A fabulous concert at Kings Place last night by Riot Ensemble, crowned by a coda in memory of composer, singer and guitarist Alastair Putt. Putt’s Quincunx was commissioned by Riot in 2019 but because of the pandemic was only getting its premiere tonight, two months after Putt’s death. It is a really beautiful piece: intricate, clever, but light too; undogmatic and always surprising. Balanced somewhere between Britten and a hoedown (but much better than that makes it sound).
The big piece of the concert was David del Tredici’s Syzygy, sung by Sarah Dacey. Syzygy is a curious piece; there are some lovely moments, particularly in the first movement and at the start of the second, but it’s an oddly balanced work. I’m not sure it completely landed for me. Not because of the playing or singing, although one or two moments felt a shade uncertain. More that I wasn’t sure it was the right piece for this programme, or this venue.
Kings Place’s dry, detailed acoustic served much better the two pieces of the concert’s first half. Anna Korsun said she was nervous about how her Ulenflucht would sound – it was written for reverberant church acoustics – but being able to hear it all so precisely was magical; the dusk chorus effect of a circle of sounds emerging out of the hall itself was spellbinding, like being in a forest at twilight, with senses sharpened and all the accompanying mystery and terror.
But the star for me was Naomi Pinnock‘s (it looks like someone lived there), a setting – more a solution, really – of a line from Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Listening, I could only think: this is what a Woolf setting should sound like. I wrote in my programme note – working just from the score – that the work’s opening alterations of notes and chords were ‘like the Woolfean swell of a wave’, but the piece captured much more than that: the surge and taper of Mrs Ramsay’s stream of consciousness; the distributed perspectives (achieved by the simplest of means, just one note for the voice and then the same one for the flute)’ the way that, in Woolf, the small things are big and the big things small, the slow things happen quickly and the quick things happen slowly. But then there was also a stilling, a farewell, that absolutely captured the atmosphere of the Ramsay’s decaying holiday home in Lighthouse‘s central section. Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s conducting, to sustain the momentum of this slow disintegration, was superbly controlled, but really the piece is a gift. ‘I don’t know how she does so much with … almost nothing’, he told me afterwards. ‘She’s a witch!’
Beginning with this playlist, compiled deep in locked-down 2020, it has been something of a side project of mine to get to grips with the music of Anthony Braxton. Exactly two years on, I feel like I’m still only scratching the surface. For someone whose education and writing are so steeped in the author-work orthodoxy of Western art music, as mine are, Braxton’s music presents a number of challenges. (Those challenges are part of the reason for my interest, of course.) Among them is Braxton’s central role as performer and director of his own music. Braxton’s reputation is founded first on his saxophone and clarinet playing (he is still – as on the cover of Timo Hoyer’s recently published comprehensive overview – often pictured with one instrument or another to hand), and much of his discography features him as a performer. Often this has been forced by necessity: Braxton’s marginalisation by the art music establishment for much of his life required him to act as his own champion and impresario. For years, if he didn’t play his music, few others would. Nevertheless, the line between his different roles as composer and bandleader is a blurred one. This distinction is, to be sure, founded in a racially coded division between jazz and classical music, and in the different values the two respective genres (and the wider culture industry around them) place on writing and performing. But it does still heighten interest in recordings of Braxton’s music on which the composer himself is not present.
The Belgian guitarist Kobe Van Cauwenberghe has also been on a mission to explore Braxton’s music, although far more comprehensively and to much greater effect than I. In November 2020 he released an acclaimed solo album of three compositions in Braxton’s Ghost Trance Music (GTM) style (numbers 255, 284 and 358) on All That Dust. And a year later he brought a septet to Luxembourg’s Rainy Days festival to play Composition 255. A studio recording of this work, plus three other recordings with the same septet (Compositions 193, 264 and 358) make up this superb double LP. Braxton was in the audience in Luxembourg and, according to Hoyer’s somewhat effusive sleevenotes, ‘could hardly contain himself with emotion and excitement. Understandably so. I dare say he had never experienced his GTM concept from the listener’s perspective as varied, elaborate and fluid as on that day.’ My own view is that Van Cauwenberghe and his septet have redefined the landscape of Braxton recordings.
Ghost Trance Music is one of numerous compositional methods or styles Braxton has developed over the years, each of which adds new possibilities to his music while still accommodating those that have gone before (for a primer, see Seth Colter Walls’ introduction to Braxton’s compositional systems; for a deeper dive, see this article by Erica Dicker). Rather than moving episodically from one stylistic phase to another, Braxton’s career can be viewed as a tree or, better, as mycelium – a continually branching-converging network of threads that equally pushes forward and feeds back. Each compositional system is both spore, vessel and boring machine, offering ways of generating patches of this network, transiting through it, or cutting new paths across it. The GTM system – grounded in the Ghost Dance rituals by which the surviving fragments of decimated Native American populations pooled their knowledge and culture in the late nineteenth century in the face of colonial destruction – is one of the richest of these, and is the main focus of Van Cauwenberghe’s research. It is based around a form of endless melody, initially imagined in a steady, walking bass-type rhythm but later ornamented with complex rhythmic ‘breaks’ (irrational subdivisions of the beat). In Dicker’s analysis, this melody serves as a kind of musical highway, or ‘meta-road’, off which various diversions, off-ramps or intersections may be indicated, which the performer(s) may choose to follow (or not) according to Braxton’s suggestions. The system is designed, says Dricker, ‘to put the player in the driver’s seat, drawing his or her intentions into the navigation of the performance, determining the structure of the performance itself’.
Some of the diversions off the meta-road involve reference to secondary materials written on loose-leaf pages of score (a model of strict core and looser supplements somewhat like Ferneyhough’s Cassandra’s Dream Song, for example, although with a much wider range of freedoms and possibilities). Others involve the ‘language music’ that is one of Braxton’s first compositional systems – a set of twelve performance directives (trill every note, play legato melodies, play accented sustained notes, etc) indicated by graphic symbols. Still others involve tertiary or ‘outside’ materials, selected (prior to performance) from anywhere else in Braxton’s oeuvre. This may include primary melodies or secondary materials from any other GTM composition, or it might include material from any part of Braxton’s hundreds of other compositions. (The last section of Braxton’s tentet recording of Composition 286, from 2001, for example, features material from Composition 23A, first recorded on the seminal New York, Fall 1974 album.) As Dricker explains, over the eleven years that Braxton employed his GTM approach (between 1995 and 2006), he developed it in several ways, emphasising or de-emphasising different aspects, adding or substracting elements but always, in Braxton’s characteristic manner, with a view to increasing the music’s plurality and heterogeneity.
The collage approach – fundamental, I would say, to Braxton’s aesthetic – was developed in Braxton’s work with small ensembles, most notably his legendary quartet of the 80s and early 90s with Marilyn Crispell, Mark Dresser and Gerry Hemingway. It is documented in Graham Lock’s essential book, and on ferocious albums such as this. The fluidity of this music can be utterly thrilling, but if you are not familiar with at least some of Braxton’s other music, it can be hard to identify where the different collaged elements begin and end, and thus perceive the musical space in all its dimensions. In the meta-road approach of GTM, however, Braxton finds a sweet spot between freedom and control, between an easily identifiable foundation and easily identifiable diversion, without limiting the range or variety of those diversions (some of which are identified in Hoyer’s sleevenotes).
The four compositions on this album cover all four variations of the GTM style, from the simpler first phase of Composition 193, with its greater emphasis on the primary melody, no subdivisions of its regular pulse, and an emphasis on specified pitches in its secondary material (leading to a greater control of pitch overall); to the fourth, ‘accelerator class’, in which the primary melody beats are almost all subdivided or obscured (although still present on an intermediate level), and in which the melody moves through accelerating and decelerating waves; there are also fewer deviations from the primary melody indicated, although the melody itself is provided with numerous layers of colour, articulation and graphical elements that ensure that it is always different. Three, numbers 193, 255 and 358, have been recorded before – numbers 255 and 358 by Van Cauwenberghe himself on his solo recording. Number 264 appears to be given its first recording here.
In general, the septet’s playing is smoother than that of Braxton’s own groups: the staccato punch of the primary melody is less pronounced (it thus appears more as a continuous stream, albeit one whose contours are thoroughly unpredictable); the instrumental timbres are more blended (even though, paradoxically, they are often more diverse – compare Braxton’s sax duo version of 255 with Chris Jonas on GTM (Outpost) 2003). The septet’s renditions are also much more compact than Braxton’s, which can often – for my money – shade into indulgence. Whereas Braxton and his groups will often extend a composition to an hour or more, Van Cauwenberghe’s renditions (both in the septet and solo) all hover around the 20-minute mark.
None of this to say that these are compromised or limited performances. The septet’s playing – particularly its flexibility of idiom, from avant-garde to blues to hillbilly – equals or even exceeds anything I’ve heard in Braxton’s recordings (I’ve hardly heard them all, but for me Braxton ploughs more consistently a free jazz/modern compositional idiom than his music necessarily demands). A lot of that emerges simply from instrumental combinations within the group: more violin is going to sound more country, more drums and bass is going to sound more blues/funk. But Van Cauwenberghe’s players lean into those identities with a range of idiomatic rhythmic and articulatory nuances. Van Cauwenberghe repeats one of the tricks from his solo record by bringing in the funkily slinky Composition 40f in the last third of 255, but in the group setting it grooves that much harder; it has a counterpart in the post-bop central section of 264, in which Verbruggen, Medinilla and Sakham most clearly coalesce as a distinct rhythm section (only to tease themselves apart again within a minute or two).
The polystylism of some of the secondary and tertiary breakdowns – when the individual identities of the players come to the fore – are more Ives than Ives: melting and melding more than clashing. They are deliciously fluid, rippled through with energies of seven players continuously listening and adjusting to each other. There is the same unstoppable magmatic flow that is captured on the classic quartet recordings (Verbruggen’s skittering drums and Medinilla’s fistfuls of keys do a lot of work in capturing that mood), but there is also introspection, stillness, melancholy even, as in the slow breakdown into the central section of 193 or the Sciarrino-like glitter of 358. Newcomers to Braxton’s work may still wish to start with those quartet recordings, but for the sound of Braxton without himself at the helm, they will want to come here very soon after.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.