Albums of 2018

Here’s a brief round-up of some of my favourite albums from this past year across contemporary classical music and experimental pop!

Hatis Noit: Illogical Dance
March 2018, Erased Tapes

An intriguing four-track EP from this enigmatic Japanese (and now London based) artist. The opening work, ‘Angelus Novus’, spans several soundworlds, a beguiling mix of Gregorian chant, traditional Japanese and Bulgarian vocal music and visceral electronics. Hatis Noit’s vocals seethe and soar, truly a force to be reckoned with. ‘Anagram C.I.Y’ is altogether different, taking up the vocal styles from the first track but putting the electronic production in focus to create a dizzying, choppy mix with sounds pinging all over the place (listen with headphones!). ‘Illogical Lullaby’ strips things back again, moving gently through intertwining vocal phrases. The EP also includes the Matmos remix of ‘Illogical Lullaby’, an inventive reimagination of the original.

Miolina: Miolina
February 2018, Composers Concordance

This is the debut album from violin duo, Miolina, formed by Lynn Bechtold and Mioi Takeda in 2012.  It showcases a colourful mix of compositions, ranging from the frantically virtuosic ‘Shibuya Tokyo’ by Karen Tanaka, to the drone-based musings of Jeff Myers’ ‘TAG’ and onwards to the stuttering groove of Judd Greenstein’s ‘ILL’. Particular highlights are the two works by Bechtold herself. ‘Away/Home 1.2’ muses on missing home and missing being away, fusing Japanese nature sounds with the bustle of New York and snippets of childhood music. The closing work is Bechtold’s fleeting arrangement of a lament by turn-of-the-century English composer, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor. Coleridge-Taylor’s melody floats in a hazy bubble of electronics, distant and haunting. All in all, a multifaceted, thoughtful debut.

Sudan Archives: Sink
May 2018, Stones Throw

This EP is the second release from Sudan Archives, the stage name of L.A. based singer and violinist, Brittney Parks. A little glossier than the Sudan Archives record from last year, it’s still full of her trademark violin riffs, Sudanese folk influences and sharp lyrics. ‘Pay Attention’ skids along, matching a skipping, crunchy beat to choir samples. ‘Mind Control’ is a contrast, glassy and breathy, ‘Escape’ a triumphant closer. But little matches the irresistible lilt of lead single ‘Nont for Sale’. It’s fresh, confident and full of summery swagger: ‘This is my light, don’t block the sun/This is my seat, can’t you tell?’

Tirzah: Devotion
August 2018, Domino

I’d been hoping vocalist Tirzah and producer Mica Levi (a.k.a. Micachu) would bring out a full-length album soon, after their three EPs for the Greco-Roman imprint, I’m Not Dancing (2013), No Romance (2014) and Make it Up (2015).  Devotion is another original collaboration from these two school friends. The whole album has a rusty, lo-fi sheen that complements Tirzah’s freestyled meditations on love and commitment. The opening track, ’Fine Again’, drifts around expansively, setting a dreamy pace that seeps through most of the record, such as on ‘Say When’, the hypnotic ‘Do You Know’ and ’Affection’, with its stark piano loop. The pair mix their own cloudy blend of scuffed pop, dance and soul, with glimpses of Levi’s contemporary classical background appearing every now and then, like in the angular piano riff that grounds the title track.

Third Coast Percussion: Paddle to the Sea
February 2018, Çedille

A sprawling collection of works on the theme of water, Paddle to the Sea is the latest release from the Grammy Award-winning percussion quartet. It’s centred around the group’s own composition of that name, a score for the 1966 film adaptation of the children’s book, ’Paddle-To-The-Sea’, by Holling C. Holling. While the score traces the narrative of the film, it definitely makes for a captivating listen on its own. Its nine movements are rich in timbral exploration and wind creatively through a number of recurring ideas, at times building momentum gradually (as in ‘Flow’), at times invigorating and urgent (as in the climactic ‘Niagara’). Around the other works on the disc, the beautiful arrangement of the Shona traditional ‘Chigwaya’ by Musekiwa Chingodza and Jacob Druckman’s shimmering ‘Reflections on the Nature of Water’, the ensemble have interspersed four newly arranged movements from Philip Glass’ ‘Aguas da Amazonia’. This set of pieces has had many lives – but Third Coast Percussion’s version sounds crisp and original. ‘Madeira River’ and ‘Amazon River’ in particular are breathtaking bookends to the album, the former leaning deliciously in to the curve of Glass’ yearning chord sequence each time it comes round, the latter closing out the record with an enveloping glow.

Audience Research at the Ultima Festival, Oslo

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website.

