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.

Andrew Norman in the New York Times

There’s plenty to like in Will Robin’s recent profile of Andrew Norman for the New York Times. A couple of bits that caught my eye:

Part of the appeal of his music is a sense of sweep that harks back to the symphonies of Beethoven, whose orchestral writing represented a kind of public oratory. But rather than draw on old forms, Mr. Norman’s feverish style pulls concepts from architecture, games and digital media. “How we pause videos when we’re watching YouTube,” he said, describing his influences. “How we manipulate stuff on our computers that have to do with cutting things up and pausing them and freezing them.”


“By thinking of the orchestra as only a sound-making machine, we’ve actually eliminated a huge part of what makes a concert experience amazing,” Mr. Norman said. A laptop, he pointed out, easily supersedes what the symphony can offer in terms of sonic power and flexibility. “What makes an orchestra special, for me, is not actually the sounds that it makes but the fact that there are a hundred human beings doing that, right in front of me,” he added.

Both quotes seem pertinent to Play, Norman’s best known work (and one championed by Robin). While I’m cautious about any claims for modern classic status, it is undoubtedly one of the most distinctive orchestral works of recent times, whose choppy energy places it, to my ears at least, somewhere between Adams, Adès, and the Lachenmann of Kontrakadenz and Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung). Plenty to like there, too.

A lengthy podcast interview between Norman and Nadia Sirota can be found here.

Alex Temple on consent in new music

Alex Temple‘s recent NewMusicBox article “Composers, Performers, and Consent” raises a number of difficult, but rarely voiced, questions about the composer–performer relationship, and particularly that between male composers and female performers. She refers to a conversation she had with the singer Jessica Aszodi:

During one recording session, she told me, a composer pushed her to repeat a particular sound four times, despite her warning that she could only safely do it once.  As a result, she lost her voice.  Here the danger of the Stravinskian model [that a score is an objective text to executed, rather than interpreted] is very concrete:  the composer’s insistence that she follow the score as written physically harmed her, and temporarily took away her primary source of income.  And there’s another power dynamic at work here, too.  New music vocalists, as Jess pointed out, are predominantly women—and the composers who have told her things like “I don’t care how it’s done, I just want you to do it” have all been men.  She also told me that she often receives scores from male composers that are written for a “generic soprano” rather than for her particular voice and personality—often based on archetypal female roles, with markings like “angelic.”

Temple also refers – and not having seen it before, I am especially grateful for this – to a blogpost by another singer, Amanda DeBoer Bartlett, on the subject of failure in music. In particular, composed failure, in which performers are asked to commit to activities that exceed their abilities and so open up a more naked, glitchier, unstable expressive terrain. Works like this have become commonplace, beginning with pieces as Heinz Holliger’s Cardiophonie, Brian Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II, Georges Aperghis’ Recitations and György Kurtág’s Samuel Beckett: What is the Word, and continuing right up to any number of pieces by younger composers.

Bartlett’s concern is broadly with the continuing validity of such approaches, and what they mean to a performer – “If the goal of a piece is failure, I’d rather not succeed” – but what Temple does is open these concerns to a much wider issue of consent: “The problem isn’t the idea of performers as objective executors;  it’s composers putting them in that role without asking.” This might be just be reframing older questions of the composer–performer dynamic within a new, more liberal mindset, but I think the questions still beg answering.

The world according to Bob

When Bob Gilmore died at the start of this year, the world of new music lost a major figure, a crucial supporter, enabler and friend to many within the scenes in Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands. For myself, I admired him especially for his writing, a model of clarity, lucidity and acuity that we would all do well to emulate. But such was Bob’s polymathery that everyone could find something different to admire, whether it was as a teacher, a musicologist, a performer, an editor or just an infectious enthusiast with an endlessly searching pair of ears.

To celebrate Bob’s life, his partner, the violist Elisabeth Smalt, has put together a two day festival of Bob-related concerts and talks to take place in London on 1st and 2nd of March next year. There will be talks around Bob’s work and legacy, as well as some of the musical topics that particularly interested him; and a series of concerts of music by composers he particularly championed (and in many cases did much to establish in the repertory), including Partch, Denyer, Radulescu and a whole generation of Irish composers. It is an absolutely crammed programme – nine concerts and 15 papers! – an extraordinary testament to the size of Bob’s impact.

To make this happen, however, donations are needed. Elisabeth Smalt and the composer Patrick Ozzard-Low have set up a Kickstarter page, where you can make donations and buy tickets for the event. I strongly recommend attending at least something if at all possible. The programme looks exciting throughout; it will all be played brilliantly, and the atmosphere I am sure will be like nothing else, such was the esteem in which Bob was held. March 1 and 2, City University London, and Cafe Oto: Put it in your diaries now.

CD review: Irene Kurka: beten . prayer (Wandelweiser)

beten . prayer

Antoine Beuger: Vater unser
James Weeks: The world in tune
Dante Boon: And/or (2)
Sidney Corbett: Gebet
Dante Boon: Mirte
Nikolaus Brass: Benediktionen
Eva-Maria Houben: a-men

Irene Kurka, soprano


This really is a special one. Solo voice carries so many connotations, of speech, of song, of chant, of prayer. It’s the most directly human, personal, unmediated instrument of all. It’s the way we speak to each other, comfort each other, entertain ourselves, reassure ourselves, talk to our gods.

