An Assembly and Ensemble x.y

Tomorrow night, people

An assembly and ensemble x.y come together at St John’s, Waterloo tomorrow night (Friday 27 April) to play Michael Finnissy’s Piano Concert no.2, as well as works by Bryn Harrison, Paul Newland, Cassandra Miller and Anthony Leung. Piano soloist is Joseph Havlat; Jack Sheen conducts.

‘Few composers working today have managed to connect contemporary music’s expressive power as convincingly with its critical, intellectual potential.’
Guardian on the music of Michael Finnissy

‘… microscopic and cosmic in its dimensions. It was awe-inspiring.’
Sound Expanse on Bryn Harrison’s ‘Six Symmetries’

‘[Cassandra Miller’s music] allows us to hear and feel in new ways.’
Tempo magazine

Full programme:

Anthony Leung: Three Concert Pieces (I)
Paul Newland: locus
Bryn Harrison: Six Symmetries
Cassandra Miller: Philip The Wanderer
Michael Finnissy: Piano Concerto no.2

Tickets here.

Health issues mean I won’t be able to make it tomorrow but you should: these are some of my favourite composers. Ensemble x.y are a great group (check out their Resonance FM show), and Jack Sheen is putting together something special with An assembly I feel.

In case you need an extra taster, here’s Philip Thomas playing Miller’s Philip the Wanderer:

And here are An assembly playing Linda Catlin Smith’s Sarabande:



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.


Bryn Harrison: Vessels (Recent releases from another timbre, part 3)

(This post is part of a series looking at recent releases by Sheffield’s another timbre label. See here for the introduction.)


Bryn Harrison | Vessels | Philip Thomas, piano | another timbre (at69)

Of the current batch of another timbre CDs that I’m reviewing, this one seems the most problematic. I’ve raved about Bryn Harrison’s music in the past, but recently I’ve found myself drifting further and further apart from it. With Vessels, an uninterrupted 76-minute magnum opus for solo piano (written for, and played here in one extraordinarily controlled and immaculately articulated take, by Philip Thomas), I’m afraid I totally lose track of what he’s trying to do.

Or rather, I do see what he’s trying to do, but all too transparently. Harrison has always been adept at providing descriptions for his compositional methods, relaying the particular effects he wants to create in the listener, making connections with psychoacoustics, visual arts and his compositional ancestors. To quote from the personal statement (2009) on his website: “Much of my recent compositional output has been largely concerned with the exploration of musical time through the use of recursive musical forms which challenge our perceptions of time and space by viewing the same material from different angles and perspectives. … Exploring high levels of repetition that draw on the pretext that exact repetition changes nothing in the object itself but does change something in the mind that contemplates it, [more recent] works deal explicitly with aspects of duration and memory; near and exact repetition operate in close proximity throughout and provide points of orientation and disorientation for the listener.”

The problem is that while I can appreciate the concept on an intellectual level, and I respect the integrity with which Harrison has followed it through, the music itself has stopped interesting me. Once one of Harrison’s delicate and, it must be said, attractive mobiles has been set up, it quickly stops presenting any listening challenges. Even Feldman – whose music is on the surface at least closest to Harrison’s in terms of its general aesthetic – threw in sudden changes of gear to keep you on your toes. Listening to Vessels, the only question that I find is why; and that’s the least interesting question of all.

The inspiration is Howard Skempton’s 2007 string quartet, Tendrils, but unlike that piece, whose ‘tonality’ is in a state of constant movement due to its use of continually changing melodic modes, Vessels is trapped in amber. It rotates and catches the light at different angles, but it is static all the same. Skempton holds stasis and movement in delicate tension; Harrison presents stasis in spite of movement. Incidental moments occur: chords, cadences, tiny melodies drift by, side effects of the unfolding process. Always present is the general drift through the same harmonic and registral space. Like tissue floating in water, each moment collapses as soon as you go to touch it. Eventually it becomes too much trouble to try.

Recent releases from another timbre, part I

Sheffield’s indie new music label another timbre have been on a heck of a burn the last few months, and two more luscious looking discs have recently fallen through the door this week. With the eyes of the sporting world turned on God’s own county thanks to the opening stages of the Tour de France, I figured the time had come to give considered appraisal to some recent releases from this Yorkshire-based label.

The six discs pictured above are, in order of release:

I’m going to give them all a short review over the coming days; keep checking back.

As you can see, apart from the release by Swedish ensemble Skogen they are all single composer portrait discs (and, in the case of the Harrison and Beuger releases, single works too). And in fact, despite its credit line, the Skogen disc is also a sort of composer portrait, being a 56-minute performance of an open-form piece by the group’s founder, Magnus Granberg. (More on this distinction when I come to review the disc itself.)

