Against the day: A concert for Simon Howard

Last week I attended a concert for the poet Simon Howard, who died in December 2013. It was not really a memorial as such – no eulogies or anything like that. More, it was an opportunity to gather Simon’s friends and many admirers to listen to a cross section of the music he inspired and that had inspired him, and to place on the record the small but intense influence Simon and his poetry have had on a little segment of the Anglo-American new music scene over the last few years.

So there were two pieces by Richard Barrett, lost for piano (the title of whose version with electronics, adrift, Simon borrowed for one of his own chapbooks) and tendril for harp and electronics. Barrett is a composer Simon always felt close too; he also loved the music of the Baroque, and there were pieces here too by Bach and Biber, sensitively chosen by the concert’s organiser, John Fallas.

John, I suppose, is one of few people who can claim to have known Simon, who was a severe recluse, at all well (I’m not one of them). He did an exemplary job putting the programme together, not only in terms of the music and the composers it contained, but also the performers (Pavlos Antoniadis, Milana Zarić, Carla Rees, Emily Howard, Persephone Gibbs), and wrote a beautiful programme essay to boot. Everything fit, and was fitting. Simon’s poetry as musical text was represented by Philip Venables’ numbers 91–95, a setting of part of Howard’s long poem numbers (2010). Almost all the other composers on the programme had known Simon, like I had, through his presence on Radio 3 webforums and later Facebook. Philipp Blume and John Hails contributed new pieces – enlightenment for harp and recording, and Departures for four-channel sound, respectively – both connected to Simon’s poetry and poetic enthusiasms: enlightenment is the title of the last poem he posted to his blog. Evan Johnson, Andrew Noble and Alistair Zaldua were present in the form of pieces for piano (with electronics in the case of Zaldua’s contrejours). The concert began with Utopians, an electronic piece constructed by Barbara Woof and Michèl Koenders from voice recordings by Howard and Jane Harrison. It was remarkable to hear, in this way, on this occasion, Simon’s voice for the first time.

I’m not writing a review here, so I shan’t. But aside from its biographical meaning this concert was extraordinary for the quality of the music; I honestly don’t think there was a weak piece in the programme (and how often can you say that?). Several of them were very very good indeed. In showing Simon at the centre of a small but fiercely fruitful network of musicians this concert’s sadness was also its gift. And now that network has lost its heart.

Many of Simon Howard’s poems can be read at his blog, walking in the ceiling; his published works include Zooaxeimplode (Arthur Shilling Press), numbers (Knives Forks and Spoons), adrift and Forgotten (Red Ceilings Press), and Wrecked (Oystercatcher Press). [update: list corrected]

Encore de la Cour

The first time I encountered Adam de la Cour’s music it smacked me about the face. It was Mark Knoop playing Beat Me, a tsunami of William Burroughs cut ups and Percy Grainger distortions for piano and sampled alarm at a Libra Duo concert at the Warehouse. I remember it being a bit like the beginning of English Country-Tunes, but even more so. Looking back over my review from then, I noted that “I don’t think the final effect, which was effective as far as it went, quite justified all [the conceptual] baggage.”

Neverthless, something about the piece has stuck with me, if only the residual heat of that initial slap. I think it was something to do with how exactly to parse the immense stream of notes: were there so many because the piece had so many specific things to say; or was it all an elaborate deflectionary tactic, the sheer density intended to turn our attention somewhere else?


Who knows. Who cares? But I was reminded of this thoroughly disorienting experience the other night when I heard another piece of de la Cour’s, this time for piano trio, as part of the 840 new music series put on by Alex Nikiporenko and Nicholas Peters. Again, the torrents of notes, the conflicting polyphonic lines, the apparently irrational distortions of register, rhythm and direction. Yet this time everything was cut up even more severely. The piece was 15 Small Anatomical Stumps, badly bleeding chunks sliced from maybe five different de la Cour pieces and arranged in sequence, separated by long pauses. The material may have been similar to Beat Me, but the effect was hugely different. The first six gradually reduced in length, from 20 seconds to little more than a single blurt. After that the lengths stopped being predictable. By about the 10th stump the piece seemed about done, and ready to finish, but you knew there was more to come: was there another shape, like that made from the first six lumps, to unfold? What seemed at first like a gag went on too long for that; then went on too long again and started to become funny once more. Oddly unsettling: the music was both predictable and completely unpredictable; like Beat Me, was it what it seemed, or was it something else entirely?

The closest comparison I can come up with is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, but only in terms of form. Really it’s nothing like that at all. I’m not sure I have heard anything else quite like it actually; if I have I can’t put my finger on it.

