Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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.

 

CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

Birthday playlist for Finnissy at 70

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Few living composers have an output as large and as diverse as Michael Finnissy does. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, I’ve tried to reflect that in a little playlist, along with some brief thoughts on what I think makes his music special.

Red Earth

Those older than me who were at the BBC Proms premiere of Red Earth in 1988 (until this year one of only two Finnissy performances at the Proms) remember it as something special: a real statement piece.

The History of Photography in Sound, III: North American Spirituals

For all its diversity, Finnissy’s output is dominated by his piano music, and that by five major cycles: English Country-TunesVerdi TranscriptionsGershwin ArrangementsFolklore, and The History of Photography in Sound. One is tempted to describe the last of these, at five hours in length, as Finnissy’s magnum opus, and it draws together many of the threads that run throughout his work – particularly modes of musical representation, the role of class in Western art music, the value and function of transcription, and the meaning of folk music. North American Spirituals, the third part (of eleven) is possibly the cycle’s most accessible entry point.

WAM

WAM: the tongue-in-cheek musicologists’ abbreviation for Western art music can likewise stand, as it does here, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Composed of hundreds of scraps and micro-parodies of Mozart, Finnissy forces us to confront our relationship to music 200 years old, and what we are doing when we listen to it.

Gershwin Arrangements: They can’t take that away from me

For all his voracious ingestion of folk and historical classical musics, there is very little pop in Finnissy. The two sets of Gershwin arrangements might count as an exception, but even then they are as much historical as anything. Practices of transcription and arrangement run throughout Finnissy’s work, but always taking a liberal approach. Extensive re-harmonizations, elaborations of the melody, occasional departures, and the addition of new material are all common. Other transcriptions may take even more radical routes. The sources for the Gershwin Arrangements are identifiable enough, and strongly enough characterized in themselves, to make clear the sorts of things that are going on, and in They can’t take that away from me Finnissy applies a relatively light touch.

Dilok

It was while studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s that Finnissy apparently planned that his future output would be dedicated to assembling a complete and personalized history of world music. He began writing works that explicitly engaged with national folk musics in the early 1980s (not just the usual European styles, but also Korean, Azeri, Australian Aboriginal, etc), many of them written for one or two instruments. Dilok for oboe and percussion is one of a number of Finnissy’s oboe works (including Âwâz-e Niyâz) to be based on Persian music. It also showcases Finnissy’s essentially lyrical approach to instrumental writing.

Grieg: Quintettsatz

Grieg features more than once in Finnissy’s personalized history – the Quintettsatz is an accompaniment to Finnissy’s completion of Grieg’s unfinished Piano Quintet; he appears again, in his guise as a folk music arranger, in the first part of Folklore. The Quintettsatz takes Grieg as its starting point, but filters him extensively through Finnissy’s own language, a juxtaposition that produces one of his most touchingly affective works.

This Church: Part 2: On Christmas day, 1643, we went to Shoareham

For all the virtuoso demands his music frequently makes, Finnissy’s contribution to amateur and community music making is often overlooked. This Church was composed for a one-off performance, celebrating the 900th anniversary of the church of St Mary de Haura, in Sussex. Its text is a collage documenting and narrating the church’s history and its place in the community of New Shoreham since the 3rd century, and in the manner of Britten or Davies Finnissy sets amateur performers – bell ringers, church choir, speakers – alongside professionals to create a unique and quite extraordinary work.

Palm-Sunday

Finnissy is unusual among avant-garde composers, again, in having converted to Christianity. Yet this hasn’t softened his touch: one of the most appealing aspects of his personality and his music is the priority it gives to humanity – and humanness – over ideology of any kind, and this includes religion. Nevertheless, works like Palm-Sunday, a refraction of centuries of sacred choral music as well as a personal expression of faith, have a sumptuous beauty of their own. EXAUDI, who sing here, are among a growing group of Finnissy performers – Ian Pace, Christopher Redgate, and the Kreutzer Quartet are others – dedicated to the very bet performances of his music.

