The Rambler

Modern composition. Blogging the music that others won't tell you about.

Good reports about MacRae’s The Devil Inside

I’m seeing good things about Stuart MacRae’s The Devil Inside, premiered over the weekend by Scottish Opera: “as the darkness slowly encroached on the final scene, there was a truly chilling end as a final transaction was made and the last wish granted … a wonderful ghost story, just the thing for a dark winter night.”

Quite a success for SO’s Five:15 project, which launched several years ago with the aim of nurturing new operatic talent by pairing writers and composers, and starting small – so avoiding the in-at-the-deep-end feeling of many composers’ opera debuts. MacRae and writer Louise Welsh produced Remembrance Day together in 2009. This was followed by Ghost Patrol in 2012, like The Devil Inside a co-commission with Music Theatre Wales. Let’s hope The Devil Inside makes it south of the border soon; and that Scottish Opera’s model of gently blooding young composers on the operatic stage, which has been so successful here, is repeated elsewhere.

Update: MacRae has written to tell me that The Devil Inside will be touring the UK throughout February and April –see here for more details. Hurrah.

An earlier version of this post gave the opera’s title incorrectly as the Devil Within. Apologies for that.

Follow My Score! Shortlist announced

The shortlist for the Score Follower/Incipitsify commissioning project has been announced: the three composers and piece on the list are:

Martin Iddon – Ampelos

Elena Rykova – 101% mind uploading

Julio Zúñiga – 24

The winner of the $1850 prize will be chosen by a public internet vote.

To cast your vote, simply watch all three videos, then click YouTube’s “like” button under your favourite.

Here, in full, are the complete rules from Score Follower:


• The finalist with the most likes by 1 Feb 2016 @20:00 ET will be commissioned $1,850 to write a new piece for Dal Niente.

• Please watch all videos before voting

• Do not vote multiple times under different google accounts

• Vote for one or two candidate(s)

• Dislikes will not be counted against the finalists’ scores

• If we detect that somebody has purchased likes for one of the videos, we will either zero-out the likes by re-uploading the videos, or even disqualify the composer in the case of multiple offenses. If we suspect suspicious activity, we will post screenshots of our analytics.

As far as we know, this is the first time that a composer will be commissioned based on YouTube likes.

There is a significant amount of money, and an attractive commission opportunity at stake, which makes the following concerns legitimate:

What happens from here on out is more like a lottery, or a popularity contest… or a testament to one of the finalists’ abilities at ‘winning the internet.’ Nevertheless, they have been selected to participate in it by a renown jury. We have talked with the finalists about this issue, and they understand these terms.

Our project format was meant to be an internet-equivalent to the Grawemeyer Award—a three round process starting with pre-selection by the program committee, which is then narrowed down by an international jury to three finalists, who are then chosen by an audience that has listened to live performances of the works. A Likes Campaign was the only feasible internet-equivalent to an audience-choice award that we could imagine, and whether or not it seems fair, it was really important for us that we turn to the internet community and crowdsource the commissionee. Living in a post-internet world, we figure that we must take the good with the bad, and accept the quirks/flaws of the internet, for this project at least.

All of this being said, we plan to do everything in our power to make this process as fair and transparent as possible.

We have put out four videos in sequence onto the channel, Score Follower: the three finalist videos first, and a separate video containing annotation links pointing to the videos to ensure that A. none of finalist videos are unfairly promoted by YouTube itself, which tends to push most recent content, and B. there is something that presents the works simultaneously that we could promote.

If there are any other aspects of this process that you believe could be improved in the name of fairness, please email us at incipitsifyq [at] gmail [dot] com

Luc Brewaeys, 1959–2015

News has been circulating today of the death of Belgian composer Luc Brewaeys, at the age of 56. He had been suffering from (and mostly beaten) a series of cancers for some time. His remarkable and attractive music can be enjoyed via this portrait CD on ReR Megadisc:

… and via a number of YouTube videos, of which this with accompanying score of his 1997 recorder and piano duet Les Méandres de la Mémoire seems a very good place to start:

Tempo goes from strength to strength


Another new issue of Tempo drops through the door, and this one looks even more of a must-read than those before it. At last we have a substantial article on the music of Laurence Crane, here written by one of his long-time champions, Philip Thomas. Luke Nickel writes on collaboration and performance in Eliane Radigue’s Occam Ocean. And Martin Iddon contributes an essential and provocative article on Johannes Kreidler’s Fremdarbeit that casts it in an entirely new light.

Add to that a symposium on composition, performance and research, following on from John Croft’s much-read article ‘Composition is Not Research’ of last year; an interview with Anton Lukoszevieze; and the usual exemplary reviews section and you have quite an issue.

“Afterness” in contemporary music: talk at Keele University


This Wednesday (16 December) I will be speaking at Keele University on the subject of “afterness” in new music, and how it might inform contemporary music historiography. In particular I will be looking at pieces by Isabel Mundry, Peter Ablinger, Valentin Silvestrov and Chaya Czernowin.

If you’re in the area it would be great to see a familiar face or two. For those interested in a preview a lot of my material will be from Chapter 8 of the book.

Full details.

