Shock Of The New
A dash in the face from the energising, innovative and exciting world of contemporary music
Released in November last year, Object/Shadow is an overview of works written in the two decades between 1994-2014 by the American composer, Mikel Kuehn.
Undercurrents for 14 instruments, deft, almost pointilliste textural gestures – a splash of cymbal, a shimmer of vibraphone, a ripple in the piano – combine to create a music that is constantly shifting, as is the scuttling solo marimba of Devouring Time.
Chiaroscuro, for solo cello and electronics, comes to life with percussive taps and slaps on the cello’s body, and fades out in a shimmering cloud of colour. Colour Fields is written for the unusual quartet of tenor saxophone, guitar, vibraphone and piano, an ensemble revelling in a modernist soundworld; saxophone and guitar often step together, answered by vibraphone and piano, in a distinct and bustling dialogue between the instruments.
Object/Ombre for twelve saxophones and electronics creates some especially exciting, darkly ominous colours. The piece for solo instrument unadorned by electronics, Unfoldings for solo guitar, cannot help but bring Tippett’s lyrical The Blue Guitar to mind, although there’s a greater nervous energy about Kuehn’s piece, matched by some vibrant colours. The disc concludes with the darting, playful Between the Lynes for cello, flute and piano, indebted perhaps to …explosante fixe… by Boulez.
The survey on this excellently-recorded disc convinces the listener of Kuehn’s compositional integrity; in an age when it’s all too easy for composers to leap aboard bandwagons or write for particularly popular groups and soundworlds, especially if it garners a popular response, Kuehn’s carefully-crafted soundscapes are realised in a manner that utterly liberates their ideas, rather than being imposed on them for the purpose of novelty or gimmickry. There’s a fluidity and a maturity to the writing that makes this disc particularly satisfying. Like the music of Dai Fujikura, for instance, it avoids traditional ensembles and instrumental line-ups to pursue a sonic landscape of the composer’s own hearing.
Performed by Ensemble Dal Niente, Flexible Music, the BGSU Saxophone Ensemble and instrumentalists, Object/Shadow is released on the New Focus Recordings label, find out more here.
Listening to Jeff Herriott’s The Stone Tapestry is a slow-moving, immersive experience, reminiscent of the vast musical tectonics of John Luther Adams; the music shares the timeless quality of someone like Takemitsu, but possesses a textural language very much Herriott’s own. Scored for multiple percussion and flute, Herriott distils a range of textures from the ensemble; the fragility of the last section revels in brittle percussion, whilst the fifth combines flute with vibraphone.
Repetition is a key feature of the work, with patterns turning and weaving to create tension in textures that are at once moving and yet fixed. It’s a music that speaks of wide, open spaces, of mist-shrouded landscape, of the strange hours just before dawn or at twilight when the past seems very close to the surface.
This is a feature of other works by Herriott; ‘at the whim of the current’ for vibraphone and electronics, or ‘heat curls up from the dust.’ It’s a music that transcends ordinary time, lifting the listener into another plane where the pace of life moves in a more considered fashion, with a quiet grandeur.
Herriott describes the piece as ‘a collection of interwoven myths about origins, lifecycles and the significance of change as a whole.’ There’s a restlessness to the music sometimes, too, particularly the second section, ‘Between the Sun and the Shade’ with repeating bell-patterns endlessly revolving against a warping background and the odd, unnerving sound of wood being scraped. An eerie banshee ghosts in the background, shadowing the flute in ‘Luminous Stones.’
The fifth section, ‘Consciousness Floats Into The Wind,’ is one of those rare pieces that I instantly felt as though I’d known my whole life on first hearing, something unknown yet so immediately familiar. Performed fluidly and with a real sense of the music's sonorous soundscapes by Due East and Third Coast Percussion, The Stone Tapestry is released on the New Focus Recordings label; details here.
The latest release from the always fascinating stables of New Focus Recordings is a survey of American composer Carl Schimmel's chamber music written between 2006 and 2015, and unfolds like a cabinet of wondrous curiosities for the ear.
The textural writing is imaginative, lush and expressive in the String Quartet no 2, frail yet agile in the set of Psimirist Congeries, or dancingly ethereal in the Roadshow for Thora. Aesthetically, Schimmel's music seems to occupy the same world as that of Erik Satie - writing on the small-scale, finely crafted, yet with terrific wit and deft, comic touches, and ranging from a robust pleasure in the charm of nursery-rhyme melody to the more brooding implications of Surrealist poetry setting.
