Female composers and “the new complexity”

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation on Twitter about the representation of female composers under the banner of “new complexity”. Or, rather, why it’s hard to think of any and who decides these things anyway.

This is not, I should add, a conversation about the artistic merits of complexism, or about its usefulness as a historical category. Those are valid arguments, but they can be had elsewhere. It starts from the premise that “new complexity” is a term that music historians use – for good or bad – and notes that it seems to intersect quite dramatically with gender.

The conversation threw up some interesting ideas, so I compiled the whole thing into a Storify thread.

WordPress.com doesn’t allow Storify embedding, but you can read the whole thing here. Further contributions are welcome, either on Twitter or in the comments below.

Programme for Music We’d Like To Hear, 2015

Quickly reposting here, for those who may not have seen yet. As always, a fantastic programme. All three concerts look pretty unmissable.

music we’d like to hear 2015
three concerts on three fridays curated by two composers

this edition supported by the RVW Trust, the Hinrichsen Foundation and the Canada Council for the Arts

I
7.30pm Friday 3 July
NEW ROMANTICS

Clarence Barlow – 1981 (1981)
Walter Zimmermann – Ephemer (1977–1981)
Mauricio Kagel – Piano Trio No.1 in Three Movements (1985)

Aisha Orazbayeva, violin
Alice Purton, cello
Mark Knoop, piano

Rarely performed piano trios from three composers of the ‘Cologne School’.

£8 advance, £10 on the door
advance tickets available here

facebook event

II
7.30pm Friday 10 July
SUMMER EXHIBITION

Joanna Bailie – On and Off 2 (2008)
Stephen Chase – harmoniphon vexed (2009)
Sarah Hughes – Collapsed Points for Living In (2015)
Dominic Lash – A Wilderness of Harmony (2015)
Amber Priestley – Did not feel very well at skool (31/1/1977) (2015)
Paul Whitty – this is what happens when nothing happens (2015)

New works from British composers featuring the composers performing each others’ work.

£8 advance, £10 on the door
advance tickets available here

facebook event

III
7.30pm Friday 17 July
PORTRAIT CONCERT

Music of Martin Arnold

Points and Waltzes (2012)
Slip Minuet (2014)
The Spit Veleta (2015) commissioned by Music We’d Like to Hear, with generous support from the Canada Council for the Arts

Mira Benjamin, violin
Philip Thomas, piano

A pair of recent solos and a brand new duo from this unique and fascinating voice in Canadian music, realised by two of his finest interpreters.

£8 advance, £10 on the door
advance tickets available here

facebook event

All concerts at St Mary at Hill, Lovat Lane (off Eastcheap), London EC3R 8EE (2-minute walk from Monument tube).

BBC SO’s 2015-16 season

The BBC SO’s season brochure has just arrived at the door. I’ve griped about the apparent ongoing demise of the orchestra’s Total Immersion days at the Barbican – days devoted to the work of a single contemporary composer through (usually) two or three concerts, some talk, a film and one or two other items. But this year I’m happy to report an upswing, with days devoted to Górecki (3 October 2015), Andriessen (13 February 2016, part of a longer series on his music running at the Barbican), and Dutilleux (30 April 2016). All three include some fantastic pieces, including three of my all-time favourites, Górecki’s Old Polish Music and Symphony no.2, and Andriessen’s De staat.

Other new music highlights of the season include a new piece by Richard Ayres (8 October), the UK premiere of Andrew Norman’s Switch (11 December), and a new piece by Joseph Phibbs (21 May), as well as works by Glanert, Hillborg, MacMillan, Dean, and others.

Three pieces by Judith Bingham (4 December) and a UK premiere for Anna Clyne’s The Seamstress (15 January) account for the living female composers in the season; there are also three short pieces by Alma Mahler on 24 September.

Save our Sounds at the British Library

Email received today from the British Library:

On the 12th January, the British Library launched a new initiative titled Save our Sounds.  One of the key aims of this programme is to preserve as much as possible of the nation’s rare and unique sound recordings, not just those in the Library’s collections but also key items from partner collections across the UK.

International consensus holds that we have around 15 years in which to preserve our sound collections. By 2030, the scarcity of older equipment, the condition of recorded media and the loss of skills will make their preservation costly, difficult and, in many cases, impossible.

