On Birtwistle, Deep Time and over-production

One thing I like about Harrison Birtwistle is that, rarely among composers of a more radical bent, he never feels he has to apologise for writing for orchestra. His orchestras feel and sound like orchestras – although often cleverly reimagined – and his ideas are scaled to the orchestra’s size. There’s something thrilling about seeing a Birtwistle orchestra come to life in all its many facets – the high-tensile strings, the jabbering winds, the pit-and-pendulum percussion, the deep-diving brass – and being shown the clear and essential role for every instrument in a massive poem of time and space.

And the orchestra for Deep Time is Mahlerian in size, including double tubas, double contrabass clarinets, upright piano, soprano sax, quadruple brass and more. There’s something to be said for just listening to a brilliant compositional mind hold all of that in play and never once let it stop making sense. (The clarity of the Staatskappelle Berlin’s playing, and Barenboim’s conducting have to take some credit here too.)

Others have deconstructed and dismantled the orchestra more thoroughly than this, but Birtwistle is not interested in modding this elite musical machine. No extended techniques, no musique concrète instrumentale, no discourses of failure or compromise; just orchestral music making the old-fashioned way. I offer this as a point very much in Birtwistle’s favour: there is much to be said for saying new things with old words, and few do it as well as he.

Yet it does also present a problem, since those new things Birtwistle is saying are no longer as new as they once were, even if they may speak as well as they always did. Deep Time is undoubtedly a highly crafted piece of work, yet for all its accomplishment it never felt as rawly inspired as The Triumph of Time or Earth Dances, its two precursors in a now-completed orchestral trilogy. ‘All the familiar fingerprints, polished nicely’ was Philip Clark’s immediate response on Twitter, and even after listening a second time it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. Why does this piece need to be in the world, I wondered. No reason, necessarily; it filled its time well enough, and far better than most. Yet I couldn’t help but think back nostalgically to those days when Birtwistle’s music blowtorched through the British musical establishment; less perfectly formed, undoubtedly, but more urgent. We live in an age of colossal cultural excess, in which the production of new works parallels our mania for consumption. As Birtwistle’s giant orchestra told its giant tale I still had to wonder: for what?

Watch Barenboim and the Staatskappelle Berlin play Deep Time at the Proms through iPlayer, until 15 August.


Gaudeamus Award 2017 – nominee videos

Five composers have been nominated for the 2017 Gaudeamus Award. Here are each of their nominee videos.

Chaz Underriner

Sky Macklay

Ethan Braun

Aart Strootman

Ivan Vukosavljević

Notes from hospital (1)


I am in hospital.

It’s Tuesday now, almost midday, and I’m supposed to be here for two weeks. I came in around Friday lunchtime: 95 of my expected 336 hours down; 241 to go.

Because I have cystic fibrosis my body makes a very hospitable home for infections, especially in my lungs. Every now and then too much welcome mat is rolled out and the infections start to take over. My lung function drops, I cough a lot, wheeze, get short of breath. Keep it up and eventually bits of my airways die off, never to come back. Life is a losing battle – the question is just how slowly you want to lose.

This is why I’m currently in the Royal Brompton Hospital in South Kensington. It’s one of the world’s leading CF centres and I’m receiving some of the best care in the world. For that, I am extremely grateful.

Like being an inmate, being an inpatient is a cellular experience. Because of the risk of cross-infection, nearly everyone on this ward is in a room of their own. Socializing with other cystics is forbidden. There is a lounge room, but it’s strictly for one person at a time. Mostly we stay in our boxes.

So life on the ward is deprived of visual, social or spatial stimulus. Hospital is not an architectural experience. But it is a sonic one. Inpatient life is constructed around structures of time: mealtimes, medication routines, cleaning cycles, observation patterns. And each one comes with a sound: knocks on the door, the beep of the nurse call button, the pips of the oxygen saturation monitor, the hiss of the blood pressure sleeve as it inflates and deflates.

CF is an invisible disease (unless you know a few telltale signs to look for – stooped shoulders, tired eyes, a slightly drawn face, club fingers). But it is not an inaudible one. Cystics cough a lot, and with a characteristic deep, wet signature. I’ve noticed it in people I’ve met. My family use it to find me in crowds or in department stores.

In hospital this fact is brought home more forcefully. In our little private rooms, we’re only aware of each other to the extent that we hear each other – our coughs, which we no doubt all assess against our own internal scales of judgment (am I doing better than that? Worse?), and more frequently when one of us presses the orange button beside our beds to call the nurse.

Our drugs are administered at eight-hourly intervals. So early morning, mid-afternoon and late at night we’re each hooked up to an IV bag full of antibiotics. I get ceftazidime three times a day, with a bonus of tobramycin in the afternoon. There’s something like 100ml of antibiotic/saline solution in each bag, and it takes about half an hour to drip drip into my arm. When it’s done, someone needs to come along and give the line a final flush of saline and strap everything back up again. For this, you need to press the call button.

