#promsnewmusic 2014

It’s Proms announcement time again! I’ve just been ruining Twitter for everyone by spewing out a list of all the new music being performed at this year’s festival.

Some quick observations for now:

Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies both turn 80 this year. They’re two of this country’s most important composers, no doubt, and it’s absolutely fitting that they get some recognition at this year’s Proms. However, among the 37 41 items in my list below, five of them are for Birtwistle and five are for Davies. And three of those are complete concerts, for which I haven’t bothered to list each piece. By my reckoning that means that close to a third of the new music content of this year’s Proms has been written by two octogenarian knights of the realm. Time to cast the net a bit wider perhaps?

Talking of anniversaries, peers, etc, the late Sir John Tavener gets a decent send off with two concerts featuring his music this year. That’s as many as Carter, Harvey, Henze and Nunes were given last year in their memory, between them.

The news is a little better when it comes to women composers: last year I think there were three (Burrell, Gubaidulina, Clyne). This year I count six: Panufnik, Beamish, Grime, Tabakova, Weir and Chin.

Elsewhere, more of the new music seems to be happening in the main bill this year, and not shunted out to the matinees and chamber concerts. Good. The BBC will be hoping that lightning doesn’t strike for a third time with Adams’ ill-fated Short Ride in a Fast Machine (Prom 63). Prom 72 promises “An evening of 20thC English music that looks beyond pastoral stereotypes” but manages not to find room (YET AGAIN) for a Michael Finnissy performance in the Albert Hall. Guys, Red Earth was 26 years ago.

Oh, and there’s a concert called ‘Oriental Promise‘ (Prom 16). In 2014.

As for my highlights? Much harder to pick than last year, since there are far fewer of them. Aurora’s Benedict Mason premiere (Prom 41) is a must; after that … the Francesconi (Prom 28), then either Tavener in Prom 25 or one of the Birtwistle concerts.

I’ll be honest though, there’s much more that interests me in the six concerts of the LCMF 2014 bill than the 70+ of the Proms. Here’s the list for your own perusal:

Prom 2 Qigang Chen: Joie éternelle, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-19/14922

Prom 4 R Panufnik: Three Paths to Peace, EP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-20/14926

Prom 7 J Tavener: Gnosis, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-23/14934

Prom 8 Pet Shop Boys: A Man From the Future, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-23/14936

Prom 10 D Horne: Daedalus in Flight, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-25/14940

Proms 11 and 13 (CBeebies Proms) B Bignold: Around Sound http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-26/14942http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-27/14946

Prom 14 S Holt: Morpheus Wakes, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-27/14948

Prom 15 J Dove: Gaia, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-28/14952

Prom 16 G Prokofiev: Vn Conc., WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-29/14954

Prom 18 H Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/july-30/14958

Prom 20 S Beamish: Vn Conc., LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-01/14962

Prom 23 J McLeod: The Sun Dances, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-03/14972

Prom 25 J Tavener: Ikon of Light, Requiem Fragments, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-04/14992

Prom 28 L Francesconi: Duende, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-07/14976

Saturday Matinee 2 H Birtwistle: Endless Parade http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/14994

Saturday Matinee 2 PM Davies: Sinfonia http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/14994

Prom 31 H Grime: Near Midnight, LP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-09/15002

Prom 33 H Birtwistle: Sonance Severance http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-10/15038

Prom 35 PM Davies: Caroline Mathilde, suite http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-12/15048

Prom 37 S Reich: It’s Gonna Rain, Desert Music http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-13/15076

Prom 38 PM Davies: Sym no.7 http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-14/15078

Prom 39 B Rands: Pf Conc., UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-15/15080

Prom 41 D Tabakova: Spinning A Yarn http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-16/15084

Prom 41 B Mason: Meld http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-16/15084

Prom 46 K Roustom: Ramal http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-20/15118

Prom 46 A Adler: Resonating Sounds http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-20/15118

Prom 48 H Tómasson: Magma, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-22/15130

Prom 49 J Tiensuu: Voice verser, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-23/15134

Prom 55 U Chin: Su http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-27/15030

Saturday Matinee 3 PM Davies portrait http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/august-30/15072

Proms Chamber Music 7 J Weir: Day Break Shadows, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-01/15090

Prom 61 Z Long: Postures, EP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-02/15094

Prom 63 J Adams: Short Ride in a Fast Machine http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-04/15098

Prom 63 J Adams: Sax Conc., UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-04/15098

Saturday Matinee 4 H Birtwistle portrait http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-06/15112

Prom 67 B Ranjbaran: Seemorgh http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-07/15120

Prom 68 J Widmann: Flûte en suite, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-07/15122

Prom 69 J Widmann: Teufel amore, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-08/15128

Prom 70 PM Davies birthday concert http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-08/15132

Prom 71 C Brubeck: Travels in Time for Three, UKP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-09/15136

Prom 72 H Birtwistle: Exody http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-10/15138

Prom 75 F Cerha: Paraphrase on the Opening of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-12/15144

Prom 76 Gavin Higgins: Velocity, WP http://www.bbc.co.uk/proms/whats-on/2014/september-13/15146

Secret Music: April

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Again, some horrible clashes here. Also, if anyone knows of anything happening in the second half of the month, feel free to add to the comments.