The song-cycle Four Noctures from the Oblivion Ha-Ha, setting words by poet James Tate, is the dark heart of the disc. Again, Schimmel's inventive textural conjuring is in evident through the cycle. The lurching surrealism of 'Jim's All Night Diner,' the first of the suite , clothes an expressive solo soprano in dark colours.
The collection concludes with the exquisite miniatures of the Psimirist Congeries (a psimirist, the liner notes inform us, is 'a collector small or insignificant things') with intricate, crisp textures. The survey on this disc shows that Schimmel's creativity is neither small nor insignificant; whilst it appears his music has been performed often in America, hopefully the disc will inspire more scheduling of his music here in the UK.
The disc rewards repeated listening, yielding new treasures with each visit to this 21st century cabinet of curiosities; find out more here.
From the moment the first chord is struck, calling forth a ghostly electronic counterpart that echoes and glides in response, this survey of works for solo, duo and electronics by British composer Patrick Nunn creates an immersive world of shifting colours, fusing the worlds of acoustic performance and electronic response that offers large moments for reflection. It is clear throughout this disc that there is a deep, organic link between instrument and the electronics, one which explores the affinity between the two rather than imposing one upon the other. Nunn’s soundworld effortlessly blends acoustic instruments with electronics, sometimes triggered directly by the physicality of the performer, as in the disc’s title track, at other times responding to it or reflecting it. In Pareidolia I, the performer influences the electronic clothing of the instrumental line through sensors attached directly to the bass clarinet, from the opening breathy, fragile slap-tongue gestures to multiphonics and fluttering key-strokes. In Morphosis, the pianist wears sensors on the hands to shape and influence the electronic responses directly at the point of performance.
Bartok is the inspiration for …of bones and muscle, in which the piano’s collage-like responses to the Etude no. 3 is reflected in electronic responses, over which the voice of Bartok
appears in ghostly form. The human voice whispers and shivers in Into my burning veins, a poison, briefly hovering above colourful piano sonorities and a quarter-tone alto flute.
What strikes the listener about Nunn’s music is its agility; particularly the nimble solo bassoon in Gonk, or the mischievous solo piccolo in Sprite, sparklingly executed by Rosanna Ter-Berg. Flutter-tonguing, trills and supple melodic shapes are deployed to colourful effect in Mercurial Sparks, Volatile Shadows, in which the flute and piano spin and pirouette around one another.
But for all its dynamic rhythmic impetus, it can also be lyrical too, as evidenced in Gonk or the lachrymaic Shadowplay for solo bass clarinet, full of lines and shadows, here breathed into sinuous life in a mesmerising performance by Sarah Watts. And there are moments of profound stillness, too, as in the mid-point of Pareidolia I, which allows space for delicate nuances to be drawn from electronic-wrapped multiphonics. The brittle Isochronous sees piano and percussion at the centre of an electronic tapestry, sometimes engaging and responding to it, other times stepping against its backdrop. The only piece in the collection to feature the violin, Transilient Fragments, draws on the more romantic, expressive possibilities of the instrument in a sequence of ideas linked by the violin’s yearning gestures. The miniature Lamellae explore a thirty-note manual music box in just under ninety seconds of an eerie nostalgia, like a child’s wind-up toy briefly revelling in unexpected dissonance. Away from electronic adornment, the Eight Cryptograms find a beguiling array of colours offered by the piano, including pinpoint harmonics, circling ostinati and brisk, spiny chords.
What Nunn’s music attempts to do is merge live performance with electronic enhancement, submerging the former into the latter such that they become a single entity, the electronics opening out the wider sonic landscape to reveal a greater realm of nuance, shifting colours at which unadorned sonority would only hint. There are moments when the music becomes almost a field of shimmering, electronic butterflies, diaphanous effects glittering and dancing at the behest of the musical imperative. And, crucially, it’s always the musical gesture that remains paramount, acting as the well-spring for the electronic adornments rather than being governed by them. A deep musical inspiration lies at the heart of this far-reaching disc, available from the composer’s website here.
