CD review: Marianne Schuppe: slow songs (Wandelweiser)

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Marianne Schuppe: slow songs

Marianne Schuppe

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Eleven songs for voice and lute by the Swiss singer and composer Marianne Schuppe. The instrumentation taps a deep historical channel, back to Dowland and beyond. But Schuppe doesn’t pluck her lute. Instead she uses e-bows to turn a melodic accompanying instrument into an environment, an ancient combination updated to reflect a contemporary preference for objects over stories. The songs are simple melodies, sometimes folklike (ballads and laments more than dances), but with words and music full of unexpected, almost surreal twists: the images used include deer, feathers, sunhats and cameras; the music little scales and motifs, subtle modal shifts. The whole fuses traditional and modern, nature and technology, such that each is indistinguishable.

CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

Review: Liza Lim: Tree of Codes

My review of Tree of Codes is now available on the Limelight website. I managed not to credit Massimo Furlan as the designer, and am happy to rectify that here. The way the stage looks and works – for both music and drama – is an essential part of what made this piece a success.

The stage is set like a laboratory. Musicians, dressed in white coats and various items of personal protective equipment, circulate among tables and workstations on which sit strange objects – a giant bird’s head; a mask made up of half a dozen faces; and unfamiliar-looking musical instruments. A tramp appears to be conducting. Alongside the live music are the sounds of birdsong and motorbikes. Liza Lim’s fourth opera, which has just finished a highly successful premiere run in Cologne, begins as an overwhelming, disorienting and even baffling experience. Yet by its end one’s lasting impression is of the coherence that gradually emerges and is, ultimately, sustained over 90 complex, multilayered minutes.

You can read the full review here.

Quick review: Chaya Czernowin at the Royal College of Music

It has been an unusually busy week here – while I was in Cologne for Tree of Codes, Liz has been in the middle of producing a four-night run (sold out!) of short plays at the Hope Theatre – but I wanted to say a few quick words about Chaya Czernowin’s recent visit to the RCM before too much time passed.

Chaya was in London for four days, during which time she gave some composition classes, presented a seminar on her work (which I helped chair), and rehearsed two concerts of her work by RCM students, one of chamber pieces (Six miniatures and a simultaneous songAdiantum Capillus-Veneris, and Anea Crystal: Seed I) and one orchestra/large ensemble (Wintersong IV: Wounds/Mistletoe, Slow Summer Stay II: Lakes, At the fringe of our gaze, White Wind Waiting).

Overall, it was a great success, and a very happy few days to have taken part in. The composition students I saw appeared attentive and inspired, and although only about a third(!) took up the offer of a free tutorial from one of the world’s leading teachers, I understand that those that did were very keen for more.

Of the two concerts, the orchestral one on Saturday evening was the stronger. The players in Friday’s chamber concert did well with with very challenging, and highly exposing music – in particular Sarah Hayashi in the solo vocal Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, and the string quartet of Henry Chandler, Clarice Rarity, Johan Hoeglind and Timothée Botbol in Anea Crystal – but the larger concert was the real stunner. The only disappointment was that more people were not there to see it. Attendance was not bad, but beyond RCM students and associates I spotted surprisingly few of the usual new music crowd, and fewer still of a wider listenership.

Well, if you weren’t there you missed a treat. Ian Pace, who I happened to be sitting alongside, reckoned it one of the best concerts he’d heard in a long time. For me, it began well and just got better. Wintersong IV and Slow Summer Stay II both effectively showed off Czernowin’s strikingly physical musical language, her use of space and unusual instrumental combinations, as well as her ability to construct entirely original and unexpected forms.

But it was with the two orchestral pieces in the second half that things really took off. At the fringe of our gaze was written for the young performers of Daniel Barenboim’s East West Divan Orchestra, and was ideally suited to the players of the RCM. Aware of the aesthetic demands her music can make on players who may not be used to it, Czernowin has composed into the work a gradual move from the familiar (harmony, polyphony, melody) into the strange. When the opening (‘familiar’) material returns in the middle of the piece, it now feels totally estranged, both listeners and players having been taken into Czernowin’s world.

It seemed to be a good preparation for the quasi-guitar concerto, White Wind Waiting. This is a strange piece, perhaps somewhat transitional, a step along the path to the radically stripped-down style of the subsequent HIDDEN for string quartet and electronics (which can be heard in Boston this Friday). It certainly isn’t easy to realise: although the guitar is the soloist, it does very little that is concerto-like; and the work’s structure as two panels of increasingly empty space does not provide for half-committed note bashing. Fortunately, the RCM orchestra, conducted by Johannes Harneit (and with Jonatan Bougt as soloist) were more than up to the job. This was a stunning, and wholly convincing performance of a difficult piece. I knew a recording of it a little in advance, but this rendition completely sold me on the music’s delicate and deeply moving poetry of absence. Congratulations to William Mival, Jonathan Cole and everyone else at the RCM for putting the event together. Here’s to more!

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.