Radio Rambler – International Women’s Day 2017

Today is International Women’s Day, and at the start of this week the PRS Foundation published an evaluation report on the first five years of its Women Make Music initiative to increase the profile and representation of female composers and songwriters in the UK. Compiled on the basis of interviews with 18 Women Make Music grantees, a survey of applicants and grantees, and a review of grantee and applicant summary data, it reveals some stark home truths about the UK music scene, not least that a shocking 78% of interviewees said they had experienced sexism within the industry.

Among classical music composers, a particular issue that was noted was a lack of female role models, as in the following quotation from one grantee, one of the most revealing of all:

I’d been composing for five years before I heard the work of another woman composer.

Another noted that:

A new generation of commissioners would also help. The BBC Proms was described as ‘awash with oestrogen’ when there were three female composers!

I was on a train recently, listening in on a conversation between two other passengers. I forget exactly what the subject was – court judges in the Caribbean, I think – but he was explaining to her that of course there were still many more male judges than female, because that was the legacy of the system, but this was no reason to introduce positive discrimination, which is, he pointed out, still discrimination. The system had to change, obviously, but it still had to award positions to the judiciary on merit. She tried her best to respond, but was given less space in the conversation in which to do so. And I wanted to say to him but don’t you see: your approach (‘merit’, reckoned on the terms of those already sitting in power) just passes the buck back to the system you claim to want to change. It’s saying ‘we know there’s a problem with men being in charge of everything, we’ve heard your complaint, now leave it to us men and we’ll sort it out’.

Independently of all this, last week an old but great xojane post cropped up on my Facebook feed: 35 practical steps men can take to support feminism. It’s a list I fall far short of completing, but it points to what being a (white, cis) male (attempted) feminist means: a constant, and probably uncompletable process of self-improvement, a continual rechecking and recalibrating of unconscious biases.

Those of us who perform, programme and write about new music need to stay vigilant to this. As with the Caribbean judiciary (if that is indeed what was being discussed on that train), many of us are still men. We have a responsibility, I believe, to cede some of that power where we can, or to use it to support our female friends and colleagues. I’m really proud to be involved with a group, Riot Ensemble, that makes improved gender representation a central part of its programming strategy. In 2016, every one of Riot’s concerts included at least one female composer; the programme for last Friday’s concert at The Warehouse was 75% women. It’s not everything and it’s not perfect: that will only happen when our numbers are 50% or better, every concert. Across the whole new music landscape things are starting to change, slowly, but there remains much to do.

And to the response that including a woman composer at your concert means leaving out a very fine piece by a deserving male – which well it might – the answer is simply this: programme more concerts.

As ever, it is in that spirit that I offer this year’s playlist:

Previous playlists can be found here:

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

Siemens Prize 2017

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Congratulations to the three recipients of the 2017 Ernst von Siemens Composers’ Prize, Simon Steen-Andersen, Lisa Streich (pictured) and Michael Pelzel. Those paying attention will know of my fascination for Steen-Andersen’s madcap, altermodern take on musique concrète instrumentale – and that I probably talk about his Run-Time Error far too much. Streich’s delicately devastated soundworld has intrigued me ever since Alex Ross introduced her Pietà (1) for cello, motors and electronics (available to listen via the composer’s website). Pelzel’s name and music, meanwhile, is completely new to me, and I will be doing something to address that today. Here’s his homepage, for a start.

Music after the Fall: A Spotify Walkthrough

Music after the Fall introduces quite a lot of music, some of which may be unfamiliar to some readers. With that in mind, I’ve put together a playlist walkthrough of the whole thing on Spotify, to help with orientation, and perhaps introduce you to some music you didn’t know you liked.

Be warned, though, it’s a long playlist: almost 20 hours. Chapter-by-chapter breakdowns will follow soon.

Not everything talked about in the book is recorded, of course, and not all of it can be recorded, even. And even then not everything on record is on Spotify – ECM and Wandelweiser are just two labels featured prominently in the book that are almost entirely absent from the streaming site (and I expect will be for the foreseeable future).

I also haven’t included everything that is featured in the book: at my last count there were something like 190 composers mentioned in the book, many of them linked to two or more of their works – far too many for a comprehensive list. I’ve also given one (occasionally two) movements of multi-movement pieces where possible, so as to keep the length down a bit. Sometimes, however, very long works have been recorded as a single track (Francisco López, La selva; Steve Roden, Forms of Paper; Gavin Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic; Georg Friedrich Haas, in vain), and it hasn’t been possible to focus in.