Until Saturday 5 April, and Monday 2 – Sunday 8 June: Frontiers Festival, Birmingham | venues, prices, times vary

Birmingham Conservatoire’s annual contemporary music festival this year celebrates the music of Downtown New York. This was originally planned to coincide with the presence of Robert Ashley to receive an honorary doctorate, an event that will sadly not now take place. Ashley’s music is well represented, however, including the complete world premiere of String Quartet Describing the Motion of Real Bodies on 2 April. Other highlights (of many – see the full calendar) include Apartment House playing Songs for Drella (30 March); Pauline Oliveros in conversation (31 March) and a Deep Listening meditation (2 April); early Philip Glass (1 April); Carl Stone (2 April); as well as music by David Lang, Michael Gordon, William Basinski, Elliot Sharp …

Thursday 3 April: Silk Street Music Hall | Guildhall New Music Ensemble | 6:00pm | FREE

James Weeks conducts the Guildhall New Music Ensemble in a programme that includes premieres of works by Edmund Finnis and Thomas Fournil, and music by Aldo Clementi and Salvatore Sciarrino.

“The Guildhall New Music Ensemble is dedicated to the performance of music from the last 30 years, with each project curated by a different member of staff or by a guest curator. For the launch of the ensemble’s regular performance series at the School, Associate Head of Composition James Weeks has curated a programme of local and global compositional activity that will form the foundation of the ensemble’s future concerts.”

Thursday 3 April: Cafe OTO | Dumitrescu and Avram | 8pm | £8 adv/£10 on the door

Iancu Dumitrescu brings his Hyperion Ensemble, and his unorthodox performance practice, back to Cafe OTO for more spectral excursions and seat-of-the-pants musical phenomenology.

Thursday 3 April: Studio Theatre, Library of Birmingham | Automatic Writing | 7pm | £12(£8)

Fresh from giving the UK premiere of Robert Ashley’s masterful Automatic Writing at Cafe Oto, Object Collection (Kara Feely, Travis Just, Aaron Meicht, Daniel Nelson, Tim Parkinson, Fulya Peker) bring the work to Birmingham’s Frontiers Festival. Concert also includes New York Girls by Kara Feely and Travis Just.
Sunday 6 April: Charlie Wright’s International Bar & Jazz Lounge, 45 Pitfield St, London | John White Birthday Concert | 4pm | FREE but pre-booking essential
Performances by Gavin Bryars, Dr. Margaret Coldiron, Carole Finer, Julian Haxby, Chris Hobbs, John Lely, Kaffe Matthews, Tim Parkinson, Michael Parsons, Andrea Rocca, Hugh Shrapnel, Dave Smith, John Tilbury, John White; and by various ensembles, namely: Bad Dog, LelyWhite, Live Batts; and by the official orchestra of the Institute: The London Snorkelling Team.

There will be participatory performances of The Drinking and Hooting Machine and the Newspaper-reading Machine – a more detailed programme will be emailed before the event.

Thai food available from the kitchens. Tickets are free (a hat will be passed around) and open to all, but they are also limited; people must be on the guest-list to attend, and specify if bringing a guest. To get on the list write to: editor@atlaspress.co.uk without delay.

Tuesday 8 April: St George’s RC Cathedral, Westminster Bridge Road | Ian Wilson’s Stations | 7:30pm | email enquiries@matthewschellhorn.com to join guest list

Matthew Schellhorn performs Ian Wilson’s monumental solo piano masterpiece, Stations. Inspired by the Catholic devotion of the Stations of the Cross, Stations is a fourteen-movement work divided into four ‘Books’. Matthew Schellhorn has premiered the work in stages over two years, giving a performance of its final part at Wigmore Hall in 2008. His recording of the piece will be released on Diatribe Records this month, and this concert is the first in a tour that also takes in Glasgow (10 April), Dublin (13 April), Blackheath Halls (14 April), Edinburgh (15 April), Cambridge (16 May), Thorpe Bay (18 May), Wymondham Abbey (29 June) and Ripon (10 July).

Tuesday 8 April: City University, Performance Space | James Saunders portrait | 7pm | FREE, booking essential

Programme: Everybody doing what everybody else is doing; With paper; So many territories (first performance); Things whole and not whole; Everybody do this

Performed by Plus-Minus.

Friday 11 April: Schott Recital Room, 48 Great Marlborough St, W1f 7BB | 7pm | £10

Tim Parkinson plays premieres of new works by Laurence Crane, Matteo Fargion, Joseph Kudirka and himself, plus recent pieces by Jürg Frey and Chiyoko Szlavnics.

Saturday 26 April: Cello Factory, Cornwall Road, London SE1 | 7pm | £8

Swiss percussion trio DeciBells are joined by flautist Jenni Hogan in a programme of Lou Harrison, Scelsi, Pierre Favre, Benjamin Graves, Gwyn Pritchard and Siegfried Kutterer.

