Music After the Fall

It’s official!

My book has a webpage! Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 will be published in February 2017 by University of California Press. And it will look like this:


That’s Roseanne Hunt of ELISION, surgically attacking her cello in a performance of John Rodgers’ TULP: the body public.

Still some way to go before the book hits the shelves, but this feels like a big moment. Here’s the official blurb:

Music after the Fall is the first book to survey contemporary Western art music within the transformed political, cultural, and technological environment of the post–Cold War era. In this book, Tim Rutherford-Johnson considers musical composition against this changed backdrop, placing it in the context of globalization, digitization, and new media. Drawing connections with the other arts, in particular visual art and architecture, he expands the definition of Western art music to include forms of composition, experimental music, sound art, and crossover work from across the spectrum, inside and beyond the concert hall.

Each chapter is a critical consideration of a wide range of composers, performers, works, and institutions, and develops a broad and rich picture of the new music ecosystem, from North American string quartets to Lebanese improvisers, from electroacoustic music studios in South America to ruined pianos in the Australian outback. Rutherford-Johnson puts forth a new approach to the study of contemporary music that relies less on taxonomies of style and technique than on the comparison of different responses to common themes of permission, fluidity, excess, and loss.

To purchase, request an exam copy, or find more information, please visit Music After the Fall at University of California Press.

And for details of launch events, etc, stay tuned.

Three releases from Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Founded in 2009, Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) continues to go from strength to strength. Not only as a showcase for what is surely now the powerhouse for new music in UK academe, but as a record label in its own right.

Ending today (30 September), NMC is offering 20% off all HCR releases. Get yours now.

To help you on your way, here are reviews of the three most recent releases.

Diego Castro Magas: Shrouded Mirrors (HCR10 CD)


The Chilean guitarist Diego Castro Magas is a PhD candidate in performance at Huddersfield. A former student of Oscar Ohlsen, Ricardo Gallén and Fernando Rodríguez, he has in the last decade or so become a specialist in contemporary repertoire (his first release, in 2009, featured the first recording of Ferneyhough’s guitar duet no time (at all), with his Chilean colleague José Antonio Escobar).

A performer clearly keen to push his instrument’s repertory to its limit (witness his remarkable realisation of a kind of nostalgia, written for him by the composer Michael Baldwin), on Shrouded Mirrors he takes on more conventional challenges – in whatever sense music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and some of their younger admirers, Bryn Harrison, Wieland Hoban and Matthew Sergeant, might be considered ‘conventional’.

Hoban’s Knokler I (2009) takes perhaps the most radical approach, using a multi-stave tablature notation and a very low scordatura to distort the sound and physical familiarity of the guitar as much as possible. Based on a poem by the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven, it emphasises the physicality of the guitar (knokler meaning bones in Norwegian), as well as the poem’s collage of images. But whereas many composers working in this fashion (including some of those on this CD) produce music of sharp prickles and vertiginous drops, Hoban writes a queasy, unpredictable melting that is distinctive and strangely attractive.

Sergeant’s bet maryam (2011) is a characteristic blend of the headlong and the eldritch, and (like other works by Sergeant) takes its title from an Ethiopian church – this one a small, rock-hewn building on the Labilela World Heritage site. A feature of the church is a pillar that is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the story of the excavation of Labilela, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Deemed too dangerous for mortal eyes, however, the pillar has been veiled since the 16th century, which Sargeant’s piece expresses through the use of a melodic cycle within the piece that is variously exposed or veiled.

Also notable is Bryn Harrison’s M.C.E. (2010), which is quite the loveliest Harrison piece I have heard in some time. Perhaps a source of its particular expressive clarity is that it is named after M.C. Escher, an artist whose work shares much with Harrison’s own.

Of the pieces by the three ‘senior’ composers, Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II has been recorded several times. I know two versions by Geoffrey Morris, released in 1998 (on Etcetera with ELISION) and by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2000. Castro Magas’s version is the slowest of all three (a relative term), and as a result contains more space; but it also features sharper angles between the music’s intersecting planes (most clearly heard in the third movement’s tapestry of knocks and stabs). The result is more fragmentary, an emphasis found more explicitly in Ferneyhough’s later music, and a thrilling take on a familiar work. Finnissy’s Nasiye (1982, rev. 2002) dates from the period when the composer was writing many solo works based on folk musics from around the world. Nasiye is based on a Kurdish folkdance, which gradually emerges, movingly and with great dignity, from the deeply personalised context Finnissy has given it. The album’s title piece was composed in 1987 by James Dillon, and is a proper slice of old-school complexity, given eloquent justification by Castro Magas’s playing.