And so those beeps tend to cluster, three times a day at eight-hour intervals, from about 7am to 9am, 3pm to 5pm and 11pm to 1pm. It’s a strange sort of community – a community without conversation, a community that doesn’t feed back. And as the last drug-emptied cluster of the day tails its way past midnight, it’s a community of shared, sleepless resentment.

(I was last here seven years ago. A wrote a couple of short things back then too.)

Catch me at Gaudeamus

The programme for September’s Gaudeamus Muziekweek has been published, and I’m pleased to note that I’ll be appearing not once but three times as part of the festival.

On Saturday morning, 9 September, I’ll be on stage interviewing two of the Gaudeamus Award nominees, Sky Macklay and Chaz Underriner (I believe the website listing is not quite accurate on this point).

Then in the afternoon, I’ll present a few bits from Music after the Fall, under the title ‘Afterness in the Music of Three Young Composers‘. Keeping with the Gaudeamus theme, they will all be composers with some association with the festival: Clara Iannotta, Marko Nikodijevic and Stefan Prins.

And finally on Sunday morning (again, I think the website has some of the details slightly wrong), I’ll be on stage once more interviewing the other three nominees, Ivan Vukosavljević, Ethan Braun and Aart Strootman.

A chance to meet some new people and some new pieces, and to get to know a key festival in the European scene for the first time – I’m really looking forward to this one!

So who is on that shortlist to build the LSO’s new home?

I’m intrigued by the shortlist of architectural firms announced today to build London’s new Centre for Music, and the future new home for the London Symphony Orchestra.

It’s no big surprise to see the names of Renzo Piano, Foster and Partners and Gehry Partners associated with a project of this scale and prestige (Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and Studio Libeskind can’t have been far from the cut, I imagine).

So far, so predictable. Speaking as an absolute architectural dilettante, you understand, I’m more interested in what proposals might emerge from the other listed firms – AL_A and Diamond Schmitt Architects, Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Sheppard Robson, and  Snøhetta.


Amanda Levete’s AL_A is currently in vogue in London, thanks to her new entrance and gallery for the V&A (she’s also part responsible for the media centre at Lord’s Cricket Ground, perhaps the most improbable object of affection in all the country’s architecture). Canada’s Diamond Schmitt have form in tasteful if not radical performing arts designs, most notably in this context Montreal’s Maison Symphonique, built in 2011. After that hall’s opening concert, its acoustics were described by the New York Times‘s Anthony Tommasini as ‘resonant and clear’ and as having ‘mellowness and warmth’. Arthur Kaptainis, reviewing a performance by the Borodin Quartet a few days later for the Montreal Gazette, noted that the acoustics gave ‘a feeling of intimacy’. However, Tommasini did express reservations, particularly over the missing ‘depth, richness and presence’ of the string sound in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which formed part of the inaugural concert’s programme. In the case of La Maison, the acoustics were handled by Artec Consultants and Sound Space Design, rather than Diamond Schmitt themselves, so who’s to say how much bearing this might have on the London hall. My sense from this partnership (again, architecture dilettante speaking here) is that this may be the safe pair of hands option – La Maison is notable for having been built at a tricky time, economically – but that said, I’m curious as to how Diamond Schmitt’s somewhat blocky, geometric style might marry up with Levete’s swooping curves and bulbs.


New York’s Diller Scofidio + Renfro have built a lot of cultural buildings, but are perhaps best known musically for their re-design of Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center (they also led the $1 billion rejuvenation of the Center as a whole, NYC’s largest building project of the noughties, after the rebuilding of Ground Zero). If you’re looking for a precursor to the London project among the listed firms, this may be closest to it: a new hall for a much-loved institution, within a tight and historically loaded urban environment. (And in Charles Renfro, a former clarinettist, they do have a musician on the team.) Sheppard Robson bring a British presence. Less well known for their cultural buildings than DSR – their portfolio is dominated by office, university and residential buildings, understated but with knacky detailing – they bring plenty of experience working within London, and the City in particular. This team might be a good bet, I’d suggest.

And then Snøhetta, the Norwegian firm responsible for a recent love affair of mine in the form of the sexily sliding Oslo Opera House. The exterior, with its sinking iceberg slope you can walk from fjord’s edge to flytower is the attention grabber, but the interior is no less special – I say without hesitation that the entrance to the loos (contrasting white geometric cladding designed by Olafur Eliasson with a dark metallic interior) is one of the most spectacular I can recall. Wow, I’d love a building this good in London. But then, what really makes it work is where it is: the fjord, the climate, the hills around Oslo: the opera house seems just an expression, a distillation of these. It almost seems to melt into its environment. (For now – major building developments along the Oslo waterfront currently underway look set to dramatically change the feel of the location.) Many of Snøhetta’s buildings – the Hørsholm suburb proposal, the International Centre for Cave Art at Montignac, the Hjerkinn Wild Reindeer Pavilion – seem designed to lie close to their environment, articulating a fine line between the built and the wild. Edges are important; lots of buildings are on waterfronts. The heart of the City of London doesn’t seem like natural Snøhetta territory, where the building will have to make an entirely different set of agreements with its surroundings, but who knows? Snøhetta are clearly not short of ideas, and may relish the challenge.