Secret Music: March

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Better late than never, and with apologies to performers whose concerts this month I’ve already missed. A couple of horrible clashes in this month’s line-up :-(

Saturday 15 March: Jerwood Hall, LSO St Luke’s | Music in the Space Time Continuum II | 6.30pm | £12, students £5

Salzburg’s Ensemble OENM play the following programme:

Josquin (trans R. D. Rusconi): Le miroir de musique (An educational outreach performance)
Haas: Tria ex uno
R. D. Rusconi: Anankè
Grisey: Vortex temporum

Thursday 20 – Sunday 23 March: Britannia House, London E1 | LCMF presents The Music of Bernard Parmegiani | times/prices vary

Four events: a screening of short films and documentaries around Parmegiani’s work (Thursday); performances of two of his greatest works, Violostries (1964) and La Création du monde (1984) (Friday); works from the early 1970s (Saturday); and Dedans dehors (1977) and Espèces d’éspace (2002) (Sunday). There are other live sets and screenings woven in there too. Full details here.

Saturday 22 March – Saturday 5 April, and Monday 2 – Sunday 8 June: Frontiers Festival, Birmingham | venues, prices, times vary

Birmingham Conservatoire’s annual contemporary music festival this year celebrates the music of Downtown New York. This was originally planned to coincide with the presence of Robert Ashley to receive an honorary doctorate, an event that will sadly not now take place. Ashley’s music is well represented, however, including the complete world premiere of String Quartet Describing the Motion of Real Bodies on 2 April. Other highlights (of many – see the full calendar) include Apartment House playing Songs for Drella (30 March); Pauline Oliveros in conversation (31 March) and a Deep Listening meditation (2 April); early Philip Glass (1 April); Carl Stone (2 April); as well as music by David Lang, Michael Gordon, William Basinski, Elliot Sharp …

Thursday 27 – Sunday 30 March: The Warehouse, Waterloo, London | 2nd London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music | times/prices vary

More details on this to follow in a separate post, but in essence: nine concerts over four days, plus masterclasses, pre-concert talks and other fun. Composers featured include Rebecca Saunders, Helmuth Oehring, Simon Steen-Andersen and Georg Katzer. Performers include London Sinfonietta, We Spoke, Uroboros and Eva Zöllner. Full programme (pdf) here.

Friday 28 March: Schott Recital Room, 48 Great Marlborough St, W1f 7BB | 7pm | £10

Tim Parkinson plays premieres of new works by Laurence Crane, Matteo Fargion, Joseph Kudirka and himself, plus recent pieces by Jürg Frey and Chiyoko Szlavnics. Now taking place on 11 April

Saturday 29 March: St Giles’ Cripplegate, London | 7.30pm | £15, £7 (students), £1 (under 16)

EXAUDI  performs works by Chase, Cardew, Cage, Feldman, Skempton, Fox, and joins forces with Finchley Choral Society as the soloists in A. Scarlatti’s Dixit Dominus.

Sunday 30 March: Cafe OTO | 8pm | £8 adv. £10 on the door

In what will now presumably be something of a tribute concert, Object Collection (Kara Feely, Travis Just, Aaron Meicht, Daniel Nelson, Tim Parkinson, Fulya Peker) play Robert Ashley’s masterful Automatic Writing, plus New York Girls by Kara Feely and Travis Just.

Secret Music: February

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Saturday 1 February: Cafe OTO, Lauren Redhead, Gail Brande, ORE, 8pm | £8 adv, £10 door

Cumbria-based new music and sound art festival Full of Noises presents two nights of performances by artists from their 2013 programme. Day 2 sees performances from composer Lauren Redhead, who will be presenting a version of her piece Entoptic Landscapes, composed for FON alongside other short pieces; a solo trombone set from Gail Brand, who has been described as “the most exciting trombone player for years” by The Wire; and amplified tuba duo ORE, making music informed (but not limited) by their enthusiasm for drones, doom metal, improvisation and minimalism.

Sunday 2 February: Kings Place, Wespoke, 4pm | £9.50 online/£12.50 on the door

This concert brings together Laurent Estoppey (saxophone), Kerry Yong (keyboards), Serge Vuille (percussion) and Juliet Fraser (soprano) in an exploration of the cultural heritage of song.

The programme features premieres of Antoine Joly’s loving and critical medley, History of Swiss Song, and the fifth volume of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts, as well as Bernhard Lang’s DW16, Songbook, a work that explores difference and repetition in the form of five songs with lyrics by artists such as Bob Dylan and prog-rocker Peter Hammill.

Sunday 2 February: Islington Mill, Manchester, Psappha, 9pm | £8 (student £5)

Performance of Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titaniccombining live music, live drawing, photography and 3D film.

Wednesday 5 February: The Forge, Chroma + Riot Ensemble, The Flatulence of the Gods“, 7.30pm | £12 (£10 conc)

Kicking off a new series of contemporary music at the Forge (a regular venue in last year’s Secret Music listings), Chroma and the Riot Ensemble present works by Scott Lygate, Amy Beth Kirsten, Chris Mayo, Martijn Padding and Riot Ensemble’s director Aaron Holloway-Nahum.

