Three releases from Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Founded in 2009, Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) continues to go from strength to strength. Not only as a showcase for what is surely now the powerhouse for new music in UK academe, but as a record label in its own right.

Ending today (30 September), NMC is offering 20% off all HCR releases. Get yours now.

To help you on your way, here are reviews of the three most recent releases.

Diego Castro Magas: Shrouded Mirrors (HCR10 CD)


The Chilean guitarist Diego Castro Magas is a PhD candidate in performance at Huddersfield. A former student of Oscar Ohlsen, Ricardo Gallén and Fernando Rodríguez, he has in the last decade or so become a specialist in contemporary repertoire (his first release, in 2009, featured the first recording of Ferneyhough’s guitar duet no time (at all), with his Chilean colleague José Antonio Escobar).

A performer clearly keen to push his instrument’s repertory to its limit (witness his remarkable realisation of a kind of nostalgia, written for him by the composer Michael Baldwin), on Shrouded Mirrors he takes on more conventional challenges – in whatever sense music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and some of their younger admirers, Bryn Harrison, Wieland Hoban and Matthew Sergeant, might be considered ‘conventional’.

Hoban’s Knokler I (2009) takes perhaps the most radical approach, using a multi-stave tablature notation and a very low scordatura to distort the sound and physical familiarity of the guitar as much as possible. Based on a poem by the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven, it emphasises the physicality of the guitar (knokler meaning bones in Norwegian), as well as the poem’s collage of images. But whereas many composers working in this fashion (including some of those on this CD) produce music of sharp prickles and vertiginous drops, Hoban writes a queasy, unpredictable melting that is distinctive and strangely attractive.

Sergeant’s bet maryam (2011) is a characteristic blend of the headlong and the eldritch, and (like other works by Sergeant) takes its title from an Ethiopian church – this one a small, rock-hewn building on the Labilela World Heritage site. A feature of the church is a pillar that is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the story of the excavation of Labilela, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Deemed too dangerous for mortal eyes, however, the pillar has been veiled since the 16th century, which Sargeant’s piece expresses through the use of a melodic cycle within the piece that is variously exposed or veiled.

Also notable is Bryn Harrison’s M.C.E. (2010), which is quite the loveliest Harrison piece I have heard in some time. Perhaps a source of its particular expressive clarity is that it is named after M.C. Escher, an artist whose work shares much with Harrison’s own.

Of the pieces by the three ‘senior’ composers, Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II has been recorded several times. I know two versions by Geoffrey Morris, released in 1998 (on Etcetera with ELISION) and by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2000. Castro Magas’s version is the slowest of all three (a relative term), and as a result contains more space; but it also features sharper angles between the music’s intersecting planes (most clearly heard in the third movement’s tapestry of knocks and stabs). The result is more fragmentary, an emphasis found more explicitly in Ferneyhough’s later music, and a thrilling take on a familiar work. Finnissy’s Nasiye (1982, rev. 2002) dates from the period when the composer was writing many solo works based on folk musics from around the world. Nasiye is based on a Kurdish folkdance, which gradually emerges, movingly and with great dignity, from the deeply personalised context Finnissy has given it. The album’s title piece was composed in 1987 by James Dillon, and is a proper slice of old-school complexity, given eloquent justification by Castro Magas’s playing.

Philip Thomas: Beat Generation Ballads (HCR11 CD)


At Huddersfield, Castro Magas’s supervisor is Philip Thomas – a pianist currently on a remarkably prolific recording streak. His own release for HCR concentrates on two major works by Michael Finnissy: First Political Agenda (1989–2006), and Beat Generation Ballads (2014), the latter of which Thomas premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014.

Like its predecessor, and topical relation, English Country-Tunes, First Political Agenda begins with thunderous sweeps across the keyboard. What grows out of their dying echoes, however, is somewhat different: not the ironically distorted pastoralism (those never-quite restful open spaces) of English Country-Tunes, but a darker, rougher manipulation of raw materials. Its second movement draws on the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, while the third – ‘You know what kind of sense Mrs. Thatcher made’ – performs a Chris Newman-esque détournement on Hubert Parry’s theme for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, flipping the ultimate musical signifier of England on its end, flattening it and rendering it distressingly mute: a ghastly, heart-stoppingly empty reflection on the ‘sense’ of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.

