CD re-review: Lars Petter Hagen: Orchestral Music


Lars Petter Hagen: Orchestral Music | Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Rolf Gupta. Gjermund Larsen, Hardanger fiddle | Aurora

I reviewed this disc not that long ago for Nutida Musik, but I feel like it deserves a second pass here. Mostly that is because of its first piece, Norwegian Archives, which I’ve listened to several times now since submitting my review and which, although I don’t think I scored it badly, I certainly hadn’t fully worked out at the time.

As well as a composer Lars Petter Hagen is also a festival director (of Ultima, and others before that), and therefore a prominent and influential voice in contemporary Norwegian music. Much of his recent music is concerned with memory, nostalgia, and the troubling nature of cultural nationalism. Several pieces on this disc make allusions to Grieg in particular, but there are also less concrete elements like airy harmonies that live towards the top end of the harmonic spectrum, and allusions to nature and rural innocence. All three come together in the quintessentially Norwegian sound of the Hardanger fiddle, a folk instrument with sympathetic resonating strings, for which Hagen’s To Zeitblom is a concerto.

All of this comes out of the sounds of Norwegian Archives; icy chords, ringing harmonics, calm waters. But they are nudged out of shape by buzzing, tinnitus-like irritations, echoes and reverberations, and sliding glissandi. These are almost the physiology of recollection made sound. The notes generally come only one at a time. The continuity, the narrative, on which ideology feeds, is completely broken. Hagen uses the tactic to some extent on all the pieces on this recording – The Artist’s Despair Before the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, Tveitt-Fragments, Funeral March Over Edvard Grieg, To Zeitblom – but it appears to the greatest extent in this piece. Any story-making must take place internally, in the critical intellect of the listener. Neither is the orchestra used as a machine for creating continuity, but instead is a repository for timbres, wispy allusions. Its forces are hardly employed en masse, and even then only for a second or so at a time. For the rest, we get a sort of desiccated Mahler of duets and chamber groupings, fleeting and remote.

I’m not saying it isn’t a problematic piece; Hagen’s music has been the site of a certain amount of controversy in Norway. But that’s the nature of nostalgia and nostalgia critique: it can be hard to tell the two apart, particularly within music, in which the same object can stand in equally for both. But I have grown increasingly to admire it – admittedly as an outsider to Norwegian music – and I have a lot of time for the narrow path Hagen is trying to tread.

CD review: Christopher Redgate: New Music for a New Oboe, Volume 1 (Métier)

British oboist Christopher Redgate has had a busy release schedule of late. I recently received another new release, Electrifying Oboe (Métier), which I hope to write about soon. This isn’t far behind last year’s New Music for a New Oboe (volume 1), also on Métier, and for which I offer a belated review here.


Redgate is one of the great instrumental innovators of our day – on any instrument – and both recordings may be seen as part of a lifelong project to develop the oboe’s repertory and capabilities that has previously been traced on recordings like Oboe+ and Greatest Hits of All Time.

The oboe is a peculiarly inflexible instrument, compared to the flute or clarinet, for example, and it is no surprise that over the years Redgate has run into any number of limitations, including with range, multiphonics, microtones, glissandi and various timbral effects. In response to these problems – both already extant in the repertory, and anticipated in the future – between 2009 and 2012 Redgate partnered with Howarth’s of London (the Steinway & Sons of oboes) to design an oboe for the 21st century. The new instrument, the Howarth-Redgate oboe, tackles many of these issues and opens new doors for exploration in the future – the number of multiphonics available, for example, is reported to have increased four-fold.

In some ways Edwin Roxburgh is an ideal introduction to Redgate’s series of commissions for the new instrument. An oboist himself, as well as a composer and conductor, he knows the instrument better than most. Redgate has already recorded a CD of Roxburgh’s oboe music, and there is clearly a strong rapport between the two. Roxburgh’s four-part suite, The Well-Tempered Oboe was written to exploit the new high register and multiphonics of the Howarth-Redgate oboe; the latter are heard to best effect in the slow third movement, ‘Chromatic Fantasia’.