Philip Thomas: Beat Generation Ballads (HCR11 CD)


At Huddersfield, Castro Magas’s supervisor is Philip Thomas – a pianist currently on a remarkably prolific recording streak. His own release for HCR concentrates on two major works by Michael Finnissy: First Political Agenda (1989–2006), and Beat Generation Ballads (2014), the latter of which Thomas premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014.

Like its predecessor, and topical relation, English Country-Tunes, First Political Agenda begins with thunderous sweeps across the keyboard. What grows out of their dying echoes, however, is somewhat different: not the ironically distorted pastoralism (those never-quite restful open spaces) of English Country-Tunes, but a darker, rougher manipulation of raw materials. Its second movement draws on the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, while the third – ‘You know what kind of sense Mrs. Thatcher made’ – performs a Chris Newman-esque détournement on Hubert Parry’s theme for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, flipping the ultimate musical signifier of England on its end, flattening it and rendering it distressingly mute: a ghastly, heart-stoppingly empty reflection on the ‘sense’ of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.

Beat Generation Ballads contains further references to Beethoven (and, in its 30-minute final movement, Finnissy’s first extended use of a variation form), as well as Allen Ginsberg, Irish Republican protest songs, Bill Evans, the bassist Scott LeFaro, and the poet Harry Gilonis. In its short first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, it also features music written when the composer was only 16, a typical gesture of Finnissian self-archaeology.

There’s far too much to consider here in what is supposed to be a short review, but works are major statements, not (I think?) previously recorded, and are done justice by Thomas’s intelligent and critically reflective performance.

Heather Roche: Ptelea (HCR09 CD)


This is the oldest of these three releases; that is, it is the one that has been sitting on my desk the longest. Another Thomas student (she completed her PhD at Huddersfield in 2012), the Canadian-born clarinettist Heather Roche needs little introduction among followers of new music in the UK or Germany, where she now lives. One of the most energetic younger players on the scene, she is a founder member of hand werk, has hosted her own competition for young composers, and writes a widely-read (and actually useful!) new music blog.

Ptelea features works by six composers with whom Roche has formed important artistic relationships: Aaron Einbond, Chikako Morishita, Martin Iddon, Martin Rane Bauck, Pedro Alvarez and Max Murray. As first recital discs go, it’s an unusual one: several of the works are hushed affairs, for deep, close listening. No overt virtuosity here – Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) the closest thing to a ‘typical’ recital piece, albeit a contemporary one – although there is clearly much going on just out of earshot.

The repeated, breathy multiphonics of Bauck’s kopenhagener stille (2013), for example, will appeal to fans of Wandelweiser; Murray’s Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015) to admirers of Lucier and Sachiko M. Einbond’s Resistance (2012) opens the disc with barely more than the noise of air passing through the bass clarinet’s deep tube, and even this is only gradually augmented with the sounds of keys and, eventually, tones. Yet the work is also infused with the sounds of political protest – marches recorded in New York in 2011–12. Played through a speaker in the clarinet’s bell, these slowly emerge in their own right, a weird progeny of the instrument itself.

Iddon’s Ptelea is yet another a quiet affair. Using Josquin’s Nymphes des bois as a framework, Iddon constructs a slippery polyphony out of an impossible monody – a single instrumental line grouped in such a way that not everything can played at once. Difficult to describe in brief (here’s Iddon’s score), but like much of Iddon’s music a surprisingly simple idea brought to its full fruition.

For me, Iddon’s piece is the stand-out track (I really must get round to writing up his CD on another timbre from a couple of years ago), although Pedro Alvarez’s Instead (2013) comes close for creating something distinctly different from a typical solo clarinet work – odd blocks that nod towards minimalism and Zorn, if anything, although that isn’t giving much away. A strange disc, then, with some strange composers – but all the better for it.


Who wants to listen to Radio 3, then?

On Friday, the Guardian‘s Charlotte Higgins wrote on the dilemma and plight of Radio 3 (After 70 years, Radio 3 needs a rethink. It’s time to unleash the composers), which she summed up as:

Should Radio 3 appeal to the many or the few? To what extent should it reach out to capture new audiences? What if that attempt is seen as a dereliction of its duty fearlessly to bring listeners the best, no matter how “difficult” it is?