Beat Generation Ballads contains further references to Beethoven (and, in its 30-minute final movement, Finnissy’s first extended use of a variation form), as well as Allen Ginsberg, Irish Republican protest songs, Bill Evans, the bassist Scott LeFaro, and the poet Harry Gilonis. In its short first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, it also features music written when the composer was only 16, a typical gesture of Finnissian self-archaeology.

There’s far too much to consider here in what is supposed to be a short review, but works are major statements, not (I think?) previously recorded, and are done justice by Thomas’s intelligent and critically reflective performance.

Heather Roche: Ptelea (HCR09 CD)


This is the oldest of these three releases; that is, it is the one that has been sitting on my desk the longest. Another Thomas student (she completed her PhD at Huddersfield in 2012), the Canadian-born clarinettist Heather Roche needs little introduction among followers of new music in the UK or Germany, where she now lives. One of the most energetic younger players on the scene, she is a founder member of hand werk, has hosted her own competition for young composers, and writes a widely-read (and actually useful!) new music blog.

Ptelea features works by six composers with whom Roche has formed important artistic relationships: Aaron Einbond, Chikako Morishita, Martin Iddon, Martin Rane Bauck, Pedro Alvarez and Max Murray. As first recital discs go, it’s an unusual one: several of the works are hushed affairs, for deep, close listening. No overt virtuosity here – Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) the closest thing to a ‘typical’ recital piece, albeit a contemporary one – although there is clearly much going on just out of earshot.

The repeated, breathy multiphonics of Bauck’s kopenhagener stille (2013), for example, will appeal to fans of Wandelweiser; Murray’s Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015) to admirers of Lucier and Sachiko M. Einbond’s Resistance (2012) opens the disc with barely more than the noise of air passing through the bass clarinet’s deep tube, and even this is only gradually augmented with the sounds of keys and, eventually, tones. Yet the work is also infused with the sounds of political protest – marches recorded in New York in 2011–12. Played through a speaker in the clarinet’s bell, these slowly emerge in their own right, a weird progeny of the instrument itself.

Iddon’s Ptelea is yet another a quiet affair. Using Josquin’s Nymphes des bois as a framework, Iddon constructs a slippery polyphony out of an impossible monody – a single instrumental line grouped in such a way that not everything can played at once. Difficult to describe in brief (here’s Iddon’s score), but like much of Iddon’s music a surprisingly simple idea brought to its full fruition.

For me, Iddon’s piece is the stand-out track (I really must get round to writing up his CD on another timbre from a couple of years ago), although Pedro Alvarez’s Instead (2013) comes close for creating something distinctly different from a typical solo clarinet work – odd blocks that nod towards minimalism and Zorn, if anything, although that isn’t giving much away. A strange disc, then, with some strange composers – but all the better for it.


CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

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.

CD review: Andrew McIntosh: Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure

Yarn/Wire; James Sullivan and Brian Walsh, clarinets; Andrew McIntosh, violin

populist records, PR006

This one has been knocking around the car for some months now. The kids love it. “Play the ghost music” they shout from the back, referring to the fourth part of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure for two pianos and percussion. I see what they mean: it’s an atmospheric little movement of piano harmonics and bowed metallic percussion that resolves into tinkling crotales and high register piano. Totally up my alley.

McIntosh, co-owner/operator of populist, also plays on this Tom Johnson CD I reviewed in 2012, but this disc is, I think, his first as a composer. In its use of just intonation and rhythmic and melodic process, his music fits in the lineage of Johnson, James Tenney, and Marc Sabat. However, it is somewhat less austere than their music can be; there are certainly processes at work throughout this disc, but picking them out when listening is not really the point; the music pulls more towards the sensual and the contrapuntally satisfying.

Hyenas is framed by McIntosh’s eight Symmetry Etudes, divided into two groups, for two clarinets and violin. These are, I suppose, more minimal in conception, and McIntosh’s primary materials of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios (conceived as equivalent to each other, just with different-sized steps) come to the fore. Those materials are often intercut or rearranged to create more complex, less predictable patterns, and may be overlaid in a number of rational tempo relations as well. The range of possibilities arising is large and taken full advantage of by McIntosh, from the melancholy, pastoral fourths of Etude II, to the bubbling exchanges of Etude III, to Etude VI, in which slow, three-note arpeggios, very widely spaced, lead to single notes being passed and sustained amongst the ensemble.