Yet despite having admired Redgate’s last Roxburgh recording, I confess I’ve not been blown away by The Well-Tempered Oboe. Nothing wrong with the playing: Redgate’s multiphonics in the fourth movement are sensational, for example. The music is just a little too polite for my tastes; for all that the composer had an exciting new instrument to play with, his pieces didn’t find a particularly new kind of music for it.

Michael Finnissy’s Âwâz-e Niyâz is something else altogether. For a start, it introduces the sound of the lupophon, a type of bass oboe whose range begins at the F at the bottom of the bass clef and extends some indeterminate distance (and in Redgate’s hands, who can really say …) above the treble clef. Quite an instrument. Its timbre is very oboe-like (quite different from a bassoon, eg), so in the couple of octaves where the two instruments’ ranges overlap it’s not always easy to be sure which one is playing.

Christopher Redgate and lupophon

The second striking thing about Finnissy’s piece is its length: an unbroken 55 minutes, a quite epic scale for a duo for oboe and piano. This is not a trivial observation. Finnissy is no stranger to constructing immense formal structures, even for solo instruments – see only his cycles for piano, for example – but unlike, say, Folklore or The History of Photography in Sound, Âwâz-e Niyâz is not as indebted to such a complex an intermeshing of stylistic and genre types. Or at least not as far as I am aware; I may be wrong. Âwâz-e Niyâz is rather a gigantic melodic unspooling.

The vast expansion beyond the norm is made possible first by the lupophone itself, whose weight and depth of sound extend, from the first bars, a giant bed for the music, extending its horizons far beyond the usual and expected. It is as though the music were stood on its end, its duration a function of its tessitura and vice versa. Range is not the only dimension that has been expanded, however – the new sounds, microtones and multiphonics at Finnissy’s disposal represent a similar increase in material whose exploration adds further possibilities for extension.

In his sleevenote, Finnissy explains that the music is inspired by traditional Persian music, particularly the Iranian vocal improvisations collected by Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh. It is therefore shaped by the long melodic arcs of improvised song, of ornaments upon ornaments, of recurring fragments and whispy filigree. There is a dream-like quality to much of it; sometimes the texture thins to only the faintest hint of something (an extraordinary passage of hushed mutliphonic trills about half an hour, for example), sometimes (although less frequently) the tendrils thicken into great tangled knots. It is a peculiar, surprising one-off that perhaps only Finnissy could have made.

CD Review: Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum


Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum | Hákon Stene, percussion | Ahornfelder AH25

I now own at least three recordings of Silver Street Car for the Orchestra, which is surely enough.

My latest copy of Alvin Lucier’s famous solo for triangle, on this fine recital disc by Håkon Stene, is the shortest of the three and, being recorded in a very resonant acoustic – the glorious Tomba Emmanuelle in Oslo – is very different from the other two. (The others are by Brian Johnson on the Ever Present disc, and Ross Parfitt, recorded at Tate Modern.) Do I like it? It’s certainly more immediately attractive than the other, drier, versions; there’s more to listen to, in a straightforward sense, as the overtones swing round the room’s 20-second reverberation. The sound blooms extravagantly (it roars). I wasn’t sure at first so had to ask – Stene assures me it is just him, the triangle and the room, although all four corners of the space were miked so as to make the most of the ambience. It must have been quite something to hear in person.

I’m in two minds about how faithful it is to what I take to be Lucier’s concept though – the minute, phasing variations you get from a typical performance of SSC are both blown up and swamped by the acoustic. The scale on which things take place is completely altered. That said, a lot of the original nuance doesn’t transmit well to recording anyway. At the very least Stene should be credited for experimenting with a solution, and the results are pretty stunning.

Stene also uses the Tomba Emmanuelle for his recording of Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (1). Even more than the Lucier, the acoustic distorts (saying that as neutrally as possible) one’s expectation of what a Michael Pisaro piece is going to sound like. Here there is a little more mediation involved. Each separate part of Pisaro’s score (which involves dropping rice onto different surfaces) was recorded separately, then played back in separate channels into the room. I think the tracks themselves were also recorded in the Tomba, so you have reverb on reverb. It gets a lot louder than any Pisaro piece I know, a consequence of the sheer volume of rice Stene appears to be using. Bits remind me of some of those early Xenakis tape pieces – Concret PH or Bohor come to mind.