Folklore: II

This is the first Finnissy piece I remember hearing. Certainly the first that made an impression on me. I was probably in my late teens. Coming to it with expectations based (vaguely, and inaccurately) on associations with other composers whose music I knew better by then – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle – its glittering beginning, dewlike, curving in sunlight, blew me away. That opening, I know now, is based on Scottish highland bagpiping, in particular the ornament known as a Hinbare. As the piece progresses, Finnissy adds elements from Romanian folk tunes, a short homage to Christian Wolff, hints of the “Deep River” spiritual (via Michael Tippett), Chinese folk music (via Cornelius Cardew), and one tune from Finnissy’s home county of Sussex, “Let him answer yes or no”. It’s an extraordinary amalgam, whose layers one could unpick eternally, and an example of some of what I find absolutely best in Finnissy’s music.

Birthday Piece for Michael Finnissy

Perhaps nothing conveys the pan-optical vision of Finnissy’s music than the affection in which he is held by other composers, particularly in Britain, and in which he holds them. Crane and Finnissy make an unlikely pairing, coming from seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum but meeting at a point that if you can make it out tells you a lot about what contemporary music really is. Crane’s birthday piece was in fact written for Finnissy’s 50th; here it is, played by Finnissy himself as he returns the tribute.

A late late report from the London Ear

Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari hadn’t planned on running a second edition of their contemporary music festival, the London Ear, quite so soon after the first. Yet that proved such a success last year that they consented to do something like an edition 1.5, a halfway house before a larger event, perhaps in 2015 or 2016. But the process overtook the planning, and before long a four-day programme of events was in place and the Second London Ear was on its way.

Taking place a month ago now (sorry …) this was an event that very much built upon its achievements last year. The festival seems to to have found an audience for itself – one that I’m pleased to say includes many unfamiliar faces. The three young performers who were introduced last year – Jenni Hogan (flute), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Tom Bayman (cello) – were given a second opportunity to show their work, in the festival’s opening reception concert. Once again we were hosted by the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo, this time surrounded by the paintings of Gillian Ingham. And once again there was a very convivial, I guess ’boutique’ atmosphere that comes from this being a compact festival that places a premium on interaction and engagement.

As well as the three young performers, this year the festival players were accordionist Eva Zöllner, violinist Victoria Johnson, the London Sinfonietta, 7090, We Spoke, Uroboros, and an impromptu trio of three soloists from Berlin, Antje Mart Schäffer (soprano), Franka Herwig (accordion) and Matthias Bauer (double bass). I was also involved in a small way, hosting first a preview show on Resonance FM a week before the festival, and then chairing three composer roundtable conversations before the evening concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

 

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(l–r: Georg Katzer, Gwyn Pritchard, me, Eric de Clercq, Andrea Cavallari, talking before the Saturday evening concert)

I missed the daytime concerts by Zöllner and Johnson, as well as 7090 and We Spoke’s joint brunch concert on the Sunday, but I still made it to six more in the four days. Too many pieces and too many performances for me to give a detailed run-down of everything, but here are some of my highlights:

  • Georg Katzer’s Three Disparate Essays in the London Sinfonietta’s Friday night concert was truly startling. Just so imaginative, accommodating without ever being obvious, clever without being smug, and quite quite beautiful. Possibly my favourite single piece of the weekend, and really sensitively played by the Sinfonietta’s Timothy Lines, David Alberman and Rolf Hind. (Katzer was also a good sport in taking part in all three of my pre-concert roundtable, and an interesting man.)
  • Bauer was one of the festival’s star soloists: on Friday night his brilliant (and funny) clown-like double bass and voice improvisation almost stole the show. He was as good again the following evening in Helmut Oehring’s bass solo, Baudelaire (envirez-vous!).
  • I liked both Oehring pieces in that concert – the other being the accordion solo gestopfte LEERE.
  • In fact, that early Saturday evening concert – shared by 7090, the Berlin soloists and Serge Vuille (percussion) – may have been the festival’s best in terms of the strength of its pieces: I liked Pritchard’s Three Songs of Mass and Motion, and Cavallari’s Ieri ho sofferto il dolore matched its origins in the troubling life story of poet Alda Merini; both pieces specially written for the festival. Strange Desires by Trevor Grahl, a “bizarre quasi-cabaret” well suited the personae of the three 7090 players, and made an interesting companion piece to the two extracts from bas&koen&nora that we had heard from the same players the night before. Kagel’s Tango Aleman, also part of the same concert, maintained the buffo-serio mood.
  • Of the final concert, Heinz Holliger’s 1966 Trio was the stand out piece, and made a fittingly high quality conclusion to the festival.

