The Music of Liza Lim: Chang-O Flies to the Moon

The third and last post in my short series of offcuts from The Music of Liza Lim, comes from the final chapter, ‘Music for the stage’. Lim’s second opera, Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) is very high on my fantasy list of revivals. Its complexity makes that unlikely, and the particulars of its staging (with audience participation, perambulating musicians, etc, etc) mean that there is no full recording. However, its sixth scene, the soprano aria ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ was recently released by HCR on the Singing in Tongues album of Lim’s theatre music, which made it possible for me to write about this at least. In the event, I wasn’t able to include all of my analysis of this scene in the book, which features instead a brief overview of Yuè Lìng Jié itself.

NB: For licensing reasons, I’ve chosen not to include any of the musical examples that would have appeared in the printed text. However, all Liza’s scores can be found on nkoda.

Yuè Lìng Jié (Moon Spirit Feasting) (1997–2000)

Yuè Lìng Jié was commissioned by the Telstra Adelaide Festival and was first performed there in March 2000 (it was staged five more times between 2002 and 2006 in Melbourne, Berlin, Zurich, Tokyo and Brisbane). It marks a peak in the exploration of Chinese culture and thought that runs through Lim’s music (and draws on her own Chinese heritage), beginning with Li Shang yin (1993) for soprano and fifteen instruments, through The Cauldron and The Alchemical Wedding, and on to later works such as The Quickening, The Compass, How Forests Think and The Su Song Star Map. It was written at the same time as Lim’s other major engagement with Chinese culture, Machine for Contacting the Dead, a double concerto for bass/contrabass clarinet and cello inspired by the fifth-century BC tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng that was discovered in 1977 and is one of China’s most celebrated archaeological sites.[1]

The opera was written with the author Beth Yahp, like Lim another Asia-born Australian, whose Chinese-Thai parents moved to Australia from Malaysia in 1984. Her first novel, The Crocodile Fury, published in 1992, tells a story of Asian migrant experience in a world populated with ghosts and spirits. In preparation for writing the opera, the two women spent a fortnight in Malaysia researching Chinese opera, shamanic rituals and shadow puppet theatre in Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Of particular interest to them was the Hungry Ghost Festival, celebrated in the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar, during which spirits are believed to be released from hell to roam the earth and demand offerings, prayers and performances, and the opera’s staging draws heavily on Southeast Asian street festivals like this. In Adelaide, the set was constructed on a barge on the Torrens River; the musicians performed both on the stage and in a ‘shrine’ behind the audience. Audience participation was important, as was the inclusion of food stalls, the burning of incense and the decoration of the river bank with lights and religious offerings: the work’s performances were multi-sensory, festive occasions. Finally, the performance space was blessed by a Daoist priest prior to the first rehearsal.

There are four characters: the moon goddess Chang-O (soprano), the demon goddess Queen Mother of the West (dancing mezzo-soprano), the Archer Hou-Yi and the Monkey King (both performed by acrobatic baritone). The ensemble of nine instruments includes erhu, koto and two percussionists, the second of whom moves around the performance space. It was performed by Deborah Kayser, Melissa Madden Gray, Orren Tanabe and ELISION, conducted by Simon Hewett, directed by Michael Kantor and designed by Dorotka Sapinska.

Yuè Lìng Jié retells the story of Chang-O from a number of angles – a woman transformed into a goddess, a figure of nightmare, a wish-granting heavenly creature – and its seven scenes and two interludes draw on many Asian theatre traditions, including riddles, puppet shows, song contests and poetry. In the aria for soprano that constitutes Scene 6, Chang-O takes charge of her own story as she takes an elixir of immortality and completes her transformation. Her aria is accompanied by a striking quartet of bass flute, koto, cello and percussion (water gong, frame drum and yunluo or ‘cloud gong’), whose timbral profile resembles that of the Cassandra-quartet in The Oresteia. Lim’s technique of dynamic heterophony, developed in the mid-1990s, is markedly more evident here than it was in her first opera, and the music freely explores heterophonic relationships between voice and instruments.