These risks face all recorded sound collections, across the country, from boxes of forgotten cassette recordings to professional archives.

To help us understand the risks faced by the UK’s recorded heritage, the Library has been running a project to map the extent of sound collections in the UK, and to create a Directory of UK Sound Collections.

Thanks to all those who’ve replied, the response we’ve had so far has been fantastic.  Over the past three months we’ve received information on c.1million items covering a wonderful range of subjects, from oral history interviews with nurses, London dockers, rugby players, booksellers and lifeboat crew, to experimental music, church bells, fairground organs, trains and silence, lost radio broadcasts and recordings of Tolkien, Ella Fitzgerald and J.B. Priestley, held on everything from wax cylinders to digital files.

And the good news is that it’s not over yet – our project has been extended, and we now have a deadline of 31st May for responses.  So, if you’ve been thinking about sending us some information on your collections, or if this is the first you’ve heard of our project, we’d love to hear from you.

You can get in touch with us at UKSoundDirectory@bl.uk, or find out more at our project webpage at:

http://www.bl.uk/projects/uk-sound-directory

We’ll be publishing the results of our census in June, along with some advice on understanding and looking after your collections.

And of course, the more people know about our survey, the safer our sounds will be, so do feel free to publicise amongst your nearest and dearest.

#promsnewmusic 2015

It’s Proms announcement time again. See below for the definitive list of new music in this year’s festival, or follow  #promsnewmusic on Twitter.

Some brief observations.

Last year it was all about the birthdays of Sir Harrison Birtwistle and Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. This year it’s Pierre Boulez’s turn. I had a bit of moan last 12 months ago that so much of the programming was dominated by two elderly peers, but it’s hard to complain at the attention Boulez is getting. He did conduct the BBC SO for several years after all, and did much to shape the place of new music in this country at an important time, so proper recognition at the Proms is due.

That said, with the Proms and the Barbican both marking Boulez’s 90th in grand style, it’s a shame (as Leo Chadburn observed) that neither found room (or resources, or courage) to put on Répons.

Last year I noted six women among the new music composers, up from three the previous year. This year that number has nearly doubled again, to 11 12 – including two commissions for Anna Meredith, and one credit for Dame Evelyn Glennie as co-composer. They are: Anna Meredith (Proms 2+3, and 22); Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Shiori Isui, Betsy Jolas and Joanna Lee (all Chamber Prom 1); Tansy Davies (Prom 31); Keiko Abe and Evelyn Glennie (both Chamber 4); Elena Alissa Firsova (Prom 56); Helen Grime (Saturday Matinee 4); Arlene Sierra (Chamber 8) and Eleanor Alberga (Last Night, Prom 76).

Other points of note: Michael Finnissy finally gets that second Albert Hall performance, 27 years after Red Earth. The BBC SO, National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain and Boston SO are all having a go at the Berlin Philharmonic’s trick of pairing a Mahler symphony with something new (pieces by MacMiillan, Davies and Dean, respectively, Proms 24, 31 and 49). Will they work as well as the classic Lachenmann combination?

Other highlights? Probably Luca Francesconi’s Duende (Prom 13), postponed from last year. SWR SO playing Boulez, Ligeti and Bartók (Prom 55) would also have to be up there. Pieces by Luke Bedford (Prom 20), Jón Leifs (Prom 47), Raymond Yiu (Prom 54) and Christian Mason (Sat Mat 4) also appeal. Anders’ Hillborg’s music strikes me as very Proms-friendly; he’s back too with Beast Sampler (Prom 47). Oh, and there’s a newly discovered piece by the late Olivier Messiaen (Prom 29).

5 against 4 has some alternative reactions.

For those who can’t be in London, every Prom will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and online in HD sound. Proms marked ** in the list below will also be broadcast on TV, either live or at a later date.

Here’s the full list (click the bold to go to the BBC’s listing page) (updated with corrections already):

Prom 1** Gary Carpenter, Dadaville (BBC commission, WP)

Proms 2+3 (CBBC Proms)** John Adams, Short Ride in a Fast Machine; Anna Meredith, Connect It (BBC Commission: LP)

Prom 4 John Woolrich, Falling Down (LP) [NB: Parts of this Prom will be broadcast on TV, but not the Woolrich, although the whole concert will be online.] 

