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Weekly Roundup

The Quatuor Danel were back in Manchester last week with two composers, Henry Fourès and Catherine Seba, in tow. Their two concerts included Bruno Mantovani’s piano quintet, Blue girl with red wagon (with Richard Whalley on piano), Seba’s string quartet with tape, Quivering, Fourès playing Luc Ferrari’s À la recherche du rhythme perdu, for solo piano and tape, Schubert Quartet in G minor, D.173, Dvořák Piano Quintet in A, Op.81, (with David Fanning on piano) and the world premiere of Fourès’s quartet Méditations sur le scorpion. Fourès also gave a talk on Thursday afternoon, casually meandering through some of the projects he has worked on, emphasising his eclecticism. He has led various lives as composer, musicologist and civil servant, has most recently been director of the conservatoire in Lyon and came across as an engaging, positive and humble man. His music seems to exhibit craftsmanship and subtlety, while perhaps not finding a unique voice, and he is clearly versatile, having worked on everything from music for a rap-based street dance troupe in the 1990s to music for solo timbral tambourine.

It took a while to sink in, but Dogtooth (Κυνόδοντας), a Greek film that won the Prix Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, is worth seeing if you can catch it at a cinema near you. It’s brutal and difficult, but also funny and painfully absurd. A Greek friend asserts that it casts a metaphorical light on Greek society, but whether you buy that or not the psychological pressure, which the stillness and tension of this film build up, offers a valuable experience in its own right.

Rehearsals are in full flow for this Friday’s performance by Raise Your Voice. There’s plenty of off-kilter rhythmic drive in the programme and the musicians have been working through the rhythms and metric modulations assiduously. Mostly I get to watch and listen, but I am performing a couple of works with electronics, Martin Suckling’s Passacaglie for cello and my own The Golden Lion Hotel for percussion. I’ve also been rehearsing with players for Sunday’s performance of my mini cello concerto Mikrokonzert: I Swear I Saw the Sun Falling at the York Spring Festival of New Music, which promises to be quite a day (if I survive the Great Manchester run in the morning).

Video: Psappha Plays Wege & Waldstille

Here’s a video, courtesy of Psappha, of my piece Wege & Waldstille, which they premiered with verve and accuracy on Friday night. Enjoy it in HD!

Getting it Right?

Notes on notes in London

I was in London on Tuesday last week to attend Getting It Right? Performance practices in contemporary music, a day of talks and discussions on performance, composition and all the ways the two interact at LSO St Luke’s. Organised by Julian Anderson and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, the various speakers included Helmut Lachenmann, David Alberman, Michael Finnissy, Rolf Hind and Diego Masson, providing a variety of perspectives on the challenges of new music.

Keynote Speech: Helmut Lachenmann

Kicking off the day was Helmut Lachenmann, 75 this autumn and undoubtedly one of the greatest proponents of extended techniques and new sounds. His talk combined tales of his own experiences as he struggled with players who faced ‘not only technical but also psychological problems’ with his unusual sounds and some more ideology-driven ideas about how and why he feels compelled to implement these techniques. He described his shunning of tape for manuscript (and penning the moniker of ‘musique concrète instrumentale’), because sound broadcast by loudspeakers was ‘not so dangerous as it could be’, ‘you have only loudspeakers — like a photograph — this is a handicap’. He stressed throughout however that

It’s not the problem to find new sounds […] The problem is to find a new way of listening and if you can find a new way of listening you can do it on [sic] C major, because Palestrina once used it and later Richard Wagner — the same three notes.

This treatment of extended techniques not as ‘effects’ — which is how they are often classified in Anglophone circles — but as essential elements of the music, indicates the aim not for timbral inflection but for timbral composition, in which the types of sound (‘Klangtypen’) can be used to build musical structures; timbres become the main musical parameter instead of pitches, which reigned supreme in most earlier music. He maintains his belief in the power of tension and release, dissonance and consonance, which he learnt in harmony and counterpoint classes, but builds structures through a very different language:

It is so important to me that: It’s [extended techniques] not funny. It’s not expressionistic. It’s not a protest against society […] It is romantic, a sort of dissonance […] another pole to come back from to our centre.

