Haas: Solstices, Riot Ensemble, Kings Place

Last July I swam in the sea for the first time after five months of Covid-19 shielding and it felt like a benediction. The ending of Georg Friedrich Haas’s Solstices last night – as the lights rose on the Riot Ensemble sounding an immense, reverberating, crashing chord after more than an hour of total darkness – felt the same, but more so.

Solstices is an awkward piece. Parts of it verge on being boring (although there’s usually something unexpected around the corner). Other than the progression from one harmonic field to another, there isn’t much of a shape to its first two thirds. (After the first ‘cataclysmic event’ around, I guess, fifty minutes in, it does become more directional, and there is a steady increase in intensity until the final dissipation.) The fact that almost all of it is played in complete darkness adds a lot, certainly: last night the faint glow of Kings Place’s cooling spotlights overhead gave one a sense of floating in space. Another weightlessness comes from the combination of darkness and Haas’s microtonal trickery, which makes it difficult to tell each instrument apart, a marvellously disorienting effect. And some sections – such as the tentacular opening of overlapping, descending scales, seem to spill, Akira-like over the stage and into the space before us. Yet while it is exciting and novel, sitting in complete darkness for this long is hard work (wearing a mask makes it even more so), even without having to find your way around a piano keyboard or percussion set-up. Before every performance of Solstices the lights are brought down for two minutes to give everyone an idea of what to expect and a chance to bail out. This is a piece that asks a lot of its listeners.

But quickly Solstices established itself as just the right work for this moment. (The last live music I heard before Covid lockdown was Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, played by the same ensemble in the same hall. Retrospectively that seemed about right too.) It’s a generous piece in that it doesn’t matter too much if you take a few minutes to get used to it; and after so long, we all needed that time to readjust our ears. Haas describes it as a love song (despite its title it has nothing to do with astronomy, but with the coincidence that he met his partner Mollena Haas-Williams on the winter solstice of 2013, and they married on the summer solstice of 2014), and it is full of moments in which players have to make connections with each other: notable in my memory is an early passage in which the guitar has to retune to the piano’s next microtonal harmony. Even in the dark it was possible to visualise the interaction of the two players, and vivid to hear the way in which the guitar’s notes drifted towards and then inexorably locked with and were embraced by the piano’s.

And then that ending … last night it was not so much breath-taking as breath-mugging, breath-dragged-into-an-unmarked-van never to be seen again. Much of the impact was due to the sheer joy of seeing live music once more – this absolutely is a piece that cannot be streamed – but this was simply the event that Solstices had occasioned. More of it was the sense of having gone through something together, making the work’s endurances and longeurs absolutely necessary.

After Solstices’ premiere at Reykjavik’s Dark Music Days festival in January 2019, Simon Cummings wrote that ‘Haas’ chords suggested plenty of waiting, the potential of light, though the light itself stubbornly failed to materialise. It begged the question: is the act of waiting more exciting than its fulfillment?’ And goodness me have we had to wait for this moment. It seemed ironic that after a sixteen-month break in seeing any live music, I’d chosen to wait another seventy minutes before I saw any musicians doing anything. But then the lights came up and we could see the flesh and sinew of these ten, brilliant players going at their instruments for all they were worth, and it seemed absolutely appropriate.

Restarting, tentatively

Slowly, live music, in front of live audiences, is beginning to return. In Denmark, critic Andrew Mellor jubilantly announced two weeks ago his first post-lockdown concert, and last night he watched the Royal Danish Opera give its first concert with orchestra, chorus and audience in three months.

Perhaps inevitably, given the stakes, the event itself was a slight letdown. Mellor reports on ‘Business Class conditions’ in the auditorium, with alternate seats sealed off, but a lightweight programme and an (understandably) uncertain atmosphere:

It was a privilege to be here, with better sightlines and more elbow room than ever (and easy, too, in a spacious modern opera house where social distancing in the foyers was a habit long before Covid). But the event itself felt strangely disorientating: was it a celebration? Was it a commemoration? Was it a hesitant emergence or a triumphant return?

