Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Some records that I liked this year

They're not all new this year, but they were new to me.

Cornershop: And the Double-O Groove of
Birtwistle: Night's Black Bird
Björk: Biophilia
Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow
Bill Callahan: Apocalypse
Eliza Carthy: Neptune
The Fall: Ersatz GB
Fovea Hex: Here Is Where We Used To Sing
PJ Harvey: Let England Shake
Katy B: On a Mission
Khyam Allami: Resonance/Dissonance
Julaba Kunda: Traders
Hilary Hahn: Ives Violin Sonatas
Jonny Kearney & Lucy Farrell: Kite
Katzenjammer: Le Pop & A Kiss Before You Go
Laura Marling: A Creature I Don't Know
Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5 & 10
Misty Dixon: Iced to Mode
Mötorhead: The Wörld is Yours
Eliane Radigue: L'île re-sonante
Rasputina: Great American Gingerbread & How We Quit the Forest (reissue)
Roshi featuring Pars Radio: Mehregan
Spieres and Boden: The Works
The Fierce and the Dead: If It Carries On Like This We are Moving to Morecombe
Trio Scordatura: Dubh
Sun-Ra: Strange Strings
The Unthanks: Last & The Somngs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and the Johnsons
Tom Waits: Bad As Me
Abigail Washburn: City of Refuge
Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi: Rome
Little Roy: Battle for Seattle
Jane Weaver Septième Soeur: The Watchbird Alluminate
The Webb Sisters: Savages

Friday, June 24, 2011

Essays before a composition (4)

The complete consort dancing together by petemaskreplica

The last time I wrote a piece for a symphony orchestra was in 2005: a small piece with a long title to celebrate Kensington Symphony Orchestra's 50th season. The last time I wrote for orchestra before that was in 2001, a work which got a play through in rehearsal but has never been publicly performed. When you're 20 years old and filled with energy and idealism you think nothing of churning out enormous pieces of music without a thought for who's going to play them, but as I get older it seems a waste of time and energy to slave over an orchestral score with no prospect of it being heard. It's so easy now and so satisfying to produce something large scale in my own living room, and immediately get it uploaded and out there; why sweat over something as arcane as an orchestra when I'll probably never hear the result?

As a result of this ideas stew in my brain for years. I've had the idea for the piece I'm about to begin work on for a long time. In fact, when I wrote The complete consort I had it in mind that it might be in part a preparatory sketch for the bigger work I wanted to write but couldn't at that time justify spending time on.

Over time ideas get half buried, maybe rethought for more realistic projects. Meanwhile new influences continually change my ideas of how to make music, and what sort of music to make. These new ideas and strategies sink into those half-buried seeds and mutate them. You'd think having had the germ of a piece fermenting in my mind for the best part of a decade would make it easy to produce when the chance finally comes. In fact it's hard: I and my music have changed in so many ways I couldn't have foreseen that the idea itself has begun to change, and many of the aspects that I thought were most fixed turn out now not to fit in with how I currently do things. It's not impossible that I'll raid the older music for elements I can use in the new piece, but it seems unlikely that it'll be as straightforward a relationship as I once thought it would be. Music's always on the move; any particular piece that's set down in a definable form is only a snapshot of a moment that's already gone.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Stretching it

I've got a new toy.

In a Cavern by petemaskreplica

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Essays before a composition (3)

They chase, they chase their quarry, or the idea of it. Look at them, wildly swinging their nets, each lunge met with empty air. And still they hunt. And meanwhile I sit here, chasing an imagined sound, pen skittering across the page trying to capture my quarry, my conception, even as it recedes ever before me and behind me, each moment gone before it happens...