However, don’t get the impression from this that composer portraits are exclusively what another timbre do. In some ways this is quite a selective cross-section of their recent catalogue, much more of which deals in performer-led experimental and improvised work. Indeed the same might be said here too: the thing I enjoy first whenever I encounter anything released on AT is recognising the connections – not of aesthetics as such, but of values and sensibilities – between the different musicians represented, and tracing those connections back through the network of composers and performers for whom these musical relationships are the same as their personal ones.

Some of that is just to do with geography: many of the musicians featured on the discs above are based in Yorkshire, AT’s territory (as has been observed, the north of England is sometimes better served for new music than the south). London and Berlin are also important centres. But there’s something else too, a fluid, 21st-century approach to experimental music-making that isn’t hung up about composer/performer authority, that doesn’t recognise ideological lines between free improvisation, open notation (whether text or graphics), or a fully notated score. It’s not even a self-consciously radical approach to boundary breaking. Those boundaries simply no longer exist: Bryn Harrison’s precisely determined notation exists on the same plane as John Cage’s Cartridge Music or some archived improvisations by Hugh Davies. It’s just, shrug, what are we playing today?

Which should not give the impression that anything here is done with less than 100% attention and sincerity. In nearly every case these are exactly the musicians you would want to make the benchmark recordings of these pieces; very often they have worked closely with the composers over extended periods, as is certainly the case with Philip Thomas’s recording of Vessels, an epic 75-minute solo composed for him by his Huddersfield colleague Harrison. It’s also true of Apartment House’s 2-CD set of Laurence Crane’s chamber music; composer and ensemble have been collaborators for years, and this was a project born out of an immense store of mutual respect and affection (half seriously, Anton Lukoszevieze tells me he’s been waiting for this album for 20 years). Over the next few posts I’ll be digging deeper into these treasurable recordings.


Sheffield miscellany


Sheffield label Another Timbre is going great guns at the moment. News arrives of their release of Richard Glover’s first CD, including performances of Logical Harmonies 1 and 2 by Philip Thomas, musikFabrik playing Gradual Music, and more. The label’s website also features an interview with Glover about his beautifully abstract music.

Also out now on Another Timbre is Thomas’s recording of Bryn Harrison‘s epic solo for piano, Vessels. Again, beautiful, abstract, but totally different.

Both composers would, I think, identify closely with Morton Feldman’s music, and Thomas will be playing Feldman’s Patterns in a Chromatic Field with Anton Lukoszevieze at the Purcell Room, London, on 8th November. Do not miss.

With EXAUDI, exposed


I’m chuffed to be hosting a couple of composer conversations at EXAUDI‘s next concert, on 4 May at the Only Connect Theatre, Cubitt Street, King’s Cross. Before the music starts I’ll be on stage talking with Matthew Shlomowitz and EXAUDI’s director James Weeks, and about midway through I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with Shlomowitz, Weeks, Aaron Cassidy, Stephen Chase and Claudia Molitor. A shedload of talent, moderated by a fool.

I’m not the reason you should go. You actually want to see EXAUDI themselves, who will be singing pieces by Shlomowitz, Weeks, Cassidy, Chase and Evan Johnson. They’ll also be launching their new CD, Exposure – the sixth release from Huddersfield Contemporary Recordings. I’ve been listening to it lots over the weekend, and it’s pretty special. It features pieces by Cassidy, Weeks, Chase, Molitor, Bryn Harrison, Richard Glover and Joanna Bailie. A really diverse mix, but somehow, and thanks to EXAUDI’s alchemical powers, a coherent one. Really beautiful too.

The concert should be great as well; get down to King’s Cross if you can.

10 for ’10: Bryn Harrison

I saw Bryn Harrison‘s music before I heard any of it. This was back in 2001, and he was giving a research paper at Goldsmiths College a year after I’d finished my Masters there. I’d been intellectually in thrall to the very different temporal and notational manipulations of Feldman and Ferneyhough and as Harrison presented slides of some of his recent music (from the Listenings series), in which very precise, very sparse material was rotated around asymmetrical rhythmic cycles, I saw music that stirred the two contrasts together.

Harrison’s music isn’t a cocktail recipe, but that combination of apparently opposite poles is an interesting place from which to approach it. The mix of what we might call European and American influences gives his music a feeling of both intensely structured rigour and aleatoric freedom. As he explains below, his music still involves material cycled round in asymmetric loops, but it has become considerably more dense over recent years such that the sounding surface acts as a thick, almost impenetrable skin through which details may periodically become apparent, but beneath which the full depth of activity can never truly be appreciated. The listener is cast somewhat adrift, therefore, in an aural environment that continually pulls them back and forth between highly energised structural details and an almost completely neutral surface sheen. Where Harrison is most successful is in exploiting the expressive potential of such a combination: the tension between intensive detail and strait-jacketed stasis has a melancholy grandeur, a bittersweet ebb and flow of resistance and acquiescence.

