A few music books/journals for sale

Friends, readers, colleagues –

I’ve been having a small clearout of books, and I have a number of items that probably aren’t much use to the average Oxfam or secondhand bookshop, but which I’d rather not chuck straight out. Mostly musicology/music related.

All of the below are available for a few pounds each (mostly to cover p+p). Please get in touch (gmail: timrutherfordjohnson) if you are interested.


Daniel Harrison: Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music £5

Harry Haskell: The Attentive Listener £6

Jamie James: The Music of the Spheres £4

Alan Robinson: Instabilities in Contemporary British Poetry £5

Journal issues

Cabinet: A Quarterly of Art and Culture, no.52 (Winter 2013–14) £4

Hungarian Music Quarterly, 8/1–2 (1997) £2

Journal of the American Musicological Society (£4 each):

  • 44/2 (Summer 1991)
  • 49/1 (Spring 1996)
  • 51/2 (Summer 1998) [two copies!]
  • 56/3 (Autumn 2003)
  • 57/1 (Spring 2004)
  • 59/1 (Spring 2006)
  • 59/2 (Summer 2006)

Mitteilungen der Paul Sacher Stiftung, 12 (April 1999) £2

Contemporary highlights in the ROH 2015/16 season

I don’t always pay attention to the season announcements from Covent Garden, but the release today of details of next year’s season caught my attention for two good reasons:

1) Georg Friedrich Haas: Morgen und Abend

I have my reservations about Haas’s music, yes, but he also does the big and dramatic better than most at the moment. Morgen und Abend, based on Jon Fosse’s novel Morgon og kveld, looks to hit all the key Haas themes: light/dark, mortality, decay. Graham Vick directs, too.

2) Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

An adaptation of the fifth and last play by the late ‘in-yer-face‘ playwright Sarah Kane, author of the notorious Blasted. Venables has the right kind of form here – witness Fight Music, from his chamber opera Les Bâtisseurs D’Empire, which he describes as ‘absurdist cartoon horror’. Sarah Kane territory, then. Yet even by her own standards 4.48 Psychosis, a portrait of clinical depression completed shortly before Kane herself committed suicide, is a dark piece. A difficult one to bring to the operatic stage, but Venables is unlikely to shy away from its subject. I’m excited about this one.

In addition to these two new works, there are also forthcoming London premieres for Donnacha Dennehy’s The Last Hotel, Mark Simpson’s Pleasure, and Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis. The ROH’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest from 2013 will also go to New York and the Barbican

First Contemporary Music Festival at Rosenfeld Porcini Art Gallery

I’ve only just had my attention pointed to this, but this Friday and Saturday (10 and 11 April) there will be a miniature festival of contemporary music at the Rosenfeld Porcini Art Gallery, on Rathbone Street, Fitzrovia. Five concerts over the two evenings; works for solo instruments or duos/trios; features music by Crane, Skempton, Shlomowitz, Silvestrov, David Lang, Muhly, Kurtág and more. Tickets are £15 for one day, £25 for both.

Too soon for a 9/11 opera? Or about right?

“Is it too soon for an opera about 9/11?” asked Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM programme on Friday, previewing an item about Tansy Davies’ Between Worlds, which receives its premiere at ENO this week. A silly question: for one thing, it was redundant – Christopher Theofanidis’s Heart of a Soldier, the (true) story of a Vietnam veteran and security chief within the Twin Towers who led 2,700 people to safety on 11th September 2001, was staged by San Francisco Opera four and a half years ago.

Sillier too because it – and the feature that followed – rested on the double fallacy that opera (and, by extension, all the arts) is a place only for entertainment, where real-world tragedy has no place. I haven’t heard a note of Davies’s opera yet, so I can’t comment on its individual success or otherwise, but the two assumptions made by the PM feature (which can be heard until early May, from about 47:25) are the sort of thing that spell death for opera as a serious art form, and for the arts as worthy of support as a society. For that reason alone I’m right behind Davies and her librettist Nick Drake on this one. As Drake pointed out in interview (ambushed somewhat by the questions of an understandably distressed mother of someone who died in the North Tower), “We have to look at what happened, we have to remember what happened, we have to think about what happened, because it illuminates things about human beings which are very important.”

