‘Songs of Wars I Have Seen’ at Time of Music 2018

I attended a couple of concerts at this year’s Time of Music yesterday evening, Finland’s only annual festival dedicated to contemporary classical music. It takes place in Viitasaari, a small town in Central Finland, which provides a scenic backdrop of lakes and pine forests to the week of concerts, workshops and talks.

The main event of the festival’s Saturday night programme was a production of Heiner Goebbels’ Songs of Wars I Have Seen (2007), an hour-long ‘staged concert’ for two ensembles and electronics. This format is the result of Goebbels’ experience as both a composer and theatre director and features lighting and narration around the music. The fifth of Goebbels’ work in this style, Songs of Wars I Have Seen is based around extracts from Gertrude Stein’s WW2 memoir Wars I Have Seen, which are recited by the female members of the ensembles. That one of the two ensembles is typically a Baroque specialist group, in order to meet the demands of the instrumentation, adds yet another layer to the work; in this performance, members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and the Finnish Baroque Orchestra took on these roles.

So, music, lighting, narration, modern and period instruments and electronics… it may appear cluttered. But the result is remarkably unfussy and direct. Partly this is due to the dry, observational style of Stein’s texts, which cut through the instrumental textures and deliver sharp points of focus, whether commenting on Shakespeare, the taste of honey during rationing or on national differences in wartime radio addresses. Another recurring source of focus comes from the snippets of Baroque material, borrowed from Matthew Locke’s 1667 incidental music for ‘The Tempest’. These surfaced every now and then, providing a musical echo of Stein’s reflections on the theme of war in Shakespeare’s plays. Around these 17th-century interjections, the musical material remained unselfconsciously omnivorous, with shades of jazz and military marches alongside angular, uneasy passages, such as the underscore to Stein’s comparisons between the injustices of the World Wars and Medieval lawlessness.

The interplay between text, sound and the staging was simple and well-conceived. At times, the disconnect between everyday life and the horror of war conveyed in Stein’s texts seemed to be underlined by the gendered separation of the musicians. The male players were arranged at the back (and were more often in darkness) with the female musicians/narrators seated front and centre, cosily surrounded by lamps in a kind of 1940s living room ‘set’. This physical separation hinted at the distance between women’s and men’s lived experiences of the war. The ‘set’ also served to transform the sports hall venue (the Viitasaari Arena) into a real performance space, drawing the audience into the work right until the glow of the lamps finally dimmed down.

Click here for an Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network website!


Photo: Santtu Paananen

Turning audiences into performers: the Divertimento Ensemble at the Fabbrica del Vapore, Milan

Milan’s Ensemble Divertimento ranks as one of Italy’s premier new music institutions, having developed close connections to the city’s composers and beyond over an impressive 41-year lifespan. Yesterday evening, I attended a concert that displayed a distinctive feature of the ensemble’s work, its commitment to bringing new music to a broader audience.

The central work on yesterday’s programme was Gabriele Manca’s Lettres comme á l’envers (‘Like letters in reverse’), a new composition for soprano, ensemble and amateur choir based on a text by Algerian writer Rachid Boudjedra. Founded last year, the choir in question were the ‘New Voices of the Divertimento Ensemble’, roughly 40 singers with little to no musical training. While some of them had previously attended Divertimento concerts, many were new to the field of contemporary music, hearing about the project through local media and word of mouth. I chatted to a few members at their Monday night rehearsal, all of whom had found performing a new work challenging but very rewarding. The group seemed to have built a close-knit community around this music, an inspiring result.

The work itself took up the theme of migration, not with a positive message of inclusivity, but rather through a poignant exploration of disorientation, displacement and host nation hostility. Manca dedicated the work ‘to all those women, men and children who after endless wanderings reach only our distance’. This feeling of conflict and confusion was subtly translated into sound. Manca’s opening passage carried a strong sense of agitation via nervous key-clacking in the woodwind and a rumbling chant performed by the male voices. A persistent whining accordion note added further tension (and appropriately, some noticeable confusion for the audience over where it was coming from). In a later section, shrieks and squeals from the soprano (Beatrice Binda, who also performed a solo work by Manca earlier in the evening) gathered into a eruption of angry responses from the full choir: a brutal, effective climax.

The remaining ensemble works on the programme complemented the darkly toned soundworld of ’Lettres comme…’. Claudio Ambrosini’s Grande fratello (‘Big Brother’) for cello and bass clarinet featured veering microtonal slides and a wailing, sombre clarinet sound. Vittorio Montalti’s Sotteraneo (‘Subterranean’) had a striking forward motion, alternating brighter passages with growling double bass and squelching electronics. Rebecca Saunders’ Fury II fitted seamlessly into this line-up of brooding works, drawing together a range of pulsating and percussive dark timbres.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post!