Other pieces by Adam de la Cour can be heard here. Other recordings from 840’s concert last week can be heard here.

Between the (Y)ears: The London Ear in 2015


Regular readers will know that I’m a strong supporter of the London Ear Festival, launched a couple of years ago by Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari. The festival was always intended to be biannual, but the first year proved such a success that Gwyn and Andrea couldn’t resist putting one on the following year as well. This year they really are taking a break, and are putting on … another festival.

OK, this is a smaller venture than in 2013 and 2014, but not by that much. And although its programme is reduced, it makes the most of the combination of intimacy and exploration that has characterized the London Ear so far. Highlights of the programme for me are probably another opportunity to hear Pierluigi Billone’s wonderful Mani.Gonxha for two Tibetan singing bowls, and the video-accompanied performance of Feldman’s Palais de Mari by Luisa Valeria Carpignano.

As always, concerts will be at the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo. It all starts this Thursday and runs through to Sunday evening.

Radio Rambler – International Women’s Day 2015


Today is International Women’s Day, and once again the Radio Rambler playlist has been updated with three hours of contemporary music by women composers.

At the risk of making a massive over-generalisation, there are probably fewer women working within the usual channels of contemporary composition (writing music for others to perform, in concert halls and opera houses) than are taking their music making into their own hands, either working in the electroacoustic studio, where no third party performers are required, or acting as performers of their own music. If this is true – and it’s only a personal hunch, I don’t have hard data – there are several possible reasons for this, most of them economic/structural and none of them having to do with biology. The list below features several performer/composers (Jessica Rylan, Maja Ratkje, Agata Zubel) as well as several electroacoustic composers (Maggi Payne, Andrea Polli, Hildegard Westerkamp). I’ve made a conscious decision to balance these with works written in a more ‘conventional’ concert hall format (Joanna Bailie, Iris ter Schiphorst, Isabel Mundry, Olga Neuwirth), but there is plenty of fluidity between those divisions, as you’ll hear.

This year BBC Radio 3 is also getting in on the act with a day of music by women composers, including their own playlist of female composers, but I’m confident they and I won’t overlap much. Here’s my playlist for this year:

Maggi Payne – Airwaves (realities) (Music and Arts Programs of America)
Jessica Rylan – Please Come To Meet Me There (Ecstatic Peace!)
Isabel Mundry – Ich und du (NEOS)
Andrea Polli – Round Mountain (Gruenrekorder)
Agata Zubel – NOT I (KAIROS)
Hildegard Westerkamp – Talking Rain (Earsay)
Olga Neuwirth – Clinamen/Nodus (KAIROS)
Maja SK Ratkje – Vacuum (Rune Grammofon)
Joanna Wozny – Archipel (BR-Klassik)
Iris ter Shiphorst – Studien zu Figuren / Serie A (NEOS)
Eve Beglarian – Robin Redbreast (New World Records)
Joanna Bailie – Five Famous Adagios (Sinfonietta Productions Ltd)

I’ve been making these playlists for five years now, and they aren’t getting any easier to put together. I try to avoid repeating composers between years too much, which makes things trickier (and I don’t succeed anyway), but even so it’s clear that despite the conversations that have been going on about this for forever, women are still underrepresented within contemporary music, underrepresented in the music that then gets recorded (even though I’ve included two of their recordings here, Kairos’s catalogue is as good an indication as any), and then underrepresented on the labels that are big enough to have Spotify distribution. While that all remains true, I believe there is still a case for spotlight-shining actions like this playlist, and I will continue to put them out there. Hopefully one year I won’t have to.

Previous playlists can be found here:

Drawing Towards Sound exhibition at Greenwich University

An exciting exhibition opens this week at Greenwich University’s Stephen Lawrence Gallery. Drawing Towards Sound showcases contemporary notational practices and other visual/music interactions, starting from Cage/Knowles’ Notations and coming through to present-day work in film and other media. The list of exhibitors looks enticing enough:

Hallveig Agústsdóttir / Sam Belinfante / Vicki Bennett / Carl Bergstrom-Nielsen / Pierre Boulez / Earle Brow / George Brecht / James Brooks / Laura Buckley / John Cage / Cornelius Cardew / Alvin Curran / Tom Dale / Morton Feldman / Vinko Globokar / Christophe Guiraud / Roman Haubenstock-Ramati / Neil Henderson / Richard Hoadley / Joan Key / Catherine Konz / John Lely / Michelle Lewis-King / Anestis Logothetis / Onyee Lo / Anton Lukoszevieze / Farah Mulla / Rie Nakajima / Luigi Nono / Marianthi Papalexandri-Alexandri / Tim Parkinson / Michael Parsons / Simon Payne / Helen Petts / Lauren Redhead / Aura Satz / Thomas Smetryns / Karlheinz Stockhausen / Chiyoko Szlavnics / Jennifer Walshe / John Wollaston / Christian Wolff / Iannis Xenakis

There will be a performance by Alvin Curran and others on 12 March, and the website also mentions a performance of Treatise, although no date seems to be available for that yet. (Update: it will be at 6.30, Wednesday 25 March.)

