II, including Krzysztof Knittel (b.1947), Stanisław Krupowicz (b.1952), Paweł Szymański and Tadeusz Wielecki (b.1954), Hanna Kulenty (b.1961) and Paweł Mykietyn (b.1971).  Kotoński also wrote a number of reference books: Percussion Instruments in the Modern Orchestra (1963), Electronic Music (1989) and Lexicon of Contemporary Percussion (1999).

Only a couple of months ago I wrote some words here on one of the few Kotoński discs available and the extraordinary Aeolian Harp of 1973. Adrian’s post indicates this disc is already out of print, but here’s hoping more of Kotoński’s remarkable music will now make it, belatedly, to disc.

Jones-Bulley – Living Symphonies

Last month I visited the studio of James Bulley and Daniel Jones in southeast London. I’d heard about their Living Symphonies project and James had invited me to come and have a look behind the scenes.

Living Symphonies is an elaborate piece of acoustic ecology/data art/environmental installation that has been presented in three UK forests this summer, and completes its tour this week at the Bedgebury Pinetum in Kent.

Actually, the invitation came because after seeing the work’s promo video I’d posted a rather harsh reaction on Twitter; James, very kindly, approached me to set the record straight about what he and Dan were trying to do.

So I drove over to New Cross on a sweltering hot day, pushed the buzzer on the door and got given the tour of the Jones/Bulley studio, which doubles as their flat. Two rooms are completely given over to Living Symphonies: one is the studio itself, the second contains a mock-up of the 24-channel sound system that comprises the installation, and is used for testing and tweaking the model. Apart from a mixing desk and computer, and 24 speakers resting on the floor and hanging from the ceiling it is empty. The rest of the flat is full of remnants of the duo’s previous collaborations – I spotted the radios from Radio Reconstructions and the suspended speaker cones from Maelstrom.

There are two main components to Living Symphonies, which nicely complement the duo’s relative specialisms (James is a composer; Dan has a background in biology and data modelling). First is a data model of the woodland space in which the work is to be installed. This includes models for every species that lives within or passes through the space. All the different tree species are included. So are the birds, the hedgehogs, mice and squirrels. So are the moss and fungi. So are the worms, spiders and insects. Each species is assigned four different states – so a bird might be perching, flying, singing or feeding; a tree might be drawing up water, photosynthesising, etc. Each state is governed by probabilities relating to that species’ typical behaviour, which are themselves governed by data regarding the climate (rainfall, temperature, wind speed/direction, humidity) and time of day or night at that moment.

All of that creates a 3D virtual model of the woodland space itself. It’s not tracking what’s actually happening – although the climate and time data is fed live into the system – but it is generating a good approximation of what could happen in that spot at that time. It gets very detailed: the virtual squirrel, for example, is assigned a particular visual field. If it hasn’t eaten in a while, and in the course of its wandering around a pine tree comes into view, it will go over to the tree, climb it, and start to eat. When it rains, the mammals and birds head for shelter, and the moss, plants and worms become much more active.

There are hundreds of states in all, and each is composed as a short motif which is recorded and stored in Ableton. As life in the virtual forest unfolds, the relevant musical motifs are triggered. What’s more, they are distributed around the 3D space, so a bird can fly overhead from one corner to another, the trees sound from where they are standing, and so on. Listening to it in the imperfect space of Jones and Bulley’s front room it was still possible to get a strong sense of how the sounds model the physical presence and activity of the forest.

If it went this far, Living Symphonies would be an impressive bit of labour, but limited in its scope as an artwork, and dubious as a piece of acoustic ecology. Modelling a forest soundscape is not the same as modelling the interactions and interdependencies of the species within that space that make it what it is. Plonking a 24-channel sound system into a forest is not very environmentally senstive, or in itself aesthetically interesting.

So I was interested to hear more about the particularly compositional process behind the work. How had James come up with his materials? How did they relate to each other?

The compositional relationships reflect the ecological ones between species. Simply put, although each species state has its own motif, as it were, the presence of another species will alter that motif in a particular way. Partly this is to maintain musical order and balance (so the notes available to a particular motif might change to avoid dissonant clashes) and partly to mimic the behaviour of the natural world.

The motifs themselves are not meant to mimic the states or species that they are assigned to – no flutey twiddles for the finches, and how do you compose the sound of moss anyway. But they do reflect something of that species’ behaviour or significance to the environment, and at times the choices made have been guided by certain evocations; the use of harps for some species, for example.

Overall, the guiding principle is how well it sounds: is it balanced, is anything too dominant, is the mood right? On this last point, I was interested to know why is it basically all tonal and, well, nice? James’s answer was that part of what makes up the ecological space, as the listener perceives it, is the listener themselves, with their own collection of memories, associations, expectations, and tastes. By making the music more approachable – or stopping it from being too forbidding – it was possible to access that personal memory space and incorporate it within the overall ecology. To reinforce his point, he pointed to a copy of Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest, a beautiful travelogue/study/fiction of forests and fairytales. All of that is as much part of what forests are (and of how they sound to us) as the natural species that are living there. So while Jones and Bulley aren’t aiming to make something that sounds all gothic or fairy-like, our human associations with that are part of the soundscape.

It’s an interesting idea, although I’m not certain it’s not also a fudge. Another reason for making it sound approachable is that you want a non-specialist audience to come and stay to listen. Nevertheless, I listened to the mock-up for a while and it is clear that something sophisticated and multi-layered has been put together. I’ll be taking my toddler son to Bedgebury to hear what it all sounds like for real.

Andriessen’s De Staat coming to Peckham

Too much work, school holidays, home building work going on, don’t think I’m going to get time to do a proper Secret Music for August. But it would be remiss of me if I didn’t draw your attention at least to the return of the Multi-Story Orchestra to Peckham Car Park on 7 and 8 August for performances of Louis Andriessen’s De Staat.

Get your tickets here:

https://billetto.co.uk/andriessen-de-staat-07-aug
https://billetto.co.uk/andriessen-de-staat-08-aug

Digital classicism

Theory (no doubt not original):

1. We have entered a new classical era, in which the pervasive use and influence of metrics, best practices, interoperability, regulation and so on (consequences of our particular technological-economic-legal moment) have defined standards of formal “perfection” to which practitioners currently find themselves beholden. I’m thinking particularly in terms of architecture (legal regulations, circulation, energy usage, sustainability), but  the same may also be said of many branches of film, television, design, literature, popular music and so on. Formulae and algorithms are central to the process. So is the consensus provided by digital checking tools, or sourced from the digital crowd.

aros-aarhus

2. Art music, perhaps because of its time-based nature, perhaps because of its preference for acoustic instrumentation and analogue practices of creation and distribution, perhaps because of its fundamentally ephemeral, non-commercial nature, is not subject to these pressures.

boxsets

3. But at the same time perhaps it is. Perhaps I’m romanticising it.

4. What would that music be like?