I’m only recently getting acquainted with Marko Ciciliani‘s music and I’m still searching for a frame within which to get to grips with it. I’ll confess that Black Horizons has me baffled. It is written for two table-top guitars (Stene is supported here by Ciciliani himself), which rarely play settled pitches, almost always drifting queasily up or down after each attack. There’s a steady, pulsing strum throughout most of the piece, over which are laid sharper attacks, slowly drifting glissandi, and, going beyond the guitars themselves, short spoken word samples and other noise sources. There’s certainly something improvisatory – at least in feel – here, although I miss a sense of inter-performer focus. I guess it’s a little, well, rambling, and I haven’t yet made out a formal design, or a binding concept. Which isn’t to say there isn’t one or the other; just that it remains opaque to me.

But the key to this record are the Studies in Self-Imposed Tristesse by Lars Petter Hagen, three of which are distributed throughout the album. The ‘study’ of the title may refer to some sort of conceptual restriction, but these are also studies in a musical sense, in the varying qualities of attack and sustain of different sound sources, whether bells, sine tones, radio static, bowed vibes and so on. All of those are sounds that bring them into contact with the other three tracks on the disc. (Indeed it’s easy to miss the cuts between the Ciciliani piece and the studies before and after it.) The studies are based on preparatory fragments of a larger work for strings by the mid-century nationalist composer Geir Tveitt (1908–81), part of the small amount of work recovered from a house fire in 1970 that destroyed nearly all of his music. Know that about their history, and suddenly this album’s emotional and symbolic terrain draws together.


Also out now is a CD single (Ahornfelder AH26) that pairs Stene’s thumping reading of Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet with a remix by Sir Duperman (Jørgen Træen). Opting not to force Ferneyhough’s rhythms into a beats-heavy IDM straitjacket, Træen goes for something more freeform, making the most of Ferneyhough’s rigidly stratified percussion timbres to squeeze his material into a mix of dubby squelches and pops-and-sine tone Stockhausen. By about midway, the source sounds have passed from recognition, returning only towards the end.

I reviewed Stene live, back in 2008, playing the Ferneyhough and Hagan pieces as one half of the asamisamasa duo. See bottom half of the page here.

James Weeks: TIDE (CD review)


James Weeks: TIDE | Anton Lukoszevieze, Christopher Redgate, Andrew Sparling | Métier MSV 28532

There’s obviously something procedural going on in this music, probably more than two or three things at once, but I’m buggered if I can tell you what they are.

Although only 30 minutes long, TIDE is split over two discs. That’s because it sort of exists in two separate versions: one as a trio for oboe d’amore, clarinet and cello (TIDE proper); and secondly as three separate solos, Burnham Air for oboe d’amore, Tide for cello, and Sky for clarinet and electronics. Disc B contains the three solos, disc A the composite trio. The piece is composed as series of waves, of dynamic, of pitch, of rhythm, of tessitura, of density, and so on. There is a sense that loops are being used, but at a level of interlocking complexity that is hard to make out. Waves of one sort or another overlap, producing cascading effects of beating patterns and interferences. If that makes it sound like Lucier, it’s not really; for all its superficial simplicity this isn’t music that is easily summarised.

I’m a contrarian, so I listened to disc B first. Burnham Air has a Finnissy-like quality about it, the hard-edges of the English pastoral; Birtwistle even, buried. Some of that is the flinty sound of the oboe d’amore, but that’s not the only factor in play – Weeks’s sequences of trills, arpeggios and runs (versions of each other viewed through different telescopes), following each other in a manner that sounds both mechanical and organic, achieve a kind of permanent impermanence, like clouds or sea, central London architecture, or the industrial North.

(When I profiled James’s music on these pages a couple of years ago, I claimed that he had a particularly English voice, and I haven’t changed my mind on that.)