Monday 10 February: Cafe OTO, 8pm | £5 adv, £6 door

Screening of Viola Rusche and Hauke Harder’s documentary on Alvin Lucier, No Ideas But In Things.

Tuesday 11 to Saturday 15 February: The Vaults, Leake St, London SE1 8SW, WOLF PACK at Vault Festival, 9pm | £10, or £16 for two nights

Two separate shows, TEXT (11 and 14 Feb) and BODY (12, 13 and 15).

TEXT will include The Waves, a rarely performed Frederic Rzewski piece alongside new works by composers Jess Harvey and Tom Green, and new interpretations of songs by Kate Bush and Goldfrapp. The concert will also present works by John White, Malcolm Atkins, Karlheinz Stockhausen and two pieces based on the work of John Cage, one of which is a brand new work devised by the ensemble.

BODY will feature a dance collaboration in the premier of Did You See Me Dance? by Dave Collins and Sam Goodway alongside music by Toru Takemitsu, Edmund Joliffe, Steve Reich and Manuela Kerer, and interpretations of songs by Frank Zappa and Stevie Wonder.

Programmed as part of the Vault Festival.

Thursday 13 February: Club inégales, 108 Gower Street, London, doors 7pm, music 8pm | £10 (£6 conc)

Peter Wiegold’s Club inégales begins its spring season with a concert of music by Howard Skempton.

Tuesday 18 February: City University, London, Richard Craig and Loré Lixenberg, 7pm | Free, but adv booking required

Flautist Richard Craig presents three premieres: two new solo works from his collaborations with Richard Barrett and Kristian Ireland and duo work (with with Loré Lixenberg) by John Croft for voice and bass flute.

Full programme:

Richard Barrett – Vale (world premiere)
John Croft – Deux Meditations d’une Furie (world premiere)
Brian Ferneyhough – Mnemosyne
Loré Lixenberg – Work tba
Kristian Ireland – Luminous (world premiere)

Friday 21 to Sunday 23 February: Bristol New Music, various venues, times, etc.

First event of a new consortium devoted to bringing the best new music to Bristol. The weekend-long festival combines modern classical, jazz and visual arts. Rambler-oriented highlights include Quatuor Bozzini on SaturdayEllen Fullman, also on Saturday (seriously, if you’re anywhere close, don’t miss this); Bristol Ensemble on Sunday; and musikFabrik, also on Sunday.

Friday 28 February: International Anthony Burgess Foundation, Manchester, Psappha, 6pm | £10 (student £8)

A new multimedia production of Anthony Burgess’s musical setting of The Waste Land, performed by Psappha and incorporating rarely seen treasures from the Burgess Estate. Narrated by Jonathan Best, with soprano Rebecca Lea, directed by Elaine Tyler-Hall.

Friday 28 February: Cafe OTO, Apartment House, Jérôme Noetinger, 8pm | £7 adv, £8 door

Swiss composer and sound artist Antoine Chessex returns to Cafe OTO with a new composition for Apartment House, augmented by French electroacoustic musician Jérôme Noetinger. The concert begins with a performance from the duo of Steve Noble (percussion) and Yoni Silver (bass clarinet).

in vain, and the discourse of 21st-century music

What to make of what Sir Simon Rattle, in an unfailingly reprinted introduction to Georg Friedrich Haas’s in vain, calls the ‘first masterpiece of the 21st century’?

I’m not sure. It certainly is a ‘masterpiece’, if we want to continue using that word. That fact is gilt-embossed on every polished note. It’s certainly one of the first of the century, being composed in 2000.

But it’s certainly not flawless beyond criticism.

The hype that now surrounds every performance of in vain, aided by Alex Ross’s endorsement in the final pages of The Rest Is Noise, stoked by Rattle, and slurped up like water to a thirsty man by arts organisations like the Southbank, doesn’t do the work any favours. One of the hopes of our post-(post-)modern culture should be that we can move beyond this sort of language. Not only for elaborate French-philosophical reasons, but also because it kind of spoils things for audiences.

It was hard on Friday evening to listen to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of in vain on neutral terms. One expected at the end of its 70 minutes to be inducted into a cult, and that is a recipe for disappointment. It is immensely seductive, and its technical polish of a very high level. (The Sinfonietta’s performance was equally polished and unflagging throughout.) But at the same time, there is no grit, nothing truly inexplicable, challenging or ill-fitting. In all these respects it’s rather like the Shard, or a Disney film, or an iPhone. Flawless but hollow.

The good bits were very good. The two fades into darkness work especially well. The first is a great coup de théâtre, the second an even more impressive moment of drama. Here’s where I really felt Haas’s concept of an unwanted reprise succeeded. The lighting is not a gimmick, and it contributes something concrete and musical that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. But it is not exactly Haas’s invention (as Liam Cagney observed a few days ago, Grisey was doing this sort of thing in the 70s).