He also touched on his belief that music can be divided into music as situation and music as text. So, Bach and Boulez, among others, he classes as musical texts that can be re-orchestrated and preserve their essential elements, whereas the opening of Beethoven 9 or the tremolos in Bruckner 4 are situations, the timbre of which are essential to the musical discourse and must be preserved. He spoke of aiming in his own music for such ‘meteorological situations’. (I also heard him speak about this last year and wrote about it here.)

Whenever I see or hear Lachenmann speak, I am reminded that this is a man of humour and humility, despite his frequent portrayal as the dour spectre of the ultra-modernist European avant-garde. He joked about the Darmstadt Summer Courses as ‘a nice zoo full of exotic animals,’ that he was ‘a victim’ of the trend there for titles that described the compositional process (e.g. Kontakte, Zeitmaße, not to mention Xenakis’s ST/48,1-240162 and similar works) in his cello piece Pression (which is “about” pressure). He cares about the sounds he writes, but the ironies of his career are not lost on him. ‘I feel a bit heroic now,’ he quipped when discussing the disrupted performances and disgruntled players he has faced. You can listen to his talk at the Slought Foundation from 2008 here to get a taste of what this man is like in person.

Playing Around: Performers and New Music

One of the revelations of the day was David Alberman. Second violinist of the Arditti Sring Quartet from 1985-1994 and currently leader of the second violins in the LSO, Alberman is gloriously direct, blending a fierce commitment to new music with a sarcastic wit that is well aware of the strong opposition such music often faces. With the Ardittis he premièred Lachenmann’s Second String Quartet ‘Reigen seliger Geister’ and has written about Lachenmann’s extended string techniques. His pragmatic approach to performance was impressive as was the time he clearly puts into a piece. He showed a version of a Ferneyhough score in which he had stripped out all the rhythmic brackets and calculated tempi for every group of notes to allow him to learn the speed of each small gesture (the proportions of the rhythmic brackets being essentially impossible to feel or calculate in performance). He stressed the importance for a performer of making their own musical decisions even if they diverge slightly from a literal reading of the score — that you should never play something in a way that you think is musically unconvincing. This might seem obvious, but it prevents the ‘Oh, it’s supposed to sound bad, so that’s fine’ attitude you sometimes come across and reminds performers that they bear a shared responsibility for the music with the composer.

Both pianist Rolf Hind and conductor (and sometime percussionist) Diego Masson enjoyed telling some of the more humorous anecdotes from their lengthy careers. Hind spoke about working with György Kurtág on the opening of …quasi una fantasia…, for piano and chamber ensemble, a descending C major scale marked ppppp, Largo and con Ped.:

Opening of György Kurtág, …quasi una fantasia… - piano part

It transpired that Kurtág was actually looking for what Hind considered to be an mf, Andante, played legato with just a little pedal and Hind wondered whether perhaps there could be a divergence of perceived intensity and feeling, and actual acoustically accurate descriptions — so this music should feel very quiet and slow, but achieving this does not necessarily require it to be very quiet and slow.

Kurtág has something of a reputation for being perhaps not the most polite of composers towards performers after performances and Hind recalled the best compliment he received after a performance of …quasi una fantasia…, ‘You played the opening so beautifully, why do you play the rest like a pig?’ and anecdotes in a similar vein flowed from Diego Masson, who gleefully remembered his experiences in 1960s Paris. It should perhaps be more widely known that, according to Masson, Pierre Boulez supplemented his income during this period by playing a white piano in a Parisian strip club on a stage surrounded by naked women. I’m assuming he wasn’t playing Structures Ia. Masson said that they would play anywhere from money, whether it be modern music or radio jingles. He painted a somewhat anarchic picture of this time describing a recording session for Luciano Berio’s Laborintus II in which the jazz improvisations roughly at the middle of the work were recorded at 4 am as all the musicians were working in clubs until then and played clips from those sessions with Berio and Edoardo Sanguinetti (the librettist) performing some of the texts. The work had to be cut in two to fit onto an LP. How was it done? Side 1 ended and Side 2 started with studio sounds, the background chatter of people shouting pre-take, ‘Hey, pay attention!’ etc. Perhaps a forerunner of all those DIY-feel discs where you can hear the band chatting or joking before or after songs and it was the idea of a studio hand who just happened to be sweeping up while they were discussing the problem.