Photos: Giovanni Daniotti

Of Sounds in Space: Alvin Lucier at ‘The Long Now’ (MaerzMusik ’17)

This essay was written last year, the event took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin, 25-26th March 2017. 

In 1969, Alvin Lucier sat down in a room. He recorded himself reciting a short text, at once his new work’s performance instructions and its main content: ‘I am sitting in a room different from the one you are in now. I am recording the sound of my speaking voice…’. This recording is replayed into the room repeatedly and each time, it is simultaneously re-recorded, ‘until the resonant frequencies of the room’ mount up on the tape, removing the detail of Lucier’s recorded speech. With this procedural, almost clinical act, Lucier uniquely meshed together the worlds of electroacoustic music and performance art. It makes an unremarkable action remarkable, illuminating the rich resonances and sonic opportunities that exist in the everyday world. Various recorded versions of I am sitting in a room have been made since its conception, but these are somewhat flat, stale artefacts, simple ‘postcards’, as John Cage might refer to them. It thrives on live performance.

This year’s edition of Berlin’s Maerzmusik festival had an Alvin Lucier focus, featuring performances of his works and a screening of No Ideas but in Things, a 2012 documentary about the American sound artist. The culmination of this was a performance of I am sitting in a room by Lucier himself as part of the festival’s trademark ‘Long Now’ event, a marathon concert turned hipster pyjama party that runs from sunset on Saturday through to midnight on Sunday. As in past years, it took place at the Kraftwerk Berlin. A former power station converted to a vast events space in the early 2000s, it is one of many such venues in a city in love with exposing concrete walls and reclaiming industrial settings.

At midnight on the Saturday, Lucier seated himself in this altogether different room, now the same one that I happened to be in. He recorded the script stutter-free, unlike in earlier versions, and the repetitions began. We listened as Lucier’s recorded voice decayed gradually into a sweet hum, the undulating remnants of his speech melody pulsating in the air. The cavernous space proved an interesting site for such experiments in resonance, adding thick layers of itself to every rendition. I became acutely aware of the room’s impact on the sound, its active role in the performance. Eventually, we arrived at a shapeless singing, void of delineation.

Lucier is often incorrectly pegged as a minimalist. While works like I am sitting in a room might be low on prescribed material, their dimensions are epic. This lack of specification opens up gulfs of possibility: for following processes into their maximal decay, for being maximally mindful. At a live performance to a large audience, I am sitting in a room’s scoring swells to include everyone present, their every cough, twitch and scuffle feeding into the distortion.

All good things have to come to an end; in this case, it was disappointingly only after 30 minutes. Recordings of I am sitting in a room tend to drift on beyond the 45-minute mark and it seemed bit of an affront to the work’s sense of timelessness to restrict to this degree. Not that everyone was so entranced, the visuals of the performance underwhelmed some audience members: ‘there was this old guy and he just sat there’, my neighbour later recounted to a friend returning from the bar. Well…yes and no.

I decided to pass on the power plant sleepover and returned the following day for a performance of Lucier’s Vespers. This lesser-known 1968 piece originated from his interest in the phenomenon of echolocation. A group of performers are blind-folded and equipped with echolocator devices called Sondols, which produce clicks in patterns controllable by the players. By aiming the Sondols at the surfaces around themselves and listening to the quality of the returning echoes, the players can locate themselves and manoeuvre around obstacles. The work often ends in them meeting at a central point, as occurred at the Kraftwerk. Not that Lucier instructs this; the ‘poet of electronic music’, as Pauline Oliveros aptly described him, simply encourages performers to ‘pay their respects to all living creatures who inhabit dark places’. The audience can join them in this act and trace the clicks and echoes themselves or just observe the unfolding of a bizarre game. In the busy Kraftwerk, Vespers functioned as a gentle provocation, the performers dodging campbeds and dozing people in their quest for acoustic information.

Around the Lucier pieces, the Long Now’s curation felt unfocused, more concerned with filling time rather than exploring it. Live electronic ambient acts dominated the programme; in some ways, this slowburning style fitted the hazy, meditative atmosphere that the Long Now aims for (the programme encourages you to ‘indulge’ in its ‘chronosphere’), but it mostly felt lacking in contour, threatening to prepare you for sleep a little too early on into the thirty-hour event.