The piece has its longeurs, particularly in the central section, and there are too many moments that, lighting aside, sound like first draft Grisey. Rattle claims in his note that there is very little music like this around but really, there is some. This post-Ligeti, post-spectral filigree is more lingua franca than exception, even if it’s not always done as nicely as this. And although I love Haas’s harmonic aesthetic of perpetual destabilisation/resolution I much prefer it done with more assertive lines and less ornament, as in Blumenstück or the orchestral natures mortes, both much stranger works. (But I accept that’s a personal taste thing.)

If it sounds like I’m griping, I am. If it sounds like I’m deliberately swimming against the tide of critical opinion then I guess I’m doing that too. (Although interestingly I didn’t talk to anyone over the weekend who wasn’t at least slightly underwhelmed.) However, the sometimes off-the-peg discourse around a piece like this, and what that says about our desire for 21st-century masterpieces, and what we think they should sound like, deserves closer examination.

(NB: For those wanting to read more, Jeffrey Means has posted an interesting write-up of the work’s challenges from a conductor’s perspective.)

Reviews resurrected: György and Márta Kurtág and Hiromi Kikuchi, Wigmore Hall, 2006

Resurrected because this concert is essentially being reprised on 1 December as part of the Southbank Centre’s TRIN-fest. Here’s what I wrote back in 2006 when the Kurtág piano duo and violinist Hiromi Kikuchi came to the Wigmore Hall.

Originally published in New Notes, the now-defunct magazine of the now-defunct SPNM.

One behind-the-scenes tidbit: I’d spent the few days before this concert in New York, and had stepped off a red-eye flight back only that morning. So the whole performance was experienced through the haze of jet-lag and a lot of caffeine.

1_gyorgy
Kurtág 80th Birthday Celebration
Wigmore Hall, 9th November 2006

György Kurtág (pianino), Márta Kurtág (pianino), Hiromi Kikuchi (violin)

György Kurtág: Hipartita, Játékok

The György and Márta Kurtág piano duet is one of the great shows in contemporary music and, as expected, attracted a capacity audience to the Wigmore Hall. Their chosen programme – selected from the composer’s 8-volume Játékok series for piano and Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach – has remained relatively consistent for more than 20 years. However, tonight we were treated to a different cross section of works from the set. Several favourites – ‘Knots’, ‘Study to “Hölderlin”’, Dirge – remained, but there were also surprises. Unusually there were none of the ‘Flower’ pieces that form a backbone to the series, and there was the inclusion of one non-Kurtág work, Bartók’s ‘Canon at the lower fifth’ from Mikrokosmos volume 1.

As a duet the couple are unique performers. Kurtág’s music of delicate gestures seems perfectly matched to husband and wife, full as it is with private jokes, recollections and shared experience, a near dance of crossing limbs and touching hands. At one point in the choreographed performance the composer stands like a stern instructor behind his wife’s shoulder as she performs the sole Játék dedicated to her; this is a quintessential Kurtág moment, taut, tender, and not a little oppressive. A parallel might be made with Milan Kundera, whose erotic, intimate writing is as dark as it is light. Yet for all the theatre Kurtág’s genius is to make it all about the music and nothing more.

The first piece on the programme, Hipartita for violin solo, given a stunning UK première by its dedicatee Hiromi Kikuchi, revealed a different side of Kurtág’s art. Unmistakable in its foreign-familiar harmonic and melodic language it hinted at a new-found easiness of style. Completed in 2004, Hipartita is one of the composer’s most unified pieces, maintaining a notable consistency of character in contrast to his earlier multi-partite works; this is not to say that his expressive range is diminished, however. Several of the nine movements were distinguished by well-balanced, long-breathed phrases suggesting that Kurtág is, in his later years, fully embracing the lyricism that he previously allowed to dwell only at the edges of his music.

Ore, A, @HCMFUK

Of the early concerts of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Cecilie Ore’s ‘shadow opera’ A stood out as one of the most intriguing. A hour-long electroacoustic/video work, to be shown late at night in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: what’s not to like?

I knew the music a little already from the Aurora recording (featured on Radio Rambler earlier this year), but before yesterday I didn’t know much else about what it was about (Paal-Helge Haugen’s libretto is mostly in Norwegian), or even quite how it would be staged. I liked the sound of it though, its relentlessly doomy gongs, so was looking forward to this.

One practical thing first: the decision to stage it in the sculpture park was baffling. In fact, it was staged within an identikit white box – the park’s Longside Gallery – that could have been anywhere, and surely didn’t necessitate the 30-minute coach journey there and back. Since it was long past sundown (the concert began at 10.30pm), the only part of the surroundings that was visible in any case was the car park. The school trip atmosphere was quite fun, but that was about it.

On the work itself, I was really split. Really. This was, I gather, a new video realisation (by Torbjørn Lunggren), so I’m still unsure as to what earlier productions have looked like. (You try googling “A”.) Some bits I liked; others not so much. Text, textiness, texuality: it’s all key to the work’s aesthetic. The ‘story’ is basically that of Agamemnon’s siege against Troy, told through his own interior monologue. Aware of the horrors he has perpetrated he defaults to linguistic constructions for his justification: ‘It was order. It was the world. It was revenge. It had to happen. It was an order.’ Words, and especially their formality, are the source of this power (note the pun on ‘order’).