This is something we will all need to guard against in ways both big and small: so long-imagined, unlocking lockdown is bound to disappoint. There will be no Covid-VE Day, no street parties. Just lots of gradual, individual adjustments. Mellor is right to observe the difficulty of accurately finding meaning in events during lockdown’s long tail, after meaning seemed to flow abundantly from every action during lockdown itself. After clarity, drift?

Nevertheless, it is exciting to see such events beginning to return. And context will always affect how we hear music. For those keen to seek out that new semantic territory through new music, from next Monday (15 June), Ensemble Musikfabrik will begin performing socially distanced ‘concert miniatures’ to tiny audiences of twelve at a time twice a day (17:30 and 19:00) on Mondays and Thursdays throughout the summer.

Full details (including booking details and hygiene protocol) may be found on the Musikfabrik website. The programme for the first concerts will be:

Mikel UrquizaAlfabet (2018–19) for soprano, trumpet, clarinet and percussion 

Steffen KrebberAmphiference (2019) for drumset, minimoog and two loudspeakers

Karlheinz Stockhausen: KONTAKTE (1958-1960) for piano, percussion and tape 

Performers:

Sarah Maria Sun, soprano
Marco Blaauw, trumpet
Carl Rosman, clarinet
Dirk Rothbrust, percussion
Benjamin Kobler, piano
Ulrich Löffler, minimoog
Kathinka Pasveer, sound direction (Stockhausen)
Steffen Krebber, sound direction (Krebber)

As countries ease out of lockdown at different times and with different Covid legacies, many different approaches to live music will emerge. As Mellor reports, Scandinavian countries have been able to maintain quite a lot of live music: last week the Iceland Symphony Orchestra played to a live audience with little social distancing; orchestras have played in Norway and Finland; and in Sweden they hardly stopped at all. Such events seem some way off for the UK, but we will be looking on with envy and interest.

Borough New Music comes to an end

I was sad to read this morning that the excellent Borough New Music series has had to come to end. Over three seasons, artistic director Clare Simmonds and her team have put on a remarkable 72 lunchtime concerts in St George the Martyr Church, featuring 254 composers, 122 performers and 88 premieres. Although the stars never aligned such that I could make it (not working in central London), I had always hoped to some day; and now it seems I won’t after all.

It is with heavy hearts that we write to inform you that the planned 2019-20 Borough New Music season will not be going ahead. The team’s changing commitments have given us pause. We have come to the conclusion that the current model needs to be rethought in order for it to be sustainable in terms of time and financial commitment. We currently do not have the capacity to make the changes that Borough New Music needs, so we have been forced to adjourn.

Here is a video of highlights from BNM’s third and last season:

LCMF 2018: A Sound Map of the Hudson River

I wasn’t prepared, when I walked in to the installation of Annea Lockwood’s A Sound Map of the Hudson River (1982) at LCMF, for how familiar it would be. After all, this is a giant field recording of the most ambient, neutral of all sounds, running water; as ordinary and as ignorable as traffic noise. Yet as I stepped into the vast concrete cavern that is Ambika P3, I had a visceral hit of familiarity, of knowing, of orientation. This was, I realised, a real object, with a weight and form and identity of its own.

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A Sound Map of the Hudson River is the first of three such portraits (others are of the Danube and the Housatonic), and is related to Lockwood’s larger River Archive project, begun in the 1960s. To create the work Lockwood recorded the river in stages, moving downstream. She took recordings from the bank, at points that she deemed sonically interesting and that fit an overall sequence of contrasts and movements. The piece was thus recorded compositionally, with a final sound and structure in mind, rather than objectively; Lockwood rejected locations, for example, if they were too close to roads or presented too little of sonic interest. Once the recordings were completed, Lockwood compiled them into a montage sequence, stitched together with slow fade-ins and fade-outs. The completed work is presented with a map of the river annotated with the location, date, and time of each recording and at what point in the work they can be heard. A set of headsets also play interviews with people who live and work on the river: a fisherman, a judge, a park ranger, a farmer, an activist and a river pilot.