When the Long Now’s curators did set up real contrasts in repertoire, these allowed for unexpected echoes between musical times and styles. On the Saturday night, I am sitting in a room was followed by the Dutch vocal group Graindelavoix performing early Renaissance polyphony by Orlando di Lasso, Josquin Desprez and others. Their works, like Lucier’s, were designed in a manner sensitive to physical space, the range of vocal textures chosen to suit the nature of the chapels and cathedrals these composers wrote for. It connected two seemingly disparate points in the centuries of thinking about sounds in space that humans have done, in a multitude of different rooms.


Tales from Estonia: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir at Flagey, Brussels

This ‘Tales from Estonia’ evening in Brussels marked the close of Flagey’s Arvo Pärt weekend, jointly a celebration of Pärt’s music and of the 100th anniversary of Estonian independence. It was my second time hearing the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir showcasing works by Estonian composers live; last year, I conducted an audience survey at their Estonian Music Days performance in Tallinn.

We opened with Ülo Krigul’s Water Is (2015), a rustling reflection on the meeting of land and water with a text drawn from the sound poetry of Ilmar Laaban. The choir’s sustained lines were freely improvised around gong notes that emerged from an atmospheric phonograph accompaniment.  From this deeply meditative beginning, the choir moved on to a selection of four Arvo Pärt works: his 1989 Magnificat setting (in tintinnabuli style), Zwei Beter (1998), his Nunc dimittis from 2001 and Dopo la vittoria (1996/8). I’m not a huge Pärt fan but I savoured the choir’s skill in making this hushed music rise, soar and slip back to silence. Dopo la vittoria featured a number of bright solo passages that were performed with precision and clarity.

Estonia’s younger generation of composers was represented by Liisa Hirsch, who gave the Belgian premiere of her work Lines for choir and electronics. The piece’s tight, microtonal surface was intriguing but I found the relationship of the electronics to the voices unclear, which became a little distracting. The final part of the programme offered some (much-needed) contrast in Veljo Tormis’ compositions. Tormis’ wide-ranging style draws heavily on Estonian-Finnish folklore and musical traditions, representing a very different strand of Estonian choral music to Pärt’s output. The choir performed his St John’s Day Songs (1967) and Curse Upon Iron (1972). This latter piece glowed with a raw energy, propelled forward by shamanic drum. Have a listen to more from these composers below and check out the audience research version of this post!

New York in Potsdam: Anne Sofie von Otter & Brooklyn Rider at the Nikolaisaal

I headed out to Potsdam’s Nikolaisaal on Friday night, a slightly out-of-the-way location in which to find both the legendary mezzo-soprano, Anne Sofie von Otter, and star New York string quartet, Brooklyn Rider. On the programme was an eclectic mix from the quartet’s last few recordings, including the German premiere of Philip Glass’ String Quartet No. 7 from last month’s Glass album and songs from So Many Things, their 2016 collaboration with Von Otter.

The evening satisfyingly combined virtuosity with a laid-back charm. Von Otter charismatically introduced most of the works, sometimes with asides and questions to the quartet members. Her warm tone threaded its way through the diverse repertoire, whether it was lending its clarity to Caroline Shaw’s troubadour-inspired Cant voi l’aube, giving a honeyed, jazzy edge to Elvis Costello or curling out lines of digits in Kyle Sanna’s zippy arrangement of Kate Bush’s Pi.

Interestingly, though, it felt like the real heart of the concert came from the three works by Brooklyn Rider violinist Colin Jacobsen. The audience, who I’d imagine were mostly drawn there by Von Otter’s classical standing, were confronted with these pieces and really got behind them. For Sixty Cents, a coffee shop musing based around a Lydia Davis text, was a delight to watch. BTT from the recent Spontaneous Symbols album was almost interrupted by applause and then met with cheers at its close, as was Exit from 2014’s Brooklyn Rider Almanac, the second of three encores that night.

The versatility and openness that drive Brooklyn Rider’s projects is something that I think is yet to really develop in the new music scenes of major German cities (it’s an altogether different world of contemporary music to this Ensemble Modern concert, for example). Certainly, the evening for me emphasised how invigorating for both audiences and musicians the unselfconscious crossing of roles and genres can be.

Albums of 2017

Here’s a round-up of a few of my favourite albums from 2017 across contemporary classical music and experimental pop. Enjoy!

Alarm Will Sound/Meet The Composer: Splitting Adams
(ft. Chamber Symphony and Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams)
April 2017, Cantaloupe Music

This innovative collaboration between Q2’s Music’s Meet the Composer podcast and ensemble Alarm Will Sound was definitely one of my highlights of the year. The podcast sections with contributions from violist/host Nadia Sirota, AWS conductor Alan Pierson and John Adams himself provide witty, well-paced introductions to the complex soundworlds of the two chamber symphonies, complete with cartoon music clips, scraps of Arnold Schoenberg and anecdotes from the ensemble members. The recordings sandwiched between these commentaries have an unbelievable energy, zapping Adams’ ‘caffeinated’ (to use Pierson’s favourite word) music to life. The slower movements shine as well, in particular ‘Son of Chamber Symphony’s sultry second movement. A must-listen not just for John Adams or Meet the Composer fans, but really anyone looking to listen their way into contemporary classical music.