The more diverse instrumentation of Hyenas sets it in a very different soundworld, but its origins are similar: the first movement recalls late Ligeti in its use of overlaid scales that pass at different speeds, and there is a similar sense of uncanny storytelling in the way different instruments are introduced into the mix (in this case moving from piano to wooden percussion to skins) – each new instrument enters like an unexpected animal found deep in the forest. In the second movement, McIntosh is playing once again with scales and different forms of smoothness/gap size. The pianos begin with swift legato runs up and down, but are soon interrupted with the regular, dull chime of a glass water bowl. Unlike the piano notes, its thunks are spaced wide apart in time, but with the twist that they describe a very gradual movement down in pitch (just a fourth over the course of 25 bars) as water is slowly added to the bowl. It’s a great effect, both sonically and intellectually, and McIntosh returns to it in the fourth movement. In between the third movement is a resonant chamber of interlocking pianos and, later on, aluminium tubes. The sheer opulence of the sound here – quite, quite beautiful – is an oceanic indulgence in the context of what elsewhere can be a precise and reserved disc, but it shows McIntosh to be a composer of great aural as well as procedural imagination. Highly recommended.

CD review: Scott Worthington: Prism

Scott Worthington, double bass

populist records, PR008

In spite of its size, the double bass can be quite a delicate instrument. In fact, because of its size: that massive soundbox means it only needs the softest pressure of bow or fingerpad to coax it into sound.

Scott Worthington’s bass is a gentle giant, deep and softly breathing. The four pieces on this CD all occupy a place in which the bass’s natural resonances and sonic nuances (that depth of spectrum!) are allowed to sound. Feldman is an obvious touchstone, but I also hear echoes of, say, Tim Parkinson in the “this thing, and then this thing” way the longer pieces are structured.

The disc’s opener, At Dusk, the longest of them all at 17 minutes, sets a tone against which the other tracks push and pull. The material is simple, consisting mostly of alternating pairs of notes, at different speeds, in different registers, and for different durations. Yet it is arranged in what to the ear could easily be a complex system of interlocking loops, or completely improvised – such is its mix of poise and grace. The piece is scored for double bass and electronics, but unusually the electronics are pushed far back, with just the faintest hints of digital resonance shining through the gaps. Yet for all its reserve and careful elegance, it’s a continually surprising listen as Worthington keeps introducing new harmonic regions and small variations.

Prism, for three double basses, again works on patterns of repetition and alteration. Worthington pushes the fragmentary nature of his work further here – the lines between sections are more heavily marked, the changes more steep, as with the shift from a broken chord pattern spread across the three instruments to asynchronised monotonous pulses that takes place at around four minutes in. Moving in the opposite direction is the more continuous Reflections, written in memory of the legendary Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012. This is again written for double bass and electronics, although in this case a digital looping system that allows many layers of music to be slowly built up. Here is Worthington playing the piece live:

There are echoes of Grisey in that massive drone, and the melodies Worthington builds upon it, but also Lucier as well. I find it an extremely effective piece; I love how the drone shifts from shimmering slow phase sweeps to a metallic, insectoid buzz as new layers are added. Worthington’s roots clearly lie in the experimental tradition, but his music has heart and poetry too.

The CD is completed with two versions of the Quintet (after Feldman) for five basses. This time, fragments and repetitions are replaced by the shifting clouds of five instruments cycling through their own lines at slightly different speeds – an idea indebted to Feldman’s music for multiple pianos of the late 1950s. The piece is short, and just as you get deep into it, it is over – very un-Feldmanlike in that respect – but it makes an ideal immersive complement to the more rarefied longer pieces.

Although it might seem a dry premise – a whole disc of music for variations of a single instrument – Prism shows Worthington to be a composer of subtlety and skill. An earlier disc on populist, Even the Light Itself Falls, is also recommended.

Bryn Harrison: Vessels (Recent releases from another timbre, part 3)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)


Bryn Harrison | Vessels | Philip Thomas, piano | another timbre (at69)

Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.

Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”

The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.

The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.

