John McCabe, 1939-2015

Earlier this month the British composer John McCabe passed away from a brain tumour.

I owe him a debt. When I was a young teen, first exploring my way into 20th-century music, I used to scour my dad’s collection of recordings he had taped off the radio. His tastes ran a little more conservative than mine, so I mostly had to latch onto whatever bits of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and, especially, Bartók he had. But there were a handful of newer things buried within: Le marteau sans maître, for example, although I didn’t understand it at the time; a live performance of Carré, which I had more joy with; and a recording of John McCabe’s Fire at Durilgai. I have no idea why Dad had this; there was no other McCabe, and very little other contemporary British music in his collection. Perhaps it was fortuitously partnered with something else. (I do vaguely remember there being some Bartók on the same tape, which may be how I came upon it in the first place.) Anyway, I was thoroughly gripped by this piece, must have listened to it a dozen times. I think its structural clarity – an evocation of a fire building from a single spark to a huge conflagration – appealed to me. As did its orchestration: rich, dense strings, haunting brass, rattling percussion. I used to listen closely to every turn in the music, trying to track the progress of that fire.

I’ve just found a recording (from the same radio broadcast?) of Fire at Durilgai on YouTube. I don’t think I can have listened to it in two decades, but a lot has stuck with me. Particularly striking are the quasi-canonic layers of lamenting horns and strings, which aren’t dissimilar to some things in James MacMillan’s Veni, veni Emmanuel, another piece that captured my imagination back then. And there’s a particularly haunting ending that owes much to Bartók, and then Shostakovich, which must also have struck a chord at the time.

Anyway, here it is. One of the first pieces by a living composer I ever truly loved and, I suppose, one of my first steps on the path to where I am today.*

*Interestingly, a similar statement was made on Facebook by a friend of mine, with regard to a different McCabe piece. It’s interesting how influence works.

Some thoughts on globalization and new musical aesthetics

Happy New Year, Ramblers!

Through December, I wrote a four-part series for NewMusicBox on the subject of the effects of globalization on the aesthetics of contemporary music. The last of those posts went online yesterday, and you can get to them all through these links:

Part 1: Silk Road and global collaborations

In which I consider a critique of the ideal of global hybridization.

Part 2: Networked music

In which I assess the limits of networked musics as an aesthetic model of contemporary globalization.

Part 3: Embodiment and mobility

In which I look at artistic nomadism and some of its musical manifestations.

Part 4: Archipelagos

In which I tentatively introduce Édouard Glissant’s concept of the archipelago as a means to understanding some recent works of music.

Music Since 1989 – end of year progress report

I suppose it’s inevitable when you’re writing a book; with so many people you see their first question is ‘So … how’s the book going?’ It’s a bit like being pregnant, except without the heavy lifting and slightly less of the nervousness. In pregnancy’s favour, however, you’re generally pretty sure that the baby is growing, healthily and inevitably. With a book it’s not always so easy to confidently answer ‘So, how’s it going?’ with ‘Getting closer all the time’.

Anyway, for those that might be interested here’s a progress report on the last year or so, just before we enter the final nine months of writing and the calendar year in which the book will be completed.

So … how’s it going?

Overall, pretty well I think. I’m not where I’d like to be wordcount-wise (but are you ever?), but I do like how it’s coming together, and I’m thrilled at a) the robustness of my original plan as it has met the various hurdles of the writing process and b) how neatly some of this is starting to shape up. The end-to-end trajectory isn’t all in place yet, and I’ve not worked out how all the throughlines should be arranged, but as a compositional project it’s really working out well. I think, anyway. Still a long way to go.

The biggest challenge so far has been balancing the depth and breadth of coverage. This is still being worked out in some places, but it is getting there. Whenever people ask me about this, I give them the metaphor of a forest: if the new music world is like a forest I want to take people right up to its edges, to show them its full dimensions, its different landscapes; what I don’t want to do is show them lots of similar (but in themselves interesting) trees all growing in roughly the same place. At the moment, I’ve still got too many trees with not enough space between them; but the chainsaw is at hand if need be. And then, of course, somebody points me to a whole new species growing right over there, on the other side of that stream …

Of the eight chapters, five are about 75% written in some sort of early draft. That looks a lot better written down than it feels in my head. In the new year, when things get a little more complete, I’ll be looking for a couple of sympathetic readers to point out any massive gaps you idiot/stroke my ego and tell me I’m amazing.

Anticipated schedule for those who like to know these things: Manuscript delivered August 2015. Book on shelves I think September 2016.