Of course, Between Worlds belongs in what is now a long line – a sub-genre, even – of “9/11 music”, of works with greater or lesser credibility. Among the better pieces we might include John Adams’ On the Transmigration of Souls, Michael Gordon’s The Sad Park, and Mohammed Fairouz’s In the Shadow of No Towers, although for my money few quite match Art Spiegelman’s comic In the Shadow of No Towers (which inspired Fairouz’s piece), or Gerhard Richter’s painting September. Indeed two of the most moving sound works in the 9/11 canon, as it were, were made before the attacks took place: Stephen Vitiello’s World Trade Center Recordings: Winds After Hurricane Floyd, field recordings made at the WTC in 1999, which managed to sound both portentous and as a memorial for the architecture itself; and William Basinski’s famous Disintegration Loops, which through an accident of timing served to soundtrack the composer’s own 11th September, viewed from the roof of his Brooklyn apartment, and became folded into the mythology of that day.

One thing that connects pieces by Adams, Gordon and others (including Steve Reich’s WTC 9/11, several pieces by Kevin Malone, Mark Bains’ audification of seismic vibrations recorded on the East Coast during the 9/11 attacks, and many more) is their emphasis on documentation as a way of confronting the horror and grief of the events being commemorated. It was interesting in this respect that the conversation about Between Worlds was premised on how the “sounds of 9/11” might be represented on stage, rather than any sense in which factual realities might be transmuted through their conversion into art.

As Robert Fink has argued (in Repeating Ourselves and elsewhere), contemporary minimalism/postminimalism – styles with which several of the works mentioned above may be aligned – keys well with the rhythms and expressive modes of the news media. This may go some way towards explaining the prevalence of recordings of voices, lists of names, and so on that appear in works by Reich, Adams, Gordon and others. There is also the possibility that documentary commemoration, an aural equivalent to a monument carved with names, is a simpler and more respectful approach to take. It is certainly simpler, but respect for the dead involves more than mere veneration if anything is to be achieved in their name. Davies and Drake’s opera is taking a leap into the fictional, but to do so is not the same as to create entertainment; it may be the better way to ask the sorts of questions that tragedy on the scale of 9/11 demands.

Between Worlds will be performed at the Barbican Centre, London, from 11th to 25th April. Tickets are available here. Image above from Davies’ sketches for the piece.

Frank Denyer discussing his music

I am grateful to Lawrence Dunn for alerting me to this – video documentation of Frank Denyer presenting his unique and wonderful music at Brunel University a couple of years ago. (Details of the original event here.)

Supplement your viewing with Ben.H’s review of the new Denyer CD, just released on another timbre (link includes sleevenotes by the late Bob Gilmore).

Against the day: A concert for Simon Howard

Last week I attended a concert for the poet Simon Howard, who died in December 2013. It was not really a memorial as such – no eulogies or anything like that. More, it was an opportunity to gather Simon’s friends and many admirers to listen to a cross section of the music he inspired and that had inspired him, and to place on the record the small but intense influence Simon and his poetry have had on a little segment of the Anglo-American new music scene over the last few years.

So there were two pieces by Richard Barrett, lost for piano (the title of whose version with electronics, adrift, Simon borrowed for one of his own chapbooks) and tendril for harp and electronics. Barrett is a composer Simon always felt close too; he also loved the music of the Baroque, and there were pieces here too by Bach and Biber, sensitively chosen by the concert’s organiser, John Fallas.

John, I suppose, is one of few people who can claim to have known Simon, who was a severe recluse, at all well (I’m not one of them). He did an exemplary job putting the programme together, not only in terms of the music and the composers it contained, but also the performers (Pavlos Antoniadis, Milana Zarić, Carla Rees, Emily Howard, Persephone Gibbs), and wrote a beautiful programme essay to boot. Everything fit, and was fitting. Simon’s poetry as musical text was represented by Philip Venables’ numbers 91–95, a setting of part of Howard’s long poem numbers (2010). Almost all the other composers on the programme had known Simon, like I had, through his presence on Radio 3 webforums and later Facebook. Philipp Blume and John Hails contributed new pieces – enlightenment for harp and recording, and Departures for four-channel sound, respectively – both connected to Simon’s poetry and poetic enthusiasms: enlightenment is the title of the last poem he posted to his blog. Evan Johnson, Andrew Noble and Alistair Zaldua were present in the form of pieces for piano (with electronics in the case of Zaldua’s contrejours). The concert began with Utopians, an electronic piece constructed by Barbara Woof and Michèl Koenders from voice recordings by Howard and Jane Harrison. It was remarkable to hear, in this way, on this occasion, Simon’s voice for the first time.

