On the latest issue of Tempo


The October 2014 issue of Tempo has just dropped through the door, I think the fifth since its editorship passed from Malcolm Macdonald to Bob Gilmore last year. And it’s another good one: Gilmore is doing great stuff there. In his editorial he notes that one of the things he wanted to do with Tempo upon taking over was to shorten its remit 50 years closer to the present (ie music post-1950 rather than post-1900), and I’m liking the renewed focus very much indeed.

I’m particularly looking forward to reading Jennifer Iverson’s article on ‘Ligeti’s Dodecaphonic Requiem’, even if that is at the old end of the new music shelf. A lot of ideologically-driven guff gets spouted about Ligeti turning his back on serialism, and with it the tide of European music history towards the postmodern light. There are enough clues in the Requiem to suggest to anyone who cares to look (as Jonathan Bernard and others have briefly done before now) that this is a simplistic analysis at best, written in favour of a ‘them and us’ narrative that doesn’t reflect what composers actually did. It’s nice to see someone like Iverson sinking their teeth deep into the notes.

Tempo 270 also marks Macdonald’s passing, from cancer, earlier in the year. He was already unwell when he gave up the reins at Tempo, but after 40 years’ service at the journal, nearly all of those as its editor, I believe he felt that it was time to say farewell in any case. The issue contains a tribute from Gilmore, as well as well-chosen memorial texts from some of Tempo‘s most involved authors of recent years. In this, and in the way in which Gilmore has invigorated the journal in his still short tenure, it is a fitting tribute.


The new modern generation: the JACK Quartet for Wigmore Hall Live

When the JACK Quartet made their Wigmore Hall début in July last year it felt like both a first date and a moment of arrival. The Hall – more often a venue for classical recitalists than avant-garde explorers with uncompromisingly capitalised names – was buzzing with anticipation, and an entirely different audience from its usual crowd. It was also sold out. If there was any slight disappointment that the JACKs had (quite understandably) opted for a relatively safe programme of Cage, Ligeti, Pintscher and Xenakis (rather than, say, Ablinger, Cassidy, Radulescu and Zorn), it was soon tempered by a blistering recital that shone bright new light on previously familiar works, danced in the crystal clear Wigmore acoustics and pinned its audience to the back of their seats.

Thankfully, the whole thing was recorded and has now been released on the Wigmore Hall’s Live label. Regardless of my hyperventilating first paragraph, this is a CD that I can strongly recommend to all. In particular, I contend, its immediacy and absence of undue reverence make it a great entry-level disc for newcomers to the modernist chamber repertoire.

Three of these works are three or more decades old now:  this is still powerful music, but it has shed its tendency to frighten. In his excellent liner notes (extracted here), John Fallas notes that:

“The Quartet comes to this music as a quartet might more ordinarily come to works from an earlier century. Modernism now has its own classics, and the energy so abundantly on display here is the energy of a young quartet discovering these works anew and making them its own.”

As Fallas notes, the Arditti and LaSalle quartets are the JACKs’ two great forebears (they are also, respectively, the dedicatees of the pieces by Xenakis and Ligeti). So how do they compare? What does a new generation, 21st-century quartet bring?

Well, first, commanding, high contrast, fabulously controlled (yet thrillingly liberated) performances. They are less intellectual, perhaps, or less febrile than the Ardittis (who are the closest comparison) but this is not at the expense of care or precision. And, having grown up with modernism in its mature phases, they are more confident in the language than the pioneering LaSalles. With the JACKs’ performances of Ligeti’s Second Quartet, Cage’s String Quartet in Four Parts and Xenakis’s Tetras, the idea of a robotically definitive version is thrown gratefully out of the window. At the best moments it feels like these pieces are breathing freely for the very first time.

Let’s start with Tetras. Compared to the Arditti Quartet’s recording on Gramavision, the dynamics are less terraced (though overall envelope is just as wide), and there is a greater sense of linear continuity and flow; of events cascading into and shaping one another. A more marked difference is that the JACKs’ Wigmore recording is more than a minute longer than the Ardittis’, but the same amount slower than their recording for Mode’s Xenakis Edition. I like the extra time: there’s room to appreciate fine details such as the phasing harmonic beats in the viola’s first salvo (which really sing in the Wigmore version). More pointillistic passages, such as the section of scrapes and crunches at around 2 minutes are highly coloured drifts in the Ardittis’ hands. With more space, and deeper bite, the JACKs tease them out into absurdist drama, and the Wigmore Hall’s generous acoustic really allows every detail to speak.