Radio 3 is faced with the Catch-22 of supporting a difficult artform with minority appeal, while trying to avoid charges of elitism and license fee profligacy. Yet it has repeatedly failed to answer this question, she argues, because it is approaching the debate from the wrong direction. Composers themselves, she says – particularly those under 50 – don’t think of Radio 3 as their natural home. They (and their music) might occasionally appear on the station, but they don’t tend to listen to it. And if composers – presumably the most clued-in, open-eared of all Radio 3’s target demographics – don’t listen, then why would anyone else?

Higgins’ article has prompted a number of letters to the paper, some of them printed here. I rather like one or two of the ideas suggested: moving Hear and Now out of the graveyard slot, for example, or greatly increasing the number of living composers featured in Composer of the Week. The suggestion of creating a new channel devoted to the broadcasting of live music of all types also strikes me as the kind of imaginative rethink that may be needed to get the BBC’s music broadcasting out of its R1, R2, R3, R6 boxes.

Not every response is quite so creative. One reader writes:

If we hand over Radio 3 to the composers, perhaps there should be a discrete programming time for them, as there is for jazz. If we have enough notice, we music lovers can then switch off and turn to our CD or vinyl collections for the duration.

Of course! What sort of classical music lover would have an interest in what the composers of today think about or enjoy or would like to share?

I don’t pretend to have the solution to the ails that Higgins identified in her original article, but I dare say this sort of thinking lies at the root of the problem.

Kammer Klang 2016–17 season


London’s leading season-long series for new and experimental music, Kammer Klang, has announced its programme for the coming year. Once again, it looks a doozy, with musicians from all over the new music map – from Tuvan throat singer Ayan-ool Sam to modern composition stalwarts Michael Cox and Enno Senft – spread across nine events between now and June.

Here’s a full list; for more details see the Kammer Klang website.

26th-30th September 2016
Miles Cooper Seaton + friends residency in the Oto Project Space
Open studio daily, with free evening events to be announced

4th October 2016
Miles Cooper Seaton + ensemble (UK premiere)
Distractfold performs Liza Lim, Mauricio Pauly (UK premiere), Sam Salem (UK premiere)
Fresh Klang Martyna Poznańska
DJs Monocreo

1st November 2016
Ayan-ool Sam
12 Ensemble performs Alex Hills (world premiere), Ruth Crawford Seeger

13th December 2016
Presented by Kammer Klang in association with London Sinfonietta
Evol performs Hanne Darboven
Enno Senft (London Sinfonietta) performs Hanne Darboven
Michael Cox (London Sinfonietta) performs Samantha Fernando, Brian Ferneyhough, Kaija Saariaho, Georg Philip Telemann

7th February 2017
Christine Sun Kim
Plus-Minus Ensemble performs Cassandra Miller (world premiere)
Juliet Fraser performs Cassandra Miller (world premiere)

7th March 2017
Klara Lewis
Phaedra Ensemble performs Leo Chadburn
Plus special guests to be announced

4th April 2017
We Spoke presents Living Instruments (UK premiere)
Explore Ensemble performs Gerard Grisey, Fausto Romitelli

2nd May 2017
Scenatet performs Matt Rogers & Sally O’Reilly (world premiere)
David Helbich

6th June 2017
Apartment House performs Henning Christiansen (UK premiere)
Plus special guests to be announced

Quick and dirty review: Trond Reinholdtsen: Theory of the Subject

I’m in Oslo for a few days for the Ultima contemporary music festival. The lineup is stellar. I wasn’t here for the first week, so I’ve missed, among other things Young’s the Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China (1962) in a Setting of Dream Light (a piece that lasts almost as long as it takes to say its title), and Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (the night before it was also performed, by a different group, in London). But tonight it’s Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero cycle, and Stockhausen’s Sternklang (in the Ekeberg Sculpture Park), so I’ll manage.

The highlight of the three concerts I saw yesterday was Trond Reinholdtsen’s bizarre, funny, exasperating yet ultimately convincing Theory of the Subject, a piano concerto with both those words are in inverted commas. You might remember Reinholdtsen from those witty conceptual music YouTube videos he made seven or eight years ago, in which he would create pieces by slapping music theory books together or rustling their pages. On the evidence of Theory of the Subject he has moved a long way in terms of ambition and scale, although the relationship of music to theoretical text – specifically in book form – clearly remains a preoccupation.