I’m not writing a review here, so I shan’t. But aside from its biographical meaning this concert was extraordinary for the quality of the music; I honestly don’t think there was a weak piece in the programme (and how often can you say that?). Several of them were very very good indeed. In showing Simon at the centre of a small but fiercely fruitful network of musicians this concert’s sadness was also its gift. And now that network has lost its heart.

Many of Simon Howard’s poems can be read at his blog, walking in the ceiling; his published works include Zooaxeimplode (Arthur Shilling Press), numbers (Knives Forks and Spoons), adrift and Forgotten (Red Ceilings Press), and Wrecked (Oystercatcher Press). [update: list corrected]

Encore de la Cour

The first time I encountered Adam de la Cour’s music it smacked me about the face. It was Mark Knoop playing Beat Me, a tsunami of William Burroughs cut ups and Percy Grainger distortions for piano and sampled alarm at a Libra Duo concert at the Warehouse. I remember it being a bit like the beginning of English Country-Tunes, but even more so. Looking back over my review from then, I noted that “I don’t think the final effect, which was effective as far as it went, quite justified all [the conceptual] baggage.”

Neverthless, something about the piece has stuck with me, if only the residual heat of that initial slap. I think it was something to do with how exactly to parse the immense stream of notes: were there so many because the piece had so many specific things to say; or was it all an elaborate deflectionary tactic, the sheer density intended to turn our attention somewhere else?


Who knows. Who cares? But I was reminded of this thoroughly disorienting experience the other night when I heard another piece of de la Cour’s, this time for piano trio, as part of the 840 new music series put on by Alex Nikiporenko and Nicholas Peters. Again, the torrents of notes, the conflicting polyphonic lines, the apparently irrational distortions of register, rhythm and direction. Yet this time everything was cut up even more severely. The piece was 15 Small Anatomical Stumps, badly bleeding chunks sliced from maybe five different de la Cour pieces and arranged in sequence, separated by long pauses. The material may have been similar to Beat Me, but the effect was hugely different. The first six gradually reduced in length, from 20 seconds to little more than a single blurt. After that the lengths stopped being predictable. By about the 10th stump the piece seemed about done, and ready to finish, but you knew there was more to come: was there another shape, like that made from the first six lumps, to unfold? What seemed at first like a gag went on too long for that; then went on too long again and started to become funny once more. Oddly unsettling: the music was both predictable and completely unpredictable; like Beat Me, was it what it seemed, or was it something else entirely?

The closest comparison I can come up with is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, but only in terms of form. Really it’s nothing like that at all. I’m not sure I have heard anything else quite like it actually; if I have I can’t put my finger on it.

Other pieces by Adam de la Cour can be heard here. Other recordings from 840’s concert last week can be heard here.

Between the (Y)ears: The London Ear in 2015


Regular readers will know that I’m a strong supporter of the London Ear Festival, launched a couple of years ago by Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari. The festival was always intended to be biannual, but the first year proved such a success that Gwyn and Andrea couldn’t resist putting one on the following year as well. This year they really are taking a break, and are putting on … another festival.

OK, this is a smaller venture than in 2013 and 2014, but not by that much. And although its programme is reduced, it makes the most of the combination of intimacy and exploration that has characterized the London Ear so far. Highlights of the programme for me are probably another opportunity to hear Pierluigi Billone’s wonderful Mani.Gonxha for two Tibetan singing bowls, and the video-accompanied performance of Feldman’s Palais de Mari by Luisa Valeria Carpignano.

As always, concerts will be at the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo. It all starts this Thursday and runs through to Sunday evening.