Its materials are so slight, so neutral, so ambient and unadorned, as to be almost not there at all. In this sense, it is a masterpiece of presence: it is so utterly present as a work in spite of that neutrality. And that goes even more as what is here and what is there is folded over and over the longer one listens. The Hudson is here; we are here on the Hudson; we are there on the map (in time now, measured by a clock on the wall; a slice of time then, Lockwood in 1982 standing by the  water’s edge); we are here in this tiny locale, the river zoomed in to a few inches around a single microphone, projected around us across a 40-foot circle of speakers.

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Almost until the end, the recordings are taken from the water’s edge: border spaces, the ribbon between this and that. The work’s focus is on touching and close sensation, not the generalised power of the river. Intimate. More interesting sonically as a result. But also more unexpected.

Rarely, even in the piece’s later stages, is the Hudson recorded as a source of power or mass. Recordings always made at the river’s edge, lapping, bubbling, the elemental mix of earth and water and air. The river is conceived less as a thing in itself than as a space around which things happen: the map is not of the river so much; the map is the river. This perspective is heightened by the addition of interviews with some of those who live and work on the river. I listened to a river pilot describe the challenges of bringing tankers, 100,000 tonnes in weight, onto the piers in New York: yet despite the huge forces involved even this was a tale of precise movements made under almost no engine at all, trusting to the silent pull of the river’s tides and currents.

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Octandre to give Frank Denyer portrait

Frank Denyer is a composer whose music I admire very deeply. There’s a reason the first main feature I published with Sounds Like Now was a profile of Denyer, written by Sam Richards.

So it’s wonderful to learn that the Octandre Ensemble are devoting a whole concert to Denyer’s music next month. On Sunday 17 June at the Coronet in Notting Hill they will perform six pieces by Denyer, from the early Unison 1 (1972) and Hanged Fiddler (1973) through to the intriguing Screens for violin, viola, female voice, percussion and dressing screens, completed this year and receiving its first full performance.

Appearing alongside Octandre will be the violinist Sarah Saviet and the soprano Juliet Fraser.

Full details of the concert are here. Tickets, at £15 each, may be purchased here.

An Assembly and Ensemble x.y

Tomorrow night, people

An assembly and ensemble x.y come together at St John’s, Waterloo tomorrow night (Friday 27 April) to play Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concert no.2, as well as works by Bryn Harrison, Paul Newland, Cassandra Miller and Anthony Leung. Piano soloist is Joseph Havlat; Jack Sheen conducts.

‘Few composers working today have managed to connect contemporary music’s expressive power as convincingly with its critical, intellectual potential.’
Guardian on the music of Michael Finnissy

‘… microscopic and cosmic in its dimensions. It was awe-inspiring.’
Sound Expanse on Bryn Harrison’s ‘Six Symmetries’

‘[Cassandra Miller’s music] allows us to hear and feel in new ways.’
Tempo magazine

Full programme:

Anthony Leung: Three Concert Pieces (I)
Paul Newland: locus
Bryn Harrison: Six Symmetries
Cassandra Miller: Philip The Wanderer
Michael Finnissy: Piano Concerto no.2

Tickets here.

Health issues mean I won’t be able to make it tomorrow but you should: these are some of my favourite composers. Ensemble x.y are a great group (check out their Resonance FM show), and Jack Sheen is putting together something special with An assembly I feel.

In case you need an extra taster, here’s Philip Thomas playing Miller’s Philip the Wanderer:

And here are An assembly playing Linda Catlin Smith’s Sarabande:

 

The London Ear returns this week

March in London, in an even-numbered year, means the return of the London Ear to Waterloo’s Cello Factory. I’ve been a friend of Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari’s new music festival since its inception – this will be the festival’s fifth edition – and once again I’ll be playing my own small part with a pre-concert talk on the music of Rebecca Saunders on Sunday evening.