Lots of good things then. But with the festival looking ahead to its third instance, it’s not inappropriate to cast a more critical eye too. One thing that does characterise the London Ear is its reliance on smaller pieces, generally for just one, two, or three instruments. Besides helping with certain structural and financial impositions, this has some artistic benefits: the festival is able to shine a light on some overlooked areas of the repertoire that don’t attract much support from the larger institutions. It is also able to include an attractively wide spread of composers within a relatively short space of time. And the listening experience itself gains a certain intimacy when the concerts are on this scale, as I have already suggested. These things are all great, and are essential to the festival’s style.

However, at the same time this approach does mean that many of the composers who are featured are represented only by their slighter compositions. When so many of these are so rarely heard in the UK at all, it seems a pity not to be able to profile one or two of them to a deeper extent. The same might be said of some of the better-known composers too. It was a shame, for example, to have 7090 more or less in residence at the festival, but to have them only perform two pieces from the bas&koen&nora set that Michael Finnissy had written specifically for them: these were the first UK performances of any of these fascinating pieces (I believe), and given that the work is so closely associated with 7090 themselves, we may have to wait a while to hear the whole thing in this country. (You can buy a recording, however, which I recommend.) A little more variation in concert format might help accommodate this sort of thing – rather than every concert containing lots of shorter pieces. This would have helped break up the rhythm a little and, ironically, helped give the whole festival a little more focus.

Another awkward case was Serge Vuille’s performance of the flashy percussion solo Assonance VII by Michael Jarrell, as part of the 7090/Berlin trio Saturday evening concert mentioned above. Most of the music took place in a small space at the centre of the stage, between the piano and two music stands. But one end of the stage was occupied by a very large percussion set-up that visually dominated the space yet was only used for the one piece. (Here’s a video of Vassilena Serafimova playing Assonance VII in Eindhoven to give you an idea.) I enjoyed the piece, and Vuille’s performance was outstanding, but its presence on this occasion really unbalanced what was otherwise a programme with a very distinctive character of its own. The fact that this concert – which otherwise involved no Swiss players or composers – was the one supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, and was followed by a reception hosted by the Swiss Embassy, did give one pause for thought, however, about the delicate but inevitable balance between the artistic and the pragmatic.

I’m quibbling. I realise it’s very difficult to execute both things that I’m asking for here: a coherent, focussed programme that is also diverse, original and multi-faceted. The fact that it’s all done (still) with no support from any of the major UK arts organisations is a fact both remarkable and shaming. The London Ear remains an excellent new venture that I hope will cement a place as an essential part of the London new music calendar; if it can do so without having to depend on the generosity of overseas embassies, so much the better.

CD review: Christopher Redgate: New Music for a New Oboe, Volume 1 (Métier)

British oboist Christopher Redgate has had a busy release schedule of late. I recently received another new release, Electrifying Oboe (Métier), which I hope to write about soon. This isn’t far behind last year’s New Music for a New Oboe (volume 1), also on Métier, and for which I offer a belated review here.

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Redgate is one of the great instrumental innovators of our day – on any instrument – and both recordings may be seen as part of a lifelong project to develop the oboe’s repertory and capabilities that has previously been traced on recordings like Oboe+ and Greatest Hits of All Time.

The oboe is a peculiarly inflexible instrument, compared to the flute or clarinet, for example, and it is no surprise that over the years Redgate has run into any number of limitations, including with range, multiphonics, microtones, glissandi and various timbral effects. In response to these problems – both already extant in the repertory, and anticipated in the future – between 2009 and 2012 Redgate partnered with Howarth’s of London (the Steinway & Sons of oboes) to design an oboe for the 21st century. The new instrument, the Howarth-Redgate oboe, tackles many of these issues and opens new doors for exploration in the future – the number of multiphonics available, for example, is reported to have increased four-fold.

In some ways Edwin Roxburgh is an ideal introduction to Redgate’s series of commissions for the new instrument. An oboist himself, as well as a composer and conductor, he knows the instrument better than most. Redgate has already recorded a CD of Roxburgh’s oboe music, and there is clearly a strong rapport between the two. Roxburgh’s four-part suite, The Well-Tempered Oboe was written to exploit the new high register and multiphonics of the Howarth-Redgate oboe; the latter are heard to best effect in the slow third movement, ‘Chromatic Fantasia’.