However, the Arditti Quartet has changed line-up many times in the 30 years that they have been playing Tetras, so a definitive “Arditti version” doesn’t exist. Here, as a point of comparison, is a live video of the current incarnation, with Irvine Arditti, Ashot Sarkissian, Ralf Ehlers and Lukas Fels:

In contrast, String Quartet in Four Parts almost zips by. The recording by the LaSalle Quartet on DG, for example, sounds almost funereal in comparison, a good 25% slower overall. The JACKs’ version has a more sing-song, almost folky quality that highlights the Appalachian pastoral thread that runs through Cage’s music, but it risks obscuring the cubistic, fragmentary structure of the work. Certainly the LaSalles’ version is more overtly weird.  But in the end I think the JACKs pull off a careful balance of segmentation and conjoining tendencies. (Incidentally, they’re considerably stricter about Cage’s instruction to avoid all vibrato.) If you want a more ‘cubist’ version, in which the additive structure is more apparent, then the Ardittis on Mode is what you need.

Ligeti’s Second String Quartet was written for the LaSalle, and along with other works commissioned by the Quartet (including quartets from Lutosławski and Penderecki) it helped define the possibilities of postwar, post-Bartók string quartet composition. Some would have it that it is one of the finest quartets of the 20th century, and one of the high points of Ligeti’s output. I have to confess that I’m not one of those people. While I frequently fall for large-scale Ligeti (of the Lontano sort), chamber Ligeti sounds to me fiddly and fussy. (Oddly, I have the opposite reaction to Xenakis.)

My reaction at the July 2011 concert was one of the strongest of the recital, and I remember it distinctly: that was an outstanding performance, but in its fidelity it has only strengthened my feelings against the piece. So the fault remains mine, possibly shared with Ligeti, but certainly not the JACKs’.

The LaSalles’ recording (again on DG) is hard to beat, and is one of the landmark recordings of its time. But again, the difference is that between an ensemble crackling with the energy required to continually reinvent itself, and one for whom this language is its mother tongue. What you lose in precarious tension you gain in confidence and swagger. (Although there are still moments when the JACKs take their technique right to the edge.)

The only non/not yet-classic on the disc is Matthias Pintscher’s Study IV for Treatise on the Veil. This takes its inspiration from Cy Twombly’s monumental 1970 painting Treatise on the Veil.

Cy Twombly: Treatise on the Veil (Second Version). House paint and crayon on canvas.

Pintscher’s piece is the fourth in a series for related small string groups; he talks more about Study for Treatise on the Veil I (for violin and cello) and its origins in Twombly’s painting in this interview with Mark Mandarano. In particular he refers to his attempts to create a musical analogue for the kinds of visual perspectives that artists like Twombly produce in their paintings.

(An interesting aside: Twombly’s Treatise on the Veil is one of a series of ‘Veil’ pieces, one of which, The Veil of Orpheus, he explicitly linked to a musical work itself, Pierre Henry’s Le voile d’Orphée of 1953.)

The JACK Quartet have a close working relationship with Pintscher, and in many ways he’s a perfect introduction for a recital like this to their work with living composers. But for me he’s just not as interesting as some. Study has a lot going on, technically, in a post-Lachenmann kind of way, but overall it feels too episodic, the sounds too purposeless. Still, bits of it are very pretty, and it may be that with many more listenings its overall shape will start to reveal itself.

All in all, then, a highly recommended disc, for lovers of contemporary music, newcomers, and fans of string quartet history. You can buy a copy here.

This is Wigmore Hall Live’s first exclusively contemporary release since, appropriately, the Arditti’s recital disc recorded in 2005, which itself featured a (more poised, less energetic) performance of the Ligeti Second. In recent years the hall has increased its commitment to live new music (the hall’s Twitter account informs me there have been 400 premieres since 2005), and the Fondation Hoffmann Commissioning Scheme means that new works are being created every season. Let’s hope that means more all-contemporary recitals like this one making it to disc.

[Final paragraph adjusted 31 May to incorporate mention of current new music at WH.]

Update: the whole album is now available on Spotify:

Innova round-up 2: Performer showcases

The first post in this series on innova’s recent output threw up some interesting comments on the way that releases on innova (and many other labels like them) are funded. That is, through up-front payments by the artists releasing the recording. That in turn opens up a debate on the role of editorial control on the part of the label, but it’s not one that I’m going to enter into just yet.