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Essays before a composition (2)

One of the problems for a composer trying to write a programme note is that the experience of listening to a piece of music is almost the precise opposite of the experience of writing it. When you compose, you begin with an idea, a concept of what impression you want the piece to give. The process of producing the music is then a process of unpacking this idea, expanding it and rolling it out into a time span. The listener does this process more or less backwards: over the time span, he or she absorbs the notes, the textures and so on and (if the composer’s done the job well) at the end will have a concept of the work in the mind (which may bear a greater or lesser similarity to the concept the composer had in the fist place). Moreover, what concerns and interests a composer in the act of writing isn’t necessarily what concerns the listener. The composer is concerned with processes: how do I put things together so a to realise this idea of sound? Of course, once he’s worked this out he feels very excited and pleased, and wants to tell people how he did it. But that’s exactly what a listener doesn’t need or want to know. Roberto Gerhard wrote, “Understanding comes first; knowledge second.” There’s a fundamental mistake that’s made all the time in the classical music world: people who like classical music know a lot about it, gos the reasoning, so if you tell people a lot about it they’ll like it. In fact what happens is that if you bombard people with technical detail they start to think that unless they know about it they can’t possibly like or even begin to listen to it. If people like a piece they may well find out more about it, and they may get into the nitty gritty of theory and technique, but that’s for later. Programme notes in which the composer drones on about the clever technical devices he used to write the piece are therefore the biggest turn off imaginable, and such notes often lose the audience’s sympathy before they’ve heard a note.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Essays before a composition (1)

When I was young I discovered the record section of Birmingham Central Library (something that sadly would be all but impossible now in more than one way, and will become utterly impossible if this government gets its way). I discovered many things within those thing cardboard sleeves, sounds that I’d never heard or imagined could be made. I devoured Nielsen’s symphonies, Stockhausen’s Telemusik and Miles Davies’ Bitches Brew with equal enthusiasm, if not immediate understanding. I pored over the sleeve notes for the Stockhausen. They were all but impenetrable, and if I’d been relying on them to guide me into the music I doubt I’d have made it far. Fortunately I just liked the sounds and didn’t worry about what I was supposed to think about them. It was gratifying years later to hear Stockhausen himself introduce his music. His advice on how to listen to his music mentioned nothing of tone rows or retrograde inversions, but boiled down to: you will hear some sounds. Listen to them and hear what happens to them. It turned out Karlheinz was a lot easier to get my head round than Miles.

Essays before a composition (preamble)

I'm about to start work on a reasonably big piece. I tend to steer clear of big pieces these days; it's all very well churning out page after page of music for an enormous body of musicians like an orchestra regardless when you're 20, but now it doesn't seem worth the effort unless there's a realistic chance of a performance. I'd rather work on the small scale, move fast, move on, have stuff ready that someone might actually pick up. Small forces make it easier to make a stab at originality, too; I think larger groups by their nature are more of the establishment and tend to drive out different ways of thinking.

But once the prospect of an actual performance raises its head all my worthy self-justification goes out of the window and I get childishly excited at the thought of having all those instruments to play with.

I'll have to write a programme note, of course. I was thinking about this at the weekend when I went to see the London Sinfonietta's "Pavilions" concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, a curious mixture of music, not really a programme, more just a bunch of pieces that got played on the same night. I liked about half of it, which I think is a decent strike rate (dear professional composer in their 40s with a teaching post and a decent stretch as a composer: by now you really ought to be able to work out how long your piece is. A couple of minutes out is understandable, but nearly double the advertised length just pisses people off, especially when it doesn't justify the length).

Anyway, I got to talking to my friends in the interval, and I mentioned that I thought on the whole that composers shouldn't be allowed to write notes for their own music, something demonstrated by at least two of the composers represented at the concert. They tend to forget that what's interesting for a composer in what he's written isn't necessarily the same as what a listener wants to know. It was pointed out to me that I'll be breaking my own rule next year and writing my own note for my piece. I said I might write a programme note about why composers shouldn't write programme notes. "I'll remind you about that next year!" said E.