I’m heading back from my final Ulysses audience research trip to the Ultima Festival in Oslo, Norway’s main annual contemporary music festival. I conducted the very last survey of the project at this installation by German composer Alexander Schubert. Since I’m aiming to explore the reception of different concert formats, I wanted to include at least one event that completely breaks with the standard concert setup. Schubert’s work Control provided ample opportunity to investigate this. Taking on themes of surveillance and manipulation, audience members were let into the installation in groups of four, wearing headsets and VR goggles. Nothing was projected onto the goggles, instead these were used to support a camera and to restrict the participants’ peripheral vision. Once inside, the participants received instructions over the headset from a controller who could view the footage from their participant’s camera. They were told to move through the space and, as far as possible, interact with the performers, who were distributed in different darkened rooms in the sprawling basement of the former Norwegian National Gallery. While the performers never spoke to the participants and also had their faces obscured with goggles, all sorts of different and strange interactions took place, from having to copy yoga-style positions in an eerily lit room to lying down in a gloomy tent with the instruction to close one’s eyes and relax (as happened to me).

In the second part, the participants became the people controlling, giving instructions to the next batch of audience members before emerging from the basement and becoming ‘observers’ – in a room upstairs, the footage from all four participants’ journeys was being relayed on live screens along with the audio from the controllers. It was also possible to buy an observer ticket and just watch the installation from this room, from which, as was probably Schubert’s intention, it would have been hard to tell who was really ‘performing’ and who just ‘participating’.

All in all, a provocative and unsettling work with multiple ways of engaging with it. I handed out the questionnaire to both participants and observers as they exited the venue. From this, I got 88 responses from the 100 audience members who attended across the two days the installation was open, 23 from observers and 65 from participants. The questionnaire had two questions that were asked in addition to the main set I’ve asked at every other survey. The first of these was aimed to investigate the immersive/interactive dimension to the piece and was differently phrased for participants and observers, asking participants whether they’d enjoyed being able to interact with the performers and being a part of the work and asking observers if they would have preferred to participate. At a first glance, the responses seem very mixed, as might be expected for a work that certainly does not shy away from pushing audience members’ comfort zones. On the whole, it looks like most observers wouldn’t have wanted to participate on the basis of what they saw of the work, though some acknowledged they may not have been able to judge this sufficiently (‘Observation does not really give you [an] impression about the piece’). A lot of participants did say that they enjoyed being active in the work (‘unpleasant in a good way’ was one comment on this), which speaks to the possible gains of a format like this one, but others seemed to have reacted negatively to this aspect of this work.

For the second extra question, I wanted to see if the participants would report their experience as being more memorable than the observers (by asking both groups to rate their agreement with the statement ‘I had a memorable experience at Control’). I’ll have to look at this properly once the data is typed up but it seems as if observers were indeed slightly less likely to call their experience memorable. The result of this question will be interesting in discussing further what audiences can get from participatory formats – do they necessarily make more of an impact?

Another aspect that came up a few times in responses was the amount of information available about the work prior to the event. The composer had specifically requested that little information about the piece be released in advance, which made for some false expectations about the work and format. One response mentions expecting that the performers would be playing instruments (I had thought this too!), but this was not the case. Another comment highlighted quite precisely the difficult balance in giving enough information about a piece vs. keeping an artwork’s mystery: ‘I am really sad I didn’t know more about the piece before I came. At the same time, it felt exciting to not know anything. Unfortunately, it felt more like a scary movie than a music piece.’


#freebrahms: the STEGREIF.orchester at Radialsystem V

Berlin’s STEGREIF.orchester is a collective of 30 young classical musicians with an unusual mission. They compose new versions of classical symphonies and perform them without scores or a conductor, aiming to free them of their baggage and bring them up close to new audiences. Their recent #freebeethoven and #freeschubert projects infused Beethoven’s 4th and Schubert’s 9th symphonies with dance and improvisation, to much acclaim.

On Saturday evening, I caught a performance of their latest work, #freebrahms, a choreographed reimagining of Brahms’ Third Symphony in F major. After being freed firstly of our shoes, the audience entered the smoke-filled (and sweltering) main hall to find the group clustered in the centre of the room, meditatively humming a version of the opening harmonies of the symphony. We were invited to sit in the stands or find a place on the floor around the musicians.

What ensued was a set of 15-minute versions of each of the four movements. Brahms’ themes would swell up every now and then and immediately be used as material for improvisation in a dizzying range of styles: klezmer-tinged clarinet, jazz guitar, a wailing cello and vocal solo. The clarinet melody from the 2nd movement merged into an extended saxophone solo, a clever way of subtly ‘updating’ it. The musicians were almost constantly in motion (cellists and bassist included!), dispersing into the stands, throwing themselves on the floor for sections at a time, the percussionists wheeling around on small platforms. A theatrical cello solo ended in the player tearing and biting his bow hair and then snapping the wood in half.

I found a lot of the choreography effective and in some moments, it brought out the strange and experimental elements in Brahms’ score. For instance, the players began the third movement processing around the small central stage with clunky, zombie-robot movements, emphasising the peculiarity of Brahms’ stop-start waltz.