The scene begins with soprano and cello on a pedal on D. Chang-O sings of herself in the third person, characterising herself as others have done before. As the music continues, soprano and cello explore in turn ways of enlarging the space around their pedal note, using changes in timbre and, a little later, melodic deviations that eventually dismantle this single perspective altogether. Although it is fully notated, the musical effect is like that in Bardo’i-thos-grol, as the musicians gradually carve out a sonic territory from a single point. Lim acknowledges the influence of the installation on her opera: its last pages (unfortunately not available on recording) are an attempt to recreate the sound of Deborah Kayser’s heart chakra ‘Song of compassion’.[2]

As Chang-O ascends, she begins singing in the first person. Interrupted by a chorus of police whistles – a representation of attempts to control and contain her story? – she continues regardless, drawing strength from the celestial birds around her: ‘I have your reason. / Your wishbone blazing / Alchemy of feathers / Wind-heart tremors’. Like the steps of an ascending staircase, the musicians maintain a string of gestures that appear to emerge from each other: as Chang-O’s words turn towards the second person and the support she receives from her environment, her song becomes heterophonically attuned to the accompanying ensemble. In bars 39–40, the cello’s D (the starting point established in the first section of the aria) becomes an upward, tremolo glissando; this is picked up by the bass flute as buzzing multiphonics around the pitches F♯ and C♯. Picked up by the voice, the first of these becomes a relatively pure, continuous tone – a temporary moment of stability and focus that is reinforced (in asynchronous rhythm) by the cello’s harmonic – before the flute initiates a multiphonic splitting of the F♯ (mirroring its figure from the previous bar) and then a melodic descent that is taken up in different ways by both voice and cello. Koto and then percussion enter a few bars later, but the relay of gestures and energies continues even as Earth falls further away (see bars 80–82).

In the next section Chang-O, singing along, reveals more of the (untold) details of her own immortal origins: ‘Before my blood and spirit fused / I was already burning / Womb ice wanting / Pregnant with fire’. The music is suitably chilling, the continuity of the previous section fractured into isolated, searching gestures.

For the final section, Chang-O returns to the D with which she began. Now it is a stage for new beginnings as, unaccompanied again, she sings a series of first-person affirmations: ‘I rise, I ripple, I reach, I resonate’. Each one is subtly word-painted, as in bars 107–14. From here to the end of the scene, sixteen bars later, the ensemble is silent, except for a delicate harmonic shading beneath ‘I resonate’.

With the last phrase of her aria, Chang-O rises from the D that has been her anchor throughout to a high A on the words ‘I embrace you’. In a programme note, Lim explains the role of Chinese grammar in this ending, and the aria overall. Although the pronouns ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it’ are distinguished in written Chinese, in the spoken form they are represented by the same syllable. (The written form of ‘she’ was only invented in the twentieth century, when Chinese writers first began translating European texts.) The shifts in pronoun that take place in ‘Chang-O Flies to the Moon’ are therefore significant to both Chang-O’s story and the emergence of female identity in Chinese culture. ‘The singing subject “she” transforms into “I” through to “you” until at the end “you” (her shadow presence) comes into an embrace and unity with “I”’. At the end of the aria, ‘the ensemble dissolves into silence leaving Chang-O singing alone, in an ecstatic opening up to the self’.

[1] The tomb is noted in particular for containing a large number of musical instruments, including a set of sixty-four bronze bells.

[2] Conversation with the author, August 2021.

The Music of Liza Lim is available to pre-order from Wildbird Music until 11 September, and will be more widely available after 12 September. See here for pricing, ordering and other details. I will be in Berlin on 11 September for a launch event at the Philharmonie supported by Musikfest Berlin in association with the Australian Embassy in Berlin. Come by if you are around and I will sign you a copy.


Albums to look out for in 2020

Albums to look out for in 2020

This is the season of end-of-year lists (I’m pleased to see several of my top 10 make it into The Wire‘s albums of the year). But it is also a time of year when many great recordings are still coming out that might get overlooked in twelve months’ time. I want to give quick shoutouts to a few of these that have become aware of in the last few weeks.

Anna Höstman: Harbour (Redshift Records)

When I wrote about Canadian experimental composers for The Wire a couple of years ago, Anna Höstman‘s name was one that came up in my research, even though I wasn’t able to write about her at the time. Harbour (released 11 Jan 2020) is an album of piano solos, played with great finesse and concentration by Cheryl Duvall. I emphasise concentration, because Höstman’s music demands a combination of intense mindfulness and extremely long-range thought. Not unlike her compatriot Martin Arnold, she is fascinated by musical lines – rather than encasing structures – that unfurl and loop and roll under their own volition. At points they seem to catch, on a motif or a chord, and at these moments the repetitions bring Feldman to mind. At other times, the music meanders quite carelessly, but somehow always doing enough to hold your attention. The 25-minute title piece, composed in 2015, is particularly sumptuous. One not to miss in 2020.