Instead, having covered some of the recent single-composer releases on innova, I’d like to look at some of the performer showcases. I’m speculating here, but I imagine that different motivations lie behind a group proposing an album to innova than a composer. For the composer the main benefit of commercial release (beyond the usual) may be prestige: an all-important line on a CV. For a group it is genuinely a chance to have their voice heard, create some buzz and perhaps win some gigs or a future recording opportunity. Does the actual content of the recording matter more in that case?

Beta Collide are a flute/trumpet/piano/percussion quartet who play works by Rzewski, Erickson, Kyr, Silvestrov and Vitiello, as well as an arrangement of Ligeti (Mysteries of the Macabre) and an arrangement/remix of Radiohead’s ‘Nude’. Zeitgeist are a percussion, wind and piano quartet who sandwich Ivo Medek in between works by Anthony Gatto, Jerome Kitzke, Kathy Jackanich and Ethan Wickman. Likewise, saxophonist Timothy McAllister programmes Philippe Hurel alongside North Americans like Daniel Asia and Caleb Burhans.

From a European perspective, there’s quirky fun to be had spotting the continental names that make it onto innova CDs, even more in guessing what process got them there. There’s no sense of canon-formation or conventional stylistic allegiance, at least: what connections there are transcend the usual academic box-making.

McAllister is a good player, but his repertory choices on Glint are too samey: passages in the pieces by Wanamaker and Etezady not only sound like each other, they both reminded me of the same third piece (a short thing by Wim Mertens called Songes; too small to have been an influence, but a distracting association nevertheless). Many of the pieces deal in running semiquavers and a generally polite tone. Although he is billed as a spectralist pioneer, Hurel’s music lacks the aesthetic and political radicalism of Dufourt, Grisey or Murail; however, Opcit stretches this album’s horizon with overtones, keyslaps and a form that disintegrates unexpectedly in its centre. The piece still has its limitations, but it is intriguing to hear the continuities of a work like this, which claims its ancestry in the European avant garde, alongside the more conservative works by the American composers represented here.

Several of the tracks on Zeitgeist’s album In Bone-Coloured Light strike a post-minimal balance between the fragile and non-self-absorbed, and Andriessen-like assertiveness. Personally I prefer the former – it’s 2010: it’s more daring and more interesting not to imitate rock bands (I have the same reaction to Zack Browning’s Venus Notorious, a single-composer collection of “high-energy rock-inspired music”) – but there’s plenty of strangeness too, especially in Medek’s Into the Same River. Hints here of an emerging post-post-minimalism, one that critiques the brash amplification and driving rhythms of the 1990s and early 2000s? The title piece by Jerome Kitzke takes another line, unrolling long, romantic melodies that support a subtly gradated transformation of instrumentation and arrangement.

Beta Collide’s psst … psst! is probably the most interesting collection, though. Most of the tracks are curious objects. And I mean objects rather than pieces of music: they seem to sit somehow apart from their surroundings (I often find this with Rzewski’s music, and Christopher Fox has a similar knack). That’s partly the playing, which, especially in the duet of Rzewski’s Nanosonata no.7 and Mollitude, is almost supernaturally crisp (flautist Molly Barth is formerly of eighth blackbird, and brings their discipline to her direction). And the Radiohead remix? It’s more of a new music karaoke arrangement, with acoustic instruments playing along with Thom Yorke’s voice, but it has its own uncanniness and is definitely one to surprise any ‘head fans among your friends. Here’s a promo video of Beta Collide performing their arrangement of Mysteries of the Macabre:


And, lastly, something of a performer/composer crossover: Panauromni by Psychoangelo. Psychoangelo are the trumpet, computer, guitar and small objects duo of Glen Whitehead and Michael Theodore, both professors at University of Colorado, Boulder. The music is rich in electronically generated noise:  occasional trumpet notes are exploded into hazes of sound, as if Miles Davis had really pushed the sonic experiment of Bitches Brew into the purely spectral-sensual erasure of his instrument. A gorgeous, affecting and not at all academic record that nevertheless rewards close attention.

The final part of this extended review will look at some of innova’s recently released archival collections and summarise what I – as an outsider who encounters this whole musical world almost exclusively through his letterbox – makes of it all.

This Friday: New London Chamber Choir

Highly recommended:

25 September at 7.30pm, Church of St Andrew, Holborn, London EC4A 3AB
Mysterious memorials and the shadowy realms of night are evoked in this sequence of music for voices and solo cello, moving from Ligeti’s other-worldly Lux aeterna to Saariaho’s magical dreamscapes via Dusapin’s elegaic Umbrae mortis and Johnson’s mesmerising iij.

