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.

#promsnewmusic 2017

Iiiit’s Proms time! For the definitive list of new music in this year’s festival see below, or follow  #promsnewmusic on Twitter.

A few quick observations: women composers: 11 (down from 12 in 2015 (did I not do this list last year?)) 12 (edit: I’d missed Andrea Tarrodi in Prom 61). Non-white composers: 2. Birtwistle, Hillborg, Larcher, Adès, MacMillan and Dusapin: all present and correct. Nothing against any of them especially (and I’ve written the BBC’s Larcher bio, so it will be nice for that to have another outing), but it seems at least at three of those six are in every Proms series these days. The Proms are capable of looking further afield – witness the inclusion of new pieces by Tom Coult, Laurent Durupt, Lotta Wennäkoski and others – but it does feel like the core is hardening at the same time. A John Adams focus in his 70th birthday year is probably inevitable, but again here’s a composer amply represented in previous seasons. Probably the most attractive Adams event will be Harmonielehre at Peckham Car Park, a piece I can imagine really working well in that tricky space.

Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to pieces by Gerald Barry (Prom 50), Durupt (PCM 2), Mark Simpson (Prom 17) and Christina Lamb (Proms at Tanks Tate Modern). What I know of Julian Anderson’s Piano Concerto (Prom 16) intrigues me too, and the concerts at Wilton’s Music Hall and Tanks Tate Modern, staged by BCMG and London Contemporary Orchestra, respectively, can’t be overlooked. Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar’s performance of 1964’s Passages (Prom 41) could also be quite something.

For those who can’t be in London, every Prom will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3, and online in HD sound. Proms marked ** in the list below will also be broadcast on TV, either live or at a later date. (As past experience has shown, however, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the new music component will be broadcast.)

Here’s the full list (click the bold to go to the BBC’s listing page). As usual, I may have missed something; please let me know in the comments if I have. And here’s Simon’s alternative take.

Prom 1 **

Tom Coult: new work

John Adams: Harmonium

Prom 4 **

Harrison Birtwistle: Deep Time

Proms Chamber Music 1

Roderick Williams: Là ci darem la mano

Prom 7

Pascal Dusapin: Outscape

Prom 8 **

John Williams celebration

Proms Chamber Music 2

Laurent Durupt: Grids for Greed

Prom 16

Julian Anderson: Piano Concerto

Prom 17

Mark Simpson: The Immortal

Prom 18

Anders Hillborg: Sirens

Prom 20

David Sawer: The Greatest Happiness Principle

Prom 21 **

James MacMillan: A European Requiem

Prom 24

John Adams: Naive and Sentimental Music

Prom 28 **

Francisco Coll: Mural

Thomas Adès: Polaris

Prom 32

Brian Elias: Cello Concerto

Proms at … Southwark Cathedral

Judith Weir: In the Land of Uz

Prom 39

Mark-Anthony Turnage: Hibiki

Prom 40

Thomas Larcher: Nocturne – Insomnia

Prom 41 **

Philip Glass and Ravi Shankar: Passages

Prom 44

Michael Gordon: Big Space

David Lang: Sunray

Julia Wolfe: Big Beautiful Dark and Scary

Philip Glass: Glassworks (closing)

Louis Andriessen: Worker’s Union

Prom 47

Cheryl Frances-Hoad: Chorale Prelude ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott’

Jonathan Dove: Chorale Prelude ‘Christ unser Herr zum Jordan kam’

Daniel Saleeb: Chorale Prelude ‘Erhalt uns, Herr bei deinem Wort’

Two Three chorale preludes based on unrealised plans in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein. (edit: I’d somehow missed Saleeb’s piece first time around; sorry)

Prom 48

Includes excerpts from Passion settings by Gubaidulina and MacMillan.

Prom 50 **

Gerald Barry: Canada

Prom 51

Edward Elgar/Anthony Payne: Symphony No 3

Proms at … Multi-Story Car Park, Peckham

Kate Whitley: I am I say

John Adams: Harmonielehre

Two shows for this one: see also here.

Prom 61

Andrea Tarrodi: Liguria

Prom 62 **

Hannah Kendall: The Spark Catchers

Prom 64

Wolfgang Rihm: In-Schrift

Proms at … Wilton’s Music Hall

John Luther Adams: songbirdsongs (excerpts)

Olivier Messiaen: Le merle noir

Rebecca Saunders: Molly’s Song

Peter Maxwell Davies: Eight Songs for a Mad King

Two shows for this one too: see also here.