At the same time, words are suspect, and subordinate to action. The libretto’s key couplet occurs near the middle of the piece: ‘Revenge is order. Forgiveness is chaos.’ The action of Grecian order versus the words of Christian chaos.

This is powerful stuff (drawing heavily, I think, on the original Greek), and it moved me. Ore’s stripped down soundtrack – behind the spoken voices inside Agamemnon’s consciousness there is little more than roiling gong sounds and whisps of sibiliance – achieved a powerful rituality, if at the expense of variation or nuance. But then Troy was never the place for subtlety. Most impressive was its dramatic pacing: somehow it ended exactly where one felt it should, although there were few clues in music or visuals that the end was coming up.

On the negative side of the ledger, however, one has to mention the video. This was closely modelled on Ore’s music, in that it, too, made use of a minimal number of motifs and materials. In this case, a Matrix-like datastream of phrases for each chorus section, interspersed with fixed texts that were either projected as flat and static, or whose letters fell down the screen, as 3D blocks, like collapsing buildings. The ideas were nice enough, but some of the graphics felt like they had been rushed to completion. There was the same issue of repetitiveness as in the music, but again this sort of worked within the ascetic context of the drama. What bothered me most was that – inevitably, I guess, when you’re pushing bits of Helvetica around a screen – it all looked a bit, well, Powerpointy.

As I say though, I came out of it all genuinely in two minds. Emotionally, it really connected; intellectually, I’m not so sure. Aaaaargh.

P.S. 5against4 made it to the Ore premiere – Come to the Edge – on Saturday.

Secret Music: November

(Click for the background to the Secret Music listings.)

Please note, by the way, that for the purposes of ‘secret music’, I’m not including HCMF, which takes place this month, or the Southbank’s The Rest is Noise festival, which is now definitively in my hitting zone of the 1970s and 80s. Both of these events are well publicised as it is and I doubt anyone reading this is unaware that they’re on. It’s less well-known events like those below that I’m keen to support here.

The big event this month in London has to be Nonclassical’s Pioneers of Percussion festival, taking place between 6 and 22 November. As well as live music there will be talks, film screenings and workshops. Details of each event follow; there look to be some seriously good events here:

Wednesday 6: The Macbeth: New York / London: What’s Happening Now, 8pm |£5

We open the festival with a night tracing the creative ties between these two great cities. With music by David Lang, Steve Martland, Judd Greenstein and others, and the premieres of our competition winners.

Saturday 9: Oval Space: Percussion and Orchestra, 7pm | £8/£10

Bartók’s masterpiece Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta broke new ground in the 1930s, placing the percussionist at the centre of the classical orchestra. Here it is heard in the contemporary surroundings of East London’s Oval Space, alongside Gabriel Prokofiev’s recent Concerto for Bass Drum, Kate Whitley’s Split for clarinet, percussion and strings, and a pivotal solo work by Iannis Xenakis, Psappha. Multi-Story Orchestra, conducted by Christopher Stark, featuring soloists Rozenn Le Trionnaire and Jude Carlton.

Sunday 10: St Margarets House: Reich in Ghana Drumming Workshop, 1pm | £5/£8

Found sound expert Saul Eisenberg and percussionist Serge Vuille lead a workshop in which participants will create their own unique ‘junk’ instruments to form an ensemble like no other. All participants are then invited to perform at the Festival’s big night at Scala.

Wednesday 13: Hackney Picturehouse: The Evolution of the Drum Kit, 7.30pm | £7

The award-winning Beware of Mr Baker (2012)  tells the story of how Ginger Baker became a pioneer of modern drumming, through his foundations in jazz and rock to his discovery of Afrobeat and African percussion. The screening is followed by a sequence of short performances and talks from London’s most adventurous kit players, full line-up to be announced soon.

Saturday 16: Scala: Pioneers of Percussion, 8pm–3am | £6/£10/£12

At the centre of the festival, Nonclassical takes over legendary club venue Scala to present iconic repertoire including: Edgard Varese’s Ionisation, (the earliest large-scale percussion ensemble work) and John Cage’s Constructions, virtuoso musicians Joji Hirota, Shahbaz Hussain and Abass Dodoo, and a complete performance of Steve Reich’s seminal Drumming. With three rooms of live music and DJs surveying a whole spectrum of percussion-led music throughout the night, this is the unmissable centrepiece of the series.

Sunday 17: Hackney Picturehouse: Filmphonics, 7pm | £7

A film evening inspired by the theme of percussion. African Drum, Beyond the Beat (2012) looks at the various social functions of the drum in West African society, and is followed by a live discussion with director Tariq Richards. Meanwhile Ballet Mécanique (1923) is a rarely-screened Dadaist masterpiece, famous for its extraordinary percussive score by Georges Antheil.

Friday 22: Limewharf: The Theatre of Percussion, 6pm | £5

The closing night of the festival puts the spotlight on music in which performance art and extended technique stretches the boundaries of what percussion can be. With pieces by Kagel, Rzewski, Globokar and others, and performers including Serge Vuille and George Barton.

