840 series at St James, Islington

I was pleased to make it out last night for the first concert in 840’s 2015–16 series. Throughout this year and without much fanfare Alex Nikiporenko and Nicholas Peters have been building up this small series of small concerts of what I am tempted to call, in the least non-disparaging way possible, ‘small music’. Music by composers like Luiz Henrique Yudo or Laurence Crane. Music that doesn’t have any pretensions to be more than it is, that doesn’t seek to fill a space or a time outside of its own container, but that fills what it has just perfectly.

On this occasion all the music was for two or three cellos, played by Tre Voci, and every piece – except for Richard Glover’s Duo from 2012 – was newly written. Yudo, whose beautiful little sonic carvings are always a joy, was represented by CLARIFICATION, a polyphony of repeating pulses and sustained tones. Sergei Zagny brought another perfect miniature in his Studies on Rhythm BACH, written on the first five notes of the C minor scale. Timothy Cape’s NEED was a humorous look at the roles of advertising, self-promotion and anxiety in new music. Thematically it was the ‘biggest’ piece of the night, and in that respect slightly out of tune with its materials, but it raised and earned plenty of laughs. Eleanor Cully‘s tutto dietro il ponticello, as its title suggests, was played wholly behind the bridge of the three cellos, between it and the tailpiece – but if that suggested a Penderecki-esque noise-fest, what we got was a delicate study in bouncing bows and softly pinging pulses. Glover’s Duo is a quintessential study in ‘small music’, just a single perfect cadence zoomed in on and blown up with slow glissandi that drew out every tiny microtone or sonic ‘artefact’ that lurks beneath the most simple and foundational gesture in Western art music. Peters and Nikiporenko both wrote new pieces too, and I was especially taken by the latter, which seemed perfectly balanced in all directions.

This, by the way, is my new favourite programme note:

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Recent releases from another timbre, part I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sheffield miscellany

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

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

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

With EXAUDI, exposed

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

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

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

Contemporary Notation Project: Richard Glover

Logical Harmonies

These are the first three systems of Logical Harmonies (1) (2011) by Richard Glover. From the preface to the score:

“Letters represent major triads, which may be played in any inversion. RH is top line, LH is bottom line.
Aim to keep chords within a two octave range centred around middle C, although don’t let your hands cross.
Choose inversions close to each other.
Maintain a comfortable, steady pulse (no slower than 30 chords per minute) throughout the entire piece, including system changes.
Moderate dynamic, sensitive (and wholly consistent) pedalling.”

The first things that strike you – and I think are the fundamentals of the piece – are the systematic process (two series of chords that slip out of phase with one another, one step per system); the pseudo-tonal basis in triadic harmonies (using letter names, no less!) and a cycle of fifths; and the neutral, grid-like layout.

But at the heart of this piece I believe is a tension between an almost banal idea (and notation) and a surprising wealth of allusion and historical context.

The piece’s conception – systematically devised chords arranged ostensibly in regular rhythms – resembles Tom Johnson’s Chord Catalogue. However, the respective mechanisms of the two pieces are quite different, giving rise to considerable differences in voice-leading, texture, form … And those too shape the rhythmic impression of the piece, through unpredictable suspensions, repetitions and so on. In both pieces this is all possibly accidental, but emerges as definitive, an interesting by-product of our inevitably historicised listening.

(Performance by Sebastian Berweck.)

The use of a standard font (Helvetica, I think), without even the introduction of special characters for flat signs, gives the score a utilitarian, didactic feel whose roots lie in Cardew’s Schooltime Special, or some of the text pieces of the English 70s (I’m thinking of Bryars and others here). There’s a humility to it, I feel.

Michael Pisaro, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, has spoken of the function of the grid in experimental music (eg. Cage, Feldman, Ablinger and Pisaro himself). Of early Feldman he writes:

“The visceral impact of a good performance of these pieces (by, for example, John Tilbury) is related to the directness of the score: one can in a very direct way play the surface features of pulse and density, without the unnecessary mediation of the staff and time signature.”

The overall effect of Glover’s piece, however, belies the rigid austerity of its score. Instead of gridded formality, Logical Harmonies sounds an amorphous, pantonal slither, always threatening familiarity, but never quite delivering it. There’s that tension between an almost pedagogical notation and a depth of allusion and expression.

“The covered market of Les Halles, by universal consent, constitutes the most irreproachable construction of the past dozen years … It manifests one of those logical harmonies which satisfy the mind by the obviousness of its signification.” Victor Fournel, Paris nouveau et Paris futur, p.213, quoted in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, p.194.

As it happens, Philip Thomas will be performing Logical Harmonies (1) at St Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield, this Thursday. Concert starts at 7.30pm, and also features works by Christopher Fox, Marc Sabat, eldritch Priest, Martin Arnold, Linda C. Smith and Bryn Harrison. A portrait disc of Glover’s music, featuring Logical Harmonies, is due to be released on another timbre in summer. Glover has spoken a little about his music, and this piece in particular, in two posts on Lauren Redhead’s blog: 1, 2.

Find previous entries in this series under the Contemporary Notation Project tag, or via the Secret Music page.