Theory of the Subject takes its title from Alain Badiou’s book, which in one section of the piece we can see the soloist (Ellen Ugelvik, shown on a live video feed) reading on a sofa in the Green Room, a concerned look on her face. Yes, the pianist is still backstage at this point, her part so far having been taken up by a manic Nancarrow-esque player piano. When she does eventually make it on stage, followed by the camera, it is to play just one note, which in a clever pastiche of 90% of mainstream contemporary music since Ligeti, turns out to be enough to set the orchestra on its own meandering path for the next few minutes. (Ugelvik, meanwhile, has returned to her sofa.)

While we watch her read, however, the orchestra plays a cinematic bed, suggesting anxiety and tension. Ugelvik goes up to the practice piano, attempts a few things – but we can’t hear them. The score on the stand is marked with absurd instructions – fingering single notes with two fingers from each hand, for example. The roving camera – reality TV style – takes us into the adjacent room where Reinholdtsen and his assistant are drowning in cables, computer components and orchestration textbooks. “This is the problem with a work like this,” mugs Reinholdtsen to the camera, holding up a nest of wires (I’m paraphrasing from memory). “There’s so much to organise. And I cannot find my Geist.” He gestures to the corner where someone is squatting with a sheet over their head, two holes cut out for eyes, and the word Geist written across the front. “Whoooooo,” goes the spirit.

I know what you’re thinking. And when I first read the description of the piece, I was thinking it too. (“The soloists’ role fluctuates between Maoist activism, depressive exhaustion (seen in a live video feed from the performer’s dressing room), resignation i the face of new technologies (represented by a player-piano that surpasses the soloist in mechanical virtuosity), and the total isolation from the public (retreating into a kind of shelter underneath the piano).”) I was also thinking it through the first few minutes of the work, as badly proofread slides (“kitchy,” “neo-classisism”) about conceptual art were project behind the orchestra. And I was still thinking it as the orchestra’s music became increasingly stylised, to the point that it well demonstrated the composer’s skill at pastiche, but was otherwise just filling time.

But then as the work got weirder and weirder, and Reinholdtsen continued to kick down the fourth wall (to the extent that wondered if there weren’t also fifth and sixth walls that people don’t usually bother about), it began to win me over. I started to forgive (or at least forget) the small errors around the edges. It helps that Reinholdtsen is a good comic on screen. And his understanding of the languages of both TV and the concert hall is exemplary (he has good jokes about both). Ugelvik also responded to her part, which is more David Blaine than Daniel Barenboim, extremely well. It struck me that perhaps this ultra-knowing, snarky, Stewart Lee or Chris Morris-esque approach to new music is more common in Norway – it’s a feature too of Lars Petter Hagen’s music, after all, and he is the festival’s artistic director – but it’s rarer in the UK, I think. The only examples I can think of off hand are comparatively po-faced; not nearly as silly as this. As it happens, I enjoy silliness and dumb gags as much, if not more, than contemporary music. I loved this.

Claudia Molitor: The Singing Bridge

Warning: This post contains a selfie. I feel terrible.

Yesterday evening I attended the launch of Claudia Molitor’s newest project, The Singing Bridge at Somerset House.

The Singing Bridge is a private soundwalk/sound art piece, to be listened to on headphones while walking across and around Waterloo Bridge, London. The music is comprised of eight tracks, mostly composed by Molitor herself, but with additional material provided by the drum and synth duo AK/DK, contemporary folk group Stick in the Wheel, and poet SJ Fowler. There’s a small exhibition of images and objects in a room in the new wing of Somerset House. You collect your headphones here, switch them on, then step outside onto the northern end of Waterloo Bridge, where it meets The Strand.

The sounds are a combination of speech – Molitor introducing the bridge, or staging a dialogue with herself about the place of bridges within the cultural imagination; Fowler reading his poetry – and music. It’s quite easy to connect the former to the bridge, its history, and the views one has as one walks across it. The relationship of the music to the setting is more oblique, however. Molitor’s compositions are quite sparse, loose assemblages of sounds – piano chords, a little percussion, some guitar, an accordion. They are obviously not specifically evocative of anything (apart from a recording of Big Ben late in the work), but project a space for imagination and contemplation. The work’s blurb suggests the prepared piano sounds give the piece an industrial feel; I heard something more nostalgic and whimsical. The contributions by AK/DK and Stick in the Wheel chimed more fully with the surroundings. I followed the suggested route fairly closely (cross the bridge, swing round the National Theatre, come back on the bridge’s other side) so AK/DK’s Electricity was playing when I reached the concrete playground between the National and the Hayward Gallery: a perfect urban union. Stick in the Wheel’s Sweet Thames Flow Softly, a love song to the river’s flow past different landmarks, came in as I was midway back across the bridge and the sun was setting behind Westminster.


