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.

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

Mazzoli

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.

Is Culture (Necessarily) Digital?

Extraordinary column from Ed Vaizey in this week’s The Drum. Under the headline ‘The tech revolution is barely touching the world of culture – and it should be’ Vaizey, the former minister for culture, communications and sport,  writes that the ‘technology revolution is barely touching the world of culture’.

Vaizey is writing on behalf of #CultureIsDigital, ‘a conversation between Government, the cultural sector and tech companies, led by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’ that aims to consider ‘how culture and technology can work together to drive audience engagement, unleash the creative potential of technology and boost the capability of cultural organisations’.

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In somewhat muddled fashion, Vaizey argues that the tech industry is more … technologically advanced, and that the culture industry needs to keep up. Why? Well, there’s some stuff in there about the private sector delivering the smartphone, networks and apps, for what they’re worth. (Well, ‘networks’ – presumably he means the internet – were a state-funded university invention; as have been many other things more useful than smartphones and apps. But whatever.)

And there’s this:

Consider the familiarity of a gallery, with its paintings on the walls; a play, often in a Victorian theatre; or a concert performed in black tie and listened to in reverential silence. Some might say this is a good thing – culture Is [sic] one of the few places to offer respite from the hurly burly of the modern world, the place to put away the smart phone, switch off and dive in.

I’m not sure what Vaizey’s suggesting here. Should we get rid of paintings because of their obstinate flatness? Should we talk over music in concerts, because listening feels old-fashioned? Look, some things are how they are not because they are ‘Victorian’ (I thought Conservatives loved all that anyway) but because that is how they are. Paintings are flat objects for hanging on walls. Music is sounds in time, to be listened to with attention. There’s not really any ‘technological’ way of getting around this.

(As for his proposal to demolish and rebuild the UK’s theatrical building stock, this seems an audacious extravagance – particularly in these times – but I’m sure many people would love the idea.)

A more remarkable sentence is this, calling for more ‘technological’ presentations:

Theatre is now common in the cinema, but virtual and augmented reality have barely been explored, not to mention the blending of digital and live content in performances.

First of all, slapping VR or AR onto something doesn’t make it better. (On the contrary; I would argue that given the increased environmental burden of the technology required it should clear a higher bar of artistic value.) It does make it different. But there’s a reason most theatre works best under a proscenium arch, with the actors facing out towards the audience: because that’s how it was written. If you want to write AR/VR theatre you need to start from the ground up. And, oh, guess what, that’s what writers, producers and directors are starting to do.

(Incidentally, one reason VR has ‘barely been explored’ may simply be the scale of the technological challenge. VR visuals have got pretty good in recent years, but my understanding is that convincing VR sound, that ‘moves’ in the same way as video, remains very difficult to achieve.)

As for the blending of digital and live content in performance, I don’t know where to begin. Has Vaizey been to a new music concert recently? Or a new opera? You can barely move these days for some sort of digital tech layering the work, whether in the form of video or sound, live or pre-recorded. Some of this is good, some of it less so; that’s the nature of art. But the point is that it is very much extant, and its innovations are being led by composers, writers and artists. (And a lot of that innovation, incidentally, is state-funded, via universities, the Arts Council, or otherwise.) Just not the ones that Vaizey appears to be aware of, who were making their work for different times and different spaces.

I’m sure there is space for culture and tech to work more closely together, as indeed they already are. But it’s not the one-way street Vaizey suggests; neither is it an opposition between uselessly outmoded ways of doing things and a shiny techno-utopia.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Ivan Vukosavljević

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Ivan Vukosavljević

It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.

Today is the turn of Ivan Vukosavljević.