Robert Haigh: Black Sarabande (Unseen Worlds)

Another record due out at the start of 2020, this is also another one for fans of off-kilter piano music. Haigh’s second album for Unseen Worlds occupies a sonic space filled with hauntological tape hiss, synth pads and almost-out-of-earshot field recordings. Shades of Harold Budd, as well as Vangelis’s Bladerunner, with a harmonic and textural subtlety – a hallmark of Haigh’s work that runs all the back to his drum ‘n’ bass days as Omni Trio – that keeps it all from shading into simple ambience. Unseen Worlds had a tremendous year in 2019; Tommy McCutchon’s label looks to be start strong in 2020 too.

ELISION: world-line (Huddersfield Contemporary Records)

It’s great to have a proper recording of Richard Barrett’s world-line, a work that affected me deeply when I first heard it at the Transit festival in Leuven a few years ago. Written for custom-made lap-steel guitar, with percussion, trumpet and electronic accompaniments, it is not only an exemplary instance of Barrett’s interest in bespoke instrumental ergonomics but a moving (and forgivably masculine) portrait of his relationship with Daryl Buckley and ELISION: everyone duets with Daryl’s guitar, and the movement where Daryl and percussionist Peter Neville – partners in music for 30 years – get to improvise on their own is surprisingly touching.

Also on the disc are Timothy McCormack’s subsidence for lap-steel guitar (two players), a 30-minute pitch-black spiral down into slack strings and popping pickups. A seriously dark piece and a great taster for McCormack’s forthcoming portrait disc on Kairos. The CD is completed with Liza Lim’s Roda – The Living Circle, a trumpet solo for Tristram Williams drawn and elaborated from the ensemble work Roda – The Spinning World.

This one is already out: you can see full details at the NMC website.

POST-PRESS ADDITION: David Brynjar Franzson: longitude (Bedroom Community)

Another recent release is David Brynjar Franzson’s longitude, performed by Ensemble Adapter. Composed in moody instrumental and electronic atmospherics – jagged, hissing, perforated sounds that crossfade in and out – it’s a compelling soundscape that I’m sure is even more striking heard live. It’s also an exploration of the extraordinary story of the Danish adventurer Jørgen Jørgensen, whose complex involvement in the Napoleonic Wars can be read as both heroic and traitorous: after fighting with the Danish against the British in the Gunboat Wars, he attempted to liberate Iceland from a Danish trade monopoly that was slowly starving its people; he named himself ‘Protector’ of Iceland, but after 40 days he was taken back to England, imprisoned, and eventually became a British spy working in France and Germany.

Over the course of longitude‘s 50 minutes, those sibilant atmospheres take on more emotionally provocative identities: the work is never programmatic (although one is free to imagine in its sounds something of Jørgensen’s voyages across the North Sea between Denmark and Great Britain; the famished state of Rejkyavik that he encountered in 1809; and the whistling harmonics of Scandinavian folk music), but draws one ever-deeper into sonic ambiguities that echo the shifting allegiances and morals of Jørgensen’s life. Worth the investment of time; you can get it through Bandcamp here.


ELISION in Huddersfield – review


Just over a week ago in Huddersfield ELISION presented a concert of four works by postgraduate composers Alex Jang, Pedro Alvarez, Matthew Sergeant and Luke Paulding, followed by a realisation of Richard Barrett’s CODEX IV for four improvising musicians.

These being student works, there were naturally areas where more experience and development in the future will count. But more importantly, I heard four distinct voices, each attempting a tricky artistic problem, and each coming up with a musically intriguing result.

Jang’s Retracings, for trumpet and percussion, was instrumentally and formally the lightest of the pieces; it had a much lower density of activity, at times stripping down to just the sizzle of a cymbal or rumble of a bass drum. It was also, I think, less concerned with weight and presence, and more a sort of spectral afterglow.

At several points one felt a distinct sense of dissipation, but the music was so low-key that there was rarely a sense of where we might have dissipated from. It is a piece possessed of strange and unidentifiable energies. Yet it somehow made a shape for itself. Although fragmentary in style, Jang’s use of a controlled timbral palette (dominated by sizzling or brushing sounds) prevented it from becoming too discontinuous.

