Updated plans announced for the British Music Collection


Encouraging news today from Sound and Music regarding their plans for the British Music Collection, what was the (now defunct) BMIC’s archive of 30,000 scores and recordings by contemporary and 20th-century British composers.

The collection sort of disappeared from view for a little while when Sound and Music was formed in 2009, until plans were confirmed in 2011 to house the entire library at the University of Huddersfield. The plans announced today refer again to the creation of a new facility at Huddersfield (costing £1.5million – and also providing room for the archive of the Rugby League) where these scores and recordings will be held.

Announced too are plans to connect the collection to the Google Cultural Institute, as well as the development of a new acquisitions policy. But perhaps the most exciting details are the resurrection of the New Voices scheme, an important publishing leg-up for emerging composers that in its previous incarnation gave support to the likes of Helen Grime, Matthew Shlomowitz and James Weeks. Thirty new and emerging composers will join the revived scheme in April 2014.

Added to this is a ‘Digital Discoveries‘ project, which aims to issue previously unreleased recordings from the British Music Collection. Eight volumes were announced last month, featuring music by Tansy Davies, Graham Fitkin, Katharine Norman, Sam Hayden and many more; the tone of the press release suggests this may be an ongoing project – if so, hooray!

Read the rest of today’s announcement here.

Simon Howard, 1960–2013

At the start of this week, I learnt of the tragic, untimely death of the poet Simon Howard.

I didn’t really know him. We were Facebook ‘friends’ and spent time on one or two of the same online forums. We corresponded occasionally. We never met, and I feel immensely sad that now we never will. I don’t even have a face. I knew Simon only through his intelligence, his immense musical sensitivity and his fierce anger at an unjust world.

I can only claim to know his poetry a little, like that of many of his peers in fact. On the odd occasions when I did reveal my utter ignorance and call out for assistance, Simon was exceedingly generous in providing reading lists, links, thoughts and guidance. Generosity is a word that many have used since his passing. I must have assumed that he would always be around for that sort of help, and that I would always be able to catch up eventually as a result. Many of his poems are archived on his blog Walking In the Ceiling; others have been published by (among others) Knives Forks and Spoons (including the brilliant Numbers), Oystercatcher Press and Red Ceilings Press.

Simon’s words rang beyond the small circles of the London poetry scene. His extraordinary affinity for music – he was one of the most well-listened people I think I have known, and certainly among non-musicians – attracted many composers to his poetry. Among those I know to have set or referenced his work in theirs are Richard Barrett, Philip Venables, Philipp Blume and Robert Dahm, but I’m sure there are more. There is talk of a possible tribute concert, and if more details arise I will post them here.

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.)

Djuro Zivkovic wins 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Composition

NPR is announcing that Serbian-born composer Djuro Zivkovic has been awarded the 2014 Grawemeyer Award for Composition for his 20-minute chamber orchestral piece On the Guarding of the Heart. (At the time of writing, this news has not been confirmed on the Grawemeyer website. Update: it is now.)

I must admit, I knew very little about Zivkovic before today, but this is a good reason to find out more. Quite a few of his works can be heard on YouTube; here’s the award-winning piece itself, as recorded by Klangforum Wien:

Several more can be found via the composer’s webpage. NPR’s news story also includes a short interview with the composer.

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.

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.


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.

Launch party and recital for James Erber’s new CD

November 12th sees the official launch of Matteo Cesari’s eagerly-awaited disc for Convivium Records of James Erber’s solo flute music. There will be a launch party at the St David’s Room, Kings College, London at 6.30pm, where Cesari will perform a short recital, followed by a drinks reception.

The CD includes the complete Traces cycle (first performed by Cesari in London in 2011), as well as shorter pieces for solo flute.

Here’s the programme for the evening:

Ferneyhough: Superscriptio

Erber: A Small Revelation (WP)

Erber: Traces (C)

Pintscher: Beyond (A System of Passing)

Look out for a review of the whole disc on these pages soon.

I couldn’t find any of the flute music on Youtube, but here’s Jonathan Powell playing the short piano solo Qfwfq, with video of the score.

Update: And here’s a video of Cesari playing Superscriptio:

Contemporary music really picking up at Wigmore Hall


About 18 months ago, in a review of the JACK Quartet’s Wigmore Hall Live CD, I suggested that the WH was ‘more a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names’. I copped a little dissent on that point from the hall itself, who wanted to point out that contemporary music was a regular feature at Wigmore concerts. Strictly speaking, yes, they were right, but most of what they could point at was still very much from the conservative end of the new music spectrum.

Well, I have to say this year’s contemporary music series really has stepped things up a gear. More evidence that concert venues should be taking more risks with new music? The series continues this Saturday with a Julian Anderson day this Saturday (including a tasty-looking concert of Anderson, Abrahamsen and Sciarrino), quickly followed on Wednesday by EXAUDI (another uncompromisingly capitalised name …) presenting Gesualdo-related works from Finnissy, Schöllhorn, Fox and Gervasoni, as well as the man himself.

And there’s more in the new year. On 23 January the JACKs return to play Crawford Seeger, Trapani, Ferneyhough, Anderson and – blimey – Radulescu. But the pick for me, and the signal that something really new might be underway at Wigmore, is the venue debut of Apartment House on 4 January, in a concert that looks like this:

Laurence Crane: Sparling 2000
Christopher Fox: Memento
Peter Garland: Where beautiful feathers abound
Amnon Wolman: Dead End
Mathias Spahlinger: 128 erfüllte augenblicke
Rytis Mažulis: Canon mensurabilis
Christopher Fox: Blank
George Mačiūnas: In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti

Yeah, me too. Good times.

New music isn’t killing institutions

Following the closure of New York City Opera, the ongoing mess that is the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate, and more, I’m noticing a certain amount of soul-searching in the US for underlying faults. It’s the common ‘classical music is dead/dying – who do we blame?’ trope. And as usual, contemporary repertory stands in the dock. What feels slightly new is the voice of the players involved themselves. Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians appears to be leading the attack. Rob Deemer has already broken down a questionnaire sent to union members about what they ‘really feel about 21st century repertoire’, and Local 802′s president, Tino Gagliardi, has told the New York Times that NYCO’s demise is in part due to its abandonment of ‘accessible repertoire’.

But this time some are rallying to new music’s defence. Noting a recent WQXR blogpost in which some players suggest the financial troubles of the Brooklyn Philharmonic may be due to its innovative programming, Marc D. Ostrow asks the following:

[W]hy is it that musicians (particularly union musicians) are so quick to gripe about playing new music and blame contemporary works for an institution’s sour financial situation?

And here’s Frank J. Oteri at New Music Box:

Most of the premiere performances of new works I attended of NYCO productions over the years, including the ones of the most recent seasons (such as Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, which I attended on September 25), were packed to capacity. If anything, NYCO would have better served American audiences by being even more committed to contemporary American operas. The same is true for every other opera company based in the United States, the Metropolitan Opera included.

There’s an easy media narrative here of course: that new music is ugly and unloveable, and that players like playing it as little as audiences like hearing it. And that’s true in some cases: I’ve certainly overheard players complaining about the physical exhaustion of playing in the pit for a Birtwistle opera, to what they felt was little apparent aesthetic purpose. It wouldn’t be hard to get quotes that supported that narrative. But as Ostrow, Oteri and WQXR all note, there are many other factors at play, and plenty of counterfactuals to consider too.