Ivan-Vukosavljevic_c_-il-hoon-son-jpg

Compared to his fellow nominees, Serbian composer Ivan Vukosavljević is a bit of mystery. He doesn’t have a website, and biographical information is not easy to find. Here’s a little of what I’ve been able to stitch together. He was born in 1986 and studied first at the University of Arts in Belgrade, before moving to The Hague in 2014 to study at the Royal Conservatory; he lives there still. His works have been performed by, among others, The Hague’s Ensemble Klang and Belgrade’s Ensemble Metamorphosis. In 2015 his The Sly Reeds was developed and performed by Emulsion Ensemble as part of the Cheltenham Music Festival’s Composer Academy.

Fortunately, Vukosavljević’s music is easier to come by, although this doesn’t mean it’s easy to pin down either. For his Gaudeamus portrait he speaks of creating works from single sounds, which are explored to their fullest. ‘Small, “unwanted” sounds’ blown up to the scale of works. He also applies a rigorously unified conception: ‘I never introduce something mid-piece that has nothing to do with what’s been going on. Everything that happens comes from something that happened before.’

Minimalism is a clear influence. Yet while Drill for two pianos recalls the neo-romantic drama and energy of Adams’ Phrygian Gates, Vukosavljević frequently takes his music to darker, more ambiguous places. Trills, Spills & Bellyaches (the first Happy Mondays-inspired new music title I’ve encountered) adds more aggressive attacks and crunching, distorted dissonances to similar material. Guitars again!

Other pieces are still more monolithic in nature, dropping the rhythmic pulse almost entirely to focus on prising open their initiating ‘small sounds’. The Atlas Slave, Vukosavljević’s nominated piece, builds from the sound of guitar strings bowed on the instrument’s neck and to the left of the fingers. Out of this he draws spectral-like wind chords and percussive trills that roll in like clouds. His inspiration is Michelangelo’s idea of the ‘non-finito’, of leaving part of a sculpture unfinished, so that it appears captured in the moment of its emergence from the raw stone. Vukosavljević’s piece steps a similar line between poetry and its base material.

As Dragana Stojanović-Novičić has shown in her chapter in The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music, minimalism has been a presence in Serbian music since the mid-1970s, emerging from longer-established tendencies towards reductionism among some composers and a rebellion against the officially approved neo-classicism taught at the Belgrade Music Academy. Deeper examination of this history is a subject for another post, but I hear in such works a more complex, ambivalent relationship to Western musical history than in the music of Glass or Reich. Something of that ambivalence has passed into Vukosavljević’s music, which carries within it a delicious tension between emptiness and plenitude, reminiscent I think of the dark nostalgia of Kancheli or Terterian.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Chaz Underriner

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Chaz Underriner

It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.

Today is the turn of Chaz Underriner.

Underriner

Composer, intermedia artist and performer – on guitar, lute and theorbo – Chaz Underriner was born in Texas in 1987. He studied at California Institute of the Arts with Michael Pisaro and Anne LeBaron, returning to his home state to study for his PhD at University of North Texas, where his teachers were Joseph Klein, Panayiotis Kokoras, David Stout and Jon Nelson. He currently lives in Dallas. His music is known in both the US and Europe, where it has been performed at the Proyector International Video Art Festival (Madrid), INM Darmstadt, Impuls Festival (Graz) and elsewhere.

As a performer Underriner has performed at REDCAT’s Sofia Gubaidulina festival (Los Angeles, 2011), Deep Camp Festival, Ostrava Music Days and elsewhere, and has appeared on several recordings. Most notable perhaps of these so far is his reinterpretation on Edition Wandelweiser Records of works by Anastassis Phillipokopoulos, in which three of the Greek composer’s simple melodic Songs are reborn at glacial pace as vast, almost featureless landscapes.

The simile is deliberate. The bulk of Underriner’s compositional work falls into one of two series. The second of these, begun in 2014, is the Landscape Series and comprises five pieces to date (the first is the Nocturne Series, 2012–14, and comprises seven pieces).