The latest release from NMC Recordings has arrived, and it's a cracker; Martin Butler's Dirty Beasts, performed by members of the New London Chamber Ensemble, with Roald Dahl's deliciously wicked poem read by the always-good-value Simon Callow; although for my money the title work is outdone by the aching simplicity of 'Down-Hollow Winds,' the quasi-Chick Corea riffing of 'Rumba Machine,' the lissome 'Fall' for flute and piano, and the hypnotic 'Preludes Inegales' which will appeal to fans of Adams' 'China Gates.'
Find out more about the disc, and listen to samples on the NMC website here.
The best release so far from NMC in 2016 ? Just possibly...
Drop the needle on the debut EP from London-based composer, Ruaidhri Mannion, and sound lurches slightly wild-eyed out of your speakers; hold on tight, and you are off for a dizzying ride through a shifting, kaleidoscopic electronica-drenched soundscape that is by turn hypnotic, menacing, and very appealing. Its opening track musique criquette evokes the subtle nightmare of the circus as it looms and recedes, a merry-go-round with a musical accompaniment that threatens, but never quite manages, to go out of control.
An ostinato formed from part of the harmonic series gently rocks in the background of bflw, punctuated with prickly pizzicato and scraped strings, persistent clarinet and bell-tones. Then a swaggering beat kicks in, strutting through the sonic landscape, through which snatches of melody shift and whirl. What I like about this music is that there’s no hierarchy to these sounds; the whole soundscape exists in a state of equilibrium, asking for your attention, and you have to work out for yourself what to listen to at any given moment. It’s a music that demands – and rewards – active listening. There’s something of the influence of Radiohead, perhaps, particularly in the bells that finish the piece, reminiscent of Kid A.
Then a voice bursts out of a wild, grungy sea of distorted sound for the 53 seconds of disarm a rhino, before a sudden hiatus in the widely-spaced opening of the second tear says: . Gentle chords hang in the air, plucked guitar tones shift in the breeze, before the sudden (and quite unexpected) appearance of two consonant chords in a repeated pattern, like something from Bill Frisell. The piece picks its way forward hesitantly, as though it is unsure itself as to how it’s going to unfold, surrounded by a backdrop of echoing, reversed samples and portamenti – it’s oddly warm and comforting, like some vast American prairie at summer.
Id says concludes the album in a sunnier, Massive Attack-esque manner. Overall, it’s a beguiling album, where dreams jostle and collide, one moment hypnotic, the next unsettling, manic, and slightly menacing. i am rhino and ruin is available on bandcamp here.
To listen to Glimmering Webs, a two-disc odyssey through the piano works of Christopher Bailey, is to experience a music firmly grounded in tradition, but which uses that tradition as a starting-point from which to explore the sound of the instrument in a scintillating sound-garden.
This is most readily apparent in the neo-Classical Piano Sonata, which offers flashes of Haydn glimpsed through the prismatic, shifting textures. It’s in the handling of texture that Bailey most readily tramples Classicism, mercurially changing between lyrical figures, block chords, and Ligeti-style flourishes in a restless exploration of all that the piano can achieve. The piece is faultlessly executed in this recording by Jacob Rhodebeck.
Balancing this usurping of traditional form is the shimmering colour of Meditation III, which unfurls like an untethered reverie. Bailey demonstrates a deft comic side, too, in the sardonic Waltz (in Seventeen-Tone divisions of the Octave) and Ditty (in Nineteen-Tone divisions of the Octave), which are even more manic Satie than Satie himself.
The unfolding process governing the Dancing Sylvan Denizens, allied with the use of just intonation, offers a Terry Riley-esque take on minimalism, yet one that is more focused than Riley’s quasi-extemporary flights of fancy, underpinned as always by a light-footed rhythmic sense,
Overall, the two-disc set offers a full realisation of the myriad compositional approaches that inform Bailey’s music: traditional, playful, sometimes process-driven, yet sure-footed and always brimming with colour. Glimmering Webs is released on the New Focus Recordings label; more details can be found here.
In 1917, amidst the latter stages of the horrors of the First World War, with the guns echoing over the disastrous offences in Ypres and Passchendaele, and the introduction of a new weapon by the British called the tank, Satie was writing his Sonatine bureaucratique.