Distractfold Ensemble in London, this Tuesday

Manchester’s Kranichsteiner Musikpreis-winning ensemble Distractfold will be in London this Tuesday, playing at Swedenborg Hall, 20 Bloomsbury Way, WC1A. The programme looks fantastic:

Hanna Hartman (SWE), Borderlines, for violin and 2 object operators
Christian Winthers Christensen (DK), Trio
Daniel Blinkhorn (AU), frostbYte – wildflower, for loudspeakers
Steven Takasugi (US), Letters From Prison, for loudspeakers
Mauricio PaulySky Destroys Dog, for electric guitar
Sam SalemNew Work, for 2 object operators, tape & video

If you can make it, I suggest you do. Tickets are £10 on the door or £7 advance booking and concessions.

Here’s a video of the group playing in Manchester earlier this year:

After Morgen und Abend

Morgen und Abend, Georg Friedrich Haas’s seventh opera, has just finished its premiere run at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. I went on the middle Saturday (21 November), and found I had quite a few things I wanted to say about it. I also wrote the introduction to Haas and his music for the programme book, so you can read the following according to how you think that might affect my partiality. To help me write that essay, I did have access to the libretto, as well as some in-house production notes. However, I didn’t hear a note of music in advance.

Morgen und Abend is based on Jon Fosse’s novel of the same name, with a libretto by Fosse himself. Its central character Johannes (Christoph Pohl) is a North Sea fisherman, the son of Olai (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and Signe (not seen). He has a daughter, also Signe (Sarah Wegener), and a wife, Erna (Helena Rasker). However, we encounter Johannes only at the beginning and end of his life: the moments of his birth and of his death, drawn out and placed under the microscope to emphasise their status as transitions, rather than singular points. Very little else happens dramatically.

Beckett-like, you might say. And Fosse’s libretto is full of the sorts of internal rhythms and repetitions that energise Beckett’s own writing:

Why is it so quiet
in there in the room
so strangely quiet
what can it mean
not a sound
and it’s my dear Signe
and the midwife
in there
what can it mean
what’s happening
When a child is born
it doesn’t go so quietly
I know that much
even as a man

But the work is also unlike Beckett; it is softer, flatter, unflecked with the Irishman’s dark jokes. The tragicomic absurdism of postwar Europe is replaced with a post-digital, 21st-century monochrome. This is reflected not least in the set and costumes, which are all of the same pale blue-grey. As always with Haas everything is in flux: chords continually evolve and devolve, form and collapse, the inevitability of decay providing the music’s essential drive and tempo. In many ways this is (or could have been) a perfect marriage of story and music: we see Johannes through the two fundamental transitions that define a person’s life.

Johannes is born

And in the second two-thirds of the opera, which deal with Johannes’ departure from life, this does work well. Fosse’s writing is at times breathtaking – ‘But even if it’s cold,’ dying Johannes says as he takes the hand of Erna’s ghost, who has come to guide him into the afterlife, ‘at least it’s there.’ – and Haas’s music often rises to the occasion. Moments with a flash of tubuular bells and a shimmer of keyed percussion stick particularly in the mind. And while the narrative is stripped back to its absolute bare bones, there are some gentle touches – such as Johannes and his friend Peter (Will Hartmann) reminiscing about cutting each others’ hair – that really lift it. In fact I think the text could have taken one or two more of these – something about Johannes’ daughter Signe, for example, perhaps even a memory of her birth to keep the loops going round.

The first third of the opera is much simpler: Johannes’ father Olai waits outside the bedroom, listening to his his wife is in labour. Until the end of this 30-minute scene, when the midwife announces Johannes’ birth, there are no entrances or exits. Even the one long entrance the scene is ostensibly about happens behind a closed door. Olai is nervous, and speaks his lines – in English, so without surtitles. This is important because his accent is thick, and some of his words get lost, especially those which are directed upstage, towards where the bedroom door is. One of these was the first statement of ‘midwife’, a rather important clue as to what was going on.

Haas chooses to set Olai’s monologue to some of his simplest music yet, long-held triads, sometimes blurred with glissandi or otherwise just moving through different orchestrations. Verticals are provided by short bursts of bass drumming by the two percussionists either side of the stage, presumably suggesting something like waves of contractions, but they were not nearly shaped clearly enough to carry much programmatic weight.

Worse, however, is Haas’s decision to have each of Olai’s lines delivered in isolation, with pauses of various lengths in between. This had the effect of stretching a few pages of libretto into half an hour while preserving the structure of Fosse’s text, and maintaining Olai’s monologuing presence. But it also emptied the words entirely of Fosse’s careful and purposeful rhythms. What bounced in writing dragged in sound.

On top of all this was the decision by Graham Vick to have Olai sit for the full 30 minutes. Not stand or move about, not pace up and down. Just sit and speak. He barely moves his arms, even – ironically it is only with the line “if only something would happen” that he shows signs of real agitation.

Olai waits

So music, delivery, text setting, staging and direction are all downplaying it. Individually, none of these is a problem. All together is deathly, and tested even my Wandelweiser-tuned patience. Looking for something, I found myself transfixed by the contrast of the pinkness of Brandauer’s face against the otherwise uniform blue-grey.

Things improve enormously, however, when the midwife (also Wegener) enters. An entrance. And she sings! Suddenly the whole piece lifted off the ground. I’m not always convinced by opera as an artform, particularly a contemporary one, but in this moment it was just what was needed.

Morgen und Abend will be broadcast on Radio 3 on 5 December at 6.30pm.


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