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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

 

Some recent CDs

726708696122-front-coverSelf Portrait by Brooklyn composer and multimedia artist Grant Cutler (innova 961) is composed of artists improvising to recordings of themselves, the results heavy with loops, delays and textures. innova’s press release dresses this up as ‘an act of memoir, an active reimagining of the self’. I think that’s stretching a point: if that’s what these tracks are, they’re cosy, untroubled imaginings that rarely stray far from their original path. (Not what I see in my mirror, certainly.) Nevertheless, set that aside and Cutler and his musicians have made an attractive, not always predictable work of instrumental/electronic ambiance. Requires a sweet tooth, but I have one.

726708697327-front-coverIf you like this, you might also like Listening Beam Five by Crystal Mooncone (Stephen Rush, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci; innova 973). More of a 60s, West Coast psychedelia vibe here, although washed out, exhausted, like the fade-outs to a Bitches Brew session at full scale. The instrumentarium includes Phase Maracas, Foil-o-tron, Distant Echo Flute, Float Tank Rhodes and Cistern Singing, so that should give some idea (or not).

ewr1601-03Manfred Werder’s 2003/1–3 arrive on a triple-disc set from Edition Wandelweiser Records (EWR 1601-03). 70 minutes per disc, two (performed) sounds per disc. (I emphasise performed: these seem to be studio recordings, so the huge silences in between aren’t completely silent; they’re live, not digital.) It’s a colossal, utopian extravagance, of the sort I’d rather started to miss from EWR. There is undoubtedly something ridiculous about firing up the CD player for more than hour of almost nothing (in three different versions, no less), but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like doing so. Which is one underlying message of Werder’s work, at least: that experience trumps thought. I doubt I’ll be returning to these discs very often, but I’m absolutely certain that I will, so unique is that feeling – not something one can always say.

ewr1607-08Eva-Maria Houben’s livres d’heures, a two-disc set this time from EWR (1607/08), goes into the less abstract territory that I feel has characterised many Wandelweiser recordings of the last year or two. In particular, it foregrounds the Christian/spiritual dimension that appears to underlie the aesthetic of several Wandelweiser composers. A book of hours is an obvious choice for a style preoccupied with periodicity and the articulation of very large spans of time – see Werder, above. The difference in his case is that the periodicity is intuitive and unpredictable: thus it holds its time in a state of heightened tension; whereas Houben’s meticulously steady bell chimes and violin drones mark out a structured, and hence contemplative time. It reminds me of other large-scale religious settings, most notably Knaifel’s Agnus Dei, or even (although its language is much less bombastic) Radulescu’s Cinerum.

51zbr3xyy8l-_ss500Pick of the listening at the moment, though, is EXAUDI’s recording of Mala punica composed by their director James Weeks (Winter & Winter 910 239-2). I’ve said this a few times recently about other composers’ works, and I find myself saying it again, but this may be the best thing I’ve heard from Weeks so far. Making use of the little canonic and fan-like games that populate a lot of his music, Mala punica – interleaved on this recording with the three-part Walled Garden for instrumental ensemble – is a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.

Further to these short pocket reviews, I’ve recently written a much longer consideration of Richard Barrett’s album Music for cello and electronics, with Arne Deforce and recorded for aeon. You can read that here at Music & Literature.

CD review: Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough (Confront)

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Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough

Seth Parker Woods

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These are good times for contemporary cello playing and, by extension, contemporary music for the cello. Recent albums by Séverine Ballon and Arne DeForce might stake out the heavyweights’ territory, but don’t overlook work by emerging artists like Seth Parker Woods.

Woods is another graduate of Huddersfield University’s doctoral performance programme, and if this is reflected in any particular way it is in the language of space and force – trajectories, smears, intersections – that spatter his album’s sleevenotes. The four pieces recorded here are plenty varied, however. They range in length from roughly 4 to 24 minutes, and in style from the loose, street art-inspired sonic tags of Edward Hamel’s Gray Neon Life, to the electronic swarms of Michael Clarke’s Enmeshed 3 and George Lewis’s Not Alone, to the glitchy bleeps of Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s asinglewordisnotenough3 (invariant). This is the cello at its most raw, least lyrical, a rethinking that in this album’s best moments is thrilling.

Lewis’s piece – one of three here written for Woods – is the biggest contribution in all respects, but it’s the pieces by Hamel and Tremblay that have most caught my ears. Hamel deploys a fragmentary, post-Lachenmannish mode of fragile harmonics and spoken interjections, but does so in an almost casual, improvisatory mode – no doubt due in part to his score’s graphic component and delegation of many decisions to its player. It has a disarmingly unfussy vibe that I really like. Tremblay’s piece is simply the most fun: a pan-dimensional, post-techno romp through electronic tones and cello grinds. It’s not a combination I’d heard before (at least, not quite like this), and although there are points where cello and electronics dance each other into related sonic territory, more of the time it’s the distance between them that gives the music its poetic effect, the electronics providing an austere digital architecture within which the resolutely analogue cello can find its voice.

asinglewordisnotenough is available in hard copy in a metal tin via Confront, or digitally via Bandcamp.

Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.

CD review: Klavikon (Leon Michener)

Klavikon: Klavikon

Nonclassical: NONCLSS020

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When Richard James introduced a handful of prepared piano tracks on the 2001 Aphex Twin album Drukqs, it was widely perceived as an acknowledgement of James’s  admiration for the postwar musical avant garde; in particular, of course, John Cage.

On his debut album, Klavikon, Leon Michener – a pianist whose range encompasses modern jazz as well as much of that postwar repertory – brings things back full circle, preparing his piano in order to create haunting, mechanistic studies that recall James in the era of Selected Ambient Works Volume II and Richard D. James. There are, apparently, no overdubs here, and all sounds are made by the piano. If true, this is a work of considerable performing and compositional virtuosity (there are, surely, some reverbs and delays at work, unless my ears are being seriously tricked). It is also a thoughtful and enjoyable set from one of the UK’s most intriguing pianists: although it gets close to settling on a groove or emotional palette, it never quite does. Where Cage’s piano became a factory, or a gamelan, Michener’s is a digital workstation screen full of Max patches, an obscure nightclub in the hippest, strangest part of town. Different modernities, different exoticas.

[Here’s an interview in Vice in which Michener talks about his practice.]

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)

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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)

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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)

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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.