Many of the qualities of Burnham Air are carried over into the other two solo pieces. Sky overlays a slowly drifting clarinet line with six recordings of itself, until a single melody becomes a waft of sine-tone like sounds. Tide for solo cello mediates, as Evan Johnson’s typically elegant liner notes describe, ‘between the swelling placidity of Sky and the penetrating insistence of Burnham Air‘. That is, it has the slow motion, but adds the abrasive timbre of a curved bow playing across four strings simultaneously. There are dimensions and dimensions here: not only the frequency of the waves, the speed of their component particles, their amplitude and their resolution (from glissando to arpeggio), but also the overtone spectrum of each sound, bright and focused for the oboe d’amore, broad and multi-coloured for the cello. The more one listens, the more one is impressed at how much variety Weeks has built in to what began as such simple inspiration.

When I listened to all three together, the musical mechanics became both more delineated and more obscure. The sense of interlocking waves – accidental, since the three parts aren’t coordinated in performance – strengthens, but at the same time the mystery of what is actually going on just gets deeper. Something that should surely by now have become familiar is lit in entirely new ways.

TIDE was released in May, and my copy has been sat on my desk since then. I listened to it then, but it seemed entirely unsuited to what turned out to be a long, hot summer. Now, as we turn definitely to autumn, its tone and construction seem right for the changing of a season.

Ghikas and Walshe: Good Teeth (CD review)


The first release on the Migro label sees composer-improvisers Panos Ghikas and Jennifer Walshe in typically genre-bending style. The catch on Good Teeth, an album of duo improvisations for vocals, trumpet, sampler, drums and viola is improvisations on the live instruments and voice are recorded, broken down in fragments, and reassigned to sampler. Those samples are then played through an e-drum kit (by Ghikas), while Walshe reacts and improvises in real time to the sampled and replayed material.

You can get an idea of how this works from this short video, recorded at Good Teeth’s launch party:

On the album’s first track ‘The Pig Sleep’ the natural energy of Walshe’s live vocals is balanced by the rough fluidity around the edges of her sound; the digitally-crisp rhythms of Ghikas’s sampler by their sonic trace as recorded, ‘dead’ matter. Dialogues of that type, around what is ‘live’ about a live sound, around different ways to energise a noise act, run through the album. The introduction of Ghikas’s violin on track 4, ‘Oh! naturel’ (those puns …) keeps it fresh. Most of the tracks are compact blasts, coming in at under 4 minutes each; endings seem to have caught everyone by surprise, yet still sound assured. Only on the final, seventh track, ‘Toy Adonis’, do Ghikas and Walshe set their sights on a more distant horizon 13 minutes away. The result feels strangely more ‘composed’, as though aware of a larger structural framework. Meticulous pacing substitutes for seat-of-the-pants euphoria.

An ecstatic vertigo: Liza Lim’s Tongue of the Invisible (CD review)


There still isn’t enough Lim on disc for my liking (and still less of her longer works), but this release of the 55-minute song cycle Tongue of the Invisible (2010–11) will fill the gap for a while. It’s the latest instalment in Wergo’s musikFabrik Edition.

The situation of the artist within and towards a global culture is one of the great aesthetic wellsprings of our age, and Lim one of music’s most sensitive practitioners. Previous works have turned to urban China (Moon Spirit Feasting) and Aboriginal northern Australia (Invisibility, Pearl Ochre Hair String, Shimmer Songs). Tongue of the Invisible sets words by the 14-century Persian poet Hafiz. One could make an argument for a sort of eclectic tourism, except that Lim approaches musical traditions distant from her own with the greatest respect and artistic sincerity.

Which is not to say that there’s a touchy-feely, post-colonial humility to her music. Not at all. Its baseline sound is very much that of the Western acoustic/orchestral tradition, and its gestural language that of Western musical modernism. It speaks honestly to the messy, ugly and violent global story. Growing up, being trained and making a career in the West endows one with certain perspectives and privileges. To acknowledge that is to grant the same to those growing up in Central Asia, Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa. And it is a global story: the music within Lim’s Western inheritance is heard with the same analytical ear as that without. The sound of it all, in which timbres, forces, impulses and sensations collide (and I mean properly mess each other up; not cozy together around a pomo global beat) is the sound of mutation, creolisation, life, an ecstatic vertigo.