In the Landscape Series, the idea of landscape is explored through field recordings, video and chamber music in various combinations; Landscape Series 1 is the composite work that brings together the five individual works composed so far – Backroads for video and 8-channel audio; Landscape: Graz for video, field recording and koto; Landscape: Texas Plains for violin, electric guitar and double bass; Landscape: Clarinet Trio; and Landscape: Trombone Quartet. It’s possible to get a sense of how Underriner has woven these individual pieces into a single 72-minute tapestry from the score, in which each original work is clearly identified, and in which the amount of cutting and splicing that has taken place can be made out.

Stylistically, the videos make use of very long shots – horizontal pans in the case of Graz, dashboard camera footage of road trips across Texas in the case of Backroads – and the overlaying of footage. In Graz (as can be seen in the extracts shown in the following video) the overlays are extensive and give the video its particularly strange visual character. In the case of Backroads crossfades between layers of footage are more occasional; here the focus is more on the hypnotic effect of the eternally unspooling road ahead. The field recordings are not aligned with the video – they are recorded and mixed separately – but they are appropriate: birdsong and tarmac roar for the Texas drive; street, fairground and bar noises for Graz. The final element, live instruments (or sine waves in the case of Backroads), is comprised largely of drones, short, repeating plucked motifs, very close harmonies and beating patterns; a sort of abstraction (or, alternatively, live realisation) of the flat textures and extended timespans of the video and field recording elements.

Underriner describes the theme of the Landscape Series as ‘the translation of the notion of landscape from that of a two-dimensional static image (as in 19-century landscape painting) into a multiplicity of environmental experiences’. Although, as he admits, these pieces are ‘steeped in a very local experience of landscape’, they also speak to more general preoccupations in the worlds of contemporary art and music: of the expression of space as time, of journey forms, of intense subjectivity, of the representation of the real. Backroads in particular has a kind of hypnotic effect, of a landscape that is self-similar enough to be essentially static and 2D, but that is paradoxically in constant motion: a multidimensional, multimedia form of painting, almost – but always impermanent, unravelling, exhausting and renewing – that seems deeply in touch with its times.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Aart Strootman

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Aart Strootman

It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.

Today is the turn of Aart Strootman.

Strootman

Several of this year’s Gaudeamus nominees are also performers – see also Sky Macklay (oboe) and Chaz Underriner (plucked strings) – but in Aart Strootman’s case the line between his work as a composer and his work as a guitarist is harder to draw. In fact his musicking in general stretches far beyond composition’s traditional realm.

Born in 1987, Strootman studied at the Fontys School of Fine Arts, Tilburg, and the University of Utrecht, gaining degrees in music, music theory and musicology. He currently teaches in Tilburg on subjects from music analysis to performance studies. He performs in a guitar duo with Bram Stadhouders, playing self-composed works that blend improvisation and minimalism, and in the band s t a r g a z e – familiar in the UK as the band for last year’s David Bowie tribute prom – as well as several other groups. Not least among these is TEMKO, the ‘minimal-chamber-metal band’ Strootman founded in 2012 as a platform for his own compositions. On top of all of this, he is also an active new music advocate, commissioning works by student composers through the ensemble F.C. Jongbloed that he leads with percussionist Arnold Marinissen; and as a member of the composer collective behind the De Link chamber music series in Tilburg.

Minimalism, and its intersections with rock, is an important part of Strootman’s work: his online presence is threaded through with connections to Steve Reich and Radiohead/Johnny Greenwood, for example. (In one short portrait video on his site he is shown building a custom eight-string guitar signed by Reich and designed to play his music. Another video shows the guitar in action in an outdoor rendition of Electric Counterpoint.) He has also performed alongside Bryce Dessner. An especially intriguing work, although I’ve only been able to find snippets of it, is Tannhäuser, a piece for TEMKO that stretches 90 seconds of the overture to Wagner’s opera into ’34 minutes of minimal grooves’.