Laurence Crane: Chamber Works 1992–2009 (Recent releases from another timbre, part 2)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)


Laurence Crane | Chamber Works 1992–2009 | Apartment House | another timbre (at74x2)

For newcomers to the world of experimental music – hovering happily between composition and improvisation, determinism and experiment – to which another timbre dedicates itself, this is the disc I would probably turn people towards first. Although I would do that only on the basis that Laurence Cranes’ musical language is the least forbidding, based as it is on steady, even rhythms, legible, tonal harmonies, simple harmonic progressions (often just alternations of two chords). But, as Michael Pisaro points out in a lovely short essay on the AT website, despite all this Crane’s music is also ‘quietly crazy, even absurd in its extremely understated way.’ It certainly isn’t what it seems. It couldn’t possibly be. You can’t get away with writing music like that, of such surface simplicity as to have practically no surface at all. Yet Crane does; and no one else.

So what is there? I suppose we might each see something different reflected in Crane’s still waters. What I find, first, is absolute precision, coupled with an almost complete absence of redundancy. Clearly there is no ornament in the usual melodic sense, but neither is there any in a more conceptual sense. You actually try to project something clever behind the notes that you hear, those chords alternating in slow footsteps, but the music bends like a reed, absorbing and evading. It’s some of the most yin music I know.

Disc 1 contains nine pieces, mostly from the 1990s, mostly shorter. As well as three versions of Sparling – written for Apartment House’s Andrew Sparling in 1992, and something of a signature Crane piece – we have Trio (1996), Raimondas Rumsas for cello (2002), See Our Lake (1999) for alto flute, clarinets, violin, cello and vibraphone, Riis (1996) for clarinet, cello and electric organ, Bobby J (1999) for electric guitar, and the three pieces of Estonia – Erki Nool, Mart Poom, Arvo Pärt – for flutes, clarinet, violin and cello.* For those who know a little of Crane’s music already, this is the most familiar territory of homorhythmic chords, simple timbres and so on.

Disc 2 contains five pieces, mostly longer, and all from the 2000s: Seven Short Pieces for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano (2004), Piano Piece no.23 ‘Ethiopian Distance Runners’ for solo piano (2009), Four Miniatures for flute, violin, percussion and piano (2003), Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani Part 1 for clarinet and auxiliary instruments (2007), and John White in Berlin for cello, electric guitar, percussion and piano (2003). This is the stranger of the two discs. The instrumentation gets a little less conventional, the sounds a little less pure – witness the percussive knocks and violin scratches tucked away in the Seven Short Pieces, or the noise-making and droning auxiliary instruments of John Vigani. The chord progressions get less straightforward. A general air of uncertainty starts to inhabit the music: the instrumental parts seem more exposed, without a solid ensemble homophony or tonal centredness to back them up; there is a greater use of silence, and of dissonance, and of dynamic contrast. It is still just as ungraspable, but now it seems even more bewilderingly so, given the seemingly greater density of musical information.

This is a significant release I believe; I hope it will prove to be. Crane’s strange vision has been lurking around the periphery of new music for a long time, almost like a secret handshake for those in the know. You’ve either heard it and been convinced, or you haven’t heard it. For those of us who have there are still surprises here: the late 90s pieces Riis and Bobby J, for example, have an almost unseemly lushness of sound; Ethiopian Distance Runners unfolds over an unCrane-like 22 minutes. John White in Berlin is something else again; in context quite a shock. While this isn’t exactly music of wild emotions or high contrasts, there is plenty here that reveals Crane as a composer of substantial range. Now that this release is out, here’s hoping it will introduce the impenetrable transparency of his music to a much wider audience.

Don’t forget the launch concert for this CD, on Tuesday 15th July at Cafe Oto.


*Crane has a fondness for naming pieces after people, particularly sportsmen, and among them particularly cyclists. It’s a curious footnote that the three cyclists with pieces named after them here (all of them former Tour de France podium placers) have all, since the composition of their namesake pieces, been implicated in doping scandals. Rumsas, who came third in the 2002 Tour, the same year that Crane named a piece after him, had question marks over him immediately after that race when steroids, growth hormones, testosterone and more were found in his wife’s car on the same day that the race ended. Julich (Bobby J) finished third in the infamous 1998 Tour, a race in which he later confessed to have doped. Bjarne Riis admitted in 2005 to doping between 1993 and 1998, including during his 1996 Tour win – again, the same year as Crane’s piece.

This practice supposedly has little bearing on the meaning of the music itself. In this context it is interesting to note that while one might expect music written for sporting heroes who later fell from grace to carry some unintentional pathos, even this is hard to hear in Crane’s super-blank canvases.