And despite certain stylistic consistencies (a taste for disjunct timbres, whistling harmonics, skirling melodic lines) you can clearly hear the mutations. The Aboriginal pieces of the mid-2000s addressed the ‘shimmer’ of Yolngu art through striated sounds, repeating pulses, and layered rhythms; Tongue of the Invisible employs a palette of drones, melodic ornamentation, solo declamation, drumming patterns and accumulative structures. There are sections of improvisation, which the preface to the score tells us are a ‘metaphor for paths of rejuvenation and the creation of variable meaning’. The piece was written for musikFabrik, and they bring a headily sensual quality to their playing. The instrumental introduction, a sequence of increasingly elaborate solo curlicues over an increasingly massive drone, is one of the most absorbing passages I can recall in Lim’s output. If you’re looking for an introduction to Lim’s music – and if you haven’t already had one then you should be – then this may be what you need.

CD Review: Tom Johnson: correct music

Tom Johnson: correct music | Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, Douglas Wadle, Brian Walsh | populist records PR002

How on earth do you review Tom Johnson’s music? It is so purely procedural, so pre-compositionally precise it surely evades criticism altogether. You see it, or you don’t, and that’s it.

Except nothing created is really pure, an observation that enlivens all Johnson’s music just enough beyond the pedantic. His ironic, amused experimentalism is encapsulated in the narrator’s final words in Eggs and Baskets, an apparently straightforward exposition of a simple mathematical phenomenon: “And with six eggs? Well, let’s just let the musicians play  … so that we can review all of this, and hopefully clarify everything.”

As well as Eggs and Baskets (1987), this disc contains another didactic piece – Squares (2008) for viola and narrator – as well as Tilework pieces for viola and violin (both 2003), and the 21 Rational Melodies of 1982. All are examples of what Samuel Vriezen in his sleevenote describes as Johnson’s ‘complete constructivism’, although the Rational Melodies are perhaps the most thorough melodic exploration of this method. Each follows a rigid logic. Sometimes this is easy to follow, sometimes not. Listening to the set as a whole one is aware of the constant rigidity of process, but at the same time its variable transparency. That flicker between the mundane and the mysterious lies, I think, at the heart of Johnson’s music.

I have another recording of the Rational Melodies, played on different flutes by Eberhard Blum. Perhaps because of the relatively heaviness of his instrument, and the need in this music above most others to get every note to sound cleanly and of itself, Blum takes almost all of the melodies slower than McIntosh. In some cases at half or even a third of the speed. Blum uses different sized flutes for each melody, and those played on alto and bass flute are slower than those played on piccolo. His set has a wider sonic and expressive range, but on balance I just prefer McIntosh’s version, if only because I’m a sucker for that hoe-down-y fiddle sound, which tethers Johnson’s mathematical abstractions, if only loosely, to a recognisable tradition.

Naming both Tom Johnson and Samuel Vriezen in this review makes it opportune to mention Vriezen’s project to record Tom Johnson’s Chord Catalogue for piano. A recording already exists (played by Johnson himself), but Vriezen has taught himself to play these pieces at something like double Johnson’s speed – in the process revealing all sorts of hidden melodies and rhythms. He is currently crowd-sourcing the project through indiegogo, and with just over 5 weeks left until his funding deadline, why not consider a small donation?

CD review: John Cage: Song Books

Loré Lixenberg, Gregory Rose, Robert Worby | John Cage: Song Books | Sub Rosa SR344

Cage’s centenary year has seen a number of ambitious recording projects. Ranked highly among them must be this first complete recording of the Song Books, released on Sub Rosa. Cage’s two books contain 90 “songs” for solo voice – a total of at least six and a half hours of music, or 317 pages of score. For this 2-CD release the decision has been taken, probably wisely, to accept Cage’s permission to superimpose songs, and a total of seven Song Books Mixes have been made. These are presented alongside 14 individual songs.