The balance of activity between the two players is interesting. The music is dominated by the percussion, with the trumpet playing a very aphoristic role, certainly not acting as a melodic voice in its own right. It’s less of a duo than a solo + 1. Alex told me afterwards that he intended the trumpet as an extension of the metallic percussion instruments – its music came from the timbre and gestural language of percussion, rather than brass. And again, the choice of a sonic palette is a dominant feature.

Alvarez’s Debris was the least ‘ELISION-y’ of the four pieces, in that it didn’t emphasise virtuosity, and set its formal argument on the macro- rather than micro-level. It is arranged in sharply defined panels, which are continually shuffled and varied as the piece progresses. The composer’s notes refer to ‘negat[ing] aesthetic ideals of fluency and continuity’, and the idea of gate-switching between different gestural states is important. In addition to a small set of restricted (and related) instrumental textures, two further elements were in play: an electronic patch that was a sort of mellowed aggregrate of the previous instrumental sound, and very short bursts of noisy, saturated improvisation.

In an unexpected way it owed a debt to minimalism, or post-minimalism, like a Michael Gordon without half an eye on its audience. Certainly Alvarez is tackling the themes of continuity, rupture, form, duration and so on familiar from minimalism, but doing so with less easily assimilated materials so as not to let the work slip into a new agey/Arcadian mode. I liked it more than I thought I would, if I’m honest. On stage its longeurs are forgotten, and its subtle shifts in rhythm and texture are well-judged to maintain a sense of inquisitive experiment. I wasn’t convinced by the improvised interjections/punctuations, but they require such a vertiginous change in playing that I appreciate they may be hard to bring off successfully.

There’s a very obvious temptation for a young composer invited to write for a group like ELISION to forget any considerations of technique or practicality, and just let your ideas run to their limit. Matthew Sergeant cannot be accused of not taking this opportunity.

yimrehanne krestos is a trio for flugelhorn, alto trombone and percussion. It’s about 11 minutes long but it is played at a ferocious speed and, for the two brass players, completely without a break. In truth, it stepped beyond the boundary of the possible. In one passage percussion notes are flying past at a rate of about 10 per second. With grace notes in between. The writing for flugelhorn and trombone (!) hits similar speeds at times.

That’s what the score says, anyway. In practice ELISION brought the tempo down a notch, although not that you could tell from the dementedly fast sticks that Peter Neville brought out on the night. Most astonishingly it wasn’t just a blur, but playing that retained its contours of rhythm and timbre. Similarly, how Tristram Williams and Ben Marks coped without so much as a quaver’s rest between them I will never know.

But this piece is more than a speed-fuelled thrash. Yimrehanne Krestos is the name of an Ethiopian negus, and a church supposedly constructed by him deep inside a volcanic cave. From what I know it sounds an extraordinary, uncanny and bizarre place. The church is constructed of wood, and behind it lie the mummified bodies of some 10,000 pilgrims and workmen. At the front of the cave is a spring that supposedly has healing properties.

You can get a sense of the place from this video:

Having all this in mind (although I was lucky to be pre-informed – there were no programme notes), I parsed the work as a brass/percussion duo, in which the two brass enacted or suggested a complex of ghostly presences, fear, precariousness, mortality, presence. There’s an obvious apocalypse/trumpets route through there, but aspects of the sinuous counterpoint, rhythm and over-abundance of material made it richer than that. The percussion meanwhile was arranged in three clear sections: scrubbing brushes on bongo skins; tom-toms, bongos and congas played with Thai sticks (the passage mentioned above); and vibraphone (motor off, very hard sticks). One could hear this as a journey – outside/inside? arid/liquid? towards clarity? revelation? That’s a thematically appropriate but very literal reading; actually the shifts in the brass/percussion balance that take place throughout the piece complicate this picture.

There was an interesting continuity between Sergeant’s piece and Paulding’s where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, in which similar instrumentation is brought to bear on another perspective on the afterlife. Again the brass appeared as the conduit to another world, but with the Messianic clangour of yimrehanne krestos replaced by something more ungraspable, internal, fearful.

I’ve already introduced the piece, but on the night it wasn’t without its surprises. Most unexpected was the rice which, having been poured into a collection of shallow trays and bowls, is struck like conventional percussion, causing clouds of grain to fly into the air, a beautiful and intentional visual effect. The overall soundworld was also much more fragile than its score suggests, a realm of apparitions of sound from all three players.