Only Connect

No, not that one. This one.


I’ll be appearing at Oslo’s Only Connect new music festival in two weeks to talk about Music After the Fall. If you’re in the area come and say hi. My bit’s at lunchtime on Friday 19 May, but there’s lots else going as well, including Jennifer Walshe’s EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT, which is currently taking Europe by storm; Julius Eastman’s Evil Nigger; Aisha Orazbayeva’s collaboration with artist and writer Tim Etchells, Seeping Through; and an evening of new Norwegian music that includes works by Therese Birkelund Ulvo, Jon Øivind Ness, Rolf Wallin and Øyvind Torvund.

(NB: Issue 1 of Sounds Like Now features an article by Robert Barry on Orazbayeva; issue 2, out in June, will feature a review by Liam Cagney from Berlin’s Maerzmusik of EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT. Subscribe here.)

Some recent CDs

726708696122-front-coverSelf Portrait by Brooklyn composer and multimedia artist Grant Cutler (innova 961) is composed of artists improvising to recordings of themselves, the results heavy with loops, delays and textures. innova’s press release dresses this up as ‘an act of memoir, an active reimagining of the self’. I think that’s stretching a point: if that’s what these tracks are, they’re cosy, untroubled imaginings that rarely stray far from their original path. (Not what I see in my mirror, certainly.) Nevertheless, set that aside and Cutler and his musicians have made an attractive, not always predictable work of instrumental/electronic ambiance. Requires a sweet tooth, but I have one.

726708697327-front-coverIf you like this, you might also like Listening Beam Five by Crystal Mooncone (Stephen Rush, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci; innova 973). More of a 60s, West Coast psychedelia vibe here, although washed out, exhausted, like the fade-outs to a Bitches Brew session at full scale. The instrumentarium includes Phase Maracas, Foil-o-tron, Distant Echo Flute, Float Tank Rhodes and Cistern Singing, so that should give some idea (or not).

ewr1601-03Manfred Werder’s 2003/1–3 arrive on a triple-disc set from Edition Wandelweiser Records (EWR 1601-03). 70 minutes per disc, two (performed) sounds per disc. (I emphasise performed: these seem to be studio recordings, so the huge silences in between aren’t completely silent; they’re live, not digital.) It’s a colossal, utopian extravagance, of the sort I’d rather started to miss from EWR. There is undoubtedly something ridiculous about firing up the CD player for more than hour of almost nothing (in three different versions, no less), but at the same time, there’s nothing else quite like doing so. Which is one underlying message of Werder’s work, at least: that experience trumps thought. I doubt I’ll be returning to these discs very often, but I’m absolutely certain that I will, so unique is that feeling – not something one can always say.

ewr1607-08Eva-Maria Houben’s livres d’heures, a two-disc set this time from EWR (1607/08), goes into the less abstract territory that I feel has characterised many Wandelweiser recordings of the last year or two. In particular, it foregrounds the Christian/spiritual dimension that appears to underlie the aesthetic of several Wandelweiser composers. A book of hours is an obvious choice for a style preoccupied with periodicity and the articulation of very large spans of time – see Werder, above. The difference in his case is that the periodicity is intuitive and unpredictable: thus it holds its time in a state of heightened tension; whereas Houben’s meticulously steady bell chimes and violin drones mark out a structured, and hence contemplative time. It reminds me of other large-scale religious settings, most notably Knaifel’s Agnus Dei, or even (although its language is much less bombastic) Radulescu’s Cinerum.

51zbr3xyy8l-_ss500Pick of the listening at the moment, though, is EXAUDI’s recording of Mala punica composed by their director James Weeks (Winter & Winter 910 239-2). I’ve said this a few times recently about other composers’ works, and I find myself saying it again, but this may be the best thing I’ve heard from Weeks so far. Making use of the little canonic and fan-like games that populate a lot of his music, Mala punica – interleaved on this recording with the three-part Walled Garden for instrumental ensemble – is a stunningly subtle, disarmingly simple achievement; a crystallisation of basic ideas down to the point that they transform into something else entirely. Combining the metaphor of the hortus conclusus with a setting of Song of Songs, Weeks’s piece models an exquisite tension between chaste procedure and order, and over-tumbling sensuality.

Further to these short pocket reviews, I’ve recently written a much longer consideration of Richard Barrett’s album Music for cello and electronics, with Arne Deforce and recorded for aeon. You can read that here at Music & Literature.