It is a gargantuan effort for the three performers involved, Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose (voice), and Robert Worby (electronics). Better still, all 90 individual solos are apparently available for download through the Sub Rosa website (although at the time of writing I could not find these).

Presentation-wise, this is an exemplary release. The 24-page booklet includes not one but four essays: two by Cage scholars James Pritchett and Rebecca Y. Kim; two by Rose and Worby providing performers’ perspectives. There are lots of extracts from the scores, in all their variety, and some nice photos of Cage that I hadn’t seen before. The packaging is lovely.

But, ah, Cage. What about the music?

First to say: this is a studio recording, prepared as such. So, for example, the electronic processing was carried out in post-production, not live. The recording acoustic (the Edward Boyle auditorium, St Hilda’s College, Oxford) is dry and silent. Facts like this give the set a polished feel that seems at first far removed from Cage’s chaotic carnival of the voice (“it’s like a brothel” was his own description). There are no glitches, no extraneous noises, and a frankly disconcerting sense of equilibrium, even when several songs are running at once. It sounds distinctly un-Cagelike; except that while listening I began to wonder where that notion originated anyway, and who’s to say they have ownership of it today. In his essay, in fact, Pritchett offers the advice (contrarian for a CD note) that “This is not music to sit down and listen to from start to finish … wandering and exploring is more in order.” Perhaps one needs to listen to the CD as though it is a live performance, so that life can still seep in.

The Song Books themselves are among Cage’s most remarkable achievements. Composed in 1970 in answer to a commission for two sets of songs from Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist, they began with an I ching consultation that stipulated that 56 and 34 songs for each book – 90 in total. Cage had just three months to meet his deadline. The measures he took to deal with the pressure of time lead to the songs’ diversity, and helped him unlock a range of new compositional methods. Pritchett calls it “one of the most intensely creative periods in Cage’s life.”

You’d be hard pressed to find two better singers than Rose, and especially Lixenberg, to perform this music with the required dedication. The virtuosity on show in, for example, Solo no.47 or Solo no.90 is impressive; to have sustained this across a total of 90 separate recordings is staggering. For my taste I had trouble with the electronics, which work closely with the grain of the voices – a legacy of modern-day technology; one for the HIP movement? – rather than against it, rather dulling the expressive edge.

Having said all that, when it works it works very well.  Song Books Mix 2 (actually the final track of the CD 2) keeps 17 songs in a state of pleasing mutual sabotage for 23 minutes. It’s not as abrasive or as extrovert as some Cage performances, but neither does it allow gentleness and elegance to fade into mush.

In an interesting comparison of two recent-ish live performances of Song Books Ben Harper writes, “the closer [Cage’s music] comes to life the better it works as art”. Some will find too little “life” in these recordings, certainly. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable achievement, and one that may take some time to be repeated.

Note: the penultimate paragraph of this review was added shortly after its first publication.

Note 2: The artist Sam Belinfante has made a video of clips from the sessions for this album, which hints at the theatrical authenticity of the recording.

CD review: Carla Rees and Scott Miller

Carla Rees, Scott Miller | Devices and Desires | rarescale records rr004

Back in November 2011, alto flautist and rarescale director Carla Rees gave the first performance of Anterior/Interior by Minneapolis-based electroacoustic composer Scott Miller. The next day they went into the studio to record the work, and finished so quickly that they had two hours spare. They recorded some improvisations – and the result is this CD. Two of those improvisations are semi-structured, the other three are completely free.

In the Book of Common Prayer “The devices and desires of our own heart” are occasions for sin. As a virtue, they are the basis of Miltonian free will. For an album of improvisations between flute – one of the most light-footed of all instruments – and computer the tension between freedom and constraint is presumably part of the thinking here.

Rees plays quarter-tone alto flute throughout. As one of the UK’s leading contemporary music flautists she’s well familiar with sonic potential of her instrument, and as well as tones and microtones harmonics and various modes of attack are used throughout. Nearly all the electronic sounds are sourced from the flute, whether from a sample bank or in real-time. Using Symbolic Sound’s Kyma X sound design environment, Miller manipulates and transforms these on the fly, in response to Rees’s playing. His performing style matches Rees’s in its gentle playfulness. (In liner notes to the CD, seemingly only available online, Miller explains that in live performance he controls his computer with an array of input devices, including iPad, foot pedals and Wii controllers.)