NLCC presents: Ligeti Lux aeterna, Dusapin Umbrae mortis, Evan Johnson iij, Saariaho Nuits, adieux, for unaccompanied chorus and Saariaho Sept papillons and Xenakis Kottos for solo cello.

With Oliver Coates, cello. Directed by James Weeks.

BUY TICKETS for this concert

More info.

From the archives

Who says people knew how to programme concerts back in the old days?

On Friday 9 March 1973, the Halle Orchestra had come down to give the London premiere of Ligeti’s Melodien, a major new work by a composer had worked up a strong UK reputation by that time. Most people interested in new music would come to that, right? Get some decent reviews, some props for the orchestra, all of that.

Except that Stockhausen was conducting the London Sinfonietta that night in a concert of his own music, including premieres of Stop and Ylem, in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Yup, the building right next door. Ooops.

Grisey spoon

Grisey – Les Espaces acoustiques reviewed.

I’ve mixed feelings about how this came out. Could have done with another editorial sweep from me at the least. Oh well.

Xenakis, Benjamin, Ligeti and Messiaen reviewed.

This one’s less ambitious and probably better for it.

My feelings about the reviews reflect my feelings about the concerts.


Rebecca has tagged me with the latest incarnation of the “find the nearest book” meme. I’m pretty sure I’ve done this once before, but here goes again.

Erm, the nearest book is actually a London A-Z. Page 123 covers Streatham Vale and Mitcham Common. Hey, there’s a place called Lonesome. Well, that’s South London for you. The second nearest book is a vocal score for the B Minor Mass (Bärenreiter edition). Page 123 of that is from the second movement of the Credo.

The nearest book with any actual sentences in it is Ligeti in Conversation:

S. [Claude Samuel] In any case, as far as Le Grand Macabre is concerned, the verdict has already been pronounced. Does it make you want to carry on?

L. [Ligeti] Yes.

(From an interview given in 1981.)

Taruskin, vol.5, page 220

Edit (1 October 2009): the following comments apply only to the original hardback edition of The Oxford History of Western Music. Several points raised in this post have been addressed in the recently published paperback edition, for which I respectfully thank Professor Taruskin.

This has been knocking around on my hard drive for a couple weeks, written in a rush (and lightly polished today) on the train. Felt I owed the world a proper post on, y’know, musicology an’ tha’, so here you go:

I’ve just recently, and belatedly, started leafing through Richard Taruskin’s monumental History of Western Music, one of the musicological banner publications of 2005. Now, I’ve been an occasional fan of Taruskin’s work – his Grove article on Nationalism is flawed, but significant, and Defining Russia Musically was an inspirational book for me. But really, if what I’ve seen of volume 5 of HWM is anything to go by, this is not in the same realm.

There’s far too much to go into here about what winds me up about this book (how about the laughable Europhobia, in which European music after 1950 is merely a Cold War sideshow, and after 1960 non-existent), much of which will have been said elsewhere, but I just wanted to get my reaction to one page in particular off my chest. This is page 220 of volume 5, on which Taruskin is discussing (speculating on) the Cold War implications of Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. I fear, as an example of the lazy thought and downright falsehoods of this book, it may not be unique.

First of all, Taruskin makes the connection (as he does elsewhere, reiterating a popular New Musicological theme of ‘avant garde prestige’) between the elaborate notation of Threnody and the expensive promotional outlays made on scores “by Stockhausen and, especially, Ligeti in Western Europe”. No doubt Threnody, Klavierstücke XI and Atmosphères were expensive to produce, but they’re hardly unique examples of their type, and reflect, more likely, the artistic utopianism of the 60s as much as anything else (the same utopianism that was funding electronic studios in Cologne, Warsaw, Paris and Columbia), a phenomenon that simply can’t be compared like for like with present day circumstances. Threnody in particular was not an unusual product of PWM’s seemingly bottomless resources for the typesetting of new music, and it certainly wasn’t the first, or even the least conventional. Nor was the situation unique to Poland, as a brief familiarity with Czech graphic scores of the period will tell you. There is an interesting question to be asked about the immense resources of publishers like PWM to produce such scores, but I don’t think Taruskin is asking it: using Cold War binarism to explain a ‘Western’ economy of prestige in scores that are funded by the Communist State, composed by composer who by this stage were already rejecting the musical obsessions of the Western avant garde in forging their own identities – well, you can see how it starts to get problematic.