Representing a return to the civilised values of the Classical period (and anticipating Stravinsky’s much-vaunted neo-Classical phase by three years), the piece also confronts those same values head-on and takes them apart. The work is full of forbidden ostinati, passages of needless repetition, and juxtaposed blocks of material in Cubist fashion. All these techniques serve to undermine a Classical sense of order and organic unity, where material is unified through a system of related keys and formal principles.The piece parades a series of parodies and inversions of well-known Classical ideas, especially melodic material from Clementi’s piano sonata Op 36 no.1.
Yet, as listening to the piece proves, it’s all done with a sound Classical sensibility; texturally, Satie’s evocation of the Classical piano sonata is rooted firmly in the appropriate sound-world. But other rules have been overthrown: there are no formal development or recapitulation sections, the system of related keys has been usurped, and the Classical sense of never repeating an idea in exactly the same way is confounded by blatant, almost defiant, passages of repetition.
Composed in 1917, at a time when the rest of the world had gone mad with wholesale slaughter and mechanised forms of destruction, Satie’s evocation of the Classical period is a reminiscence of, almost a hankering after, an old order where unity and structure prevailed; at the same time, his usurping of its principles reflects the breakdown of society and its values which was going on around him: despite its apparent jocular tone, the shadow of the Western Front is never far away.
A turn to neo-Classicism was on the cards musically for others: Stravinsky’s Pulcinella would appear in 1920; Debussy’s re-appraisal of Classical principles in the very late set of instrumental sonatas, of which he only lived to complete three of a projected series of six, still had its foot firmly in the Impressionist world. Satie’s neo-Classical sonatina represented a much more deliberate assessment of Classicism’s sound as well as its forms. Of course, he had already taken on Mozart (and won) in his Tyroliene Turque written four years before, parodying Mozart’s famous Rondo alla turca. But his appraisal and ensuing dissection of Classicism is much more involved in the Sonatine bureaucratique; it may be poking fun at Clementi in a similar fashion to his earlier ribbing of Mozart, but this is much more serious. It’s not just about Clementi, it’s about the very essence of Classical values at a time when values seemed to be disappearing everywhere else.
Eat your heart out, neo-Classical Stravinsky: Satie got there first.
Written as a leaving present for the departing Head of Spitalfieds Festival, Judith Serota, in 2007, Variations for Judith was the idea of the then Artistic Director, Diana Burrell. The set comprises a series of short variations by a collection of composers, themselves former Artistic Directors of the festival, written in response to Stolzel’s Bist du bei mir, found in Bach’s Anna Magdalena Notebook and sees the lyrical aria reflected and refracted through the lenses of eleven composers.
Anthony Burton’s Breaking Away begins the series confidently enough with a pianistic harmonised version of the opening gesture, but then pauses, as if uncertain; a fragment of a later shape appears high in the treble register, displaced into a different key; this debate between conflicting registers and tonalities continues, with each area endeavouring, very calmly, to assert its authority; each time the bass is about to cadence, it stops and the right-hand interrupts. The issue is never resolved, and the piece ends delicately poised in mid-air.
The following variation from Stephen Johns, entitled ‘Spitalfield Echoes’ is reflective, almost
Copland-esque with shades of the broad opening of Billy the Kid; it contrasts with the bold dissonances of Antony Payne’s variation, ‘Loose Canon for Jude,’ which pits the melody against several transposed versions of itself. Burrell’s own variation is a series of flowing gestures, unfolding organically through a sinuous right-hand line, with a wonderfully elliptical cadence to conclude. Judith Weir’s tiny to Judith, from Judith sees short, brittle cluster chords clothing the melody in dialogue with bold, unexpected octaves in the left-hand that can’t help but bring a smile.
Richard Rodney Bennett’s Little Elegy is a lachrymaic incarnation of the chorale, which unfolds in stately tread with a nod to Bennett’s jazz-indebted harmonic palette.
Michael Berkeley’s miniature response begins with a later melodic gesture turned into a repeating figure that characterises the movement as a whole, ending with a final glacial chord. In contracts, Thea Musgrave’s variation presents the melody over a series of ceaseless arabesques in the left-hand, almost Debussy-esque; the piece remains true to the simplicity and rhythm of the melodic line whilst clothing it in oscillating colours as it unfolds with gentle yet unstoppable momentum. Diomedes revels in the crystalline harmonies of Tarik O’Regan, with the melodic line displaced across several octaves opening the melody out into vast architectural construct, supported by a wistful progression of chords; all of which is played with due care by Tan.