Opening times for the gallery seem to be 10am-5pm weekdays, 11am-4pm Saturdays. The exhibition runs from 4 March to 2 April.

John McCabe, 1939-2015

Earlier this month the British composer John McCabe passed away from a brain tumour.

I owe him a debt. When I was a young teen, first exploring my way into 20th-century music, I used to scour my dad’s collection of recordings he had taped off the radio. His tastes ran a little more conservative than mine, so I mostly had to latch onto whatever bits of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and, especially, Bartók he had. But there were a handful of newer things buried within: Le marteau sans maître, for example, although I didn’t understand it at the time; a live performance of Carré, which I had more joy with; and a recording of John McCabe’s Fire at Durilgai. I have no idea why Dad had this; there was no other McCabe, and very little other contemporary British music in his collection. Perhaps it was fortuitously partnered with something else. (I do vaguely remember there being some Bartók on the same tape, which may be how I came upon it in the first place.) Anyway, I was thoroughly gripped by this piece, must have listened to it a dozen times. I think its structural clarity – an evocation of a fire building from a single spark to a huge conflagration – appealed to me. As did its orchestration: rich, dense strings, haunting brass, rattling percussion. I used to listen closely to every turn in the music, trying to track the progress of that fire.

I’ve just found a recording (from the same radio broadcast?) of Fire at Durilgai on YouTube. I don’t think I can have listened to it in two decades, but a lot has stuck with me. Particularly striking are the quasi-canonic layers of lamenting horns and strings, which aren’t dissimilar to some things in James MacMillan’s Veni, veni Emmanuel, another piece that captured my imagination back then. And there’s a particularly haunting ending that owes much to Bartók, and then Shostakovich, which must also have struck a chord at the time.

Anyway, here it is. One of the first pieces by a living composer I ever truly loved and, I suppose, one of my first steps on the path to where I am today.*

*Interestingly, a similar statement was made on Facebook by a friend of mine, with regard to a different McCabe piece. It’s interesting how influence works.

Some thoughts on globalization and new musical aesthetics

Happy New Year, Ramblers!

Through December, I wrote a four-part series for NewMusicBox on the subject of the effects of globalization on the aesthetics of contemporary music. The last of those posts went online yesterday, and you can get to them all through these links:

Part 1: Silk Road and global collaborations

In which I consider a critique of the ideal of global hybridization.

Part 2: Networked music

In which I assess the limits of networked musics as an aesthetic model of contemporary globalization.

Part 3: Embodiment and mobility

In which I look at artistic nomadism and some of its musical manifestations.

Part 4: Archipelagos

In which I tentatively introduce Édouard Glissant’s concept of the archipelago as a means to understanding some recent works of music.

Music Since 1989 – end of year progress report

I suppose it’s inevitable when you’re writing a book; with so many people you see their first question is ‘So … how’s the book going?’ It’s a bit like being pregnant, except without the heavy lifting and slightly less of the nervousness. In pregnancy’s favour, however, you’re generally pretty sure that the baby is growing, healthily and inevitably. With a book it’s not always so easy to confidently answer ‘So, how’s it going?’ with ‘Getting closer all the time’.

Anyway, for those that might be interested here’s a progress report on the last year or so, just before we enter the final nine months of writing and the calendar year in which the book will be completed.

So … how’s it going?

Overall, pretty well I think. I’m not where I’d like to be wordcount-wise (but are you ever?), but I do like how it’s coming together, and I’m thrilled at a) the robustness of my original plan as it has met the various hurdles of the writing process and b) how neatly some of this is starting to shape up. The end-to-end trajectory isn’t all in place yet, and I’ve not worked out how all the throughlines should be arranged, but as a compositional project it’s really working out well. I think, anyway. Still a long way to go.