The concert ended with Barrett’s CODEX IV, a guided improvisation in which the four players made maximal use of the sounds, mutes and percussion instruments already on stage to close the concert with a network of incidental sonic connections.

And then it was time to sweep the rice.

Catching up with Luke Paulding

Last week I spent a few days in Huddersfield with the ELISION ensemble, watching some of their work with young composers. Wednesday featured a workshop and concert with four student composers chosen from an international call for pieces put out by the Institute for Musical Research in London. More than 40 scores were received, from which pieces were chosen by Daniel Moreira (Brazil/Germany), Mark Barden (USA/Germany/UK), Yuko Ohara (Japan/UK) and Leo Birtwhistle (UK). The standard and ambition of all four was high, but for my money I want to say a special word for Birtwhistle’s Mesoscope A for trumpet, trombone and percussion, which struck me as the most effectively written of the pieces for ensemble (Moreira’s BaKaTakaBaKa was for trombone alone, Barden’s PULS for percussion) and a very accomplished piece of work. Given that Birtwhistle is still just a third year undergrad (at York University), I’d suggest looking out for more of his work in the future.

Friday was the main concert, featuring music by Pedro Alvarez, Alex Jang, Luke Paulding and Matthew Sergeant. I’ll be posting a proper review of this next week, but in between rehearsals on Thursday I caught up with Luke Paulding for a chat about his music.


Paulding is an Australian composer, pianist and tubist, living in Melbourne. He was born in Bahrain in 1987 and moved to Australia when he was five. Recently he has begun to visit the country of his birth more regularly and, interestingly, he noted that he is increasingly compelled to bring certain aspects of the country – the political tensions, the regular sound of the Islamic call to prayer, certain features of the landscape – into his work. Not in any literal or programmatic way, but on a deep, maybe subconscious level of influence.

Our conversation kept returning to this idea of the almost imperceptible, or the unobvious-but-nevertheless-present. He spoke, for example, of wanting to avoid too much ‘conceptual definition’ to a piece when composing: ‘I’m happier when it has a visceral quality’.

Something of that visceral quality comes through in his choice of percussion. Friday’s piece, where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, makes use of dry bamboo twigs and leaves, metal trays and grains of rice. All items to which an audience can directly relate. Everyone can grasp what pouring rice onto a tray might sound and feels like, even if they can’t apprehend what vocalising into a trombone with the slide in fourth position is like, or how it relates to what they hear. Paulding refers to this as a kind of ‘peripheral recognisability’ – things you might recognise, but whose sounds might be distorted or recontextualised in some way – which serves a kind of heightened perception of the work and its meanings.

The idea of obscured or only suggestive meaning came up in the subject of titles too. where dust is in their mouths … takes its title from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in particular a vision of the underworld, ‘a house of dust’ ‘whose people sit in darkness’. (See here, in a different translation: ‘where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay’.) However, Luke tells me that searching for a title for a piece – even one as visually potent as this one – ‘takes almost the whole compositional process’. It’s something that comes into focus only towards the end of the piece, as ‘a way of enriching the work … when it needs a bit of conceptual grounding’. It isn’t a starting point, so its relationship to the material and form of the work is tangential at best. Other works reference lines of poetry by Eleanor Winer or Robert Wilbur, like this one:

One idea behind where dust is in their mouths … comes from a different, but related, piece of Babylonian poetry, describing the descent of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, into the underworld. As she proceeds along her path, she has to pass seven gates. Ancient decree requires her to remove one item of clothing at each gate, and when she passes through the seventh she is completely naked. That idea of nakedness and increasing vulnerability was what attracted Luke. The piece is not a literal setting of these stanzas, however, but the idea of them echoes through the music: ‘ghosts of the myth’ pop up throughout.

So the players are pushed to the edge in this work, they’re left out on a limb, they’re made vulnerable. The piece begins, for example, with an extremely rapid, mostly triple-piano solo for tenor trombone, set in an almost impossibly high tessitura. There’s an inbuilt danger to writing like this, which flirts with the possibility of failure. Yet Paulding is smart enough to recognise there is also a certain artifice to this impression: that when a composer gives their music to an ensemble like ELISION, experience, skill and commitment will always trump risk in the end. ‘Writing for ELISION still has something of the fantasy about it’, he says. And the same holds true for listeners: risk in a formalised concert hall situation with elite players on stage is a highly mediated kind of risk.