Jonathan Dove’s variation asks the question ‘Ist Bach bei mir,’ in which the melody unfurls in the bass beneath a series of radiant harmonies in the upper register, before the texture gradually opens out; ending on a first inversion tonic chord, the piece seems to answer its own question, but not emphatically. The final variation, by Peter Maxwell Davis Bist du bei mir, oder ? also poses a question in its title – are you with me, or…? – a sentiment reflected in the questing, shifting lines and uncertain harmonies which ensue. The final cadence seems to suggest a positive answer.
The set as a whole sees the aria refracted through a series of quite distinct musical personalities, yet its musical authority remains quietly in the background; each variation offers a new perspective on the theme, whilst bearing it to the fore, a factor which unifies the suite, giving it a coherent identity.
The pieces are exquisitely played by Melvyn Tan, and the recording is available as a download from NMC recordings here.
Shameless plug alert: I'll be giving a recital to include the set in a lunchtime concert in Colyer-Fergusson on Wed March 4, 2015.
My latest feature, a look at the evocative soundworld of Unsuk Chin's Six Piano Etudes, appears over on The Cross-Eyed Pianist here.
As consumers, we should have a lot of power. It’s our money that companies want, our money for which marketing strategies are devised, to help us to part with our cash for things we either want or didn’t realise we wanted. (And sometimes things we didn't want that we knew we didn't want but still had foisted upon us anyway: viz, the critical backlash against U2's latest album appearing as a free 'gift' to users of iTunes. Ouch). Audiences are turned into commodities, entities with profiles and habits towards which companies can tailor their marketing campaigns to achieve maximum efficiency, that supermarkets can index and target with specific adverts for products relevant to particular consumer groups. Products are matched with relevant consumers, with advertising crafted to appeal specifically to them alone.
The culture industries are no exception to this: as consumers of culture, we are also labelled, profiled and targeted: how often have you been asked to fill out a questionnaire that came with a CD, or sign up for promotional features by an arts organisation’s website, or been confronted by a pop-up survey on a website saying ‘your views are important to us ?’
The cost of producing a cultural commodity for popular consumption is balanced against consumer group spending power: cost-effectiveness is key. Ticket prices for concerts and exhibitions, the number of dates on a performing tour, number of nights’ run on a show: all these are factors in off-setting production costs against income recovered. Competition for audiences in the cultural sector must be huge.
If, as consumers, we are so important to arts industries, if companies and organisations are so desperate to attract our custom, and hence our cash, why aren’t we wielding more power ? Why aren’t promoters offering us things that we do want to visit, to see or hear ? Why isn’t competition for audiences and for ticket-sales translating into a Golden Age of Artistic Production and consumption ?
The loyalty-card schemes run by supermarkets are a tool for helping them define customers in terms of the products they purchase regularly. A person who buys nappies and powdered formula milk is probably a good target for money-off vouchers for baby food and clothing; but it’s getting harder to divide consumers so easily across the wider spectrum when looking at their cultural consumption. It’s easier to run a list of products someone purchases from a supermarket, and ascertain what they purchase regularly and what related products might be of interest. It’s perhaps less easy to do this with someone’s cultural predilections (unless companies can access one’s browsing history, and assuming one does most of one’s reading and listening on-line).
As Nicholas Garnham writes, ‘’What analysis of the cultural industries does bring home to us is the need to take the question [...] of cultural resources seriously, together with the question of audiences – who they are, how they are formed, and how they can best be served’ (my italics) (from ‘Concepts of Culture – public policy and the cultural industries’, printed in Gray and McGuigan, Studying Culture, 1993: 60-61). That last part is crucial: as far as dis-empowering the spending power of cultural audiences is concerned, companies are more likely to prefer ‘how they can best be manipulated.’
Why are we often dissatisfied with what we are offered ? One only has to read the critics’ columns in the papers to read of another disappointing exhibition, an artist’s newly-released album that’s a let-down or another mindless summer action blockbuster film.