The biggest challenge so far has been balancing the depth and breadth of coverage. This is still being worked out in some places, but it is getting there. Whenever people ask me about this, I give them the metaphor of a forest: if the new music world is like a forest I want to take people right up to its edges, to show them its full dimensions, its different landscapes; what I don’t want to do is show them lots of similar (but in themselves interesting) trees all growing in roughly the same place. At the moment, I’ve still got too many trees with not enough space between them; but the chainsaw is at hand if need be. And then, of course, somebody points me to a whole new species growing right over there, on the other side of that stream …

Of the eight chapters, five are about 75% written in some sort of early draft. That looks a lot better written down than it feels in my head. In the new year, when things get a little more complete, I’ll be looking for a couple of sympathetic readers to point out any massive gaps you idiot/stroke my ego and tell me I’m amazing.

Anticipated schedule for those who like to know these things: Manuscript delivered August 2015. Book on shelves I think September 2016.

Some recent CDs, briefly reviewed

Vicious Circus are Elo Masing (violin, cello, electric guitar, whistle), and Dave Maric (analogue synth and electronics). The 20 short tracks on Troglodytes Troglodytes (squib-box) are all improvised, and on some the duo are joined by David Turay on alto sax and Matthew Lee Knowles on voice. The sound is oddly gothic, the howls and scratches of of Masing’s strings rubbing strangely along with Maric’s synth. I rather like it; I hear something of both Radulescu and 80s synth-pop in it (among much else), a combination of avant garde and trash that brings to mind the narrow streets of East London, appropriately enough where Vicious Circle do most of their performing.

Pianist Philip Thomas has been busy, with two solo recordings out in the last few weeks (there’s also a new disc of Feldman multiple piano music on another timbre). First music by Christopher Fox (Hat [now]ART 192) – L’ascenseur, at the edge of time, Thermogenesis and Republican Bagatelles. Fox’s music has always been pleasingly hard to categorise; has any other composer been labelled both a minimalist and a new complexist? Of course he’s neither, and thank goodness. Besides this completely original, unpindownable quality, what I also like about Fox’s music is how it doesn’t take itself too seriously, while being deep down very serious indeed. By way of example, at the edge of time is a 15-minute study in a single pitch and its harmonics that never once sounds like a chore; Thermogenesis is a quasi-theatrical gesture that requires the pianist to begin playing in mittens, removing those to reveal gloves, and only in the final third to play with bare hands. I’ve seen Thomas play this piece, and while it has its undoubted silly side it also works as ‘proper’ music. Those who know Fox’s piano music only from Ian Pace’s Metier recordings of a few years back should relish the complimentary robustness that comes out here.

Thomas has a long-standing relationship with Fox’s music, but I suspect it’s the 3-CD set of music by Christian Wolff (sub rosa SR389) that has been the real labour of love. Thomas is a Wolff specialist, and I understand there are more discs like this to come. For now, we have one CD of works from the 1950s, and two of music composed between 2001 and 2010 (Thomas notes that a full third of Wolff’s output for solo piano has been composed since 2001). It’s a beautiful thing – like sub rosa releases usually are. There’s much more music here than I can possibly cover in a short review like this. CD1 includes all of Wolff’s solo piano music from the 1950s, including two performances of For Pianist (1959). CD2 is devoted to Long Piano (Peace March 11) (2004–5), and CD3 features works composed since 2001. Three of the latter are first recordings (Pianist Pieces, 2001; Nocturnes 1–6, 2008; Small Preludes, 2010), but Thomas’s authoritative interpretations make all three discs worth owning.

Peter Söderberg is a very rare thing – a contemporary music lutenist. I met him briefly in Stockholm recently, and he passed me a copy of his recording of American experimental music, On the carpet of leaves illuminated by the moon (Alice ALCD028). The title comes from Lucier’s piece for koto and pure wave oscillator, here arranged for oud. Of the other three pieces – Tenney’s Chromatic Canon, Cage’s One7 and Reich’s Violin Phase – the Tenney and Reich have required arrangement, and on all three Söderberg enlists the help of Erik Peters on electronics. The Tenney (originally two pianos) and Reich have both been set for lute and live electronics; the Cage is for unspecified instrument anyway, and Söderberg here plays an amalgam of guitar and electronics. All four pieces work very well: the mechanistic loops of the Tenney and Reich pieces sit particularly well with plucked strings (some of Reich’s phrases have been written to be more idiomatic), and the Lucier and Cage pieces are pretty faithful to their originals anyway. Söderberg’s playing is beautifully precise throughout, giving all the pieces the necessary transparency of tone and feel. If I have a reservation, it is that Peters’ addition of electronic resonances to the Tenney makes it too sweet for my taste, but this is nevertheless a very lovely record.

The debut album by the Vocal Constructivists, Walking Still (innova 898), has really grown on me. But I’m reviewing that in a forthcoming issue of Tempo so I won’t say any more here.