Chamber Prom 1 Cheryl Frances-Hoad, Homage to Tallis (WP)

Prom 5** HK Gruber, ‘into the open …’ (in memory of David Drew) (WP)

Prom 7** Hugh Wood, Epithalamium (BBC commission: WP)

Saturday Matinee 1 Pierre Boulez, Notations 2, 12 & 10; 13 arr. Johnannes Schöllhorn (UKP); Shiori Usui, Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis s.l. (BBC Commission: WP); Betsy Jolas, Wanderlied (UKP); Joanna Lee, Hammer of Solitude (BBC Commission: WP); Boulez, Dérive II

Prom 13** Boulez, Notations 1–4 and 7; Luca Francesconi, Duende – The Dark Notes (BBC co-commission: UKP)

Prom 15 Qigang Chen, Iris dévoilée (LP)

Prom 20 Luke Bedford, Instability (BBC Commission: WP)

Prom 22** Brett Dean, Pastoral symphony; Meredith, Smatter Hauler (BBC Commission: WP)

Chamber Prom 3 Colin Matthews, String Quartet no. 5 (EuroP)

Prom 24** James MacMillan, Symphony no. 4 (BBC Commission: WP)

Prom 28 Mark-Anthony Turnage, On Opened Ground

Prom 29 Olivier Messiaen, Un oiseau des arbres de Vie (Oiseau tui) (orch. C. Dingle. WP); Ravel, Miroirs: Oiseaux tristes (arr. Colin Matthews. BBC Commission)

Prom 31 Tansy Davies, Re-greening (WP) [NB: Parts of this Prom will be broadcast on TV, but not the Davies, although the whole concert will be online.]

Prom 32** Jonathan Newman, Blow It Up, Start Again (EuroP); Eric Whitacre, The River Cam, Cloudburst, Quiet City, Equus, Deep Field

Chamber Prom 4 Keiko Abe, Prism Rhapsody for Marimba and Orchestra; Evelyn Glennie & Philip Sheppard, Orologeria aureola; Bertram Wee, Dithyrambs; John Psathas, View from Olympus

Prom 36 Boulez, Figures-Doubles-Prismes

Prom 42 Michael Finnissy, Janne (BBC Commission: WP)

Prom 47 Jón Leifs, Organ Concerto, Op.7; Anders Hillborg, Beast Sampler

Prom 49 Dean, Dramatis Personae

Prom 52 Thierry Escaich, unknown compositions

Prom 54 Raymond Yiu, Symphony (BBC Commission: WP)

Prom 55 Boulez, …explosante-fixe… 

Prom 56 Elena Alissa Firsova, Bergen’s Bonfire (WP)

Saturday Matinee 4 Boulez, Mémoriale (‘.. explosante-fixe ..’ Originel); Helen Grime, A Cold Spring; Boulez, Domaines; Christian Mason, Open to Infinity: a Grain of Sand (BBC co-commission: UKP); Boulez, Éclat/Multiples

Prom 64 B Tommy Andersson, Pan (BBC Commission: WP)

Prom 69 Guy Barker, The Lanterne of Light (BBC commission: WP)

Chamber Prom 8 Arlene Sierra, Butterflies Remember a Mountain

Prom 76 (Last Night)** Eleanor Alberga, Arise, Athena! (BBC Commission: WP)

Icelandic Composer Watch

I happen to have heard two very good pieces by Icelandic composers this week.

First is INTERWOVEN, by Úlfur Hansson, which opened the Tectonics Festival in Rejkjavik last week. A recording has just appeared on Hansson’s website. Textural/spectral, but with an unpredictable emotional ripple running through it.

Second is Daníel Bjarnason‘s Five Possibilities, which I heard played by members of the New York Philharmonic at their CONTACT! concert on Saturday. I was absolutely knocked out by this. More about it in a forthcoming issue of Tempo; you can hear more of Bjarnason’s music on his bandcamp page.

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.

Books

Daniel Harrison: Harmonic Function in Chromatic Music £5 TAKEN

Harry Haskell: The Attentive Listener £6

Jamie James: The Music of the Spheres £4 TAKEN

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.