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.

Rambler releases of 2020

In no particular order, some of my favourite releases of 2020.

Liza Lim: Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (KAIROS)

An essential release of what will surely be one of the most important, powerful and original compositions of the decade. A transformative work in Lim’s career, you can hear in real time the disintegration of her previous compositional voice and its metamorphic re-emergence from the rubble. Shoring fragments (Janáček, Chinese astrology, the songs of extinct birds) against her ruin, this is a musical Wasteland for the age of the climate crisis.

Moor Mother: Circuit City (Don Giovanni)

Bleak, angry, restorative, hopeful. Camae Ayewa was a howl of productivity against 2020’s numerous oppressions. Circuit City, an album I listened to and excavated day after day in December, just pipped Offering, with Nicole Mitchell, released earlier in the lockdown.

Clara Iannotta: Earthing (WERGO)

One of a number of composers who have broken through into something much deeper and darker in the last few years (see also Tim McCormack and Iannotta’s teacher Chaya Czernowin): there’s a doom-core/drone metal vibe to Iannotta’s second CD that one can hear permeating the music of several other composers at the moment. Few do it with Iannotta’s lightness of touch, though.

Beatriz Ferryra: Echos+ (Room40)

I knew nothing of Beatriz Ferryra before this year, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. The trio of new works released as Huellas Entreveradas (Persistence of Sound) in May revealed an important and singular voice in contemporary electronic composition. But this collection of earlier pieces, released a couple of months before, was the real knockout, epitomised by the previously unreleased title piece from 1978, a ghostly collage created from the voice of her late niece.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift)

Released in early January, Anna Höstman’s album of piano solos, played by Cheryl Duvall, is a capsule from an entirely other era. We shouldn’t forget that other life, though, and Harbour is a reminder of a more careless, casually meandering, simply beautiful time. Brief review here.

Linda Catlin Smith: Meadow (Louth CMS)

Any new recording of Linda Catlin Smith’s music is to be welcomed, but this issue of Meadow, released by Louth Contemporary Music Society near the very end of the year (launch event on 11 December here) feels very special. A 30-minute string trio, Meadow scrapes a little deeper into the influences of early music that frequently run beneath the surface of Smith’s music: like a Dufay motet it conveys an atmosphere of melody and polyphony without constraint, but also of contemplation and extraordinary warmth. If Höstman caught the end of the pre-pandemic world, maybe her Canadian contemporary points to a future after it.

Sarah Hennies: The Reinvention of Romance (Astral Spirits)

2020 feels like it was the breakthrough year for composer and percussionist Sarah Hennies. Last September’s Reservoir 1 made many end-of-2019 lists, but this year that position has been built upon and, remarkably, expanded with two releases: Spectral Malsconcities and The Reinvention of Romance. Both records are examples of a stark yet organic minimalism, characterised by patience, sensitivity and unsettling tension. The latter just pips it though for its capturing of love in the time of Covid – a negotiation of shared spaces, intimacies and solitudes.

Daniel Lentz and Ian William Craig: In a Word (RVNG Intl.)

When I was invited to contribute marketing notes to this album I knew nothing of Ian William Craig’s haunted combination of classically trained voice and crippled technologies, but I was quickly sold on his music’s haunted nostalgia. In combination with Daniel Lentz’s expansive piano minimalism, In a Word (the sixteenth in RVNG’s FRKWYS series of intergenerational collaborations) conjures something between the disintegrating texture of William Basinski and the yearning ghost of Schubert song. Wonderful.

Milana Zarić and Richard Barrett: Mirage (Strange Strings)

Typically for him, Richard Barrett has taken the circumstances of the pandemic and lockdown as a prompt to reexamine the fundamentals of his practice. In 2003, following the invasion of Iraq, he began a reassessment of his work in view of what responsible artists should do in the face of war and parliamentary deceit – a process that began with the orchestral work NO and culminated (although did not end) with 2012’s CONSTRUCTION. In 2020 he has sought ways in which to turn enforced isolation to his advantage – no small challenge for a composer whose work is so enmeshed with performance and collaboration. One outcome has been a turn to electronic composition, documented on strange lines and distances; another is the development of the duo with his partner, harpist Milana Zarić, begun with Barrett’s 2013 work for harp and electronics tendril, but taking on a new significance with the curtailment of all other shared performance opportunities in 2020. nocturnes was one of my compositional highlights of last year, and the new pieces mirage, restless horizon and sphinx highlight still further Barrett’s refusal to constrain his imagination.

Angharad Davies/Tim Parkinson: The Quarantine Concerts (Experimental Sound Studio/YouTube)

The March lockdown represented a fundamental challenge to every musician on the planet. Many are still finding it hard to produce work under pandemic conditions. One composer who came fast out of the gates, even found the constrictions a spur to creativity, was Tim Parkinson. Parkinson’s 2020 album Here Comes a Monster (Takuroko) was released in May 2020, and somehow already incorporated compositional responses to quarantine. But this even earlier performance, from the first month of Experimental Sound Studio’s (still-running) Quarantine Concerts series stuck with me (at a time when I, for one, still found it hard to engage with new music) for its whimsical reinvention of Parkinson’s opera Time with People, played by him and Angharad Davies using Playmobil toy figures. For more like that, see also the split-screen performance with James Saunders, 24 Preludes.

Bastard Assignments: Lockdown Jams (Bastard Assignments/YouTube)

Trust BA to make 2020 even weirder and more unsettling. The Lockdown Jams emerged from short studies in making experimental music theater over Zoom and Google Hangouts, but quickly grew into a series of commissioned works by (among others) Marcela Lucatelli, Neil Luck, Alexander Schubert, Elaine Mitchener and Tommaso Petrolo, and Jennifer Walshe. As the series has gone on, the Lockdown Jams have taken an increasingly classical approach to Zoom/isolation aesthetics (see Walshe’s zusammen iii, and Thick and Tight’s wonderful Woking), but the early instantiations capture like nothing else the unravelling, baffling, inexpertly improvisational mess that was spring 2020. Read my review here.

Linda Buckley: From Ocean’s Floor

I’m really enjoying Linda Buckley’s new album, From Ocean’s Floor, released on NMC last week. Until now I’ve always associated Buckley’s music (I interviewed her a decade ago as part of my ’10 for ’10’ series) with a kind of lush, folky minimalism – almost an Irish Górecki, perhaps. On From Ocean’s Floor that side of her work is very much apparent. But it is done here with a subtlety of imagination that goes beyond that simple description. You may think you’ve heard before the strings and plaintive voice combination of the eponymous opening piece, Ó Íochtar Mara, but as Buckley’s melodies stretch out in unexpected directions, and as the voice of traditional sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird glides across the surface, the music is energised into something entirely new. As the work proceeds an electronic part comes to the fore, adding a hauntological tone to proceedings as the strings recede and are replaced by echoes, long loops, and digitally stretched vocals.

Fridur, for piano and electronics, takes its inspiration from the uneasy, fragile atmosphere of Icelandic landscapes (its title is Icelandic for ‘peace’, a complicated concept in relation to Iceland’s restless geology). This dark edge comes to the fore in Discordia, in which poppy synth arpeggios break down completely into a frightening howl of noise that could easily be added to the Stranger Things soundtrack. There is a chilling absence at the heart of these works that subverts any forceful declamations they may try to make. (I was not surprised to learn that Buckley wrote Discordia in response to her experience of moving to the USA, on a Fulbright scholarship, in autumn 2016.) What is particularly striking about Buckley’s work is the way in which the ear is seduced into these dark territories: her materials (plangent melodies, luxuriant washes of sound) at first seem straightforward; her motifs (oceans, floating, peace) almost twee and certainly not confrontational. Yet the intensity of her work is irresistible, and turns all these notions away from the expected: oceans are deep and dark, to float is to be unmoored, peace has a cost. It’s a subversion that many musicians attempt, but few manage this well.

With three more works on the disc – the homesick, Bartók-inspired Haza for string quartet electronics; Kyrie, in which Buckley performs on both voice and electronics; and Exploding Stars for violinist Darragh Morgan – this is a generous portrait that is full of surprises and unsettling questions.

Albums to look out for in 2020

Albums to look out for in 2020

This is the season of end-of-year lists (I’m pleased to see several of my top 10 make it into The Wire‘s albums of the year). But it is also a time of year when many great recordings are still coming out that might get overlooked in twelve months’ time. I want to give quick shoutouts to a few of these that have become aware of in the last few weeks.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift Records)

When I wrote about Canadian experimental composers for The Wire a couple of years ago, Anna Höstman‘s name was one that came up in my research, even though I wasn’t able to write about her at the time. Harbour (released 11 Jan 2020) is an album of piano solos, played with great finesse and concentration by Cheryl Duvall. I emphasise concentration, because Höstman’s music demands a combination of intense mindfulness and extremely long-range thought. Not unlike her compatriot Martin Arnold, she is fascinated by musical lines – rather than encasing structures – that unfurl and loop and roll under their own volition. At points they seem to catch, on a motif or a chord, and at these moments the repetitions bring Feldman to mind. At other times, the music meanders quite carelessly, but somehow always doing enough to hold your attention. The 25-minute title piece, composed in 2015, is particularly sumptuous. One not to miss in 2020.

Robert Haigh: Black Sarabande (Unseen Worlds)

Another record due out at the start of 2020, this is also another one for fans of off-kilter piano music. Haigh’s second album for Unseen Worlds occupies a sonic space filled with hauntological tape hiss, synth pads and almost-out-of-earshot field recordings. Shades of Harold Budd, as well as Vangelis’s Bladerunner, with a harmonic and textural subtlety – a hallmark of Haigh’s work that runs all the back to his drum ‘n’ bass days as Omni Trio – that keeps it all from shading into simple ambience. Unseen Worlds had a tremendous year in 2019; Tommy McCutchon’s label looks to be start strong in 2020 too.

ELISION: world-line (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

It’s great to have a proper recording of Richard Barrett’s world-line, a work that affected me deeply when I first heard it at the Transit festival in Leuven a few years ago. Written for custom-made lap-steel guitar, with percussion, trumpet and electronic accompaniments, it is not only an exemplary instance of Barrett’s interest in bespoke instrumental ergonomics but a moving (and forgivably masculine) portrait of his relationship with Daryl Buckley and ELISION: everyone duets with Daryl’s guitar, and the movement where Daryl and percussionist Peter Neville – partners in music for 30 years – get to improvise on their own is surprisingly touching.

Also on the disc are Timothy McCormack’s subsidence for lap-steel guitar (two players), a 30-minute pitch-black spiral down into slack strings and popping pickups. A seriously dark piece and a great taster for McCormack’s forthcoming portrait disc on Kairos. The CD is completed with Liza Lim’s Roda – The Living Circle, a trumpet solo for Tristram Williams drawn and elaborated from the ensemble work Roda – The Spinning World.

This one is already out: you can see full details at the NMC website.

POST-PRESS ADDITION: David Brynjar Franzson: longitude (Bedroom Community)

Another recent release is David Brynjar Franzson’s longitude, performed by Ensemble Adapter. Composed in moody instrumental and electronic atmospherics – jagged, hissing, perforated sounds that crossfade in and out – it’s a compelling soundscape that I’m sure is even more striking heard live. It’s also an exploration of the extraordinary story of the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, whose complex involvement in the Napoleonic Wars can be read as both heroic and traitorous: after fighting with the Danish against the British in the Gunboat Wars, he attempted to liberate Iceland from a Danish trade monopoly that was slowly starving its people; he named himself ‘Protector’ of Iceland, but after 40 days he was taken back to England, imprisoned, and eventually became a British spy working in France and Germany.

Over the course of longitude‘s 50 minutes, those sibilant atmospheres take on more emotionally provocative identities: the work is never programmatic (although one is free to imagine in its sounds something of Jørgensen’s voyages across the North Sea between Denmark and Great Britain; the famished state of Rejkyavik that he encountered in 1809; and the whistling harmonics of Scandinavian folk music), but draws one ever-deeper into sonic ambiguities that echo the shifting allegiances and morals of Jørgensen’s life. Worth the investment of time; you can get it through Bandcamp here.

 

Short review: Jane Antonia Cornish: Constellations (innova/Bandcamp)

Although I don’t write CD reviews here as much as I once did, I do still get sent things from time to time. Leafing through the pile this evening I came upon this CD of Constellations, a suite of pieces for piano, strings and electronics by the English-born, New York resident composer Jane Antonia Cornish. Not many discs recently have quite held my attention like this one. Cornish’s music is sparse, with combining plangent string melodies, chiming piano chords and hazy electronic drones. It would appeal to fans of Sigúr Ros, I’m sure, and there’s not a little shared with the Icelandic band’s brand of winter gloaming nostalgi-choly. Yet Cornish’s album is more stripped back than that. Its heart is not on its sleeve; more like in a bag still left at home. This quality of withdrawal I found deeply compelling – courageous, even, when all the pieces were in place for the music to go over the top. The whole album – whose five tracks flow seamlessly into one another – has the combination of hesitancy and confidence that you find in a child learning to walk. As the London sun sets at the end of a working week, it is proving a perfect accompaniment, and an utterly captivating surprise.

