Bryn Harrison: Vessels (Recent releases from another timbre, part 3)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)

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Bryn Harrison | Vessels | Philip Thomas, piano | another timbre (at69)

Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.

Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”

The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.

The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.

Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992–2009 (Recent releases from another timbre, part 2)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)

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Laurence Crane | Chamber Works 1992–2009 | Apartment House | another timbre (at74x2)

For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.

So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.

Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.

Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.

This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience.

Don’t forget the launch concert for this CD, on Tuesday 15th July at Cafe Oto.

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*Crane has a fondness for naming pieces after people, particularly sportsmen, and among them particularly cyclists. It’s a curious footnote that the three cyclists with pieces named after them here (all of them former Tour de France podium placers) have all, since the composition of their namesake pieces, been implicated in doping scandals. Rumsas, who came third in the 2002 Tour, the same year that Crane named a piece after him, had question marks over him immediately after that race when steroids, growth hormones, testosterone and more were found in his wife’s car on the same day that the race ended. Julich (Bobby J) finished third in the infamous 1998 Tour, a race in which he later confessed to have doped. Bjarne Riis admitted in 2005 to doping between 1993 and 1998, including during his 1996 Tour win – again, the same year as Crane’s piece.

This practice supposedly has little bearing on the meaning of the music itself. In this context it is interesting to note that while one might expect music written for sporting heroes who later fell from grace to carry some unintentional pathos, even this is hard to hear in Crane’s super-blank canvases.

Recent releases from another timbre, part I

Sheffield’s indie new music label another timbre have been on a heck of a burn the last few months, and two more luscious looking discs have recently fallen through the door this week. With the eyes of the sporting world turned on God’s own county thanks to the opening stages of the Tour de France, I figured the time had come to give considered appraisal to some recent releases from this Yorkshire-based label.

The six discs pictured above are, in order of release:

I’m going to give them all a short review over the coming days; keep checking back.

As you can see, apart from the release by Swedish ensemble Skogen they are all single composer portrait discs (and, in the case of the Harrison and Beuger releases, single works too). And in fact, despite its credit line, the Skogen disc is also a sort of composer portrait, being a 56-minute performance of an open-form piece by the group’s founder, Magnus Granberg. (More on this distinction when I come to review the disc itself.)

However, don’t get the impression from this that composer portraits are exclusively what another timbre do. In some ways this is quite a selective cross-section of their recent catalogue, much more of which deals in performer-led experimental and improvised work. Indeed the same might be said here too: the thing I enjoy first whenever I encounter anything released on AT is recognising the connections – not of aesthetics as such, but of values and sensibilities – between the different musicians represented, and tracing those connections back through the network of composers and performers for whom these musical relationships are the same as their personal ones.

Some of that is just to do with geography: many of the musicians featured on the discs above are based in Yorkshire, AT’s territory (as has been observed, the north of England is sometimes better served for new music than the south). London and Berlin are also important centres. But there’s something else too, a fluid, 21st-century approach to experimental music-making that isn’t hung up about composer/performer authority, that doesn’t recognise ideological lines between free improvisation, open notation (whether text or graphics), or a fully notated score. It’s not even a self-consciously radical approach to boundary breaking. Those boundaries simply no longer exist: Bryn Harrison’s precisely determined notation exists on the same plane as John Cage’s Cartridge Music or some archived improvisations by Hugh Davies. It’s just, shrug, what are we playing today?

Which should not give the impression that anything here is done with less than 100% attention and sincerity. In nearly every case these are exactly the musicians you would want to make the benchmark recordings of these pieces; very often they have worked closely with the composers over extended periods, as is certainly the case with Philip Thomas’s recording of Vessels, an epic 75-minute solo composed for him by his Huddersfield colleague Harrison. It’s also true of Apartment House’s 2-CD set of Laurence Crane’s chamber music; composer and ensemble have been collaborators for years, and this was a project born out of an immense store of mutual respect and affection (half seriously, Anton Lukoszevieze tells me he’s been waiting for this album for 20 years). Over the next few posts I’ll be digging deeper into these treasurable recordings.

 

A late late report from the London Ear

Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari hadn’t planned on running a second edition of their contemporary music festival, the London Ear, quite so soon after the first. Yet that proved such a success last year that they consented to do something like an edition 1.5, a halfway house before a larger event, perhaps in 2015 or 2016. But the process overtook the planning, and before long a four-day programme of events was in place and the Second London Ear was on its way.

Taking place a month ago now (sorry …) this was an event that very much built upon its achievements last year. The festival seems to to have found an audience for itself – one that I’m pleased to say includes many unfamiliar faces. The three young performers who were introduced last year – Jenni Hogan (flute), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Tom Bayman (cello) – were given a second opportunity to show their work, in the festival’s opening reception concert. Once again we were hosted by the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo, this time surrounded by the paintings of Gillian Ingham. And once again there was a very convivial, I guess ’boutique’ atmosphere that comes from this being a compact festival that places a premium on interaction and engagement.