Other below-the-radar highlights (sorry, all London this month) include:

Tuesday 5: City University: CD launch – History of Photography in Sound, 6.15pm | free, but reserve in advance

The launch of Ian Pace’s landmark recording of Michael Finnissy’s The History of Photography in Sound. Pace will be giving a short introductory lecture on the work at 6.15, with a recital of selected chapters from 7.15.

Wednesday 6: Wigmore Hall, 7.30pm | £30/£25/£20/£15

EXAUDI take to the stage again at the Wigmore Hall, as part of its Contemporary Music Series, this time performing Renaissance madrigals by Carlo Gesualdo alongside works by Finnissy, Schöllhorn, Fox and Gervasoni.

Tuesday 12: City University: Lauren Sarah Hayes and Pamela Z, 7pm | free, but reserve in advance

Works for voice and electronics featuring a performance by Pamela Z, one of the pioneers of live looping techniques.

Tuesday 12: St David’s Room, Kings College, 6.30pm | free, I believe

Launch party for new CD of James Erber’s flute music. Matteo Cesari will play a short recital of works by Erber, Ferneyhough and Pintscher.

Thursday 14: Maida Vale Studios: BBC Symphony Orchestra, new music by British composers, 7pm | free, but reserve in advance

BBC SO studio concert of new work by young British composers, including Tom Coult, Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Benajmin Oliver and Emily Howard, plus UK premiere of Robin Holloway’s In China.

Thursday 14: The Forge, Camden: Octandre Ensemble, 7pm | £7/£9 in advance, £8/£10 on the door

Six newly commissioned works by Maxim Boon, William Cheshire, Patrick John Jones, Sam Messer, Nick Morrish Rarity and Kristoffer To.

In exchange for a ticket, promoters New Dots are looking for three audience members to write 400-word reviews of the concert that can be posted on their blog. If you’re interested see the New Dots website for more details.

Tuesday 19: City University: Madeleine Mitchell and Ian Pace, 7pm | free, but reserve in advance

Violin and piano recital, including music by Berio and Marco Stroppa.

Tuesday 26: Cafe OTO: Kammer Klang, 8pm | £7

The final Kammer Klang night of 2013 sees Plus-Minus appearing alongside Leafcutter John in a set that includes music by Bernhard Lang, Newton Armstrong and Johannes Kreidler.

Cassandra Miller’s new piece for EXAUDI

A good time was had last night at EXAUDI’s concert at the Only Connect theatre. I’m writing now because I particularly enjoyed Cassandra Miller‘s new one, Guide, for eight voices.

Guide is based on a 1968 recording by the American folk singer Maria Muldaur of the well-known hymn ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’. In advance of receiving the score, the players were asked to familiarise themselves with the recording, and in particular with Muldaur’s distinctive vocal style. The piece itself then ran through (?apparently) a sort of quasi-canonic process that meant each singer working through the hymn’s first verse – in awareness of how Muldaur sang it – with various repetitions and other procedural things along the way. The way it was built out of layers and loops meant that something of the music’s origins, in a recorded artefact, was carried through into the form of the piece; this was an echo of a recording given the post-production treatment.

In a way. That description makes it sound sort of Reich-y, which it wasn’t at all. It was way less digital than that. And it was more than the aura of vinyl or tape, but of a tape that was loosely wound, or even unspooling. Hesitantly, I might even say it was organic.

But still with that sense of intermedia translation about it, the sense of something artificial, brought into a dialogue.

Like I say, a really, really good piece.

I also enjoyed catching up with Cassandra after the show, all of which preamble gives me an excuse to post this piece of hers for piano, played by Philip Thomas:

‘The risk of sound being produced’: Charlie Sdraulig

 

This post is published as part of a series of composer interviews leading up to a concert of silent and nearly-silent music I am curating at Kings Place, London, on Sunday 22nd September. Full details and booking are here.

When I started to put this concert together, I knew early on that I wanted a piece by Charlie Sdraulig. I’ve written about his music, briefly, once before on this blog, and the sense of theatre (that isn’t really theatre, it’s just people playing their instruments), the aura of risk and failure, the downright peculiarity of what he does, was something I wanted to get on stage.

But Charlie didn’t actually have a piece yet that fitted the line-up that I was starting to settle on. So he very kindly agreed to produce a new version of close, his trio for shakuhachi, voice and bowed string, that replaces the shakuhachi with a clarinet. And I’m thrilled that we’re getting the first performance of that version.

In the interview below, Charlie talks a little about risk and failure, as well as the relationship of his very quiet music to its surrounding environment. In the performance instructions for the vocal miniature, few, there is a line that I don’t think I’ve ever seen on a score before: ‘If the environment changes in a way that makes it impossible to finish the score, abandon the performance.’ Composing in the possibility of abandoning a performance seems such a peculiar idea, but it captures something of the values at work here.

Charlie Sdraulig

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

I never really considered composing to be a career choice, let alone an anachronistic one. It always was and remains a compulsion. As soon as I began to take piano lessons, I began composing and haven’t stopped since! Why do I continue to compose? I am interested in writing music that allows a particular type of human interaction to take place in sound. I aim to create a sound world that is constantly redefining itself, negotiated and under discussion, which potentially allows the fragility and ambiguity of the act of perception to become audible. I hope to create a listening environment of heightened intensity that explores predominately soft sounds in subtly differentiated detail, a situation that may in turn potentially empower a listener to approach their sonic environments in an aware and sensitive way.