Some recent CDs, briefly reviewed

Vicious Circus are Elo Masing (violin, cello, electric guitar, whistle), and Dave Maric (analogue synth and electronics). The 20 short tracks on Troglodytes Troglodytes (squib-box) are all improvised, and on some the duo are joined by David Turay on alto sax and Matthew Lee Knowles on voice. The sound is oddly gothic, the howls and scratches of of Masing’s strings rubbing strangely along with Maric’s synth. I rather like it; I hear something of both Radulescu and 80s synth-pop in it (among much else), a combination of avant garde and trash that brings to mind the narrow streets of East London, appropriately enough where Vicious Circle do most of their performing.

Pianist Philip Thomas has been busy, with two solo recordings out in the last few weeks (there’s also a new disc of Feldman multiple piano music on another timbre). First music by Christopher Fox (Hat [now]ART 192) – L’ascenseur, at the edge of time, Thermogenesis and Republican Bagatelles. Fox’s music has always been pleasingly hard to categorise; has any other composer been labelled both a minimalist and a new complexist? Of course he’s neither, and thank goodness. Besides this completely original, unpindownable quality, what I also like about Fox’s music is how it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while being deep down very serious indeed. By way of example, at the edge of time is a 15-minute study in a single pitch and its harmonics that never once sounds like a chore; Thermogenesis is a quasi-theatrical gesture that requires the pianist to begin playing in mittens, removing those to reveal gloves, and only in the final third to play with bare hands. I’ve seen Thomas play this piece, and while it has its undoubted silly side it also works as ‘proper’ music. Those who know Fox’s piano music only from Ian Pace’s Metier recordings of a few years back should relish the complimentary robustness that comes out here.

Thomas has a long-standing relationship with Fox’s music, but I suspect it’s the 3-CD set of music by Christian Wolff (sub rosa SR389) that has been the real labour of love. Thomas is a Wolff specialist, and I understand there are more discs like this to come. For now, we have one CD of works from the 1950s, and two of music composed between 2001 and 2010 (Thomas notes that a full third of Wolff’s output for solo piano has been composed since 2001). It’s a beautiful thing – like sub rosa releases usually are. There’s much more music here than I can possibly cover in a short review like this. CD1 includes all of Wolff’s solo piano music from the 1950s, including two performances of For Pianist (1959). CD2 is devoted to Long Piano (Peace March 11) (2004–5), and CD3 features works composed since 2001. Three of the latter are first recordings (Pianist Pieces, 2001; Nocturnes 1–6, 2008; Small Preludes, 2010), but Thomas’s authoritative interpretations make all three discs worth owning.

Peter Söderberg is a very rare thing – a contemporary music lutenist. I met him briefly in Stockholm recently, and he passed me a copy of his recording of American experimental music, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon (Alice ALCD028). The title comes from Lucier’s piece for koto and pure wave oscillator, here arranged for oud. Of the other three pieces – Tenney’s Chromatic Canon, Cage’s One7 and Reich’s Violin Phase – the Tenney and Reich have required arrangement, and on all three Söderberg enlists the help of Erik Peters on electronics. The Tenney (originally two pianos) and Reich have both been set for lute and live electronics; the Cage is for unspecified instrument anyway, and Söderberg here plays an amalgam of guitar and electronics. All four pieces work very well: the mechanistic loops of the Tenney and Reich pieces sit particularly well with plucked strings (some of Reich’s phrases have been written to be more idiomatic), and the Lucier and Cage pieces are pretty faithful to their originals anyway. Söderberg’s playing is beautifully precise throughout, giving all the pieces the necessary transparency of tone and feel. If I have a reservation, it is that Peters’ addition of electronic resonances to the Tenney makes it too sweet for my taste, but this is nevertheless a very lovely record.

The debut album by the Vocal Constructivists, Walking Still (innova 898), has really grown on me. But I’m reviewing that in a forthcoming issue of Tempo so I won’t say any more here.

Back from the RNCM, with love

photoIt was a real pleasure to talk yesterday at the Royal Northern College of Music on the subject of contemporary music history. I don’t know what attendance is usually like for these events, but there were people standing at the back and sitting on the floor at the front, so I couldn’t have been happier with the turnout. There were even trans-Pennine delegations from Leeds and Huddersfield, and it was great to see some familiar faces in the audience and to meet some new ones.

My talk had the title ‘Not the end: Untangling contemporary music history’, and was basically extracted from the introduction to my book, plus a couple of short case studies on Pamela Z and Liza Lim. It was videoed by the RNCM, and I will post a link to the recording here when it becomes available. the whole thing can be viewed here:

My thanks to Larry Goves and Richard Wistreich for inviting me, and all at the RNCM for the warm welcome.