As well as the three young performers, this year the festival players were accordionist Eva Zöllner, violinist Victoria Johnson, the London Sinfonietta, 7090, We Spoke, Uroboros, and an impromptu trio of three soloists from Berlin, Antje Mart Schäffer (soprano), Franka Herwig (accordion) and Matthias Bauer (double bass). I was also involved in a small way, hosting first a preview show on Resonance FM a week before the festival, and then chairing three composer roundtable conversations before the evening concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

 

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(l–r: Georg Katzer, Gwyn Pritchard, me, Eric de Clercq, Andrea Cavallari, talking before the Saturday evening concert)

I missed the daytime concerts by Zöllner and Johnson, as well as 7090 and We Spoke’s joint brunch concert on the Sunday, but I still made it to six more in the four days. Too many pieces and too many performances for me to give a detailed run-down of everything, but here are some of my highlights:

  • Georg Katzer’s Three Disparate Essays in the London Sinfonietta’s Friday night concert was truly startling. Just so imaginative, accommodating without ever being obvious, clever without being smug, and quite quite beautiful. Possibly my favourite single piece of the weekend, and really sensitively played by the Sinfonietta’s Timothy Lines, David Alberman and Rolf Hind. (Katzer was also a good sport in taking part in all three of my pre-concert roundtable, and an interesting man.)
  • Bauer was one of the festival’s star soloists: on Friday night his brilliant (and funny) clown-like double bass and voice improvisation almost stole the show. He was as good again the following evening in Helmut Oehring’s bass solo, Baudelaire (envirez-vous!).
  • I liked both Oehring pieces in that concert – the other being the accordion solo gestopfte LEERE.
  • In fact, that early Saturday evening concert – shared by 7090, the Berlin soloists and Serge Vuille (percussion) – may have been the festival’s best in terms of the strength of its pieces: I liked Pritchard’s Three Songs of Mass and Motion, and Cavallari’s Ieri ho sofferto il dolore matched its origins in the troubling life story of poet Alda Merini; both pieces specially written for the festival. Strange Desires by Trevor Grahl, a “bizarre quasi-cabaret” well suited the personae of the three 7090 players, and made an interesting companion piece to the two extracts from bas&koen&nora that we had heard from the same players the night before. Kagel’s Tango Aleman, also part of the same concert, maintained the buffo-serio mood.
  • Of the final concert, Heinz Holliger’s 1966 Trio was the stand out piece, and made a fittingly high quality conclusion to the festival.

Lots of good things then. But with the festival looking ahead to its third instance, it’s not inappropriate to cast a more critical eye too. One thing that does characterise the London Ear is its reliance on smaller pieces, generally for just one, two, or three instruments. Besides helping with certain structural and financial impositions, this has some artistic benefits: the festival is able to shine a light on some overlooked areas of the repertoire that don’t attract much support from the larger institutions. It is also able to include an attractively wide spread of composers within a relatively short space of time. And the listening experience itself gains a certain intimacy when the concerts are on this scale, as I have already suggested. These things are all great, and are essential to the festival’s style.

However, at the same time this approach does mean that many of the composers who are featured are represented only by their slighter compositions. When so many of these are so rarely heard in the UK at all, it seems a pity not to be able to profile one or two of them to a deeper extent. The same might be said of some of the better-known composers too. It was a shame, for example, to have 7090 more or less in residence at the festival, but to have them only perform two pieces from the bas&koen&nora set that Michael Finnissy had written specifically for them: these were the first UK performances of any of these fascinating pieces (I believe), and given that the work is so closely associated with 7090 themselves, we may have to wait a while to hear the whole thing in this country. (You can buy a recording, however, which I recommend.) A little more variation in concert format might help accommodate this sort of thing – rather than every concert containing lots of shorter pieces. This would have helped break up the rhythm a little and, ironically, helped give the whole festival a little more focus.

Another awkward case was Serge Vuille’s performance of the flashy percussion solo Assonance VII by Michael Jarrell, as part of the 7090/Berlin trio Saturday evening concert mentioned above. Most of the music took place in a small space at the centre of the stage, between the piano and two music stands. But one end of the stage was occupied by a very large percussion set-up that visually dominated the space yet was only used for the one piece. (Here’s a video of Vassilena Serafimova playing Assonance VII in Eindhoven to give you an idea.) I enjoyed the piece, and Vuille’s performance was outstanding, but its presence on this occasion really unbalanced what was otherwise a programme with a very distinctive character of its own. The fact that this concert – which otherwise involved no Swiss players or composers – was the one supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, and was followed by a reception hosted by the Swiss Embassy, did give one pause for thought, however, about the delicate but inevitable balance between the artistic and the pragmatic.

I’m quibbling. I realise it’s very difficult to execute both things that I’m asking for here: a coherent, focussed programme that is also diverse, original and multi-faceted. The fact that it’s all done (still) with no support from any of the major UK arts organisations is a fact both remarkable and shaming. The London Ear remains an excellent new venture that I hope will cement a place as an essential part of the London new music calendar; if it can do so without having to depend on the generosity of overseas embassies, so much the better.

CD re-review: Lars Petter Hagen: Orchestral Music

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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: