Philip Clark on what ails classical music today

It’s becoming a hoary old question, but Philip Clark’s recent piece for Gramophone, reprinting a talk he gave at the Swansea International Festival, adds some new grist to the mill. I particularly like the following paragraphs:

Yes, music is at its best and most creative when it refuses point blank to exist in the stylistic world it already knows. But, no, that is absolutely not the same thing as this nebulous world of major label crossover music currently being dished up as ‘classical’ music. When recently I read the blogger Norman Lebrecht say in connection with the Bristol Proms that labeling music as ‘classical music’ is missing the point – ‘It’s not classical. Music is music. The moment you start putting categories to things, you diminish them’ – a little part of me died. Because exactly the opposite is true.

An example: if a composer wants to work with jazz, what can that mean? You could, of course, concoct a score that deals superficially with the surface cliché of jazz – those melodic hooks, stock chord sequences and wah-wah trumpet sounds that evoke classic Herman Leonard photographs of smoky jazz clubs populated by drug ridden, down on their luck musicians.

But categorising jazz begins to make sense of it creatively. Is this piece you want to write riffing off ideas from early ‘Classic jazz’, from the jazz of Jelly Roll Morton or Louis Armstrong? Or is interested in bebop? The journey between Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker is long and complex; but even if your piece is commenting on bebop, do you mean the purist bop of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, or the bop of Thelonious Monk, with its references to stride piano that crash at the very brink of Modernity – or with the so-called ‘Hard bop’ of Lee Morgan and Art Blakey? To compose with this material you must know the difference. And perhaps your composed response might want to subliminally imply that the harmonic and rhythm techniques of bebop were mirrored in the music surrounding it – the rhythmic smack in face typical of Stravinsky’s music or the harmonic smoke-and-mirrors of Messiaen. Only when engaging with music rigorously can you start to look beyond categories; only then do you realise that Monk was rooted in bop but actually had little to do with it; only then can you understand how far Tippett’s vision of the symphony moved outside any idea of what an ‘English symphony’ could be.

Read the whole thing here.

Michael Oesterle: all words

I loved Michael Oesterle’s all words when I first heard EXAUDI sing it last year, so I was delighted today to chance upon a recording from that concert on Soundcloud.

Here’s what I wrote in my Tempo review at the time (no. 272, pp. 72–4):

all words by the Canadian Michael Oesterle sets, in alphabetical sequence, all 1,015 three-letter words from the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary. On paper, unpromising material; in practice, anything but. The first brilliant thing Oesterle does is to draw out the inherent structural features of such a list. It will almost all (but, crucially, not entirely) consist of single-syllable words, which immediately carries a rhythmic implication. It’s also a lot of text, so the words will need to go by pretty fast. Furthermore, an alphabetical list of words contains its own internal rhythms and cycles: it will start with all the words beginning with ‘a’, then move to those beginning with ‘b’, and so on, creating 26 sections of different length, each with its own characteristic attack. Within each alphabetical section are up to 26 much shorter subsections – all the words beginning ‘ab’, ‘ac’, ‘ad’, and so on. Again, each of these has a particular sonic character. So the list is not an undifferentiated stream, but has a form and shape of its own. And then there are the words that leap out expeditiously for whatever reason: bum, CIA, emu. Finally, there are occasional moments where near-homonyms have the effect of almost pausing the flow altogether (cam, can; hem, hen; and … ant).

The music mirrors this mix of endless variety and predictable cycle with a tempo scheme that constantly fluctuates in great waves, as well as a pitch system that according to the composer is built upon triangular numbers, and that reminded me pleasantly of change-ringing. Oesterle is well-regarded in Canadian new music circles, and deserves to be here too.

Activity update

For those who care to know about such things, I have programme notes in the following events over the next few weeks:

I’ve not heard any of the Haas yet, but from what I have been told about the production and Jon Fosse’s libretto (which is beautiful) this could be quite special.

840 series at St James, Islington

I was pleased to make it out last night for the first concert in 840’s 2015–16 series. Throughout this year and without much fanfare Alex Nikiporenko and Nicholas Peters have been building up this small series of small concerts of what I am tempted to call, in the least non-disparaging way possible, ‘small music’. Music by composers like Luiz Henrique Yudo or Laurence Crane. Music that doesn’t have any pretensions to be more than it is, that doesn’t seek to fill a space or a time outside of its own container, but that fills what it has just perfectly.

On this occasion all the music was for two or three cellos, played by Tre Voci, and every piece – except for Richard Glover’s Duo from 2012 – was newly written. Yudo, whose beautiful little sonic carvings are always a joy, was represented by CLARIFICATION, a polyphony of repeating pulses and sustained tones. Sergei Zagny brought another perfect miniature in his Studies on Rhythm BACH, written on the first five notes of the C minor scale. Timothy Cape’s NEED was a humorous look at the roles of advertising, self-promotion and anxiety in new music. Thematically it was the ‘biggest’ piece of the night, and in that respect slightly out of tune with its materials, but it raised and earned plenty of laughs. Eleanor Cully‘s tutto dietro il ponticello, as its title suggests, was played wholly behind the bridge of the three cellos, between it and the tailpiece – but if that suggested a Penderecki-esque noise-fest, what we got was a delicate study in bouncing bows and softly pinging pulses. Glover’s Duo is a quintessential study in ‘small music’, just a single perfect cadence zoomed in on and blown up with slow glissandi that drew out every tiny microtone or sonic ‘artefact’ that lurks beneath the most simple and foundational gesture in Western art music. Peters and Nikiporenko both wrote new pieces too, and I was especially taken by the latter, which seemed perfectly balanced in all directions.

This, by the way, is my new favourite programme note:


Recently enjoyed

This Mark Richardson article on Oval’s 94diskont.

In addition to letting some of the air out of the idea of the scientist/genius archetype, Oval’s “file management” approach to music-making also offered a critique of how music-making was being standardized. If we are all using the same tools, the idea goes, then our creative output is circumscribed by the specifications of those tools. The software programmer is ultimately directing what the music of tomorrow is going to sound like, not the musician. All instruments have such limitations, of course—with an acoustic guitar, you can pluck or strum the strings, tune them in different ways, and tap its side, but that’s pretty much the only sound you are ever going to get out of it (an acoustic guitar is never going to sound like a trumpet). While computers were supposed to be tools of infinite possibility, the realities of software told a different story.

This score follow/performance of Stop the War! from The Road by Frederic Rzweski.

These photos and this video of Masonna by Bettina Hvidevold Hystad and Simon Torssell Lerin.

This YouTube channel of new Mexican music.

CD review: Andrew McIntosh: Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure

Yarn/Wire; James Sullivan and Brian Walsh, clarinets; Andrew McIntosh, violin

populist records, PR006

This one has been knocking around the car for some months now. The kids love it. “Play the ghost music” they shout from the back, referring to the fourth part of Hyenas in the Temples of Pleasure for two pianos and percussion. I see what they mean: it’s an atmospheric little movement of piano harmonics and bowed metallic percussion that resolves into tinkling crotales and high register piano. Totally up my alley.

McIntosh, co-owner/operator of populist, also plays on this Tom Johnson CD I reviewed in 2012, but this disc is, I think, his first as a composer. In its use of just intonation and rhythmic and melodic process, his music fits in the lineage of Johnson, James Tenney, and Marc Sabat. However, it is somewhat less austere than their music can be; there are certainly processes at work throughout this disc, but picking them out when listening is not really the point; the music pulls more towards the sensual and the contrapuntally satisfying.

Hyenas is framed by McIntosh’s eight Symmetry Etudes, divided into two groups, for two clarinets and violin. These are, I suppose, more minimal in conception, and McIntosh’s primary materials of ascending and descending scales and arpeggios (conceived as equivalent to each other, just with different-sized steps) come to the fore. Those materials are often intercut or rearranged to create more complex, less predictable patterns, and may be overlaid in a number of rational tempo relations as well. The range of possibilities arising is large and taken full advantage of by McIntosh, from the melancholy, pastoral fourths of Etude II, to the bubbling exchanges of Etude III, to Etude VI, in which slow, three-note arpeggios, very widely spaced, lead to single notes being passed and sustained amongst the ensemble.

The more diverse instrumentation of Hyenas sets it in a very different soundworld, but its origins are similar: the first movement recalls late Ligeti in its use of overlaid scales that pass at different speeds, and there is a similar sense of uncanny storytelling in the way different instruments are introduced into the mix (in this case moving from piano to wooden percussion to skins) – each new instrument enters like an unexpected animal found deep in the forest. In the second movement, McIntosh is playing once again with scales and different forms of smoothness/gap size. The pianos begin with swift legato runs up and down, but are soon interrupted with the regular, dull chime of a glass water bowl. Unlike the piano notes, its thunks are spaced wide apart in time, but with the twist that they describe a very gradual movement down in pitch (just a fourth over the course of 25 bars) as water is slowly added to the bowl. It’s a great effect, both sonically and intellectually, and McIntosh returns to it in the fourth movement. In between the third movement is a resonant chamber of interlocking pianos and, later on, aluminium tubes. The sheer opulence of the sound here – quite, quite beautiful – is an oceanic indulgence in the context of what elsewhere can be a precise and reserved disc, but it shows McIntosh to be a composer of great aural as well as procedural imagination. Highly recommended.

CD review: Scott Worthington: Prism

Scott Worthington, double bass

populist records, PR008

In spite of its size, the double bass can be quite a delicate instrument. In fact, because of its size: that massive soundbox means it only needs the softest pressure of bow or fingerpad to coax it into sound.

Scott Worthington’s bass is a gentle giant, deep and softly breathing. The four pieces on this CD all occupy a place in which the bass’s natural resonances and sonic nuances (that depth of spectrum!) are allowed to sound. Feldman is an obvious touchstone, but I also hear echoes of, say, Tim Parkinson in the “this thing, and then this thing” way the longer pieces are structured.

The disc’s opener, At Dusk, the longest of them all at 17 minutes, sets a tone against which the other tracks push and pull. The material is simple, consisting mostly of alternating pairs of notes, at different speeds, in different registers, and for different durations. Yet it is arranged in what to the ear could easily be a complex system of interlocking loops, or completely improvised – such is its mix of poise and grace. The piece is scored for double bass and electronics, but unusually the electronics are pushed far back, with just the faintest hints of digital resonance shining through the gaps. Yet for all its reserve and careful elegance, it’s a continually surprising listen as Worthington keeps introducing new harmonic regions and small variations.

Prism, for three double basses, again works on patterns of repetition and alteration. Worthington pushes the fragmentary nature of his work further here – the lines between sections are more heavily marked, the changes more steep, as with the shift from a broken chord pattern spread across the three instruments to asynchronised monotonous pulses that takes place at around four minutes in. Moving in the opposite direction is the more continuous Reflections, written in memory of the legendary Italian bassist Stefano Scodanibbio, who died in 2012. This is again written for double bass and electronics, although in this case a digital looping system that allows many layers of music to be slowly built up. Here is Worthington playing the piece live:

There are echoes of Grisey in that massive drone, and the melodies Worthington builds upon it, but also Lucier as well. I find it an extremely effective piece; I love how the drone shifts from shimmering slow phase sweeps to a metallic, insectoid buzz as new layers are added. Worthington’s roots clearly lie in the experimental tradition, but his music has heart and poetry too.

The CD is completed with two versions of the Quintet (after Feldman) for five basses. This time, fragments and repetitions are replaced by the shifting clouds of five instruments cycling through their own lines at slightly different speeds – an idea indebted to Feldman’s music for multiple pianos of the late 1950s. The piece is short, and just as you get deep into it, it is over – very un-Feldmanlike in that respect – but it makes an ideal immersive complement to the more rarefied longer pieces.

Although it might seem a dry premise – a whole disc of music for variations of a single instrument – Prism shows Worthington to be a composer of subtlety and skill. An earlier disc on populist, Even the Light Itself Falls, is also recommended.