So over the coming months I'm going to scribble random thoughts and stick them up here. Don't expect any continuity or even sense between the posts. It'll essentially be a series of random thoughts that I put down to try and help me get my head around the ideas I'm tackling with this piece, how I might try and explain them in a programme note, whether I should. I'm hoping tat something might emerge magically out of this. It might just turn out to be a disjointed sequence of uninteresting waffle though. So sorry if that's what happens.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Ben Johnston: String Quartets 1, 5 and 10 (Kepler Quartet; New World Records)

One of the most exciting recordings that's come my way in recent years is the Kepler Quartet 's CD of four string quartets by Ben Johnston. Johnston, possibly one of the greatest composers you've never heard of, is a sometime apprentice of Harry Partch , inventor of an ingenious notation system for Just Intonation, and has composed ten quartets in all, which explore the vastly expanded harmonic palette made possible by JI in an astonishingly wide variety of ways, ranging from the simplest chords imaginable to uncompromising modernist complexity. That CD was released in 2006, and was intended as the first of three releases that would make available for the first time the complete cycle of quartets in accurate, authoritative recordings supervised by the composer. Now finally the second disc has been released, and it's worth the wait.

This time, the Keplers present Johnston's first and last quartets, together with one from the middle of the sequence. The Fifth Quartet opens the disc, and is quite simply one of the most astonishing pieces of music I've heard in a very long time. It's a set of variations on the Appalachian song "Lonesome Valley," and in this respect is a natural successor to the Fourth Quartet (included on the previous release), which is a set of variations on "Amazing Grace." Whereas that quartet expanded the harmonic language to include harmonies derived from the seventh partial, the slightly "flat" seventh that lies just outside the normal scope of conventional Western harmony, this one goes further, deriving its sound world from the distinctly more alien intervals to be found at the 11th and 13th limits. The effect is ambiguous and unsettling to ears used only to the "major-minor" standard Western harmony. The "Lonesome Valley" of the song's title is the"Valley of the Shadow of Death", and the quartet is not merely a clever exercise in weird harmony; it's a profound and disquieting mediation on death that resonates in the mind long after it's over. The piece dates from the 1970s, but feels like something from the distant future, while at the same time speaking with an ancient voice.

Johnston's tenth and most likely final quartet (although still very much with us, he's in frail health and hasn't composed for some years now) belongs to a later style, which might be described as revisionist. Here he explicitly draws on old models such as Haydn, not as pastiche, but as a way of exploring how Western music might have developed had we not locked down our tuning system to a twelve note scale sometime around 1600. This quartet dates from 1995, but paradoxically feels like the work of someone younger. it's an energetic, smart and witty piece, ebullient and extrovert where the fifth is inward and contemplative. The last movement acts as a kind of précis of the history of music, beginning in quasi-medieval mode. It eventually turns out that the movement is another set of variations on a famous tune - a tune so famous, in fact, that's it's a high risk strategy to use it, as in lesser hands the point where its identity is revealed could be a moment of appalling kitsch. In the event, it's a wonderful coup de théâtre that will leave all but the most curmudgeonly listener with an enormous grin on their face.

The final work on the disc is Johnston's First Quartet, the only one of the cycle not written in JI, and perhaps something of a period piece in its post-Webern serial style, typical of its 50s origins. The experience of learning to pitch the exotic intervals in the later quartets has clearly paid off though, because the Kepler's performance brings a luminous quality that makes the piece (another set of variations, though of a much less obvious sort) seem much more voluptuous and much less "difficult" than this sort of music is commonly characterised as being.

If the earlier disc of the second, third, fourth and ninth quartets was a revelation, this set of three is no less so, and confirms that Johnston's is one of the finest and richest quartet cycles of the 20th century. It's to be fervently hoped that the Kepler Quartet manage to raise the funds to complete the cycle (including the so-far unperformed Seventh Quartet, one of the most complex and adventurous things Johnston has written). In the meantime, anyone who cares about music and what it's capable of should immerse themselves in these extraordinary works. All three of these quartets are stunning, but for me it's the Fifth which is the standout, a genuinely overwhelming experience not quite like anything else you've heard.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year

2011 by petemaskreplica