We can’t decide whether this means that ‘complexity’ has reached a point of expressive saturation. There’s a chance that it has. And Paulding acknowledges that there are other paths one might take towards a similar expressive effect. However, we do agree that the shock value that was accessible to composers in the 70s and 80s is long gone. ‘But maybe that allows for different possibilities,’ he concludes.

If you’re in Dublin you can catch Luke’s piece tomorrow night (Tuesday 12) at the Kevin Barry Room, National Concert Hall. Concert starts at 7.30, and there are more details here.

Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown

I wasn’t there last Saturday, in Huddersfield Town Hall at the dead of night. So I can only write a compromised response to a partial experience. Richard Barrett’s music is so inherently physical in the way it is conceived and arranged – disposed and composed – that anything not in the flesh is almost not there at all.

Well, I exaggerate, but listening to CONSTRUCTION via Radio 3’s online broadcast falls even shorter than usual of the complete picture. CONSTRUCTION is a work so detailed in its working-out, so expansive and spatial in its design, that a stereo stream (even in HD) will always be found wanting.

But here goes.

More than two hours in length, CONSTRUCTION has occupied Barrett for at least six years. Its programme note advertises it in 20 separate parts, but its shape is more complicated than a simple list. Wounds I–V, for example are as much the five movements of a miniature violin concerto as they are separate pieces (although most (?all) have already been performed as such). All of the 20 ‘movements’ of CONSTRUCTION belong to one of four such cycles running throughout the work. And CONSTRUCTION itself, of course, belongs to the much larger cycle of compositions Resistance and Vision.

Another of those CONSTRUCTION movements, heliocentric, is itself a tessellation of several smaller Barrett works to have emerged in recent years. These include the clarinet duo Hypnerotomachia, the flugelhorn and trombone duo Aurora, and the flute and recorder duo Città del sole (now renamed Adocentyn).

Any one of these duos is therefore a work within a work within a cycle within a work within a cycle. As CONSTRUCTION unfolds in real time, the upper and lower boundaries of that ecosystem – the little duo and the overall cycle – are invisible. We are somewhere in the middle, a chosen screenshot within an animated fractal dive. Extending the ecosystem metaphor, perhaps somewhere on the level of organisms or communities.

This sounds like an impossibly complicated design, its execution over nearly 150 minutes a utopian folly. And it’s probably meant to come across that way – utopias, and their relationship to the poorer reality in which we live, is the work’s underlying subject. However, because it is a work of art, it is able to put its own idealism into action, to send it out into the world and let it concretise into an existence of its own.

There’s more here than it is possible to write about. (Perhaps that’s why, as I write myself on Tuesday evening, I can find no other reviews from press or blogs.)

Some favourite things: the sudden emergence of familiar elements from Aurora or Wound II; the rotating solar system, ordered and chaotic, of heliocentric; the blend of electronics and acoustic instruments; the devastating control of one colossal span of time; the staggering instrumental colour.

Some things that either surprised me or still need processing: the children’s playground recording; the final ‘resolution’ of the work’s own utopian goals into improvisation.

For now, that’s all I can manage. CONSTRUCTION is available on the BBC’s iPlayer until the end of the week. I suggest you have a listen.

Richard Barrett’s CONSTRUCTION at HCMF

Although there is a strong line up at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival there’s no doubt, I think, what the highlight will be: Saturday night’s world premiere of Richard Barrett’s CONSTRUCTION.

Years in the making, CONSTRUCTION was originally commissioned by  Liverpool City Council, while the city was 2008 European Capital of Culture. Whether it will ever performed in the city that paid for it remains to be seen. But for now, Huddersfield is the lucky recipient.

CONSTRUCTION is a two-hour work for three voices, ensemble, electronics and ‘sound house’, composed as in twenty parts, arranged as four interlocking cycles. It includes duos, solos, pieces for electronics, a group improvisation, a song cycle and a miniature violin concerto.  One is tempted to call it the most ambitious project by this composer of ambitious projects, except that CONSTRUCTION itself forms just one part of Resistance and Vision, a massive, utopian cycle of works that is a more a philosophical theme than a realizable event. (Other works in the R&V cycle include Mesopotamia for chamber orchestra and NO for orchestra.)