There isn’t a better piece in which to explore this tension than Harrison’s Repetitions in Extended Time. This 43-minute work was written for Ensemble Plus-Minus, who will be performing it at Kings Place this Monday, 12th April. I strongly recommend that you take up the opportunity to hear it for yourself. This piece is too big to share (although extracts are available via Harrison’s website) so here is the much smaller Quietly Rising, written for pianist Philip Thomas:

Quietly Rising, mp3

Quietly Rising, score (1 page only)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Bryn Harrison: I’m not sure that I find composing to be an anachronistic career choice. After all, there seem to be more composers now than ever before working in a multitude of musical genres. I can understand though why some people might consider sitting down at a desk and composing with pen and paper a little old fashioned but that is my preferred method of working and I find it to be the most effective way of hopefully ensuring that what comes off the page still feels vibrant and new. Composing needs to feel invigorating and stimulating and as long as the creative impetus is there I will continue to do it. I do find that it becomes more challenging as one gets older. Pushing through into newer territory becomes more difficult and it is easy to fall back on what one already knows. I am happy to adopt the position (as, say, many painters do) of working within a very limited field so that each piece does not need to feel radically different to the last, but there always has to be the feeling of the pushing myself slightly further in a particular direction. I still find it stimulating to discover things about my music that I hadn’t previously considered.

TR-J: How do you think composing, being a composer, is different now than from 20–30 years ago?

BH: Well 20–30 years ago the goal seemed to be to get a publishing deal but I don’t hear younger composers talking about that at all any more. I suppose that electronic communication has made it far easier for composers to promote and disseminate their music themselves. I think the situation is actually healthier now. There seem to be more composers working across various disciplines and enjoying the autonomy that comes from having certain creative freedoms and not feeling that one has to write for a particular group in order to get a degree of recognition.

TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

BH: It feels increasingly gratifying for me to work with performers who I know and respect. Over the last few years I have built up a particular working relationship with groups such as Ensemble Plus-Minus, the Norwegian group Asamisimasa and, more recently, ELISION. Essentially, this has meant that although I still adopt the standpoint of writing for the instruments themselves (rather than for the particular strengths of an individual player) I have confidence that what I’m writing will be given the level of committment that is required to really pull the piece off. I very much doubt that Repetitions in Extended Time would have been written for a group with whom I had not worked previously due to the immense amount of concentration required. Similarly, it would be difficult to envisage writing such a complex and enduring piece as Surface Forms (repeating) for a group other than ELISION. I am always interested though in the differences in perspective that arise when another group take up an existing piece. Often interpretations will be quite different and bring fresh insights to the music.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

BH: Morton Feldman once said that he thought there was a crucial difference between having ‘ideas’ and a sense of what the material was in one’s music. I would agree with Feldman here. For me, materials are the pitches and durations that I deal with on a moment to moment basis. What I am interested in is the inter-relationships that occur between the rhythmic cycle and the melodic cycle and, in the case of ensemble pieces, the ways in which cyclical materials can be distributed or combined. Timbre and dynamics are also important but it is the projection of cyclical pitch material through time that I am principally concerned with. I try to steer away from a music that is in any way rhetorical or referential. I am interested in a music that is purely reflective/experiential and engages with our faculties of musical perception, cognition and memory.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?

BH: I am interested in writing a singular, monolithic kind of music that asserts a kind of objectified presence and that seems to operate in a different way to that which unfolds through time. All music, of course engages with the passing of time but we can still hold to the notion of stasis as a symbolic representation of something which, we might say, reflects a certain ideology but which, ultimately, will be superseded by the reality of dealing with a transient, temporal art form. In the past I have worked with panels of material which are presented with little or no direct development and which assert themselves as objects by being comparable to one another, and have written single movement works which change very gradually. What I have been trying to do in very recent pieces such as Surface Forms (repeating) (2009) is to present all the material as quickly as possible but to allow the listener time to then assimilate this very high level of information over a prolonged period of time. I find it fascinating how we deal with very high levels of information, especially when these ideas are presented over and over again. I’m really interested at the moment in allowing the listener to build up the musical image very slowly over a period of time through constantly revisiting the same, almost ungraspable, musical surface. In Surface Forms (repeating) there are some very literal repeats but they never feel this way because the listener is always scanning a different part of the musical surface when the same materials re-occur. In other words the music has to be cognitively constructed rather than directly perceived.

TR-J: What projects are on your desk at the moment?

BH: I’m mainly focussing on a solo classical guitar piece for Anders Forisdal (guitarist with Asamisimasa) following a commission from the Norwegian Arts Council. I have about three weeks to complete this. There are also projects in the back of my mind for Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea, the London Sinfonietta in collaboration with digital artist Tim Head, and a vocal ensemble piece for EXAUDI. So plenty to keep me busy!

TR-J: Here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

BH: C for me is as good a note to proceed from as any other but I’m particularly pleased that you picked a mid-range note! I would create a pitch cycle from the C to other contingently related pitches which eventually would return to the C only to become, once more it’s point of departure. I would then create a rhythmic cycle that was of a different length to the pitch cycle and experiment combining the two.