In Cologne Cathedral

 

I arrived at Cologne Cathedral as the midday office was coming to an end. A pair of priests in red cassocks stood at the head of the nave, arms folded, like bouncers, only allowing through those who wanted to join the service. The brief ceremony ended with a voluntary from the organ, whose pipes are contained in a cabinet suspended improbably high up one side of the nave. I didn’t recognise the composer; I’m guessing mid-century, but it may even have been improvised. The music began quietly with vox celeste and grew from there. The sound – sinuous, slow polyphony and rich extended-tonal harmonies, darker than Messiaen’s sweet octatonicism – filled the building, which by the end positively rang like a huge stone bell.

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I thought of Stockhausen, 20-something, sitting in this space, listening to music something like this (the modern nave organ wasn’t built then), dreaming of Gesang der Jünglinge. The resonance of the cathedral – full, massive – did things to the music’s space and time that surely must have inspired the swoops and swirls of GesangKontakte and all the rest.

Czernowin residency at the Royal College of Music

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Some time ago, I complained on this site that Chaya Czernowin was badly under-represented in the UK. Well, two years later that ship may be turning as the RCM hosts this week the first UK retrospective of her work.

Events centre on two concerts this Friday and Saturday: chamber works early on Friday evening, and larger works on Saturday (including the wonderful and surprising sort-of guitar concerto White Wind Waiting). Czernowin will also be in conversation with the RCM’s William Mival before the Saturday concert.

For myself, I’m delighted to be hosting an extended conversation-cum-lecture with Chaya on Wednesday. Unfortunately I think it is open to students only, otherwise I would invite you all to come.

When Helmut Lachenmann came to the RCM in 2006, it was a transformative moment for his reputation in the UK, and perhaps even for the trajectory of composition in this country. I’m not saying this week will have the same impact, but you probably want to have a look just in case.

Birthday playlist for Finnissy at 70

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Few living composers have an output as large and as diverse as Michael Finnissy does. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, I’ve tried to reflect that in a little playlist, along with some brief thoughts on what I think makes his music special.

Red Earth

Those older than me who were at the BBC Proms premiere of Red Earth in 1988 (until this year one of only two Finnissy performances at the Proms) remember it as something special: a real statement piece.

The History of Photography in Sound, III: North American Spirituals

For all its diversity, Finnissy’s output is dominated by his piano music, and that by five major cycles: English Country-TunesVerdi TranscriptionsGershwin ArrangementsFolklore, and The History of Photography in Sound. One is tempted to describe the last of these, at five hours in length, as Finnissy’s magnum opus, and it draws together many of the threads that run throughout his work – particularly modes of musical representation, the role of class in Western art music, the value and function of transcription, and the meaning of folk music. North American Spirituals, the third part (of eleven) is possibly the cycle’s most accessible entry point.

WAM

WAM: the tongue-in-cheek musicologists’ abbreviation for Western art music can likewise stand, as it does here, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Composed of hundreds of scraps and micro-parodies of Mozart, Finnissy forces us to confront our relationship to music 200 years old, and what we are doing when we listen to it.

Gershwin Arrangements: They can’t take that away from me

For all his voracious ingestion of folk and historical classical musics, there is very little pop in Finnissy. The two sets of Gershwin arrangements might count as an exception, but even then they are as much historical as anything. Practices of transcription and arrangement run throughout Finnissy’s work, but always taking a liberal approach. Extensive re-harmonizations, elaborations of the melody, occasional departures, and the addition of new material are all common. Other transcriptions may take even more radical routes. The sources for the Gershwin Arrangements are identifiable enough, and strongly enough characterized in themselves, to make clear the sorts of things that are going on, and in They can’t take that away from me Finnissy applies a relatively light touch.

Dilok

It was while studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s that Finnissy apparently planned that his future output would be dedicated to assembling a complete and personalized history of world music. He began writing works that explicitly engaged with national folk musics in the early 1980s (not just the usual European styles, but also Korean, Azeri, Australian Aboriginal, etc), many of them written for one or two instruments. Dilok for oboe and percussion is one of a number of Finnissy’s oboe works (including Âwâz-e Niyâz) to be based on Persian music. It also showcases Finnissy’s essentially lyrical approach to instrumental writing.

Grieg: Quintettsatz

Grieg features more than once in Finnissy’s personalized history – the Quintettsatz is an accompaniment to Finnissy’s completion of Grieg’s unfinished Piano Quintet; he appears again, in his guise as a folk music arranger, in the first part of Folklore. The Quintettsatz takes Grieg as its starting point, but filters him extensively through Finnissy’s own language, a juxtaposition that produces one of his most touchingly affective works.

This Church: Part 2: On Christmas day, 1643, we went to Shoareham

For all the virtuoso demands his music frequently makes, Finnissy’s contribution to amateur and community music making is often overlooked. This Church was composed for a one-off performance, celebrating the 900th anniversary of the church of St Mary de Haura, in Sussex. Its text is a collage documenting and narrating the church’s history and its place in the community of New Shoreham since the 3rd century, and in the manner of Britten or Davies Finnissy sets amateur performers – bell ringers, church choir, speakers – alongside professionals to create a unique and quite extraordinary work.

Palm-Sunday

Finnissy is unusual among avant-garde composers, again, in having converted to Christianity. Yet this hasn’t softened his touch: one of the most appealing aspects of his personality and his music is the priority it gives to humanity – and humanness – over ideology of any kind, and this includes religion. Nevertheless, works like Palm-Sunday, a refraction of centuries of sacred choral music as well as a personal expression of faith, have a sumptuous beauty of their own. EXAUDI, who sing here, are among a growing group of Finnissy performers – Ian Pace, Christopher Redgate, and the Kreutzer Quartet are others – dedicated to the very bet performances of his music.

Folklore: II

This is the first Finnissy piece I remember hearing. Certainly the first that made an impression on me. I was probably in my late teens. Coming to it with expectations based (vaguely, and inaccurately) on associations with other composers whose music I knew better by then – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle – its glittering beginning, dewlike, curving in sunlight, blew me away. That opening, I know now, is based on Scottish highland bagpiping, in particular the ornament known as a Hinbare. As the piece progresses, Finnissy adds elements from Romanian folk tunes, a short homage to Christian Wolff, hints of the “Deep River” spiritual (via Michael Tippett), Chinese folk music (via Cornelius Cardew), and one tune from Finnissy’s home county of Sussex, “Let him answer yes or no”. It’s an extraordinary amalgam, whose layers one could unpick eternally, and an example of some of what I find absolutely best in Finnissy’s music.

Birthday Piece for Michael Finnissy

Perhaps nothing conveys the pan-optical vision of Finnissy’s music than the affection in which he is held by other composers, particularly in Britain, and in which he holds them. Crane and Finnissy make an unlikely pairing, coming from seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum but meeting at a point that if you can make it out tells you a lot about what contemporary music really is. Crane’s birthday piece was in fact written for Finnissy’s 50th; here it is, played by Finnissy himself as he returns the tribute.

On good narrators

Here’s a passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life.

Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, “Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma – wanna come along?” and you honestly can’t think of anything else in the world you’d rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you’d rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

I don’t know of a better explanation of why good writing – not good subject matter – really matters if you’re trying to sell something. That includes new music.

Zygmunt Krauze: Hommage à Strzemiński reviewed

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I recently spent some time fulfilling a long-held desire – to write something substantial on the Polish experimental composer Zygmunt Krauze. So when the opportunity came up to review at length a recent disc for Music and Literature, I couldn’t say no.

Penderecki and Górecki helped end Poland’s cultural isolation behind the Iron Curtain, and in doing so established a template for contemporary Polish music: visceral; immediate; expressionistic; profoundly concerned with timbre; open to imprecision and the unpredictable, reflected in scores that were frequently graphical or semi-graphical. But although they attracted all the attention, it was arguably others who were writing the more interesting music.

Among them was Zygmunt Krauze (1938- ). While the others had been looking to the European avant-garde led by Boulez, Nono, and Stockhausen, Krauze had begun absorbing influences from American experimental and minimalist music by composers like John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Terry Riley. A pianist as well as a composer, in 1964 he was involved in Poland’s first “happening”: Non-Stop, by his colleague Bogusław Schaeffer. In 1966 he created the first Polish sound installation, Spatial-Musical Composition, made in collaboration with the architect Teresa Kelm and the sculptor Henryk Morel. Another pianist, John Tilbury, who had come to Warsaw from the UK in 1961 for two and a half years of study with Zbigniew Drzewiecki, was an important colleague and helped Krauze discover what was happening in the US. Tilbury already knew Feldman’s music at this point, as well as that of the British experimentalist Cornelius Cardew, and he had brought many of their scores with him. In 1963 Krauze and Tilbury, along with Tomasz Sikorski and Zbigniew Rudziński (two more now almost forgotten figures of the Polish avant-garde) formed a group to begin playing this repertory in Poland—the first to do so.

The disc in question is available through Bôłt Records. Read the whole review at Music and Literature.

Recently enjoyed

Talking Musicology, a new podcast by Liam Cagney and Stephen Graham.

Marek Poliks’ major new installation/score/object, maw:

Mikheil Shugliashvili’s Grand Chromatic Fantasy for three pianos, released at the start of the year on Edition Wandelweiser.

All things Martin Arnold, including his beautiful new piece stain ballad, performed at Wigmore Hall on Saturday. Here’s a typically lovely/strange piece, Latex:

Also at that concert I heard the music of Egidija Medekšaitė (a student of Rytis Mažulis, a longstanding Apartment House favourite) for the first time. Her pulsing, vibrant Praktisha was a refreshing take on some familiar experimental/minimal/spectral obsessions.

 

 

Help crowdfund volume of David Burge’s writings

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I have been alerted to an Indiegogo campaign to crowdfund a book of the Keyboard Magazine columns of pianist David Burge (1930–2013). A great champion of new music for piano, Burge wrote more than 100 monthly columns for Keyboard Magazine (originally Contemporary Keyboard) between 1975 and 1989, in what must comprise a rich document of its time.

The campaign, organized by Burge’s widow and their granddaughter, is seeking $7,000 dollars to research, produce and print 500 copies of the book. At the time of writing, 30% of that has been raised, with three weeks to go. Contributions come with a range of perks, including a CD of no longer available recordings by Burge, copies of his autobiography, and copies of the final book. Please visit the campaign page for more details.

Forty years on what strikes me about Burge’s first column, a copy of which is reproduced below, is how undated it seems. Not only for its theme – that serious pianists (all performers) have a responsibility to contemporary music as much as to the historical repertoire – which probably needs saying almost as much now as it did then; but also for its language, which seems to me a model of clarity, unburdened by pretence or trendiness. A complete book of Burge’s writings strikes me as valuable not only to pianists and those interested in contemporary music, but also to students of musical criticism and writing.

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