All of this culminated in a crazy, exhilarating fourth movement, in which Brahms’ Hungarian inflections went through the STEGREIF blender and came out as salsa, complete with conga drums and cowbell. Something happened that has most definitely not occurred at any previous performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony: people got up and danced. They danced, they clapped rhythms back, they cheered. It was infectious.

I’m definitely not a Brahms purist. I think a lot of classical music is pretty danceable and that this repertoire needs to be treated flexibly: it can and should be chopped up and reblended. It’s also helpful to remember that improvisation by performers was often a part of compositions up until roughly the late 18th century and that some composers pre-Brahms did think about how to play with the physical setup of the performance (e.g. the close of Haydn’s ‘Farewell’ Symphony, where the players are directed to leave the stage one by one).

But the right balance between enriching reinvention and watering something down is difficult to achieve. At times, STEGREIF’s imaginative performance risked diluting itself into ‘Brahms 3: The Musical’. The close of the first movement, for instance, was celebrated with a kind of ‘We Will Rock You’ bashing out of the main theme, supported exaggeratedly by electric guitar and drum kit. And while Brahms does bring back the opening harmonies at the end of the symphony, he doesn’t quite bring back the main theme like the STEGREIF arrangement did (albeit much more calmly than at the end of the first movement). Maybe less would have been more…

But hey, in many ways a symphony is just a collection of bangin’ tunes. So why not get to the point and present it like that? The STEGREIF performers played their version with such conviction, as if this is something they’d always been itching to do with this old piece of music. You can argue about whether Brahms had been appropriately liberated from tradition, but a dancing, clapping crowd of all ages testifies to one thing: it certainly felt freeing to experience STEGREIF’s performance. And maybe that’s the more important result.




Audience Research at the Darmstadt Summer Course for New Music 2018

This post originally appeared on the Ulysses Network website

My most recent audience research trip took me to Darmstadt for this year’s Summer Course for New Music, one of the best-known and most established new music institutions in Europe. The Darmstadt Summer Course has been running since 1946 and its history and significance for the development of music have frequently been the subject of writings on 20th century music. It is also an institution that reflects a lot on its extensive history. In fact, just a couple of hours before the audience survey was handed out this concert by the Arditti Quartet, a discussion (following Georgina Born’s paper on ‘audiencing’) started up around the nature of the ‘Darmstadt audience’, how they could be encouraged to participate more actively and whether people from the local area do attend the Course’s events. Obviously, some of these questions overlap with mine. In a ‘Summer Course’ setting, where most events are by and intended for the course participants (i.e. composers, musicians and teachers), who is really the audience? Are these practitioners able to fully put themselves in the position of audience members at the course’s public concerts? Do interested members of local population attend and to what degree are they also musical experts?

Out of the 13 surveys I’m conducting across Europe, Darmstadt is most probably the setting with the largest number of new music professionals attending concerts. Since the questionnaire has been designed to capture the responses of audience members with any level of musical background and interest in contemporary classical music, I was concerned that the Darmstadt participants may not feel like the questions apply to them or would find it strange to be asked about their interest in new music in a context that assumes an expert interest in exactly this. But despite these concerns, the questionnaire was met with a strong response, 251 returned forms from the 350-400 audience members in attendance. The concert was the third in a trilogy of performances by the Arditti Quartet at this year’s Summer Course and the programme featured a solo cello piece by Brian Ferneyhough alongside three recent quartet works by Younghi Pagh-Paan, James Clarke and Ashley Fure. Fure’s ‘Anima’ for augmented string quartet  (augmented through mobile transducers that the players explore the surface of their instruments with) seemed to be the most divisive piece on the programme. Some enthusiastically named it as their highlight (‘the electronic mix was great, very focused and intense!’) whereas others found the high frequencies and the intensity of the feedback unpleasant and difficult to listen to.

A number of respondents felt there needed to be more contrast in musical style in the programme (‘everything sounded kind of the same’) and that it should have overall been shorter. Others asked for more context to be provided, with introductory talks from composers and more detailed programme notes being two suggestions for ways of offering this. An interesting comment on the concert format was left by one audience member, who found that the ‘traditional concert hall setup & presentation style feels extremely antiquated for this music – which brings the music down.’ Picking up on the audience participation debate that took place earlier that day, it seems like audiences do often want more opportunities to feel engaged and involved through new formats; in fact, one answer called for there to be surveys after every Darmstadt concert!

As for those who were among the minority of locals attending, I’ll have to get further into the data to see in how far their experience contrasts those of the course participants. Unfortunately, I was not able to offer German questionnaires as it would have been difficult distribute them easily to those who needed them (this was also an issue at Flagey), but at first glance, it does seem that a small number did answer the survey despite this. Some Summer Course participants referenced feeling new at Darmstadt (‘I am new to “New Music” and really enjoyed my time here’), which points to the existence of many possible ‘Darmstadt audiences’, with varying backgrounds and experiences.


Photos: Kristof Lemp

‘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.