Prom 69

John Adams: Lollapalooza

Prom 70 **

Missy Mazzoli: Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres)

Proms at … Tanks Tate Modern

Catherine Lamb: new work

Cassandra Miller: Guide

Rodrigo Constanzo: light and sound performance

London Contemporary Orchestra and Actress: collaboration

Prom 75 (Last Night) **

Lotta Wennäkoski: Flounce

John Adams: Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance

Review: Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now, Ghent

Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now

Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent, 18 April 2017

Full cast and production team

The first thing you know going into the theatre for a performance of Chaya Czernowin’s third and newest opera, Infinite Now, is that it lasts two and a half hours, without a break. There are sound practical reasons for giving this information, but it remains a somewhat alarmist way to frame a piece. Yet in the event it proved useful for appreciation too. Infinite Now is a long work, and it is a slow one, adjectives now so negatively valorised these days in relation to music that I must immediately add: but not in a bad way. Big is just how it is.

Feldman’s line about the difference between form and scale comes to mind, but where Feldman’s art was still based on an essentially linear movement through time, an endless chain of extensions, Czernowin’s opera dwells. It inhabits its big box of time-space, all the way to its edges. It penetrates. It overwhelms.

Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations. It is about a woman at home and men at war, about going away and coming back, and about them being the same. In an attempt to capture this, I doodled this image in my notes on the journey home:


The libretto combines Luk Perceval’s play FRONT (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and texts and letters from World War I) and Can Xue’s novel Homecoming (in which a woman returns to a house she once knew as her home, only to find that it is now perched, in unending darkness, on the edge of an abyss), at first holding the two scenarios quite distinct then, in the opera’s second half, gradually overlapping them until they occupy the same psychological space.

The music is unexpected. In contrast to her hyper-detailed scores of the 2000s Czernowin has been adding more and more space to her music recently, but even so Infinite Now comes as a shock, so pared down is it. This suits its slowness: ‘moments’ in the piece may last several minutes, giving them unavoidable mass. (The staging is even more stripped back, but in keeping with the work’s overall aesthetic also contains some of its most memorable moments.) The orchestra is large, and is supplemented by a concertante quartet of two guitars and two cellos (played by Nico Couck, Yaron Deutsch, Christina Meissner and Séverine Ballon), but it is the electronics that dominate. Composed in collaboration with IRCAM’s Carlo Laurenzi, the soundtrack is based on a number of concrete sounds – metal gates, trains, birds’ wings, breathing, rolling balls, pops of static and so on. These set out the work’s sonic template, around the sounds of air, either moving or being moved through. (Later the sounds of water are added, notably the splintered noise of ice stacking on Lake Superior.) The orchestral writing is related, and centres around sheets of sound and noise – waves of string glissandi, spatters of dots, an especially memorable three-minute quadruple fortissimo G for brass in Act VI. What moments of lyricism there are (and they are but moments, tightly and precisely rationed) are given to the voices and instrumental quartet. One passage at the end of Act IV took my breath away for sheer beauty; looking at the score the following morning I was amazed that it amounted to just two bars of guitar and voices, a fleeting vocal arabesque and perhaps ten seconds of electronics. Such is Infinite Now‘s power to shape and communicate the passage of time. Such is Czernowin’s authority as a composer. I cannot think of anyone else who could have written this opera: she is an artist at the height of her powers.

The next day I visited Ghent’s contemporary art museum, SMAK. Inside was an exhibition of three of Anna Oppermann’s ‘ensembles’, Myth and Enlightenment (1985–92), Paradoxical Intentions – To lie the Blue down from the Sky (1988–92) and, below, On the one hand – on the other hand; both … and (M+M) (1988).aop_smak-gent_nw_img_3631

Assemblages of elements, often surrealistically juxtaposed or extrapolated, originating in a small number of found objects brought into fortuitous conjunction, Oppermann’s works are halls of mirrors reflecting out in every physical and metaphysical dimension. No longer paintings or sculptures, although resembling both, they are piles of stuff, retracing, reworking, reimagining, repositioning their objects of attention in ways that penetrate and overwhelm you. More infinite nows, I thought, as I stood before them.