Yet Strootman’s work is more than just riffing on riffs. As Tannhäuser suggests, there is a conceptual side to his output too. And not everything is written for his own groups – he has also composed plenty of music for others to play, although full-length examples are frustratingly hard to come by online. Letter Sparks Debate, composed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shooting of 2015, is a stripped-down piece of music theatre for clarinet, speaker and cigarette lighters, setting a series of online reactions, comments and hot takes posted in the wake of the attack. Punchy and bare-bones in style, this is a long way from Strootman’s lusher, guitar-based work. In a weird way this feels like quite a ‘British’ piece– it wouldn’t be out of place in a gig at the One Hundred Years Gallery, for example, programmed alongside pieces by Claudia Molitor or Christopher Fox. Perhaps there’s a peculiar Dutch spiral here that comes out of Louis Andriessen, visits Richard Ayres and comes back again.

More than that of the other composers at Gaudeamus this week, Strootman’s work encompasses solo composition, performance and group work. As a result, it’s not easy to pin him down to a single track. However, here’s a helpful Spotify playlist that collects together a substantial chunk of that output.

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Sky Macklay

Gaudeamus 2017 nominees: Sky Macklay

It’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek, and as part of the festival I’m conducting on-stage ‘meet the composer’ interviews with the five nominees for the Gaudeamus award for young composers. Every day this week (and in alphabetical order) I’m also posting my own short introduction to each composer here. Once they’re published, you’ll be able to find them all under this blog’s Gaudeamus 2017 tag.

Today is the turn of Sky Macklay.

Macklay

Composer and oboist (and occasional installation artist) Sky Macklay was born in Minnesota in 1988. She has studied at Luther College and the University of Memphis, and is currently working on her DMA at Columbia University with the distinguished teaching trio of George Lewis, Georg Friedrich Haas and Fred Lerdahl. An enthusiastic educator herself, she teaches at Columbia and at the Walden School Young Musicians Program in Dublin, New Hampshire.

Her music is widely performed among US ensembles, including ICE, Dal Niente and Yarn/Wire, and her string quartet Many Many Cadences – her Gaudeamus piece – was recorded by the Spektral Quartet on their Grammy-nominated album Serious Business. She herself plays with Ghost Ensemble, and has also appeared with Ensemble Pamplemousse and Counter)induction, and at the MATA Festival.

Macklay stands out from this shortlist in several ways. She’s the only composer of the five without a significant place for guitars in her output. She’s also the only woman – though the Gaudeamus shortlist is judged anonymously, so all else being equal this low representation is a reflection of the number of women entrants as much as anything else. She’s the composer stylistically closest to what we might call the European new music tradition – someone has to be – and she’s the only composer whose works explicitly evoke extra-aesthetic themes. (Chaz Underriner’s landscape studies I take as artistic transfigurations of Texas, rather than works about Texas, though of course this is a fuzzy distinction.)

Macklay addresses her themes with a commendably unflinching eye. Sing Their Names for chorus – a #blacklivesmatter piece like her teacher Haas’s I can’t breathe – sets the names of 51 people of colour killed by police in the USA. Otherwise unadorned, the text cycles through the names, like a memorial plaque, while the music moves gradually from stabbing outbursts, like kicks or gunshots, through a disorientingly dense babble to what the composer describes as ‘a stoic but unified sonic wall of solidarity and mourning’.

While Macklay’s use of names in a list echoes much contemporary memorial practice, in both music and the visual arts, abstracted systems appear often in her work as source material or scaffolding. Lessina Levlin Levlite Levora, a darkly humorous sort of cabaret turn for male voice, violin and electronics on the emotional and physical seduction and trauma of birth control products, is structured around an alphabetical list of contraceptive pills and devices, alongside extracts of their side effects and online testimonies from their users. Many Many Cadences, her Gaudeamus-nominated work, uses a related structural device, but transplanted into a purely musical context: rapid chains of tonal cadences in every major and minor key, which are gradually deconstructed by glissandi and parts dropping out before being partially restored, the internal echo of these over-familiar gestures filling in the blanks of what we hear.