Radio Rambler – International Women’s Day 2015


Today is International Women’s Day, and once again the Radio Rambler playlist has been updated with three hours of contemporary music by women composers.

At the risk of making a massive over-generalisation, there are probably fewer women working within the usual channels of contemporary composition (writing music for others to perform, in concert halls and opera houses) than are taking their music making into their own hands, either working in the electroacoustic studio, where no third party performers are required, or acting as performers of their own music. If this is true – and it’s only a personal hunch, I don’t have hard data – there are several possible reasons for this, most of them economic/structural and none of them having to do with biology. The list below features several performer/composers (Jessica Rylan, Maja Ratkje, Agata Zubel) as well as several electroacoustic composers (Maggi Payne, Andrea Polli, Hildegard Westerkamp). I’ve made a conscious decision to balance these with works written in a more ‘conventional’ concert hall format (Joanna Bailie, Iris ter Schiphorst, Isabel Mundry, Olga Neuwirth), but there is plenty of fluidity between those divisions, as you’ll hear.

This year BBC Radio 3 is also getting in on the act with a day of music by women composers, including their own playlist of female composers, but I’m confident they and I won’t overlap much. Here’s my playlist for this year:

Maggi Payne – Airwaves (realities) (Music and Arts Programs of America)
Jessica Rylan – Please Come To Meet Me There (Ecstatic Peace!)
Isabel Mundry – Ich und du (NEOS)
Andrea Polli – Round Mountain (Gruenrekorder)
Agata Zubel – NOT I (KAIROS)
Hildegard Westerkamp – Talking Rain (Earsay)
Olga Neuwirth – Clinamen/Nodus (KAIROS)
Maja SK Ratkje – Vacuum (Rune Grammofon)
Joanna Wozny – Archipel (BR-Klassik)
Iris ter Shiphorst – Studien zu Figuren / Serie A (NEOS)
Eve Beglarian – Robin Redbreast (New World Records)
Joanna Bailie – Five Famous Adagios (Sinfonietta Productions Ltd)

I’ve been making these playlists for five years now, and they aren’t getting any easier to put together. I try to avoid repeating composers between years too much, which makes things trickier (and I don’t succeed anyway), but even so it’s clear that despite the conversations that have been going on about this for forever, women are still underrepresented within contemporary music, underrepresented in the music that then gets recorded (even though I’ve included two of their recordings here, Kairos’s catalogue is as good an indication as any), and then underrepresented on the labels that are big enough to have Spotify distribution. While that all remains true, I believe there is still a case for spotlight-shining actions like this playlist, and I will continue to put them out there. Hopefully one year I won’t have to.

Previous playlists can be found here:

Drawing Towards Sound exhibition at Greenwich University

An exciting exhibition opens this week at Greenwich University’s Stephen Lawrence Gallery. Drawing Towards Sound showcases contemporary notational practices and other visual/music interactions, starting from Cage/Knowles’ Notations and coming through to present-day work in film and other media. The list of exhibitors looks enticing enough:

Hallveig Agústsdóttir / Sam Belinfante / Vicki Bennett / Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen / Pierre Boulez / Earle Brow / George Brecht / James Brooks / Laura Buckley / John Cage / Cornelius Cardew / Alvin Curran / Tom Dale / Morton Feldman / Vinko Globokar / Christophe Guiraud / Roman Haubenstock-Ramati / Neil Henderson / Richard Hoadley / Joan Key / Catherine Konz / John Lely / Michelle Lewis-King / Anestis Logothetis / Onyee Lo / Anton Lukoszevieze / Farah Mulla / Rie Nakajima / Luigi Nono / Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri / Tim Parkinson / Michael Parsons / Simon Payne / Helen Petts / Lauren Redhead / Aura Satz / Thomas Smetryns / Karlheinz Stockhausen / Chiyoko Szlavnics / Jennifer Walshe / John Wollaston / Christian Wolff / Iannis Xenakis

There will be a performance by Alvin Curran and others on 12 March, and the website also mentions a performance of Treatise, although no date seems to be available for that yet. (Update: it will be at 6.30, Wednesday 25 March.)

Opening times for the gallery seem to be 10am-5pm weekdays, 11am-4pm Saturdays. The exhibition runs from 4 March to 2 April.