Building Beauty

The final Q&A session of the afternoon touched, among other things, on what beauty is or means to composers and musicians today. Lachenmann wrote about beauty as far back as 1976, but his thinking has always been influenced by Adorno and truly concerns the aesthetic rather than the beautiful, criticising Boulez and other avant-garde composers for turning away from thinking about such things. At St Luke’s it was clear that the linguistic complications of moving from German to English may have hampered his ideas coming across. ‘I like beautiness [sic] … but art is another thing,’ he said, but it seemed his understanding of ‘beauty’ perhaps equated better to ‘prettiness’ as he went on to describe Ennio Morricone and Henry Mancini as beautiful. Instead, ‘expression arises from the friction between the structure of a piece and the structure of ourselves.’ However, he did feel that the concept of beauty was helpful in working with musicians on his music, as persuading a performer to try and play a scratch or a distortion ‘beautifully’ chimed with their learnt practice of creating a beautiful tone. It fits with musicians’ ideas of the ideal or perfect sound, which they aim for when practising and playing.

Due to continuing fall-out from the Icelandic Ashpocalypse, the string quartet due to perform Lachenmann’s Third String Quartet, ‘Grido’, were lacking a cellist and we were treated instead to a public masterclass on the work. In some ways ‘Grido’ is the most traditional of Lachenmann’s three quartets, but it nevertheless poses challenges to the performer. David Alberman had described it earlier in the day as ‘a cathedral made up of bricks of sound, each brick of which leads into the next’ and it is this connection from sound to sound that is so essential to a successful performance. For some it may have been slightly uncomfortable to watch Lachenmann focus on one sound for minutes on end, asking the players to repeat tiny gestures until they precisely fitted together, but it is this painstaking work which makes a good performance of these pieces truly powerful and without which they very quickly fall down. It also drives home the importance to Lachenmann’s music of his own work with musicians. During his time in London he was working in small groups with players from the LSO who are performing his 2004 work for string orchestra, Double (Grido II), in June and one wonders how his music might survive once he is no longer able to be at rehearsals to explain these details. One hopes that committed players, like David Alberman, might be able to pass on their experiences, allowing the sounds and, more importantly, the musicality possible with such sounds to pass into standard performance practice, but it must be a fear that the knowledge, if it remains undocumented, might be lost. That fear is presumably why one holds conferences on contemporary music practice — to help spread knowledge of how and why to play this music. Musicians who have a true familiarity with this repertoire are few and far between and for every member of the Ensemble Intercontemporain, JACK or Arditti quartets, there are twenty traditionally-minded orchestral musicians. I hope and believe this is changing in conservatoires around the world, but only time can tell. In the meantime, those who care about this music have to ensure that it has every chance to speak for itself through high-standard performances and communicative playing. This music shouldn’t be sold as difficult or different, but as exciting and adventurous. And beautiful. For that is what it is.

Mahler in Manchester: Take Eight

Mahler in Manchester 2010 Logo

The Mahler in Manchester concert series is reaching its climax as we clamber up to the final, vast symphonies whose ambitions outdid all predecessors and Mahler 8 is the largest of them all, combining the forces of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and CBSO Chorus, not to mention conductor Mark Elder and the eight vocal soloists. The journey has been an interesting one, enlivened by the conceit of pairing each symphony with some new, specially commissioned music, usually bearing some relationship with its symphonic cousin. The new works have been variously successful (as are, of course, the Mahler symphonies) and while the hapless tinkering of Uri Caine’s piano playing frequently being swallowed by the directionless mélange that was his Scenes from Childhood programmed alongside Mahler 5 may not have pleased everyone, it is the potential for serendipity that is appealing. Besides, as Gustav’s granddaughter Marina notes in the programme, ‘an open, curious, demanding ear, willing to listen, always searching for something lovely, something true in the music of our own time — this is truly honouring Mahler’s music.’