New Morse Code: Simplicity Itself
September 2017, New Focus Recordings

Simplicity Itself was this year’s release from cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, featuring a host of new works for this intriguing combination of instruments (plus the occasional violin and piano). Patter by Boston composer, Robert Honstein, amuses with its delicate, shifting lines. The album’s central work, Hush by Tonia Ko, winds Virginia Woolf fragments around expressive flourishes of sound. The second and third movements are deeply atmospheric; a longing cello solo leading the former, the clear singing voice of cellist Hannah Collins guiding the latter. A real stand-out on the album is Caroline Shaw’s Boris Kerner, to me it seems like a whistlestop tour of the different music roles the cello can play. Starting with a stately ground bass, we get hurried on through supportive pizzicati to jammy, folky chords – eventually landing back where we started. The moment when the percussion (struck flowerpots, in reference to Rzewski’s To the Earth) begins chiming over the opening ground bass is exquisite, a crisp clash of style and texture. An album of clarity in musical expression: most definitely simplicity itself. 

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith: The Kid
October 2017, Western Vinyl

A buzzing, trippy second album from Smith, full of special sounds. Head over to this post to read some thoughts on the album and a review of Smith’s recent The Kid performance in Berlin.  

Roseau: Muscles and Bones
March 2017, Tape Club Records

East London producer and singer Kerry Leatham, aka Roseau, followed up her 2015 debut album Salt with the release of this year’s Muscles and Bones. A soulful record, it makes for a really enjoyable listen. Opening track ‘Foundation’ ticks on from its slightly creepy, off-kilter beginning into a lush chorus. The slow groove of ‘Start Again’ is inviting, almost danceable, while ‘Oh, Honestly’ fades out the short record dreamily, swimming out ‘in navy blue’. My personal favourite is ‘Light’, a gorgeous poppy cut that builds into a passionate rework of the refrain from the earlier track, ‘Disintegrate’. 

Björk: Utopia
November 2017, One Little Indian Records

Björk’s ninth studio album was a pleasant surprise this year. I had enjoyed 2015’s Vulnicura but found it a little directionless, lacking the conviction and concept that drove such milestones as BiophiliaVolta and MedúllaUtopia feels exhilarating, opening with the buzz of light and sound that is ‘Arisen My Senses’. ‘The Gate’ has a kind of gripping intensity to it, breaking out eventually into its desperate call of ‘I care for you, care for you’. ‘Body Memory’ is an epic rush of overblown flutes and heavy bass; leafy, pulsating and dense. Against this, tracks like ‘Claimstaker’ and the floaty ‘Future Forever’ are a little more thinly scored, allowing Björk’s voice to take centre stage. The album is often lyrically shaky, and not just in that quirky way that Björk often is (what is ‘Features Creatures’ about…?), but thanks to its rich, varied sound design it nonetheless soars.  

Jasper String Quartet: Unbound
March 2017, New Amsterdam Records/Sono Luminus

A colourful album of new commissions for this virtuosic young string quartet, which takes the listener expertly through the many facets of contemporary string quartet music. Mizzy Mazzoli’s swooping Death Valley Junction and the hushed layers of Donnacha Dennehy’s Pushpulling are performed with a breathless, delicate urgency. This contrasts the delightful energy and swagger the versatile quartet brings out for Caroline Shaw’s juicy Valencia and Judd Greenstein’s up-tempo Four on the Floor. A riveting release and one of the strongest new music albums of the year. 

Und links das Meer: new works with Ensemble Modern in Frankfurt

Last night, I was at the closing concert of this year’s Cresc… Biennale, a festival for contemporary music in the Frankfurt am Main area. It was my first time experiencing Ensemble Modern, Germany’s leading new music ensemble, in a live performance. On the programme were five premieres by young composers participating in Ensemble Modern’s composition seminar (organised by the International Ensemble Modern Academy), each responding to the topic of ‘transit’, the festival’s loose overall theme.