On other occasions, the actual piece I wanted to include wasn’t available, so I included the nearest equivalent I could find (examples include Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Scorched instead of Anna Nicole; Pamela Z’s Crosstalk instead of Giajin).

Despite those caveats, the full list should give a pretty good idea of what is in the book, and serve as a reasonably good quick reference to have close to hand. Some of it can be listened to while doing other things (see Chapter 2); some of it maybe even while you’re reading, although I couldn’t possibly recommend that …

Lots of news!

Much excitement chez Rambler this month as one major project reaches its conclusion and another begins.

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First, the conclusion: I am thrilled to announce (to those who aren’t already aware) that Music after the Fall is finally out, good and proper. It has been available in the US for about a month now, but this week copies also went on sale in the UK. (As for elsewhere, I couldn’t say, although I know that copies have been read in New Zealand.)

In a related a flurry of activity, the following have also happened, some of which you may like to catch up on: book preview for the AMS’s Musicology Now blog; another blogpost, this time for the Australian Music Centre’s Resonate online magazine; a lecture and launch at Goldsmiths College on 21 February (lecture to be released in a forthcoming podcast); and an interview for BBC Radio 3’s Music Matters programme, to be broadcast 25 February, 12:15 (GMT) and available to listen for about a month afterwards. I have also put together a Spotify playlist that as near as possible summarises the book’s territory and story; more on this to follow.

If you’d like to buy the book, here are full details from the publisher, University of California Press.

site-iconSecond, the beginning: I am equally delighted to reveal that I have accepted the post of editor for the new, new music magazine Sounds Like Now.  Now in a monthly, online incarnation, Sounds Like Now grew out of last year’s crowdfund campaign. To begin with, each month will feature two feature-length articles, an extended critics’ column, listings, short items, news and more. It is hoped that if the magazine is a success, we will be able to grow quite quickly. The first issue will be published to subscribers on 1 May; keep an eye on www.soundslikenow.net for more details as they become available. If you have an queries, meanwhile, or would like to suggest ideas for future articles, please feel free to get in touch with me at editor [at] soundslikenow [dot] net.

Riot Ensemble: Celia’s Toyshop at Brixton East 1871

37123-9977866-page8_jpgStill looking for something to do tomorrow evening? You could do much worse than get down to the funky Brixton East 1871 to see the Riot Ensemble’s first concert of 2017. The programme features an array of UK and world premieres by some outstanding young compositional talent:

Utku AsurogluHayirli Olsun (UK premiere)
Anna Thorvaldsdottir: Shades of Silence (UK premiere)

Kerry Andrew: Hammock
Michael Cryne: Celia’s Toyshop  (world premiere)
Evan Johnson: Wolke über Bäumen  (UK premiere)

Jack Sheen: Television Continuity Poses

Tickets, just £10 (£5 for students), are available online. I’m told this one is selling well, so you may not want to rely on the door.

A little more on Eastman

The broadcast on Radio 3 of a live recording from the first day of LCMF’s Eastman weekend, available on iPlayer until 3rd March, offers the opportunity to reconsider Eastman’s Femenine, as given by Apartment House that December evening.

When I wrote about that concert, immediately afterwards on the tube home, I was ambivalent about the work’s success. ‘Unfocussed – half-finished, even’ was part of my description. I’m now wondering if my expectations weren’t just all out of whack. I was going in to hear Eastman, relatively unfamiliar to me, against a backdrop of much more familiar 1970s New Yorkery – not just minimalism, but also disco, No Wave, the beginnings of hip-hop and more. God knows why I wanted to load so much onto one composer, but there you are.

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Relistening, as I am now, it seems much clearer to me that Eastman’s contribution was not to exemplify a perfect coming together (ha) of all that, the missing link between Rhys Chatham and Afrika Bambaataa, perhaps, but the way in which his art cuts (often very determinedly so) across those collected expectations, as though anticipating the stereotypes coming down the track as they were being born. Black, gay, experimental New Yorker: listening 40 years on, we expect (I confess, I expected) something muscular, Afro-futuristic, flamboyantly defiant. Femenine, though, is not that, at least not in any direct way.

What it is, however, is the most tender, most erotically charged work of minimalism in the canon. From the fuzzy/fizzing pulse of those sleigh bells, the shiver of the opening riff, the way both rub against each other instead of lock into machine synchronism. From the start this is the sound of minimalism unbuttoning at the seams. Still more excitingly, on hearing the piece for the second time and understanding it better, is the way in which it defers climax, refusing to build in the same way as In C, even though all the parts are there. Indeed, climax is bathetically undercut in the final section when the piano, which to this point has been the locus of much of the music’s most arresting curls and quivers, slams in with repeated chords jarringly, comically out of whack with the prevailing harmony. When you first hear them you assume something must have gone wrong, but they keep returning so they must be intentional – even though they appear not to make sense. Coming back to the piece, and having such a long run-up to them once more, they make a whole lot more sense: an hour in, Eastman has to give us something, but he’s damned if he’s going to capitulate to our comfortable sensibilities. Here’s your climax, the music says. How d’you like that?

Given the title’s incorporation of ‘men’ within the frame of ‘feminine’ there’s probably a lot to say on the gender politics that might surround all this. I’ll just say this, from my own perspective as a listener. I went into Femenine with a particular image of masculinity in mind, one informed by and modelled by the mainstream minimalism of Riley, Reich and Glass (and Rzewski): propulsive, organised, determined. I even had the image of a boxing match in mind when I introduced Rzewski’s Coming Together. (And that is a piece about manhood on one level, although of a complicated sort.) Eastman models a completely different experience, something softer, more complex, less predictable and, in its complete refusal to bow to a system on any level, more disciplined and provocative. Resistance is fertile, reads the placard.

Julius Eastman’s Soft Power

Holland Park tube was closing early, and for fear of being stranded I left early, just as Apartment House were beginning to crank up Eastman’s joyous, riff-infused Stay on it. (I read on Twitter that this was a cracker.) So my last piece of live music for the year is his comparatively modest Hail Mary. Only recent surfaced from a letter to Eastman’s fellow composer Rocco di Pietro, it was receiving its premiere tonight from Elaine Mitchener and Philip Thomas.

If I’ve learnt anything about Eastman in the two concerts I’ve heard this weekend, it is that he exploited minimalism – with its language of loops and repeats – to wholly different expressive ends than his better-known peers. Hail Mary turns to faith, and specifically the Catholic Rosary: Europe’s great ancient loop. Mitchener reprises the half-spoken, half-sung function of Thursday’s Coming Together, but this time in a voice seemingly on the edge of breath. Thomas’s piano part outlines sparse arpeggios, a musical setting that simultaneously envelopes, gently colours and fully respects the vocal line it sits behind. Written six years before Eastman’s death, it nevertheless carries a chill of biography. A fitting end to 2016.

The middle third of the concert was dominated by excerpts from Arthur Russell’s Tower of Meaning, originally written for a Robert Wilson production of Euripedes’ Medea. Russell’s score, I understand, consists of little more than two chords, which had been arranged into something more promising by Apartment House keyboardist Kerry Yong. Yong’s arrangements, which played subtly with the tone palette available to him (keyboard, piano, vibes, cello, flute, violin), were charming enough, but over time Russell’s restricted materials accumulated some serious longeurs, especially for those of us watching in standing room only.

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Nothing like that could be said about Gay Guerrilla. Scored for an unspecified number of pianos, it was given here in a version for two pianos, eight hands, by Zubin Kanga, Rolf Hind, Eliza McCarthy and Siwan Rhys. Over the course of 30 minutes it builds from single pulsing notes to great overlapping sweeps of sound that crash across the keyboard, before ending where it began, no longer an anonymous pulse, but a piercing beam of tone. More than Coming Together on Thursday, this floored me. To voice a comparison that occurred to me while listening, it contained all the emotional beats of the best Reich – the chord changes, the textures – but without the uncomfortable feeling that affects the worst: that you’re being had. Everything about this felt felt. It had a real grain to it. ‘Like Tony Conrad’ someone suggested afterwards, and yes, but while Conrad found roughness in his sound, in cheap violins and overdriven amps, Eastman’s is one of of form, of imagination, a kind of caprice. Gay Guerrilla speaks of a soft kind of power, of touches and songs and dancing feet, but also of determination, a proof that if you stick with something you will reach somewhere unexpected and special. One of my best musical experiences of the year.