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.

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

innova 930

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

métier msv 28573

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.

chants

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.

 

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.

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.

Review: Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now, Ghent

Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now

Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent, 18 April 2017

Full cast and production team

The first thing you know going into the theatre for a performance of Chaya Czernowin’s third and newest opera, Infinite Now, is that it lasts two and a half hours, without a break. There are sound practical reasons for giving this information, but it remains a somewhat alarmist way to frame a piece. Yet in the event it proved useful for appreciation too. Infinite Now is a long work, and it is a slow one, adjectives now so negatively valorised these days in relation to music that I must immediately add: but not in a bad way. Big is just how it is.

Feldman’s line about the difference between form and scale comes to mind, but where Feldman’s art was still based on an essentially linear movement through time, an endless chain of extensions, Czernowin’s opera dwells. It inhabits its big box of time-space, all the way to its edges. It penetrates. It overwhelms.

Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations. It is about a woman at home and men at war, about going away and coming back, and about them being the same. In an attempt to capture this, I doodled this image in my notes on the journey home:

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The libretto combines Luk Perceval’s play FRONT (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and texts and letters from World War I) and Can Xue’s novel Homecoming (in which a woman returns to a house she once knew as her home, only to find that it is now perched, in unending darkness, on the edge of an abyss), at first holding the two scenarios quite distinct then, in the opera’s second half, gradually overlapping them until they occupy the same psychological space.

The music is unexpected. In contrast to her hyper-detailed scores of the 2000s Czernowin has been adding more and more space to her music recently, but even so Infinite Now comes as a shock, so pared down is it. This suits its slowness: ‘moments’ in the piece may last several minutes, giving them unavoidable mass. (The staging is even more stripped back, but in keeping with the work’s overall aesthetic also contains some of its most memorable moments.) The orchestra is large, and is supplemented by a concertante quartet of two guitars and two cellos (played by Nico Couck, Yaron Deutsch, Christina Meissner and Séverine Ballon), but it is the electronics that dominate. Composed in collaboration with IRCAM’s Carlo Laurenzi, the soundtrack is based on a number of concrete sounds – metal gates, trains, birds’ wings, breathing, rolling balls, pops of static and so on. These set out the work’s sonic template, around the sounds of air, either moving or being moved through. (Later the sounds of water are added, notably the splintered noise of ice stacking on Lake Superior.) The orchestral writing is related, and centres around sheets of sound and noise – waves of string glissandi, spatters of dots, an especially memorable three-minute quadruple fortissimo G for brass in Act VI. What moments of lyricism there are (and they are but moments, tightly and precisely rationed) are given to the voices and instrumental quartet. One passage at the end of Act IV took my breath away for sheer beauty; looking at the score the following morning I was amazed that it amounted to just two bars of guitar and voices, a fleeting vocal arabesque and perhaps ten seconds of electronics. Such is Infinite Now‘s power to shape and communicate the passage of time. Such is Czernowin’s authority as a composer. I cannot think of anyone else who could have written this opera: she is an artist at the height of her powers.

The next day I visited Ghent’s contemporary art museum, SMAK. Inside was an exhibition of three of Anna Oppermann’s ‘ensembles’, Myth and Enlightenment (1985–92), Paradoxical Intentions – To lie the Blue down from the Sky (1988–92) and, below, On the one hand – on the other hand; both … and (M+M) (1988).aop_smak-gent_nw_img_3631

Assemblages of elements, often surrealistically juxtaposed or extrapolated, originating in a small number of found objects brought into fortuitous conjunction, Oppermann’s works are halls of mirrors reflecting out in every physical and metaphysical dimension. No longer paintings or sculptures, although resembling both, they are piles of stuff, retracing, reworking, reimagining, repositioning their objects of attention in ways that penetrate and overwhelm you. More infinite nows, I thought, as I stood before them.