TR-J: What role does silence play in your music?

Although my music often takes place at the threshold of audibility, very rarely do I actually compose silences. There is always the potential for sound to occur to a greater or lesser degree. For example, if a performer holds their bow one to two millimetres above a string, their trembling musculature will cause occasional non-intentional contact to be made. However, often no contact takes place at all, leaving only a physical gesture and silence. Manipulating the various parameters involved, such as bow height or speed, will change the risk of sound being produced. As a result, silence often arises when the intention to produce a sound fails and so momentary silences permeate my work. I propose that these fluctuating ratios of sound to silence allow a particular expression of humanity to be communicated by approaching the space between performer and instrument with the utmost care and sensitivity: an acceptance and celebration of human fallibility and individuality.

The more I explore extremely soft sounds, the more I am acutely aware of the ever present ambient sounds in any given environment. Occasionally, my music may have the propensity to act within its own bubble, oblivious to the sonic environment that envelopes it. Composing an extended silence, as an absence in the intention to create sound, could highlight this environment. I am still working out exactly what my relationship with ambient sounds could be and how I could enter in to dialogue with them. Potentially my music could open itself up to interacting with its sonic environment via cues. That said I have also experienced occasions when pieces of extremely quiet music drew me in to the extent that I selectively prioritised what I perceived to be important sounds in the performance space, so that I was largely unaware of sounds extraneous to what I perceived to be the musical text.

In any case, the distinction between sound and silence can be somewhat difficult to determine when listening to sounds at the threshold of audibility. The perceptual ambiguity of these sounds allows each listener to actively construct this distinction, amongst other things, or not.

TR-J: A lot of compositional work concerns ways of proceeding, of extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

The majority of my recent work has primarily explored interaction, such as the interaction between a performer and their instrument, as well as the interaction between one performer and another. I have also been particularly interested in investigating and extending the role of physicality and perception in these interactions. Consequently, many of my compositional decisions relate to specifying the exact nature of the interactions in a given piece.

I always work closely with a performer to find ways of making sounds that allow that particular expression of humanity, which I described earlier, to emerge via an often tenuous interaction between a performer and their instrument. I define physical boundaries that explore the relatively greater or lesser likelihood of a sound actually being produced. Ideally, subtle parametric changes within these boundaries would then create a vast number of micro-variations in that sound.

trace

If I am writing for a small ensemble, the following questions arise: how can I organise sounds created by the unpredictable interaction between a performer and their instrument? How can metre delineate temporal relationships in a context where sounds may be imperceptible or simply not occur at all? Furthermore, beyond purely practical considerations, what do I want the nature of performer to performer interaction to be in my music?

Working as an accompanist, I would occasionally reach an under-rehearsed ritardando, the predictability of the prevailing metre would fall away and a highly contingent form of moment to moment interdependent interaction would occur due to not being able to exactly predict when the other player would act. Essentially, we would aurally cue each other. I found these to be extremely satisfying experiences as a player and, when I perceived them in other people’s performances, as a listener as well. After encountering and experiencing the work of Christian Wolff as well as playing as an improviser, I became more and more interested in the performative alertness and flexibility engendered by sonic contingency.

As a result, I now tend to use various types of cuing that allow temporal and parametric relationships between the parts to be flexibly shaped in real time by each performer’s perception, their listening. Many of my compositional decisions in this domain relate to finding means of cuing between performers that are as tenuous and unstable as the interaction I set up between a performer and their instrument. This could take the shape of something as simple as a question such as ‘is the timbre of the sound of the other player changing at a faster rate than mine?’ and altering different parameters depending on a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ response. In my recent work, I tend to treat time as a context where these interactions mediated by perception (cues) occur within a physical frame (breath or bow lengths).

TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

At the moment, I very rarely think about pitch with reference to equal temperament. I tend not to specify exact pitches but employ a tablature of some sort. In fact, I usually think about pitch as being relatively high or low, dependent on another element. My pitches generally serve an interactive, physical or perceptual function. For example, at times I use the pitch direction of glissandi as the basis of a cuing system or explore a variety of high breathy whistles due to their inherent sonic and physical instability. So a middle C could potentially occur in the context of a glissando that has a function in a particular cuing system or it might not. Ultimately, I don’t think it would matter very much. Personally, I would rather start by attempting to create an interactive framework that could lead to an environment where active and sensitive listening is prioritised. Everything else would flow from there.

Here are the previous posts on Gregory Emfietzis and Ben Isaacs.

If you have enjoyed what you have read here, or elsewhere on the blog, and would like to make a small contribution towards the costs of this concert your interest would be very welcome. Please send your donation (of whatever size) via PayPal to: ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

I don’t usually ask for money on this blog, but here’s some information on why I am on this occasion.

If you’d like to read some more interviews like this with young composers, why not check out my 10 for ’10 series, on which this post is based.