CD review: Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough (Confront)


Seth Parker Woods: asinglewordisnotenough

Seth Parker Woods

Confront Collectors Series ccs69

These are good times for contemporary cello playing and, by extension, contemporary music for the cello. Recent albums by Séverine Ballon and Arne DeForce might stake out the heavyweights’ territory, but don’t overlook work by emerging artists like Seth Parker Woods.

Woods is another graduate of Huddersfield University’s doctoral performance programme, and if this is reflected in any particular way it is in the language of space and force – trajectories, smears, intersections – that spatter his album’s sleevenotes. The four pieces recorded here are plenty varied, however. They range in length from roughly 4 to 24 minutes, and in style from the loose, street art-inspired sonic tags of Edward Hamel’s Gray Neon Life, to the electronic swarms of Michael Clarke’s Enmeshed 3 and George Lewis’s Not Alone, to the glitchy bleeps of Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s asinglewordisnotenough3 (invariant). This is the cello at its most raw, least lyrical, a rethinking that in this album’s best moments is thrilling.

Lewis’s piece – one of three here written for Woods – is the biggest contribution in all respects, but it’s the pieces by Hamel and Tremblay that have most caught my ears. Hamel deploys a fragmentary, post-Lachenmannish mode of fragile harmonics and spoken interjections, but does so in an almost casual, improvisatory mode – no doubt due in part to his score’s graphic component and delegation of many decisions to its player. It has a disarmingly unfussy vibe that I really like. Tremblay’s piece is simply the most fun: a pan-dimensional, post-techno romp through electronic tones and cello grinds. It’s not a combination I’d heard before (at least, not quite like this), and although there are points where cello and electronics dance each other into related sonic territory, more of the time it’s the distance between them that gives the music its poetic effect, the electronics providing an austere digital architecture within which the resolutely analogue cello can find its voice.

asinglewordisnotenough is available in hard copy in a metal tin via Confront, or digitally via Bandcamp.

After the launch

Well I had an absolutely fantastic evening on Thursday at The Word Bookshop in New Cross, celebrating Music after the Fall‘s arrival into the world. Huge thanks to everyone who came, to David and Annette at The Word for hosting, to Wiley for getting the books to us (we sold out!), and to Amy of Stanley’s Cake Boutique for fulfilling a near-impossible brief to render 25 years of contemporary music in flour, sugar, eggs and butter. Following the Ozzy theme of the book’s cover image, she produced a creation in the form of one of Ross Bolleter’s ruined pianos in the Australian outback. Amazing, and delicious.

Incredibly, we actually sold out of books on the night. Moreover, there aren’t any more coming into the country until next month – so if you see one, snap it up!

Before: Chapter 6: Superabundance
The author in full flow


Cake + book (photo by @Wordbookshop)

After: Chapter 7: Loss

Sounds Like Now: an update

Excitement is growing among the Sounds Like Now team as we approach 1 May and the publication of our first issue. Our first issue content is being put together – watch out for announcements about that to come. Copy is being written, illustrations are being drawn, photographs are being selected. Our event and product listings are also filling out, and here’s where you need to go to get details of your concert or new release listed. (Subscribers can list for free.)

SLN-darkblue-on-transI’ve been saying for years that contemporary classical music in the UK and Ireland needs a dedicated space for long-form, critical journalism, and this is what we are hoping to create. As I suggest in my editorial statement: art that isn’t talked about, dies. And that means not just promoting and previewing what we do amongst ourselves (although that is also important, and part of SLN’s remit), but approaching that work critically in ways that connect it to the wider world. Not just saying what a new work is, or even what it might mean, but also having the courage to ask: so what? This is a point repeatedly made by Gilda Williams in her outstanding book How to Write about Contemporary Art, which – inadvertently – crystallizes for me so many of the differences between writing about contemporary art and writing about contemporary music today.

(Update: Immediately after posting this, I recalled Alex Ross’s related and widely shared injunction published earlier this week, on ‘The Fate of the Critic in the Clickbait Age‘. I urge those who haven’t read it to do so.)

To start out, SLN will include each month two features, an extended critical review, news and a short musician portrait, but as our subscriber base grows we will be making it a priority to expand that offering. I do hope you will consider becoming a subscriber yourself; and if you would like to pitch an article (or just have a news item for us), please write to me at editor [at] soundslikenow [dot] net. If you enjoy reading The Rambler, I hope you will find much to like in Sounds Like Now as well.