Recently published

I’ve been in hospital most of this month, squeezing pints of antibiotics and corticosteroids into my veins. It’s not as much fun as it sounds, but it has coincided with a productive spell of writing. Here are some recent fruits, in case you missed them.

A little interview with Patricia Alessandrini for the Riot Ensemble blog.

Notes on two pieces by Christian Mason for the Philharmonia Orchestra.

An interview with Niels Rønsholdt for VAN magazine.

A reminiscence about Alwynne Pritchard’s Craw for the British Music Collection.

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Is Cafe Oto really only 10 years old? It seems to have been around for much longer, but maybe that’s just me back-projecting London’s need for somewhere like it. Yes, there are lots of other venues where one can hear experimental, improvised and avant-garde music, but they are mostly arranged on an ad hoc basis. Transient spaces, or buildings made for other things, temporarily repurposed for the night. Oto has provided a solid centre, created an audience, stirred the stew of all these things, become a place where one can hear on equal terms – the same space, the same crowd, the same drinks – the likes of Sun Ra or Keiji Haino one night, and Jennifer Walshe or Mark Knoop another. Or, as next month’s programme allows, Moor Mother at the weekend and a Michael Pisaro residency midweek.

Oto’s rise overlapped with the BMIC’s demise, and the loss of its regular Cutting Edge concert series at the Warehouse in Waterloo. No coincidence that, surely, and I remember a sense of personal relief when some of my favourite musicians began appearing at Oto. Here’s the earliest mention I can find on the blog, from September 2008: a plug for a concert by the Parkinson Saunders duo, whom I had first encountered as performers 23 months before at the Warehouse. I reviewed the first but not the second, yet both concerts live strong in my memory. Of the second I recall in particular Paul Whitty’s turntable experiments and the choreographed semaphore-like movements of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Postcard Pieces. The gig also featured a beautifully introspective improv set by Sebastian Lexer and David Ryan that I hope wasn’t ruined when my phone bleeped instead of switching off at the start. My lowest moment as an audience member and a lesson for life. Apologies.

Anyway, it was the sort of exploratory concert at which Oto has continued to excel; and that visible excellence is, I am sure, an important reason why London’s new music scene is enjoying a period of particular vibrancy today. Series and collectives like Kammer Klang, 840, Bastard Assignments, WEISSLICH, An assembly, even LCMF – members of each have all been nurtured or had their ideas test-bedded at Oto: it is possible to put this stuff on; people will come. Here’s to ten more years.

Photo by Andrej on Flickr; CC license here.

An Assembly and Ensemble x.y

Tomorrow night, people

An assembly and ensemble x.y come together at St John’s, Waterloo tomorrow night (Friday 27 April) to play Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concert no.2, as well as works by Bryn Harrison, Paul Newland, Cassandra Miller and Anthony Leung. Piano soloist is Joseph Havlat; Jack Sheen conducts.

‘Few composers working today have managed to connect contemporary music’s expressive power as convincingly with its critical, intellectual potential.’
Guardian on the music of Michael Finnissy

‘… microscopic and cosmic in its dimensions. It was awe-inspiring.’
Sound Expanse on Bryn Harrison’s ‘Six Symmetries’

‘[Cassandra Miller’s music] allows us to hear and feel in new ways.’
Tempo magazine

Full programme:

Anthony Leung: Three Concert Pieces (I)
Paul Newland: locus
Bryn Harrison: Six Symmetries
Cassandra Miller: Philip The Wanderer
Michael Finnissy: Piano Concerto no.2

Tickets here.

Health issues mean I won’t be able to make it tomorrow but you should: these are some of my favourite composers. Ensemble x.y are a great group (check out their Resonance FM show), and Jack Sheen is putting together something special with An assembly I feel.

In case you need an extra taster, here’s Philip Thomas playing Miller’s Philip the Wanderer:

And here are An assembly playing Linda Catlin Smith’s Sarabande:

 

#promsnewmusic 2018

The BBC Proms listings came out this morning. As usual, I’ve been tweeting the new music highlights, and collected them all below for your reference.