The five composers* took up this theme in creative and contrasting ways, but sometimes producing mixed results. I found the opening work, Matej Bonin’s Shimmer II, difficult to get into. While there were some nice timbral highlights and a wacky extended clarinet solo, it had little structure and failed to really engage me. Malte Giesen’s Surrogat/Extension interpreted the theme on the level of identity in transit or transition and did this in the form of a ‘double concerto’ for piano and electronic keyboard, the ‘original’ or older instrument meeting its ‘copy’, according to the composer’s description. This idea was explored well; the solo voices were at times cooperative, at times warring, with the keyboard frequently interrupting and manipulating the piano’s sound.   

I particularly enjoyed Ole Hübner’s Drei Menschen, im Hintergrund Hochhäuser und Palmen und links das Meer for live electronics and amplified ensemble. Hübner mashed together fragments of recorded speech, field recordings from Beijing and Istanbul and snippets of folky fiddle music, making for an vivid and intense sound collage or piece of ‘auditory theatre’ (‘Hörtheater’), as he describes it. The final two works put Ensemble Modern’s famed versatility to the test. Vladimir Gorlinsky’s slightly unconvincing ‘sound performance’ had them screaming into gongs and wandering around the stage investigating a range of different sound sources. In the concluding work, Andreas Eduardo Frank’s How to pronounce Alpha, the ensemble were confronted with quite a complex choreography of arm and hand gestures, all performed with admirable dedication. Complete with beatboxing percussionists and a quirky stage arrangement (all the typical solo instruments were placed in the back row), Frank’s deconstruction of ensemble hierarchies was a witty, entertaining end to the evening.

Click here for the Audience Research version of this post on the Ulysses Network site

* All five participating composers were male.

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith at Funkhaus Berlin

I’ve been a fan of Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s music since first hearing ‘EARS’ last year, her daringly bright and lush exploration of the Buchla 100 series modular synthesizer. This year’s follow-up album, ‘The Kid’, needed a bit more time to grow on me but its colourful innocence and washes of breathy melody have since firmly brought me round.

I was curious to see how Smith would realise this complex album live. Live electronics sets can often feel disappointing to me; the performer remains distant, communication with the crowd sometimes almost seems unwanted. But Smith’s set yesterday evening at Funkhaus Berlin enticed and intrigued.

Silhouetted against the backdrop of a dizzying, skittish video projection, Smith stood side-on, darting rhythmically around her setup, the Buchla Music Easel at its centre. Album opener ‘An Intention’ had an impressive grandeur to it, a slow unfurling to the whole performance. The more upbeat songs ‘A Kid’ and ‘To Follow & Lead’ buzzed and churned with a fresh energy. But the instrumental track ‘Who I Am & Why I Am Where I Am’ was where Smith really demonstrated the ethereal beauty of her work. The humming layers were delicately controlled, rising gradually to an ecstatic chorus of tripping rainforest bird samples. Throughout the performance, the video projections made for an intense accompaniment, taking us on a journey from what seemed like the insides of a bubbly dream pop washing machine through to a kaleidoscopic night sky.

As engaging as it was, I would have liked more re-invention around the album material. While it’s certainly a legitimate approach to perform straight through an album, a bit more deviation from the ‘script’ could have unearthed yet more sides to this playful, creative record.

Pierre Boulez Saal: Mönkemeyer & Youn

Last night, I finally made it to Daniel Barenboim’s ‘Prachtbau’ in the centre of Berlin, the new Pierre Boulez Saal. It is one of the few finished projects in the Unter den Linden area, sitting alongside the semi-reopened State Opera house and the still skeletal Berliner Schloss. Inside, the PBS is maybe a little boring visually (why the train company seat covers…?) but acoustically satisfying: warm, direct and intimate.

Nils Mönkemeyer and William Youn interspersed modern/contemporary solo works for viola and piano (from Sciarrino, N. Boulanger, Chin and Pintscher) around a Mozart arrangement and two staple duo sonatas by Schubert and Brahms. While of course most time and attention went to the Romantic and Classical repertoire, Mönkemeyer and Youn really excelled with their contemporary choices and curation. Segueing through Sciarrino and Mozart in the first half, for example, gave the concert a dynamic feel, mixing old and new without being too deliberate or self-conscious about it. Another highlight was Nadia Boulanger’s ‘Vers la Vie nouvelle’ for solo piano in the second half. Youn played it with real crunch and drama, revelling in the piece’s strong contrasts. Unsuk Chin’s manic Piano Etude No. 5 made for an interesting partner to it, continuing on the vivacity the Boulanger work ends with and taking it somewhere else.

True to their understated mission of combining old and new, their encore presented a recent work written for them. The duo played the second movement of Konstantia Gourzi’s ‘Hommage á Mozart’, a dreamy piece with a lilting ostinato in the fortepiano part that remained muted throughout, sounding fragile and distant. A very atmospheric evening in an exciting new space.