Yet despite having admired Redgate’s last Roxburgh recording, I confess I’ve not been blown away by The Well-Tempered Oboe. Nothing wrong with the playing: Redgate’s multiphonics in the fourth movement are sensational, for example. The music is just a little too polite for my tastes; for all that the composer had an exciting new instrument to play with, his pieces didn’t find a particularly new kind of music for it.

Michael Finnissy’s Âwâz-e Niyâz is something else altogether. For a start, it introduces the sound of the lupophon, a type of bass oboe whose range begins at the F at the bottom of the bass clef and extends some indeterminate distance (and in Redgate’s hands, who can really say …) above the treble clef. Quite an instrument. Its timbre is very oboe-like (quite different from a bassoon, eg), so in the couple of octaves where the two instruments’ ranges overlap it’s not always easy to be sure which one is playing.

Christopher Redgate and lupophon

The second striking thing about Finnissy’s piece is its length: an unbroken 55 minutes, a quite epic scale for a duo for oboe and piano. This is not a trivial observation. Finnissy is no stranger to constructing immense formal structures, even for solo instruments – see only his cycles for piano, for example – but unlike, say, Folklore or The History of Photography in Sound, Âwâz-e Niyâz is not as indebted to such a complex an intermeshing of stylistic and genre types. Or at least not as far as I am aware; I may be wrong. Âwâz-e Niyâz is rather a gigantic melodic unspooling.

The vast expansion beyond the norm is made possible first by the lupophone itself, whose weight and depth of sound extend, from the first bars, a giant bed for the music, extending its horizons far beyond the usual and expected. It is as though the music were stood on its end, its duration a function of its tessitura and vice versa. Range is not the only dimension that has been expanded, however – the new sounds, microtones and multiphonics at Finnissy’s disposal represent a similar increase in material whose exploration adds further possibilities for extension.

In his sleevenote, Finnissy explains that the music is inspired by traditional Persian music, particularly the Iranian vocal improvisations collected by Mohammad Taghi Massoudieh. It is therefore shaped by the long melodic arcs of improvised song, of ornaments upon ornaments, of recurring fragments and whispy filigree. There is a dream-like quality to much of it; sometimes the texture thins to only the faintest hint of something (an extraordinary passage of hushed mutliphonic trills about half an hour, for example), sometimes (although less frequently) the tendrils thicken into great tangled knots. It is a peculiar, surprising one-off that perhaps only Finnissy could have made.

Michael Finnissy talks about bas & koen & nora, and more

One of the highlights of the London Ear next weekend will be the presence of the Dutch trio 7090 – Bas Wiegers, violin, Koen Kaptijn, trombone and Nora Mulder, piano. As well as music by Xenakis, Helmut Zapf, Toshio Hosokawa and others, their concert on Friday evening features two pieces by Michael Finnissy, Playera 1 and The Croppy Boy. These come from a larger collection Finnissy has written for 7090, under the title bas & koen & nora. (Listen to an excerpt from Playera 1 here.) Many of the pieces are written to give an insight into the personalities and enthusiasms of the three players. So Koen Kaptijn mentioned that he had always wanted to play a Haydn string quartet (something that as a trombonist he had never been able to do), so Finnissy wrote two movements of pastiche Haydn, with the violin, trombone and two hands of the piano making up the quartet. ‘It’s a kind of Kammerspiel when you do the performance, it’s like a kind of play in which you are looking in to the lives of the three people,’ says Finnissy.

Here’s an extended and quite lovely interview with Finnissy, made by 7090, in which he talks about the piece and its ideas, as well as other topics besides. His thoughts on Aldo Clementi’s music (one of the many presences in bas & koen & nora) are worth hearing, and his remarks on complexity towards the end of the video are well worth sticking around for.

P.S. I will be hosting a show on Resonance FM this evening from 8pm on the subject of the London Ear. I will be joined by the festival’s directors Andrea Cavallari and Gwyn Pritchard, as well as flautist Jenni Hogan, who will also be appearing in the festival’s opening concert on Thursday. Tune in to 104.4FM if you’re in London, or listen online if you’re anywhere else in the world.