Perhaps it’s complicated by the plurality of society, both in terms of consumer group identities as well as the multiple streams by which culture can be created and consumed. Society is too diverse in its interests to be formed into meaningful or significant groups, easily able to be defined. With everything from medieval music to Muse, Botticelli to Bacon, Chaucer to Chomsky, it’s difficult to define individual consumer bases as having a specific taste that makes them a marketing consultant’s dream: the intellectual who reads Schopenhauer, listens to Slipknot and Webern, is vegetarian, likes Studio Ghibli films and paintings by Monet would be a marketing nightmare. Television schedules, similarly, of course have to please as wide a spectrum of viewers as they can, and what is enjoyable to one is dross to another. Programming choices are going to upset somebody somewhere; but why appeal to the lowest-common denominator, when there is scope to engage, challenge, educate and entertain audiences, all of whom pay the same licence fee ? Why should one person's love of contemporary music be sacrificed by the axing of new pieces from Proms re-broadcasts on BBC4 for the sake of someone else's love of prog-rock docs ?
I don’t have a simple answer to the question of why we, as cultural consumers, don’t have more power in our wallets. Perhaps the realisation that we ought to is enough to start with. It’s time to
start using our power more effectively. How we begin to do that is another question.
To mark today's birthday of composer David Lancaster, a brief look at the gently undulating setting, Hush, a mesmerising reflection on the implications of Baba Ram Dass' famous saying 'The quieter you become, the more you are able to hear.' Lancaster draws out the contemplative state implied by the text in an appropriately hushed choral piece, which induces a suitably meditative state created by repetition. The piece suddenly blossoms as it reaches the second part phrase, unfurling some evocative colours.
Lancaster employs an antiphonal handling of the choral texture, with tenors and basses in a dialogue with sopranos and altos. Cascading lines lead off from the sopranos, creating lambent harmonic clouds, before the voices gradually subside, leaving a cluster-chord in the upper voices over the lower voices' slow fading away, still clinging to their initial phrase.
The harmonic vocabulary is richly colourful, reminiscent perhaps of Tarik O'Regan or Eric Whitacre, and undoubtedly sounds astonishing in a resonant (but not necessarily ecclesiastical) space.
Listen for yourself on SoundCloud here. And happy birthday, David
I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker, when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach over on ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première at the time, and Terauds asked if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’
As Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”
In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.
But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to respond to a new work and to be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.
Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s
gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the
final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin.
Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.
But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.
In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it. Go to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.
The Minabel label offers an enchanting sonic odyssey through the musical landscapes of Dai Fujikura in Ampere, a collection which sees the composer’s constant hunger for musical expression take form in a range of compositions, from large-scale orchestral works to chamber music and pieces for solo instruments. Yet, as always, each piece offers the composer’s own distinct perspective on the forces for whom the piece is written, in his exploration of new expressive possibilities and extended techniques
The opening work is a case in point. Ampere is not traditional concerto, in which soloist is pitted against the orchestra; rather, the piano is the catalyst, evoking responses from the orchestra that reflect the various hues and textures the pianist draws from the instrument, extrapolated into a series of orchestral colours. Ultimately, though, the piano falls victim to the sympathetic responses it evinces from the orchestra, and amidst a breathless sea of fluttering pizzicato strings, is transformed from sonorous grand piano into a toy piano, whose exotic utterances are now limited in colour and scope; no longer able to provoke a range of replies from the orchestra, the toy piano falls silent, and the piece comes to a conclusion.
The shimmering orchestral textures of Stream State see the surface of the orchestra scintillating with shifting layers of material, pitching differing orchestral textures against one another in a constant state of change. Far from the homogenous, blended sound of a traditional symphony orchestra, the sound here is always in flux. A more sedate second section attempts to impose some semblance of unity across different families; low, restless brass, pizzicato strings, brittle percussion. The rest of the orchestra rises in revolt; sustained woodwind chords try to impart a centre, soon shouted down by a defiant tutti chord. Wisps of material dart elusively through the strings, to be answered by clattering percussion. Rasping brass drives a fomenting orchestra to a frenzy, before a strangely calm conclusion.
Balancing the larger-scale works are three pieces for solo instruments. The balletic grace of Fluid Calligraphy is painted in ethereal arabesques in an exploration of the full range of harmonics on a solo violin. In Poyopoyo, the solo French horn almost attains the state of being able to speak, in the fluttering, muted survey of its articulatory possibilities. For anyone familiar with the talking trombone of the teacher in those Charlie Brown cartoons from the seventies, this is a more refined, introspective version – the schoolteacher caught alone, in a reflective soliloquy. There’s mischief here too, though, with laughter often bubbling to the surface. The natural state of the horn’s soundworld is refashioned, like plasticine, handled like something ‘soft and squidgy’ (as the title translates) and moulded into something much more articulate. The solo instrument really is speaking its own language, if only we could just catch the words – the piece is beautifully executed with superb control in this recording by Nobuaki Fukukawa. Perla is a slow, often sensuous exploration of the expressive power of the bass recorder, employing flutter-tonguing and overblowing techniques as the instrument lurks lonely beneath the moonlight.