Anterior/Interior begins with the flute acting as a little more than a sound source, from which Miller’s computer analyses and resynthesises an array of textures. Slowly, though, the flute part takes on a character – lit by its electronic backdrop – as a lone keening voice, which becomes a song of increasing intensity until a swift dénouement. It’s a likeable introduction, and sets a lot of the sonic template for the rest of the album.

However, I much prefer the improvised tracks. Here Miller and Rees take their instruments, and their strange, asymmetric partnership into more interesting territory. In Beauty is Eternity Gazing in a Mirror, Rees’s microtones are transformed into squelching puddles, whooping insects and rainforest hum. (There is an air of David Tudor to a lot of the electronics, in fact.) Omaggio a 1961 explores drier reverb territory, while Haiku, Interrupted teases at decaying resonances, fading finally into the sound of a wheezing, broken children’s toy.

The stand-out track is possibly Seriously, this is a commitment, which blends a quirky electronic bleep-beat with occasional Coltrane-esque howling from Rees. Here, more than in any other track, Miller and Rees accentuate the differences between their instruments (rather than their synthesis), and it leads to some of the most fruitful points of dialogue.

Devices and Desires may be ordered through the rarescale website and elsewhere.

The new modern generation: the JACK Quartet for Wigmore Hall Live

When the JACK Quartet made their Wigmore Hall début in July last year it felt like both a first date and a moment of arrival. The Hall – more often a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names – was buzzing with anticipation, and an entirely different audience from its usual crowd. It was also sold out. If there was any slight disappointment that the JACKs had (quite understandably) opted for a relatively safe programme of Cage, Ligeti, Pintscher and Xenakis (rather than, say, Ablinger, Cassidy, Radulescu and Zorn), it was soon tempered by a blistering recital that shone bright new light on previously familiar works, danced in the crystal clear Wigmore acoustics and pinned its audience to the back of their seats.

Thankfully, the whole thing was recorded and has now been released on the Wigmore Hall’s Live label. Regardless of my hyperventilating first paragraph, this is a CD that I can strongly recommend to all. In particular, I contend, its immediacy and absence of undue reverence make it a great entry-level disc for newcomers to the modernist chamber repertoire.

Three of these works are three or more decades old now:  this is still powerful music, but it has shed its tendency to frighten. In his excellent liner notes (extracted here), John Fallas notes that:

“The Quartet comes to this music as a quartet might more ordinarily come to works from an earlier century. Modernism now has its own classics, and the energy so abundantly on display here is the energy of a young quartet discovering these works anew and making them its own.”

As Fallas notes, the Arditti and LaSalle quartets are the JACKs’ two great forebears (they are also, respectively, the dedicatees of the pieces by Xenakis and Ligeti). So how do they compare? What does a new generation, 21st-century quartet bring?

Well, first, commanding, high contrast, fabulously controlled (yet thrillingly liberated) performances. They are less intellectual, perhaps, or less febrile than the Ardittis (who are the closest comparison) but this is not at the expense of care or precision. And, having grown up with modernism in its mature phases, they are more confident in the language than the pioneering LaSalles. With the JACKs’ performances of Ligeti’s Second Quartet, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and Xenakis’s Tetras, the idea of a robotically definitive version is thrown gratefully out of the window. At the best moments it feels like these pieces are breathing freely for the very first time.

Let’s start with Tetras. Compared to the Arditti Quartet’s recording on Gramavision, the dynamics are less terraced (though overall envelope is just as wide), and there is a greater sense of linear continuity and flow; of events cascading into and shaping one another. A more marked difference is that the JACKs’ Wigmore recording is more than a minute longer than the Ardittis’, but the same amount slower than their recording for Mode’s Xenakis Edition. I like the extra time: there’s room to appreciate fine details such as the phasing harmonic beats in the viola’s first salvo (which really sing in the Wigmore version). More pointillistic passages, such as the section of scrapes and crunches at around 2 minutes are highly coloured drifts in the Ardittis’ hands. With more space, and deeper bite, the JACKs tease them out into absurdist drama, and the Wigmore Hall’s generous acoustic really allows every detail to speak.