No time for much commentary today, I’m afraid, except to say that there’s little in here – aside from the JACK Quartet’s Prom on 13 August – that really has me excited. Lots of the new pieces are short, and lots of them are by relatively little known names – which in itself isn’t necessarily a problem of course. But I feel there’s even less sense of ambition, new music-wise, than usual. Perhaps I’m wrong – I’ve not properly digested the calendar yet and I may have missed some things. At least it seems more gender balanced than previous years.

Prom 1 (First Night)
Anna Meredith – Five Telegrams, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e8j3v2

Prom 3
James MacMillan – Britannia
David Bruce – Sidechaining, wp
Iain Farrington – Gershwinicity, wp
Ben Foster – Fantasia on the Young Musician Theme, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emmxp6

Proms at Cadogan Hall 1
Caroline Shaw – Second Essay: Echo; Third Essay: Ruby
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e35v9r

Prom 4
Magnus Lindberg – Clarinet Concerto
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/epp5q9

Prom 9
Eriks Esenvalds – Shadow
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emrz3d

Prom 10
Thierry Escaich – Deux Évocations
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/erhn5v

Proms at Cadogan Hall 2
Eve Risser – Furakelà, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/edv2rz

Prom 12
Andrew Norman – new work, ukp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/exbp8g

Prom 13
Daphne Oram – Still Point, wp of revised version
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ebzcd4

Prom 15
Tansy Davies – What did we see?, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/enj5q9

Proms 19 and 20 (Ten Pieces Proms)
Includes pieces by Kerry Andrew and Mason Bates
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e94wxj

Proms at Cadogan Hall 3
Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e42mzc

Prom 21
Georg Friedrich Haas – Conc. grosso no.1, ukp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ew2fbp

Prom 25
Joby Talbot – Gui Conc., wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ejncd4

Prom 28
George Benjamin – Dance Figures
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e3p5q9

Prom 29
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Maya, ukp
Anders Hillborg – Bach Materia, ukp
Uri Caine – Hamsa, ukp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ev8qwh

Prom 30
Olga Neuwirth – Aello – ballet mécanomorphe, ukp
Brett Dean – Approach – Prelude to a canon
Steven Mackey – Triceros, ukp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/eqv4mb

Proms at Cadogan Hall 4
Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell
Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails, wp

Prom 33
Thea Musgrave – Phoenix Rising
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ermxp6

Proms at Cadogan Hall 5
Simon Holt – Quadriga, wp
Suzanne Farrin – new work, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e58gfx

Prom 42
Arvo Pärt – Symphony no.3
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/exzcd4

Prom 43
David Robert Coleman – Looking for Palestine
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ebn3v2

Prom 47
Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/evv4mb

Prom 49
Agata Zubel – Fireworks, ukp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e9whj5

Proms at Cadogan Hall 6
Laura Mvula – The Virgin of Montserrat
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/erbp8g

Prom 51
Per Nørgård – Sym. no. 3
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e2hn5v

Prom 52
Rolf Wallin – Vn Conc., wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/emxj6q

Proms at Cadogan Hall 7
Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brulée on a Tree, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/efxj6q

Prom 62
Iain Bell – Aurora, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e24wxj

Proms at Cadogan Hall 8
Nina Šenk – Baca, wp
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/e65d2m

Prom 73
Arvo Pärt – Nunc dimittis
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/egg9hn

Prom 75 (Last Night)
Roxanna Panufnik – Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light
https://www.bbc.co.uk/events/ewwrn3

Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies (ECM)

Arvo Pärt’s symphonies are something of an anomaly in his output. Traditionally the repository for a composer’s most significant, substantial statements, for Pärt the symphony has been a place of transition and uncertainty.

He has written four: in 1963, when he was a newly graduated 28-year-old; in 1966; in 1971 and in 2008. Hitherto, I’ve only been a particular admirer of the Second; and then as much because of its schmaltzy Tchaikovsky-quoting ending as anything else. But now all four can be heard together for the first time on this ECM recording, played by the NFM Wrocław Philharmonie and conducted by Tõnu Kaljuste. Has my view changed?

Let’s start with the First, subtitled ‘Polyphonic’ and dedicated to Pärt’s teacher at the State Conservatory in Tallinn, Heino Eller. By the time of its completion, Pärt had already achieved minor success for himself as the composer of Estonia’s first piece of serial music, the orchestral Nekrolog of 1960. He continued to experiment with systematic methods in the minimalistic 12-note astrolab Perpetuum mobile and the choral Solfeggio, its white-note counterpart. Both replace the fragmentarism typical of contemporary serial music with timbral continuities and resonant textures. The First Symphony is a continuation of these attempts to marry avant-garde techniques to older aesthetic or structural frameworks, its two movements setting out in Baroque style a dodecaphonic ‘Canon’ and ‘Prelude and Fugue’. Nevertheless, it has none of the premonitory quality of either Perpetuum mobile or Solfeggio. Instead, it does feel very much a product of its time. Kaljuste’s version is also very much cleaner – something like more respectful – than Neeme Järvi’s version with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra on BIS. As a result it sounds positively tame in comparison; Järvi definitely accentuates the work’s weirdness. There appears to be an attempt here to canonise the piece, flattening its bizarre contours and homogenising its symphonic argument (such as it is). I’m not sure this is to its advantage.

The Second is no less strange a work, but at least at this stage – the second half of the 1960s – Pärt was beginning to get a sense of what he was about as a composer. At least for now. The period from around 1964 to 1968 is often characterised as one in which Pärt was struggling to reconcile competing instincts within his work, yet it is also the time when – for me at least – he produced some of his most enduringly interesting (and, let’s be honest, peculiar) works, among them Collage sur BACH (1964), the cello concerto Pro et contra (1966) and his first authentic masterpiece, Credo (1968). In the midst of this profusion of oddities, each one as vivid a trace of compositional struggle as you could want, comes the Second Symphony. It begins with dry pizzicato and the squeaking of mouthpieces before moving through a series of aleatoric tableaux that Pärt’s Polish contemporary Lutosławski could never have dreamed of, and ending, apparently out of nowhere, with that quotation from Tchaikovsky’s Album for the Young. Again, Kaljuste is more reserved than Järvi, but on this occasion I think the work has enough inherent drama to warrant the emphasis on long-range argument over local contrasts.

The Third was composed during the famous years of near-silence in which Pärt reconstructed his entire compositional method from scratch. It really is a transitional work, a preliminary essay in using medieval techniques and styles within a contemporary context. If Pärt hadn’t emerged successfully with his tinntinabuli style a few years later, at the end of his silence, I don’t know if we would be paying much attention to his Third Symphony at all. Much of its interest is historical; the music itself is pretty lightweight. That said, I like having Kaljuste’s version, which well balances its various different directions and makes a reasonably convincing case for it.

Then, 37 years later, we come to the Fourth – itself already recorded for ECM by Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. I don’t know that version, only the concert recording by Salonen and the LA Phil on DG.

By 2008, Pärt was long-established as one of the world’s most well-known and recognisable composers. His Fourth Symphony – dedicated to the then-imprisoned (now exiled) oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky – does little to shake that picture, its three movements dwelling on the contemplative, lamenting, side of Pärt’s style before a Deciso coda adds a concluding tone of urgency. It is, as one would expect from this composer, a very beautiful, very moving work. But it is also not all that distinctive. Pärt in 2008 has few surprises up his sleeve, and not enough to entirely account for his return to the symphony after such a long time. There is not, for example, the same sense you get with Beethoven 3 or Schubert 9 that here is a composer using the orchestra to arrive somewhere. Pärt has already been here or hereabouts for some time. It is, then, the fourth episode in a series that, while it contains some frequently startling and remarkable music, has only partially explained its existence.

At least, that is, according to the terms of the classical symphony. Having all four of Pärt’s symphonies on one disc like this might give the impression of a collected body of work, a series of grand statements within a single genre, expressed with increasing force and coherence. But Pärt’s attitude to the symphony, it now seems to me, has held little truck with the classical view. He certainly wasn’t looking, Brahms-like, over his shoulder when he wrote his First; nor was he planning his legacy, Schubert-like, when he wrote his Second or Third. Only the Fourth fits a conventional mould, and then it is the prosaic one of ‘well-known composer commissioned by well-funded orchestra’. The first three, though – and particularly the Second, appear to dissolve the classical symphony orchestra, deconstruct it, put its entire being into question, in a way that would come to be echoed in symphonic works across the Soviet bloc, from Poland to Armenia.