Much more important is the rest of the programme. Across five days of concerts, starting this Wednesday, there will be music by more than 40 composers, a substantial retrospective of Berio’s chamber music, performances by the likes of Roberto Fabbriciani and Jonathan Powell, a composition workshop with Misato Mochizuki, and an on-stage conversation with Berio’s widow, Talia Pecker Berio. And more besides – it’s a packed programme in what is always a charming venue, and a great chance to hear music by some of the less well-known names on the European scene.

Tickets are all £12 or less; a full festival pass is just £40. See the website for more details.

An Assembly play Feldman and Lukoszevieze

This Thursday, 22 February at Hackney Round Chapel, 7.30pm:

Jack Sheen’s An Assembly present a rare performance of one of Morton Feldman’s final works, Words and Music, a collaboration with one of the 20th century’s greatest writers, Samuel Beckett. Originally conceived as a radio-play, this 40-minute piece exhibits two of the 20th century’s greatest artists at their creative peak. Haunting fragments of text and sound gently discourse and overlap in an intimate meditation on themes such as love, age, and truth.

Alongside this will be the world premiere of Opéret OPERA Operec by the composer, cellist and multi-disciplinary artist Anton Lukoszevieze. Intended as a flexible, yet possibly unstable ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, Opéret OPERA Operec makes use of speaking, sounds, dance, music, recordings and singing to explore the poems and essays by Benjamin Péret and George Perec.

Tickets £10 / £8
Facebook event

Walshe, Hartman, Takasugi, Distractfold, Kammerklang

I’m not finding time to plug as many concerts as I would like at the moment, but this one looks pretty special: the next installment of Kammerklang‘s 2017/18 season at Café Oto. Manchester’s brilliant Distractfold Ensemble play works by Hanna Hartman (pictured) and Steven Kazuo Takasugi; and Jennifer Walshe performs her There Was a Visitor. The evening begins, in the usual fashion, with a ‘fresh Klang’, this time Barblina Meierhans‘ May I ask you something? Not one to miss.

Full details here and here.

Borough New Music in 2018

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One of the more intriguing developments in London’s new music scene in 2017 was the founding of the Borough New Music series by pianist Clare Simmonds. These lunchtime concerts take place every Tuesday now at St George the Martyr Church on Borough High Street, near the famous market, in the shadow of the Shard and across the river from the City. (Also the church where Dickens’ Little Dorrit was christened and married.) I haven’t been able to make my way yet, but that’s something I plan to rectify in the coming weeks.

StGeorge

Lunchtime concerts are a feature of the City’s churches – but these are typically touristy pops selections, or organ recitals. Both have their place of course, but it’s nice to see the offering widening in Borough to include new music as well. Here’s hoping the series grows in strength through the year.

Programmes have been announced right up to June now and full listings can be found here. Interesting things I spotted in the next couple of months include:

23 January
Miloš Milivojević (accordion) playing music by Astor Piazzolla, Franck AngelisRobert PercyViaceslav Semenov and Victor Vlasov.

6 February
Ben Smith (piano), Kirsty Clark (viola) and Patricia Auchterlonie (soprano) playing music by Helmut Lachenmann, Richard Melkonian and Martin Lodge.

6 March
Chris Brannick (percussion) and Sara Stowe (soprano) playing music by Jorge VidalesGiacinto ScelsiAdrian SutcliffeChris Hobbs, Julie Sharpe, Mauricio Kagel, Paul Burnell, and John Cage/Erik Satie.

20 March
A toy piano special in collaboration with World Toy Piano Week – Kate Ryder plays music by Cage, Stace Constantinou, Christian BanasikJulia WolfeBrian Inglis, Yumi Hara, Katharine Norman, Meredith Monk, and Stephen Montague.

27 March
A portrait of composer Gregory Rose by Loré Lixenberg (voice), Chris Brannick (marimba) and Clare Simmonds.

All concerts start at 1pm, and all are free admission.