The Singing Bridge is a piece rich in inspirations and associations. In her notes for the piece, Molitor draws particular attention to the fact that Waterloo Bridge is nicknamed the ‘Ladies Bridge’ because it was rebuilt during the Second World War by a predominantly female workforce, something I did not know; and it is home to four of London’s finest vistas – north to Somerset House, south to the Hayward Gallery and National Theatre, east to St Pauls and the City, and west to the Houses of Parliament. Yet characteristically Molitor handles everything with an extremely light touch; while it may be a little weakly defined at times (could I be listening to anything right now, to similar effect?), it is also pleasingly undidactic. And one should never pass up the opportunity to listen to music while walking around the stairs and tunnels of the Southbank.

The Singing Bridge can be listened to at Somerset House until the 25th September. It is free, but booking is recommended as there is a limited number of headsets available. More info here from Totally Thames, one of the project’s partners. The walk takes about 40 minutes. The recording is released by NMC, and extracts can be heard on their website.

Time for Linda Catlin Smith

The subject of rave reviews already, Linda Catlin Smith‘s recent recording for another timbre, Dirt Road, played by Mira Benjamin and Simon Limbrick, needs little additional support from me. However, Smith herself has until now been a relatively little known composer outside of Canada. She has been plugging away at her elusive, subtle, and engrossing music for three decades or more so that recognition has been a long time coming; but it is well deserved.

As well as Dirt Road, two other CDs are essential listening. The first, Memory Forms, dates from 2001 and features six chamber and orchestral works from the 1990s. The whole disc is available on Spotify; I would recommend the trio for violin, piano and percussion Moi qui tremblais (1999) as a great introductory ear-opener.

The second CD is not so easily accessible online, but just as valuable – Thought and Desire, a collection of Smith’s piano music played by Canada’s new music champion, pianist Eve Egoyan. I reviewed that disc at the start of the year for Tempo, saying: ‘What particularly excites me about listening to Smith’s music is how hard it is to pin down. … It seems so straightforward in the moment, but becomes impossible to grasp only shortly afterwards, which is perhaps the right way around to be. Much of the music here has a gentle, quasi-improvisatory feel, as short melodies and chord sequences are allowed to turn slowly in the light. Yet within that gentle informality is a precise rightness, like the thousandth kiss from a lifelong lover.’

Some of these works, plus others, are on Soundcloud. Brocade (2013) for harpsichord and piano visits Smith’s longstanding interest in Baroque instruments (see Rose with Thorns, also on Soundcloud, as well as other pieces).

Stare at the river (2010) is a recent piece for the leading Toronto experimental music ensemble Arraymusic, of which Smith was director between 1988 and 1993.

Les fleurs anciennes (2000) was written for 13 strings of Vancouver New Music, and thus represents a link with Canada’s west coast which, particularly through the teaching of Rudolf Komorous and, later, Christopher Butterfield at the University of Victoria, has been absolutely critical to the development of experimental music in Canada. (Smith herself was a Komorous student.)

A few of Smith’s writings are available on her website. There is a nice interview accompanying the Dirt Road release on the another timbre website. A longer read can be found in Paul Steenhuisen’s interview collection Sonic Mosaics (University of Alberta Press, 2009), pages 21–25 (edit: more interview with Steenhuisen available here as a podcast).

Smith has a gift – one that I particularly treasure when I find it in music – of turning things suddenly and surprisingly into a new light. It happens in Moi qui tremblais with the way she uses the cymbals against the violin and piano, for example; or with the trumpet’s late solo in Stare at the river. Her most jaw-dropping moment I’ve found so far occurs midway through the piano solo Thought and Desire when suddenly (if a whisper can be sudden) the pianist’s voice enters ‘quietly as though to oneself or someone close by’, murmuring the words of Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLV to a song that until now had been hidden within the piano’s chords.

Smith’s time has, finally, come.