So, there are recordings of at least two of these symphonies that I prefer. But the project of Arvo Pärt: The Symphonies is a revealing one. I’m glad ECM have done it.

Music after the Fall mixtape for The Lake Radio

A fun outcome of my visit to the Borealis Festival last month was an invitation from Jan Stricker of The Lake Radio to produce a new music mixtape for their podcast.

The original brief was that it would accompany an interview with Simon Steen-Andersen and Louise Alenius, so I made sure to include a track by each in there. As for the remaining artists, it’s sort of a Music after the Fall who’s who.

It has been a while since I did anything like this, and while the final result is nowhere near as densely layered as those old Blogariddims mixes, I still had a blast making it. The whole thing was put together in Audacity, texture/mood matching things along the way. Here’s a tracklist with timings:

0:00 Laurence Crane: 20th Century Music. Michael Finnissy, pf (Métier)
2:37 Liza Lim: Tongue of the Invisible. Musikfabrik, Omar Ebrahim, Uri Caine, André de Ridder (Wergo)
8:25 Pamela Z: Pop Titles “You”. (Starkland)
11:33 Chaya Czernowin: Sahaf. Ensemble Nikel (Wergo)
14:21 Simon Steen-Andersen: On and Off and To and Fro. asamisimasa (Dacapo)
18:20 Michael Finnissy: The History of Photography in Sound: I. Le demon de l’analogie. Ian Pace, pf (Métier)
24:26 Peter Garland: Another Sunrise (Mode)
27:57 Peter Ablinger: Morton Feldman, from Voices and Piano (Kairos)
29:21 Louise Alenius: Doctor Treves, from Elephant Man (Louis Alenius)
30:50 Sr. Anselme O’Ceallaigh (Jennifer Walshe): Virtue IV (Migro)
35:46 Richard Barrett: Transmission VI, from DARK MATTER. Daryl Buckley, gui (NMC)

 

Quick and dirty CD reviews: Dunne, Fox/Roche, Kurka

Timothy Dunne: Metaphrase

St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic; Jeffery Meyer, cond.; Artur Zobnin, vn; Irina Vassileva, sop.; Alexandra Shatalova, eng. hn; James Giles, pf

innova 930

Works of intricate construction and sometimes surprising turns of direction by New York-born composer Timothy Dunne, a former student of Sergei Slonimsky at the State Conservatory of St Petersburg. The playing by the St Petersburg Chamber Philharmonic (to which Dunne has been an artistic advisor) is exquisite, capturing the particular hovering, shadowy qualities of Dunne’s music.

Christopher Fox: Headlong

Heather Roche

métier msv 28573

I can’t pretend to be objective on this one since I count performer, composer and even producer (Aaron Holloway-Nahum) among my friends and colleagues. Nevertheless, a new Fox disc is always to be welcomed; especially one such as this, devoted to what the composer calls in his sleevenote, ‘the most consistent instrumental preoccupation of my compositional life’, the clarinet. The versatile Roche is an ideal choice to cover the great range represented here, across 35 years of compositional activity. Sometimes the challenge with Fox’s music appears to be how such different things could stem from a coherent musical viewpoint; its satisfaction often lies in discovering that (and how) they do.

chants

Irene Kurka

Wandelweiser EWR 1710

Wandelweiser discs come thick and fast these days, and I’m sure I’m not alone in sensing a diminishing return as the exceptional examples struggle to stand out from what is now a very crowded field. Soprano Irene Kurka was responsible for one of these exceptions a couple of years ago with her disc beten . prayer, which justly earned rave reviews. Yet now that every other Wandelweiser recording seems to explore slow, simple monody, that stark nakedness is starting to sound like a mannerism. The music on chants (by Antoine Beuger, Christopher Fox, Eva-Maria Houben and Thomas Stiegler) is, again, sung with extraordinary control and delicacy, and there’s no doubting its attractions. Kurka is certainly one of the more arresting proponents of this style, and her repertory choices more interesting than some others’, but as production of music like this becomes a matter of sheer volume (EWR recently marked its 100th release) I find myself wondering what it is all for.