Sunday night’s pairing with Mahler 8 couldn’t have been more fitting. The ecstatic religious element of the symphony was echoed in a 20-minute improvisation on the Gregorian hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, the text of which forms the first part of the Mahler, performed by organist Olivier Latry. Latry has held one of the four posts as organist at Notre Dame de Paris since 1985 and is steeped in the French tradition of organ improvisation as the main musical accompaniment to the Catholic mass. This tradition is strikingly modernist when one compares it to the liturgical organ tradition of the British Isles and Latry’s musical ancestry can clearly be traced back to the devout, if unorthodox, Catholic Olivier Messiaen, who held a similar post at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité for 61 years, until his death.

Opening with the unadulterated plainchant line, which dates from the 9th Century, Latry quickly set about moving through kaleidoscopic worlds of timbral and motivic variation, exploiting every possible colour and register of the 5,500-pipe Bridgewater organ. He moved with ease and agility through raucous sequences of chords flung about the pipes to vanish and reveal the quiet, air-shaking depths of the lowest pedal notes. High babbling textures with an almost electronic feel, reminiscent of the gurgling boys’ voices in Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, segued into gaping horror movie chords. The improvisation seemed to become a series of interlocking chorales and arias, and its symphonic ambition was clear as the theme returned and evolved before burning out in the — only slightly incongruous — final, fiery glow of an apocalyptically joyous wall of major key sound. That is, of course, precisely how Mahler 8 finishes and despite Latry’s note in the programme that ‘an improvisation must be spontaneous […] I won’t listen to Mahler’s Symphony No.8 before the performance,’ one wonders whether he may have at least half-planned the ending’s spirit.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is an unusual work, closer in many ways to an oratorio than a traditional symphony, but one of the most surprising things about Mahler’s music today — a century since this symphony’s first performance — is its modernity. The symphony is replete with jagged, dissonant lines, composite sounds built from cymbal attacks and string decays, strange juxtapositions such as choir and wayward solo violin, and of course the harmonium and mandolins expanding the standard orchestral palette yet further. The first chorus of Part Two, gently disturbing an orchestral stillness with syllable-by-syllable text setting, is still stunning and was performed with great restraint by the massed choirs, evoking Goethe’s awestruck poetry. The sublime quiet of the pre-climax final stanza, ‘Alles vergängliche / Ist nur ein Gleichnis’ [Everything transitory / is but an image], was sung with similar delicacy. A good vocal soloist is hard to find, let alone eight, but Gerald Finley (of course) stood out as Pater Ecstaticus. The Canadian baritone must rarely have so little to do in a concert — just twelve short lines — but his voice and stage presence rarely fail. Second soprano Aga Mikolaj, singing the role of the penitent, also impressed with control and feeling as she sang ‘Neige, neige / Du Ohnegleiche’.

With 121 instrumentalists, 383 chorus members and 8 soloists on stage, Mahler was never going to end the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ quietly. After the awe-filled hush of ‘Alles vergängliche’ the orchestra gradually stirs before rising to one of the loudest and most orgasmic finales of the repertoire. The Bridgewater Hall can only rarely have been treated to such a gripping and physically powerful sound that conveys the passion and strength of five hundred plus performers emptying the last ounces of their energy into those final notes. This is the passage of which Maher wrote, ‘that the universe begins to vibrate and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns rotating.’ It was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

The symphony is dedicated to Mahler’s wife, Alma, and, to return to Messiaen, it is striking how, 40 years before Turangalîla, the combination of ecstatic, human love and a belief in the holy joy of God resulted in a musical outpouring on a similarly large scale. It takes a lot of time, planning and effort to arrange a performance of this symphony — it took Mahler three years after its composition to organise the premiere — and the collaborative efforts of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé and the various choirs should be celebrated as a wonderful musical gift. It is the turn of the Ninth Symphony in a few weeks. It will take quite something to outshine Sunday’s performance.

Wege & Waldstille Performed by Psappha

Wege & Waldstille, for clarinet, percussion, piano, cello and electronics, will be premièred by the fantastic Psappha at 17:00 on Friday 30 April in the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama. These guys really know how to play and it’s been an absolute pleasure hearing them rehearse, so come along! The concert also features works by other University of Manchester postgraduate composers (almost all world premières) — Soojung Park’s Looking over the Land, Josh Kopeček’s the warrior fallen, Mauricio Pauly’s La Prisa Educable and Yvonne Eccles’s Multiple Infections.

Listings: Facebook / Psappha / Venue

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