ELISION will be the performers on Saturday; you can read more about the piece on their site. Sound and Music have also produced a video trailer. I doubt tickets are available at this stage, but the whole thing is being broadcast on Radio 3 from 10:30 pm. Set your digital recorders.

CONSTRUCTION breaks down into lots of pieces that can stand on their own. Several have appeared previously on these pages: see RB’s comments on Aurora here and my review of Hypnerotomachia here. I also reviewed Wound II here.

ELISION, Music We’d Like to Hear

Jennie Gottschalk alerts me to the fact that ELISION’s concert at the City of London Festival was broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now on Saturday, and has been on iPlayer all week. I find I need a lot of alerting to things at the moment … It will be there for another couple of days, so grab it while you can.

Jennie and I were both at that concert, which was followed, later in the evening, by the last concert in this year’s Music We’d Like to Hear series. It was one of those evenings you occasionally get in London when there’s almost too much new music at once. Even more rarely, it was actually possible to attend both concerts, since it was just a couple of hundred yards along Holborn Viaduct from one to the other. (A side note to those who argue that you always see the same people at new music gigs: against expectations, Jennie and I were the only people to go to both.)

On paper, they were two very contrasting concerts from opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum. In actual fact, not so much, both marked by seriousness of intent, skill in execution, and musical intelligence from performers, programmers and composers alike. I’m calling time on new complexity, new simplicity, new complicity; it’s old-fashioned doing it right.

One of the more surprising connections was the success of two pieces of earlier music within an avant-garde context. ELISION played Random Round by Percy Grainger, dating from 1912; Music We’d Like to Hear, as was their habit this year, went even further back, Tim Parkinson programming a violin duo by Vincenzo Gabrieli. The Gabrieli highlighted concerns of instrumentation, temperament, patterning and form that I heard echoed in, especially, Parkinson–Saunders’ brilliant realisation of Michael Parsons’ Pentachordal Melody. The transition, over three interations of Parsons’ grid of numbers, from pitched instruments to noise, was beautifully judged and exquisitely counterpointed the systematised empiricism of Parsons’ score.

Random Round is one of those early 20th-century oddities  – like Satie’s Vexations – that occasionally crop up: a curious, anomalous idea that after several decades appears unexpectedly serious-minded and prophetic. I don’t know enough about the Grainger to know what his intentions were; but it was striking how contemporary ELISION’s realisation (which incorporated lots of extended instrumental sounds) was. There aren’t many pieces that can remain quite so fresh 100 years after they were written. Incidentally, here’s a fun interactive version of Random Round to play around with, although its sounds are much more conventional than ELISION’s were.

The other big highlight of ELISION’s concert was the performance by Richard Craig and Peter Veale of John Rodgers’ Amor, a flute and oboe duet extracted from Rodgers’ much larger (?music theatre) work Inferno. Amor is based on Dante’s pair of lovers Paolo and Francesca, who were caught in the act of adultery and doomed to remain forever joined in the second circle of Hell. Rodgers clearly possesses an extraordinarily original musical mind (he came up with the ‘guiro’ bow used in Liza Lim’s Invisibility, also played in this concert), allied to a great intellectual integrity. At the end of Amor, he symbolises the conjoining of the two lovers by asking for the bell of the flute to be inserted inside that of the oboe: this act of delicate, precise and obviously allegorical instrumental manoeuvring gives rise to a tormented noise of massed interferences, splitting harmonics and so on. Remarkable.

Here’s a video, recorded on an earlier occasion by Veale and Paula Rae:


Live review: ELISION play Ferneyhough

Brian Ferneyhough: Intermedio alla ciaconna, Time and Motion Study I, Unsichtbare Farben, Time and Motion Study II

Newton Armstrong – electronics
Séverine Ballon – cello
Graeme Jennings – violin
Carl Rosman – bass clarinet

Kings Place, London, 7 March 2011

As an unofficial coda to the Barbican’s Ferneyhough festivities of the week before, ELISION brought five of the composer’s solo pieces to Kings Place for their first visit of  2011. I often don’t get on with solo instrumental pieces, finding that they often lack the necessary drama, conflict, whatever you want to call it, to propel things along, give the piece a purpose. Solo Ferneyhough, however, is something quite different: the best pieces are hugely purposeful, almost defiantly so.

ELISION have been masters of this repertoire since at least their 1998, when they released a CD of solo Ferneyhough on Etcetera that included the world premiere recordings of three pieces (Bone Alphabet, Unity Capsule and Time and Motion Study II) that have now become almost standard rep – at least among the select number of players who take the time to learn them. That CD also included Carl Rosman playing Time and Motion Study I for bass clarinet, and it was he who introduced this work tonight.

I say introduced, because Rosman – never one to leave a loose thread unworried – prefaced his performance with a brief but pertinent lecture on Ferneyhough’s first (rejected) version of the piece, illustrating this with examples played from those early sketches. Besides the bonus of being able to listen to previously unheard Ferneyhough, and the interest of hearing something of how the early version (for ‘normal’ B flat clarinet, rather than bass) morphed into the final piece, it was a rare pleasure to hear Ferneyhough’s music broken down into bite-sized chunks like this. If the actual performance had a faint air of listening to Wagner with a leitmotif catalogue in hand the pay-off was a much clearer navigational route through the music, and some sense of the relative hierachy between certain passages.

Graeme Jennings played Intermedio alla ciaccona here last year, but this time – probably as much to with mood as anything else – I was much more gripped by the music, even if Jennings attacked the piece both times with equal gusto. His high, rapid passage work on this occasion was absolutely electrifying – the most obviously brilliant playing of the evening, for my money. Unsichtbare Farben is much more expansive – by Ferneyhough’s standards it’s almost lyrical – so there isn’t the opportunity to surf the virtuosity; the energy has to come from elsewhere. Jennings succeeded on that score at least, destroying his bow’s hair for the second time of the evening, but this is simply a more problematic piece.

The second half of this short concert comprised Time and Motion Study II, the legendary ‘electric chair music’ for solo speaking cellist and live electronics. It was certainly welcome to have the opportunity to experience this piece live, something the Barbican’s Total Immersion didn’t manage despite devoting a whole morning to it. There the performer (on film) was Neil Heyde, who gave an aggressive, quite masculine rendition in which cello, voice and electronics harmonised in the service of singular narrative line. In contrast Séverine Ballon’s performance was fragile, fragmented – and dramatically much richer. A quirk of the piece is that the tape loops employed are set to clock time (9 and 14 seconds), independent of the tempo of the individual player. So the point at which a piece of looped material comes back can be dramatically different between performances, in turn affecting the response of the player as they struggle to progress through their own part (Ballon said afterwards that it is often hard to hear what you’re playing at all such is the level of contradictory musical information coming over the speakers). The times at which material was bouncing back in Ballon’s performance seemed to be as unsettling as possible. Whereas Heyde’s performance bound and sustained a core identity, Ballon, as clouds of rosin rose into the spotlights, seemed to disintegrate before us.

Spirit Weapons – ELISION at Kings Place this Monday

It has taken a little while to get the programme finalised, but ELISION’s next concert at Kings Place (this Monday, 15th November) looks like a doozy:

Michael Finnissy Hinomi (1979), for solo percussion

Newton Armstrong Unsaying (2010), for solo violoncello and voice

Evan Johnson hyphen (2002), for solo crotales

Jeroen Speak Epeisodos (1998), for solo Eb clarinet

Richard Barrett Abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschrieben (1992-96), for solo percussion

Liza Lim The Quickening/Spirit Weapons (2005/10), for soprano and violoncello

It’s quite a percussion-heavy programme, so a great opportunity to enjoy the skills of the amazing Peter Neville, and the appearance of Deborah Kayser in a Newton Armstrong premiere and a version of Liza Lim’s The Quickening reworked especially for this concert adds an extra special gloss. I’ve said it before – do not miss. Get more details and tickets here.

While I’m at it, ELISION-heads and fans of extreme notated music should be pretty excited about the release of two new ELISION CDs on Huddersfield University’s HCR label. Full disclosure: I wrote the sleevenotes for these, but that also means I’ve been listening to the tapes for a while now, and they are very special indeed. The CDs will be officially launched at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival on 23 November.

Live review – ELISION at Kings Place

My review of ELISION’s concert at Kings Place last week is now online at Musical Pointers:

When your repertory is so full of solo works, as ELISION’s undoubtedly is, there is a tricky programming balance to strike between these and any ensemble pieces. But, at the same time, many of the composers who ELISION play explore our understanding of ‘solo’ and ‘ensemble’, and in this concert both Barrett and Karski made a virtue of this juxtaposition.

Continue reading here.