Taruskin draws a connection between the expense of the score (in Penderecki’s case, funded by the state-run publishing house PWM) and the display of “a commitment to creative freedom”. That such a commitment coming from both Universal Edition in Vienna (Ligeti) and PWM in Warsaw (Penderecki) might be somewhat different is not explored by Taruskin: if it does represent a commitment to creative freedom, under whose definition? He does, however, confuse the matter of Threnody’s place within the political-economic matrix of Cold War relationships by stating that “Calling attention to the United States Army’s deadly attack on Japanese civilians, the most destructive single military act in history, was of propagandistic benefit to the Soviet Bloc, the Hiroshima bombing being cited as a symbol of the American militarism, not to say savagery, that contributed to the breakup of the old wartime alliance against fascism. It made the performance of Penderecki’s avant-garde music in Poland a politically correct exercise.” There might be something in this, except that it still doesn’t account for the dozens of similar scores that received extensive promotion from the State and achieved substantial success both at home and abroad. Threnody’s Polish performance history is unremarkable in comparison to other works of the period, so it is hard to draw many conclusions from that. (I haven’t looked in detail at the Polish reception history of the piece, so this may tell a different story. Suffice to say that none of the retrospective surveys of Penderecki’s music that I am aware of voice Taruskin’s point.)

But Taruskin has another card up his sleeve: “After the fall of the Communist regime in Poland, Penderecki let it be known that the piece published as the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima had originally borne a more neutral ’sonorist’ title, and had been rejected by the publishing house as too expensive for printing. He gave it (he now said) the politically fraught title ex post facto to make an attractive commodity for promotion by the Communist government.” You shouldn’t trust too much to what composer’s say, though. You see, it was well known at least as early as 1975, with the publication of Ludwik Erhardt’s Spotkanie z Krzysztofem Pendereckim, that the piece had originally been titled 8′37″ (in perhaps an oblique homage to Cage), and was changed on the suggestion of the director of Polish Radio to the more emotive Threnody in order to enhance its impact at the forthcoming UNESCO Prize of the International Composers’ Jury in Paris. And again, in 1979 (Eng. trans. 1989), Wolfram Schwinger’s widely read life and works study of the composer notes the same shift of title. So you can stop with the implications of “after the fall of the Communist regime”; at the very least provide a source for Penderecki’s remarks. And the accusation that PWM were reluctant, for reasons of expense, to publish the score, doesn’t square with the fact that they did plenty of others – including Penderecki’s Anaklasis a year earlier, a work not short of a notational quirk or two – and that by the time of the name change, Threnody had already won third prize at a composer’s competition in Katowice (1960) and been performed the following year by Jan Krenz and the PRSO. Even without the name change it had a pretty decent pedigree; but it was after Krenz’s performance that the work was rechristened. The tape of Krenz’s performance was sent to Paris, where Penderecki duly won; if it wasn’t worth publishing now, then when? There may be more to this story to uncover, but Taruskin hasn’t nearly presented enough to support his own ideological arguments here.

Taruskin questions whether this makes Penderecki a careerist. Well, join the queue! In the end he can only observe that in the case of Ligeti and Penderecki, “not even the avant garde, which by virtual definition (or by defined purpose) resists commercial or ideological exploitation, has been able to resist it as the twentieth century, that most commercial and ideological of all centuries, ran its course.” This is, however, a straw man argument. Taruskin is right about his definition of the avant garde, but by his own preceding comments, it is clear that calling either Penderecki or Ligeti avant garde by this definition is fraught with difficulty. Most people don’t do so for either composer any more: even Penderecki’s Anaklasis has been described as ‘a sheep in wolf’s clothing’ (Uwe Mertins), and Martin Zenck long ago made the claim that the description of avant garde may, in Ligeti’s case, be extended to his Apparitions, but very little else besides. If you’re still calling them avant garde, can you be surprised if they don’t meet your definition?

Some odd things I found today

Another long day in Colindale newspaper library. It’s scary, and probably not something I should admit, but I feel like I’m doing more research in this final year of my PhD than I did in my first…

Anyway, two amusing things discovered amongst the rolls of microfilm.

1. On 3rd March 1971, organist Xavier Dorasse had to pull a performance of Ligeti’s Volumina from his London concert because when he first hit that all-notes, all-stops blazing chord at the beginning, he blew the organ’s fuses.

2. On 22nd November 1973, London audiences were faced with a choice that looks agonising in retrospect, but of which they likely weren’t aware at the time: go and see John Tilbury playing Feldman, or Zoltán Kocsis playing Kurtág? 33 years later, either of those gigs would kill. Wow.