The gentle, diaphanous opening of the final piece on the disc, my butterflies, evokes an iridescent heat-haze; the texture gradually opens out, embracing muted brass chords, building to the first sustained vertical sonorities and a moment of release. Fujikura demonstrates (as elsewhere on this disc) his extraordinary ear for texture, for instrumentation that works to enhance as well as to draw out distinct differences between families of instruments. An oboe and bassoon melody moves in slow, measured steps, underpinned by a sustained chord in the distance, leading to a sedate and serenely noble conclusion, reminiscent of Stravinsky. Of all the pieces on the disc, this is perhaps the most lyrical, the most expressive, permeated throughout by a hushed expectation – a reflection in part, maybe, of the initial inspiration for the work, Fujikura’s wife in the early stages of pregnancy.
Coming away from the disc, you are left with a sense that your ears have been opened to the experience of sound anew; Fujikura’s music, in its tightly-controlled expressive means allied with a wonderfully articulate textural language, opens the doors to sound in a manner which makes you listen with a renewed inquisitive sense. For all its surface-level industry and constant exploration of textural possibilities afforded by the instrument(s) for which the composer is writing, there emerges an overall unity of vision, a singular concept from Fujikura’s music; that of being enchanted by sound, of being enthralled by the sonic landscapes through which the music moves. The works on this new disc show his handling of instrumental forces continuing to broaden and mature, in his continuing investigation into new aural possibilities
Ampere is released on the Minabel label.
(Review originally appeared on the Tokaido Road website)
I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a couple of years ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health. Alex Needham`s article painted a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the ensuing months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.
People have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.
But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.
Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at the Proms in 2012 wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole (set to return to Covent Garden next week) may have been in part a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two in his exploration of celebrity and the destructive power of fame.
Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one was also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and another on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt, whilst recent events have celebrated Unsuk Chin and Thea Musgrave.
As the composer John Adams observes in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.
People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.
The latest CD from British saxophonist Martin Speake is a fertile offering of free improvisation, with music created on the spot in the white-heat of the recorded moment together with pianist Douglas Finch. Recorded almost in a single take, often without prior agreement on material, the album shows Speake in sparkling form, with Finch a perfect foil for his restless, yet lyrical, skirling improvisations.
Chorale proceeds in stately poise, with a highly flexible piano accompaniment moving in chords beneath Speake’s melodic line. Stück has an understated robustness, with solid pulsing chords supporting questing melodic shapes, which develops a bluesy character before the two instruments peel off into linear improvisations, chasing and leaping over each other with the agility of cats at play.
There’s a timelessness about the gesture which opens the beautifully lyrical Berceuse, echoed in the piano - two musicians absolutely in tune with one another; the melodic line in the saxophone unfurls slowly above a beautifully colourful, lulling accompaniment which eventually draws the piece to a close as it evaporates in a gossamer haze. In contrast, the later Hoedownup bustles in with ceaseless movement, the two instruments locked in a kind of frantic grappling.
Speake’s unmistakeable, trademark lyricism is matched by the warm, impressionistic palette of Finch’s piano-playing. He has an enviable gift for linear, melodic improvisation; his lines have an organicism to them, a linear logic that gives them a sense of direction, of integrity. Listening to this disc, it’s difficult to believe that the music is spontaneously improvised, with little or no prior organisation. There’s a shared musical language between the two instruments, an empathetic exploration of similar soundworlds that means both saxophonist and pianist are moving through the same landscape.
Speake’s career began in the fierce, no-holds-barred furnace of Itchy Fingers (a legacy you can hear in the wailing dissonance of the title track, a homage to Xenakis), moving on through various groups including the Change of Heart Group with the great pianist Bobo Stenson, to the current trio which includes the astonishing inventiveness of guitarist Mike Outram. Speake and Finch met through working at Trinity Laban, and this disc is a tremendous record of a serendipitous musical symbiosis.
Sound Clouds is available from Speake’s own label, Pumpkin Records.