There are elements of all on this CD; remarkably so, because on first listen at least all seven pieces inhabit similarly restrained, private and reticent soundworlds. There is a general trajectory through the disc towards melody – the natural mode of the singing voice. But, smartly programmed, it moves in tiny steps, from Beuger’s descending, chantlike steps, through Weeks’s subtly inflected swinging intervals and increasingly stretching scales, to the tune fragments of Boon’s And or (2). With the pieces by Corbett, Boon and Brass that make up the heart of the recording the voice’s instinct for song is let loose, but already there are twists. Houben’s a-men returns us to the realm of chant, but this time in music whose open, wide-breathed intervals seem more outdoor and secular than stone-encased sacred.

In Corbett’s Gebet melody begins to twist around atonal distortions. These are pushed still further in the five short movements of Brass’s Benediktionen, in which as soon as pitch is freed from its tight procedural constraints, it just as quickly turns to noise and the percussive clicks of tongue and lips. In Boon’s Mirte – perhaps my favourite piece on the disc, along with Weeks’s The world in tune, about whose cleverly minimalistic play with devices of framing and context I could happily write another 400 words – the voice is joined by a malevolent, unreliable shadow piano, sometimes doubling the voice’s simple melody, sometimes counterpointing it, and sometimes knocking it quite off balance. If the other works on the disc capture the outward intentions of the voice – towards prayer, song, or lullaby – this is the inward psychological turn of a voice trying to sing to itself.

It almost goes without saying, but can’t be said strongly enough, that Kurka’s singing throughout is quite extraordinary: so refined, balanced, unadorned and controlled. Absolutely nothing is wasted or unnecessary. Just one quibble: the CD sleeve promises texts at the Wandelweiser website, but I can’t find them there.

CD review: Cem Güney: five compositions (Wandelweiser)

Cem Güney: five compositions

Antoine Beuger, Germaine Sijstermans, Tobias Liebezeit, Burkhard Schlothauer, Lydia Haurenherm, Marcus Kaiser


I have to admit, I know almost nothing about Cem Güney. He was born inTurkey in 1973, he is a trumpet player with a background in jazz and improvisation, and he studied at the College of San Mateo in California. This recording of Five Compositions was funded through CD pre-orders through Edition Wandelweiser Records; the music on it was described by Antoine Beuger at the time as “very personal and beautiful, yet still unheard”. That was enough for me, at least, to chip in.

I also know almost nothing about how these pieces have been put together. They’re written for a sextet of flute, clarinet, percussion (quiet, white-noisy/rattley-type things), violin, viola and cello. They each follow a similar pattern, presenting a solitary idea – a chord, an instrumental texture – that alternates with short silences and gradually evolves with each return. The first, two and three, is almost like breathing. The sounds themselves are beautifully and carefully devised, particularly the gently descending peals in mulberry grove, but it is impossible to inuit how much is specified (and in what manner) and how much is realised by the players. For the most part the musicians are playing as an ensemble, more or less coordinated and to more or less the same rhythm. (The playing, incidentally, is utterly gorgeous, limpid, rich, but impressing itself on the recording space just enough.) Some stretches are conceivably Christian Wolff-ish; others, such as the relatively elaborately structured hive mind, are presumably written out in some detail. My guess is that quite a lot is worked out in this way.

But that is not the point; the fact that you can’t quite tell is. In my last Wandelweiser review I suggested that something that connects Wandelweiser releases is “more or less shared concerns about the relationship of sound (material) to context”. Refining that a little in reference to this disc, I would say that it also has something to do with the search for edges, the exact point where one thing shades into another. The line between design and happy accident is one element that drives Güney’s music. It’s not the only line either – these pieces are also sensitive to the divides between harmony and dissonance, tone and noise, stasis and rhythm, sound and silence, music and its surroundings. The last of the five, inner voice, for düsseldorf, was composed for this recording and pushes out of the mould just slightly with the introduction of a voice, reading fragments from poems by Gonca Özmen. And the music, too, just loosens off a little, with the instruments starting to pull apart from one another.

CD review: André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney (Wandelweiser)

André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney

Hans Eberhard Maldfeld and André O. Möller


Is there such a thing as a “Wandelweiser sound”? Perhaps for a while a decade or so ago, but I sense this is becoming increasingly less true. Yes there remain certain familial connections, but these have less to do with specific techniques or even aesthetic preferences, and more to do with more or less shared concerns about the relationship of sound (material) to context. As has been pointed out to me recently, it’s not easy to fit works like Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (2) or White Metal into a stereotype of extreme quiet and long silences.

in memory of james tenney I (one just second) is thirty minutes of tromba marina drones played at the interval of a just second. Really nothing else. I am reminded very much of a comment I once heard that a lot of Wandelweiser is “meditation music for people who don’t like to meditate”. There’s nothing to do with pieces like these, it seems, except sit still and get deep inside the sound. Except that this is a really noisy, raspy kind of sound, that makes one feel really self-conscious as a home listener. Extreme and long, yes, but not quiet, not silent. What is this? What am I doing? Can my neighbours hear this, and do they think I’m mad? Breaking through to the interior of this sound takes a deal more effort than for, say, a Manfred Werder recording. Which may be the point.

But then what do you find when you get there?

Yes, there is lots of harmonic complexity, plenty of beating patterns, that sort of thing to get yourself lost in. The timbre of the tromba marina itself is also highly perforated, so there’s a really grainy rhythm, thousands of micro-pulses, to sink into as well, which you don’t get with, say, sine waves. It’s not necessarily an unpleasant place to be, but it is very different from the Wandelweiser stereotype.

The other pieces on the disc explore a wider range. in memory of james tenney II begins with almost a counterpoint between the two instruments as they shift notes against each other before settling on a particular interval. imojt IV (reprise) is by far the shortest, at just two minutes, a bagatelle of a single lolloping arpeggio pattern. The last piece on the disc, imojt V (when eight is seven), is the most active, a melange of insectoid buzzes, glassy harmonics and thunder-like bass rumbles.