On the latest issue of Tempo


The October 2014 issue of Tempo has just dropped through the door, I think the fifth since its editorship passed from Malcolm Macdonald to Bob Gilmore last year. And it’s another good one: Gilmore is doing great stuff there. In his editorial he notes that one of the things he wanted to do with Tempo upon taking over was to shorten its remit 50 years closer to the present (ie music post-1950 rather than post-1900), and I’m liking the renewed focus very much indeed.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Jennifer Iverson’s article on ‘Ligeti’s Dodecaphonic Requiem’, even if that is at the old end of the new music shelf. A lot of ideologically-driven guff gets spouted about Ligeti turning his back on serialism, and with it the tide of European music history towards the postmodern light. There are enough clues in the Requiem to suggest to anyone who cares to look (as Jonathan Bernard and others have briefly done before now) that this is a simplistic analysis at best, written in favour of a ‘them and us’ narrative that doesn’t reflect what composers actually did. It’s nice to see someone like Iverson sinking their teeth deep into the notes.

Tempo 270 also marks Macdonald’s passing, from cancer, earlier in the year. He was already unwell when he gave up the reins at Tempo, but after 40 years’ service at the journal, nearly all of those as its editor, I believe he felt that it was time to say farewell in any case. The issue contains a tribute from Gilmore, as well as well-chosen memorial texts from some of Tempo‘s most involved authors of recent years. In this, and in the way in which Gilmore has invigorated the journal in his still short tenure, it is a fitting tribute.

Help fund the first Heather Roche composition competition

Clarinetist Heather Roche is crowdsourcing a brand new composition competition. Heather is one of the hardest working young players in the business, and most people involved in new music – particularly in central and northern Europe – will know her for her dedication and enthusiasm for creating new repertory, as well as her talents as a player. (If you’re a clarinetist yourself, or a composer who might one day write for the clarinet, you must read her encyclopedic blog posts on contemporary clarinet technique.)

Here’s what she says about the competition:

I want to find six outstanding young composers who are deeply interested in engaging with the clarinet in order to produce new work. I’m going to offer them the opportunity to collaborate intensely, and we’re going to produce concerts and high quality live recordings.

A venue for the premiere in London in early 2016 has already been confirmed, and I’ve also lined up an all-star jury to help me decide on the winners…

What I need to do first is to raise the funds to award each selected composer €1,000 as a commission before they write their piece. That means I need to try to raise €6,000 in the next 40 days! Please, please consider making a donation. More information about the competition and how it’ll work is available here.

Thank you for your support!

Best wishes,


Wandelweiser’s Minnesota debut

Word from Crow With No Mouth promotions that the Wandelweiser group will be making its Minnesota concert debut later this month. Here are the details from the event blog:

our wandelweiser festival program will consist of the premiere of nine new pieces, written by nine composers integral to the wandelweiser collective, especially for our weekend. this is likely the largest such contribution to a wandelweiser event in the U.S., and we are excited beyond measure at this privilege.

the composers contributing pieces are: Antoine Beuger, Jürg Frey, Radu Malfatti, Manfred Werder, Eva-Maria Houben, Stefan Thut, Dante Boon, Johnny Chang and Michael Pisaro.

the ensemble:

jürg frey (clarinet)
katie porter (bass clarinet / clarinet)
erik carlson (violin)
greg stuart (portable or light percussion, gravity and friction (bowing), electronics)
nomi epstein (piano, inside piano, varia)
dante boon (piano)
michael pisaro (electric guitar, sine tones)

composer eva-maria houben will be attending the concerts.


the concert schedule is as follows:

saturday september 27th ~  concerts at 4 and 8 p.m. (doors at 3:30 and 7:30)

sunday september 28 ~ concert at 1 p.m.(doors at 12:30)

please note: the concerts will start at their scheduled time; due to the very quiet nature of the music, late admission will likely mean no admission until a break in the program.

admission is $10 per concert, pay at the door.

program details for the nine pieces receiving their premiere to follow.

all events at studio z in lowertown st. paul; directions here.


the wandelweiser festival is made possible by the generous support of an anonymous donor, and support by Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia

More information about the concerts here.

Talking at the RNCM

On 1st October I’m going to be presenting as part of the RNCM’s Research Forum series. Mine is the first of this year’s series, and I’m going in big with an attempt to untangle the mess that it is contemporary music history.  If you’re in or around Manchester and fancy a sneak preview of the book, this is your chance.

Talks start at 5.15pm in the RNCM lecture theatre, last about 45 minutes with plenty of discussion afterwards, and are open to the public. Full details are here.