However, the Arditti Quartet has changed line-up many times in the 30 years that they have been playing Tetras, so a definitive “Arditti version” doesn’t exist. Here, as a point of comparison, is a live video of the current incarnation, with Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissian, Ralf Ehlers and Lukas Fels:

In contrast, String Quartet in Four Parts almost zips by. The recording by the LaSalle Quartet on DG, for example, sounds almost funereal in comparison, a good 25% slower overall. The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music, but it risks obscuring the cubistic, fragmentary structure of the work. Certainly the LaSalles’ version is more overtly weird.  But in the end I think the JACKs pull off a careful balance of segmentation and conjoining tendencies. (Incidentally, they’re considerably stricter about Cage’s instruction to avoid all vibrato.) If you want a more ‘cubist’ version, in which the additive structure is more apparent, then the Ardittis on Mode is what you need.

Ligeti’s Second String Quartet was written for the LaSalle, and along with other works commissioned by the Quartet (including quartets from Lutosławski and Penderecki) it helped define the possibilities of postwar, post-Bartók string quartet composition. Some would have it that it is one of the finest quartets of the 20th century, and one of the high points of Ligeti’s output. I have to confess that I’m not one of those people. While I frequently fall for large-scale Ligeti (of the Lontano sort), chamber Ligeti sounds to me fiddly and fussy. (Oddly, I have the opposite reaction to Xenakis.)

My reaction at the July 2011 concert was one of the strongest of the recital, and I remember it distinctly: that was an outstanding performance, but in its fidelity it has only strengthened my feelings against the piece. So the fault remains mine, possibly shared with Ligeti, but certainly not the JACKs’.

The LaSalles’ recording (again on DG) is hard to beat, and is one of the landmark recordings of its time. But again, the difference is that between an ensemble crackling with the energy required to continually reinvent itself, and one for whom this language is its mother tongue. What you lose in precarious tension you gain in confidence and swagger. (Although there are still moments when the JACKs take their technique right to the edge.)

The only non/not yet-classic on the disc is Matthias Pintscher’s Study IV for Treatise on the Veil. This takes its inspiration from Cy Twombly’s monumental 1970 painting Treatise on the Veil.

Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). House paint and crayon on canvas.

Pintscher’s piece is the fourth in a series for related small string groups; he talks more about Study for Treatise on the Veil I (for violin and cello) and its origins in Twombly’s painting in this interview with Mark Mandarano. In particular he refers to his attempts to create a musical analogue for the kinds of visual perspectives that artists like Twombly produce in their paintings.

(An interesting aside: Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil is one of a series of ‘Veil’ pieces, one of which, The Veil of Orpheus, he explicitly linked to a musical work itself, Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée of 1953.)

The JACK Quartet have a close working relationship with Pintscher, and in many ways he’s a perfect introduction for a recital like this to their work with living composers. But for me he’s just not as interesting as some. Study has a lot going on, technically, in a post-Lachenmann kind of way, but overall it feels too episodic, the sounds too purposeless. Still, bits of it are very pretty, and it may be that with many more listenings its overall shape will start to reveal itself.

All in all, then, a highly recommended disc, for lovers of contemporary music, newcomers, and fans of string quartet history. You can buy a copy here.

This is Wigmore Hall Live’s first exclusively contemporary release since, appropriately, the Arditti’s recital disc recorded in 2005, which itself featured a (more poised, less energetic) performance of the Ligeti Second. In recent years the hall has increased its commitment to live new music (the hall’s Twitter account informs me there have been 400 premieres since 2005), and the Fondation Hoffmann Commissioning Scheme means that new works are being created every season. Let’s hope that means more all-contemporary recitals like this one making it to disc.

[Final paragraph adjusted 31 May to incorporate mention of current new music at WH.]

Update: the whole album is now available on Spotify: