Radio Rambler – International Women’s Day 2018

Today is International Women’s Day, and as usual I have updated the Radio Rambler Spotify playlist with all-women composers.

A year ago, the PRS Foundation published an evaluation of the first five years of its Women Make Music initiative, which revealed that 78% of interviewees said they had experienced sexism within the music industry.

At the time I described this as ‘shocking’. A year on, and in the wake of all the revelatory horrors that 2017 and 18 have given us, I’m no longer shocked by that statistic, for all that it remains appalling. This simply is, it is now abundantly clear to those of us fortunate enough not to have had to experience it, how the world is and has been for very many people.

But not how it should be, or can be.

The pace of change in the last year has been exhilarating to watch, with record labels, publishers, competitions and festivals all coming under the spotlight regarding their equality practices. Some good things: Huddersfield Contemporary Records committing to 50/50 representation ‘within five years‘ (ie 2022); the PRS’s recently announced Keychange pledge, which ties 45 international music festivals to the same commitment; the louder dynamic level of reports like Rebecca Lentjes’ from the Ostrava Days, which make for uncomfortable but necessarily sobering reading.

But, as some older composers, such as Nicola LeFanu, have cautioned, we have been here or somewhere like it before: in 1972, the Society of Women Musicians (founded 1912) finished operating, concluding that its job had been done and equality achieved. In 1987, LeFanu and others noticed that women had suddenly, and once more, disappeared from the new musical landscape. For a few years, their lobbying bore fruit: women composers and conductors began to achieve some degree of prominence once more. And then after five years or so, she says, ‘the bandwagon rolled by’.

There is certainly much still to be done. The appearance of an all-male shortlist for this year’s Gaudeamus Prize startled many, and provoked a lot of head scratching – how could this happen with an anonymized judging process? Well, clearly it did. And something needs to be fixed, whether that solution comes from lowering the barriers to entry, introducing quotas, or rethinking the whole idea of competitive composing. The comments made in the wake of Keychange by Sally Cavender, vice-chair of Faber Music, that ‘the playing field is relatively level in terms of opportunities and encouragement’ while her own company (one of the UK’s leading music publishers) includes only one woman (Tansy Davies) among its 26 ‘house composers’ should also give pause for thought.

A tide may be turning, but tides have a habit of coming back in. We must use the present moment of advantage to build the structures we need to stop that happening again.

So, as ever, it is with as much solidarity as I can muster that I offer this year’s playlist.

Previous playlists can be found here:

(I failed to make a playlist for 2016; sorry.)


P.S. On a more lighthearted note, I’ve been enjoyably listening my way through Fi Glover and Jane Garvey’s Fortunately podcast; readers of this post might like the 15 December episode with Clemency Burton-Hill, which also touches on this topic.


RIP Klaus K. Hübler

I just read of the sad passing of Klaus K. Hübler.

Hübler’s career was halted for several years by illness in the 1990s, although I’m not sure if there is a connection. He is remembered chiefly for his innovations in the ‘decoupling’ of instrumental technique – whereby individual performer actions (fingers, lips, bows, breath etc) were considered independently of one another, often against the grain of conventional performance practice. Among those on whom he had a great influence were Richard Barrett, Aaron Cassidy, Evan Johnson and Timothy McCormack – all composers dear to this blog’s heart and history.

Hübler’s output is not large, and it is fiendishly difficult. Nevertheless, recordings may be found, notably this double portrait disc on Telos. While you wait for that to come back into stock, here are some other things that can be found online:

Those interested in learning more about Hübler’s work may be interested in this online conversation conducted here with members of the ELISION Ensemble from 2010, discussing his music in advance of a concert that included CERCAR (I believe the video above was recorded the following day).


Borough New Music in 2018


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.


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.

2017: Sounds of the Year

I like to think not only of recordings of the year, but sounds of the year. My musical (sometimes simply auditory) experiences are all organised similarly in my mind, around moments in time and their subsequent reverberations; and that goes equally for things on record as it does for things heard live. So here goes. A list of ten, mostly in no particular order.

James Weeks/EXAUDI – Mala punica (Winter & Winter)

That said, I’ve placed this first because I think it was the first album I heard this year that I knew would have to be on a list like this. Enthusiasm for this disc – certainly Weeks’ most approachable, and perhaps also his most beautiful to date – spread infectiously among critics on both sides of the Atlantic (including Alex Ross and Steve Smith in the US). And deservedly so. Here’s what I wrote back in May: “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.”

Julius Eastman/Heloisa Amaral, Elisa Medinilla, Frederik Croene – Evil Nigger (Only Connect, Oslo, May)

A furious, roof-rending performance this, given in what was once a bank. I reviewed the festival for Tempo (Oct 2017 issue): “The three pianists, their instruments pointing into the centre of the hall (Calvary? Macbeth’s witches?), tore into Eastman’s hammered, fortissimo tremolos before, miraculously, staggeringly, refusing to let up for 30 minutes, generating a spinning storm of sound. Hearts stopped, eyes moistened. The marble walls of this former bank almost cracked.”

Aaron Cassidy, Liza Lim/ELISION – How Forests Think/The wreck of former boundaries (HCR)

Included here in particular for The wreck of former boundaries. Regular readers will know I’ve been following Aaron’s career for several years now, and I consider him (and several others involved with this recording) a good friend and a remarkable musical colleague. So I can’t pretend objectivity: but nevertheless, it’s fantastic to hear the long collaboration (and its own set of friendships) between Aaron and ELISION come to such thrilling fruition.

Chaya Czernowin/Vlaamse Opera – Infinite Now (Vlaamse Opera, Ghent, April)

Czernowin’s music has grown richer in recent years as its means have become sparer – a paradoxical image I think the composer would appreciate. A world away from the precise detailing of Pnima … ins innere, the opera that launched Czernowin onto the international stage at the end of the 1990s, Infinite Now is an opera of vast tableaux, intense, almost overwhelming energies, and supreme confidence. Compared to her work of even the 2000s there is a stripping back of surface activity – revealing vaster spaces beneath – and this six-act meditation on time and entrapment compressed in the mind into something that fitted and filled your skull.

György Kurtág/Reinbert de Leeuw, Asko|Schönberg, Netherlands Radio Choir – Complete Works for Ensemble and Choir (ECM)

A triple album of works spanning Kurtág’s career and containing authoritative performances of some his very best pieces, among them Grabstein für Stephan, Messages of the Late Miss R. Troussova (soprano: Natalia Zagorinskaya) and … quasi una fantasia … (piano: Tamara Stefanovich). Absent from many others’ best-of lists that I’ve seen, but this an essential (and very well presented) addition to your collection.

Laurence Crane/asamisimasa – Sound of Horse (Hubro)

Here’s what I wrote in Tempo (again, Oct 2017): “I confess I listened to the asamisimasa disc for the first time in a state of complete joy. The Norwegian group have long championed Crane’s music … and they have mastered his combination of human warmth and ironic glint.”

Isaiah Ceccarelli/Isaiah Ceccarelli, Katelyn Clark, Mira Benjamin, Galya Bisengalieva, Robert Ames, Gregor Riddell – Bow (another timbre)

Really, all of the extraordinary Canadian Composers series Simon Reynell has curated for his Sheffield-based label another timbre deserves to be here (others issued so far feature music by Linda Catlin Smith, Martin Arnold, Chiyoko Szlavnics and Marc Sabat), but forcing myself to pick a single disc I come down to this one. Ceccarelli is the composer I knew least about in advance of listening these discs (and writing about them for The Wire at the start of the year), but his was the one that really knocked my sideways when I put it on, for its startling transparency. And although I couldn’t attend that night, I understand his portative organ and percussion duo with Katelyn Clark at Café Oto as part of the series’ launch weekend was another highlight. One to watch.

Heiner Goebbels/Insomnio – Industry and Idleness, Herakles 2, Suite for sampler and ensemble, La Jalousie (Gaudeamus Muziekweek, Utrecht, September)

Why isn’t Goebbels’ music heard much more widely, especially in the UK? Perhaps my initial reaction to this concert reflects my own ignorance, but it also speaks to how much I enjoyed it. I hear a lot of music (some of it quite bad) dragging samplers, beats and so on into a new music context; I’ve not heard much that does it as well as Goebbels’ Suite. Then there’s his effortless eclecticism and theatricality. I brought Ensemble Klang’s recording of Goebbels’ Walden home with me from Gaudeamus, and my newly discovered affection for his music has continued to grow.

Ragnar Kjartansson/various – An die musik (LCMF, London, December)

While there were undoubted highlights along the way (performances and works by Joan La Barbara, Chris Newman, Jürg Frey and James Tenney among those that I saw, featuring lots of involvement from Apartment House), my LCMF experience felt a little more ragged than usual by the end of the week. Perhaps I hadn’t gone to the right nights. The opening Sunday afternoon, with Ragnar Kjartansson’s seven-hour installation An die musik, was something else, however. Massed pianos again (see Eastman above): these seem to have been an emotional trigger for 2017, and again I found myself on the edge of tears at the enveloping humanity of the thing. Here’s a fuller review.

Bára Gísladóttir/Riot Ensemble – Suzuki Baleno (Nordic Music Days, London, December)

A small one to finish with. It has been a wonderful and humbling experience to work with the Riot Ensemble throughout 2017 as a member of their artistic board and in-house writer. Twice they provided highlights for me within larger events (the second being their premiere of Laurence Osborne’s stele for failed masculinity, Ctrl, at Huddersfield). Gísladóttir’s piece is a real gem, though: an evocation of the day, when she was aged eight, when her father returned home with a car (the eponymous Suzuki) that she knew he couldn’t afford. The way it used contemporary techniques (noise, fragmentation, silence) to capture the incomprehension, anxiety and wonder of that childhood moment was deeply, deeply touching.

Bubbling under:

Jennifer Walshe/Jennifer Walshe, Arditti Quartet – EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT (Only Connect, Oslo, May). Walshe’s masterpiece (so far). So glad I finally got to see it.

Aisha Orazbayeva, Tim Etchells – Seeping Through (Only Connect, Oslo, May). From my Tempo review: “Trump inevitably barged in. ‘Things to look out for in the first ten seconds of the Trump presidency’, intoned Etchells’ increasingly troubled voice, building step by step until: ‘Things to look out for in the first ten centuries of the Trump presidency’. Haha we laughed. Haha. Orazbayeva was a perfect foil, scratching and grinding loops of her own, playing her instrument like a cat worrying at a loose thread on the couch.”

Pascal Dusapin/Arditti Quartet, Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, Pascal Rophé – Quartet VI “Hinterland”, Quartet VII “Open Time” (aeon)

I still don’t know what to make of the prolific and widely acclaimed Pascal Dusapin. Much of his music leaves me cold. But then along comes this disc, including his peculiar Sixth Quartet, a so-called “hapax” that also features a full orchestra. The piece made little impression on me when it was performed at the Proms a few years ago, but this recording brings it to life. If I have a way into Dusapin’s music, this would be it.

John Cage, Christian Wolff/Philip Thomas, Apartment House – Concert for Piano and Orchestra, Resistance (HCR)

I’m still coming to terms with this one. Cage’s Concert is legendary, but more seen than heard – its flamboyantly open notation appearing in many 20th-century music textbooks. Thomas’s dedication to realising this work, on recording and in a concert from the University of Leeds (whose video stream I watched from my hospital bed in July) is to be applauded, and this double CD backed with a new work by Christian Wolff is a fine thing to have.

Peter Ablinger/Gisela Mashayekhi-Beer, Marcus Weiss, Hildegard Kleeb – Verkündigung (HCR)

Huddersfield Contemporary Records are fast becoming guilty of releasing more excellent discs than one can possibly keep up with. Here’s another interesting one – a fascinating excavation of one of the earliest pieces (composed in 1990) by one of the most important composers working today. Three versions are presented, two recorded in 2001 and one in 1998. A valuable document of recent musical history.

Late review: Ragnar Kjartansson, An die Musik @ LCMF

Five singer/pianist pairs play Schubert’s ‘An die Musik’, on a loop and at their own speed, together, in the same space, for seven hours. That’s the summary of Kjartansson’s piece. But it was one of those curious things that the more you watched and heard, the more you noticed and the more complex it became.

The sound was mostly generalised, but with a Schubertian profile – the curve of a line, the precisely grounded harmonic steps, the unique gift for registral balance. I’m curious to know how Kjartansson’s method manifests in his piece on Mozart’s ‘Contessa perdona’ aria, Bliss; are the two pieces characteristic of their source material in any meaningful way? Or am I imagining something in the Schubert installation here?

Moments in Schubert’s song – particularly going into the cadences – would rise and fall from the surface. Occasionally, and always unexpectedly, two duos would fall into step, throwing brief shafts of light across the scene.

For sustenance and to highlight the work’s physical demands of endurance the performers drank amply throughout – water mainly, but also coffee, tea, the odd glass of wine or beer. Within certain parameters they appeared able to take short comfort breaks (and longer ones when indicated by a roving curator, who would take up the piano part in their absence). The bar staff kept them supplied and there was something touching and human about their patterns of refilling water jugs and taking drinks orders. It reminded me of a hospital or a Mass. After five hours or so everyone was served fish and chips.

I stayed for about 90 minutes, around the middle. Everything was in full swing and the rhythms of the work had bedded in. But at the same time – about three hours in and with about three hours to go – things were also starting to fray. For the performers this was probably the toughest stretch, the grinding middle third. Not that it showed: the beginnings of fatigue, perhaps – and built in to the structure of the piece – but no drop in commitment. I caught one wonderful passage when the tenor Tom Kelly turned to sing directly (and with full ardour) to a clutch of three people sat just a couple of meters away to his side.

It’s a very calming environment. Order becomes chaos becomes a higher harmony. Like trees into a forest into a canopy. There’s a surprising amount to this piece and I doubt I discovered it all. Themes of superabundance, and the body, and ruin, obviously. Not history though, I think: the Schubert was there because of the sound he made and not for what his music signified, except for a general expression of refinement, tastefulness and order.

I thought this was an extraordinary event, and I wish I could have caught more of it. Such is my life these days I dropped in after having seen the new Paddington film with the family, and for the second time in one afternoon I was moved to tears. Damn you, Aunt Lucy; damn you, Ragnar Kjartansson.

Alba New Music Festival, Edinburgh

Just a quick heads-up if you’re in the Edinburgh area this weekend that I will be appearing at the Alba New Music Festival on Saturday morning, speaking with John Hails on the subject of ‘Challenging Times/Challenging Music’.

Events at the same venue straight afterwards include Simon Cummings introducing the music of John Wall, and a live improvisation from Wall himself – so why not come along?

Details of all the weekend’s events (which has a focus on Brian Ferneyhough this year) can be found here.

Quick thoughts on language, composition and ‘post-genre’ music


I was intrigued by this article by Bienen School of Music senior Hannah Schiller, recently published in NewMusicBox. Schiller tackles the thorny subjects of language, specifically how we describe certain kinds of music-making, in a post-genre context.

I absolutely agree: language is a problem. What do we call what that musical stuff that our community likes and makes and listens to and writes about? Classical music. What does that mean? Western art music. What does that mean?

It means we’ll manage, master your language. And in the meantime, I’ll create my own. So continues the Tricky lyric – and it’s what I think Schiller is getting at too. That is, that the words we use to describe that musical stuff we all like etc are terribly loaded and often don’t work well at describing what it is we mean. Here’s a relevant passage from the book:

Any examination of what might qualify as Western art music in the twenty-first century shows that the borders of this definition have become highly permeable and fuzzy. Clearly it can accommodate scored works for (predominantly) acoustic performers, like the Ustvolskaya and Reich examples [Piano Sonata no.6 and Different Trains, respectively]. But what about Japanoise, which is created for recording and employs many of the facts of recording, such as overload and distortion, as part of its aesthetic? Can it include Westerkamp’s soundwalks, which involve no performers at all and do not take place in anything we might recognize as a conventional concert space? What about Richard Barrett’s (b. 1959) Codex series (2001–), which is a set of guided instructions for group improvisation, or Amnon Wolman’s (b. 1955) text pieces, which do away with the performer-audience divide and even raise questions as to the way in which they are listened to. And what about Ludovico Einaudi (b. 1955), who, in albums such as Le Onde (1996) and Nightbook (2009), combines aspects of eighteenth-century classical style with minimalism and sentimental pop balladry to appeal to a mass audience?

So much for the “art” and “music” elements of the term. But what about the “Western”? As globalization is one of the main forces to have influenced music of the last two and half decades, what is meant by the “Western” in Western art music deserves some consideration. First of all, it no longer means quite what it used to. At one time, before the Internet, before satellite communications, before the explosion in commercial recording, before global organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations, the West of Western art music was much the same as the West of geography: Europe and North America. Now, as can be seen in the examples of Bright Sheng and Merzbow presented in this chapter, as well as many hundreds of other composers from South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania, it is something more complicated than that. One can compose Western art music without necessarily coming from or living in the geographical West.

Here, “Western” is as much a historical construct as it is a geographical or geopolitical one. It refers to a kind of music making that belongs to a tradition originating in the West (and propagating many of its values) and maintains certain continuities with that tradition (especially in its modes of production and consumption, and perhaps also in some of its formal properties), but it need not be physically situated there. Those who write Western art music enter a particular sphere of connected approaches, styles, chains of prestige, and flows of cultural and financial capital, just as an Algerian rapper enters the different sphere of approaches, styles, chains of prestige, and flows of cultural and financial capital that define hip-hop. Likewise, to be accepted into that sphere, musicians must meet certain conditions.

In the face of such problems, Schiller suggests, we need to come up with some new terms. In my own work, I lean on the idea of ‘composition’ as a description – it’s in the subtitle of Music after the Fall, and it was the subject of a paper I recently gave at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference (title: ‘The limits of “composition”: On frames for music and frames for music history’) in which I experimentally adapted Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ to recent compositional practice to see what it had to say about ‘composition’ as a genre-limiting category. On that note, I was especially interested to read in Schiller’s article that while a musician such as Missy Mazzoli (pictured) rejects most genre identifiers, she still holds on to the notion of composition as a mode of distinction:

According to her, using words like “new classical” is not exciting. She herself is an example of attempts at shifting the language surrounding emerging music; her group Victoire calls itself a band, and she often resists association with the term “classical.” When I asked how she talks about the music that she engages with, she responded:

I identify with the word composer, because I do come out of the classical tradition. I like that term, but anything beyond that, I feel like it’s always used against me to confine or associate my work with music that doesn’t belong with it or has nothing to do with it.

What bothers me a little about Schiller’s article is how in its search for new language and new contexts it draws on some pretty old-fashioned ideas: authorial intent, the individual genius and the passive audience:

Post-genre thinking seeks to move away from objective judgment of music towards a subjective reality, where the emphasis is no longer on whether a certain piece fits/does not fit a pre-conceptualized genre “bin.” Instead, the emphasis is on the individual intent of the composer. The individual is quite important to post-genre thinking.

Genre isn’t (just) something that composers write within (although it is partly that, to varying degrees); it’s a socially determined matrix for making sense of things. It’s not just the case that a composer writes a string quartet; a listener also hears it and thinks ‘oh, a string quartet’. Both sides of that equation are active parts of the musical process; what’s more, they don’t always have to agree. Focusing solely on the intent of the composer leads down some dark (but not interesting) alleys, not least towards what I believe to be a destructive focus on the individual’s wants or needs or self-expression at the expense of those of the community. (Without wanting to get too heavy, this is a trajectory that Adam Curtis has identified as at the root of many of the 21st-century’s ills.)

I’m not sure, incidentally, that my own usage of ‘composition’ as a term of distinction gets around that problem entirely either, since – as my RMA paper was forced to conclude – it depends to a very great extent on the self-identification of composers themselves as composers. Although, as I made clear, that self-identification occurs because of a wider in-group/out-group dynamic that incorporates wider aspects of prestige and remuneration according to the musical world in which those musicians operate. There isn’t an easy answer here, and critical sensitivity is required.

The original Tricky verse, incidentally, is pretty nihilistic: You and me. What does that mean? / Always. What does that mean? / Forever. What does that mean? It means we’ll manage, master your language. / And in the meantime, I’ll create my own. / By my own.