The sun-drenched opening clarion call of Music for Art and Tom sets the scene for the whole of Songs, Chimes and Dances, a survey of chamber music written between 1994 and 2007 by British composer Rob Keeley.
The opening piece displays Keeley’s trademark lyrical melodic writing in the saxophone’s woven lines, punctuated by prismatic chordal textures in the piano. Moving in step, the two instruments chime together in the second, more sedate section, with some beautifully struck sonorities in the accompaniment. There’s a charm to the music – but this isn’t to damn it; instead it’s a robust charm, one that is assured, supported by a good bone-structure – less simplistic than it is solid in its evolving form and musical language, a characteristic that runs throughout Keeley’s music.
There’s a questing sense to the opening widely-spaced sonority of the second piece on this disc, Bells of Halkis, a question posed that the rest of the piece endeavours to answer in the ensuing, gradually unfurling lines. In contrast, the following Little Trio moves with a bustling character in its combination of clarinet, cello and piano.
The two-movement Two Ways of Looking At A Spider is reminiscent of that other, great work for classical guitar, Tippett’s Blue Guitar. Filigree textures contrast with vibrant struck chords and plucked harmonics in the opening ‘A Spider Dances,’ followed by the contrasting, evocative nocturne, ‘The Spider Laments at Night’. The piece is here exquisitely performed by guitarist Jonathan Learwood.
The opening of the Andante of the Trio for Horn, Violin and Piano employs a falling gesture enriched with the timbre of the French horn, a languorous figure which slowly draws out its colours as it repeats. A dancing scherzo pitches the piano against deftly-stepping violin and horn duo; the final movement (subtitled ‘Piccola Scena Amorosa’) explores a darker hue, drawing on the rich ochre colour of the French horn at the heart of the ensemble.
The suite which gives the disc its name is a series of six studies; lithe, agile, lyrical, Puckish, including the warm hues of no.V, or the minimalist-style exploration of a fixed set of pitches gradually evolving in no. VI. This is music under a clear sky, open, lyrical and inventive, effortlessly played by oboist Melinda Maxwell
The last suite, Oregon Moods, for clarinet, alto saxophone and piano opens with a beautiful series of chords, a gestures which, in typical fashion, repeats and evolves as it explores its own potential. There’s an hommage to the quixotic Erik Satie in the lyrical yet sad third movement, ‘Gallic.’
I first heard Keeley’s music in the lithe On The Tiles (2003) for violin and piano, the brisk, energetic Concerto for Piano and Twelve Instruments (2007) and the lissom Six Inventions for Flute and Clarinet written in 2011. What struck me immediately was the vigour, the energy combined with an assured ear for textural detail and a radiant harmonic language, which this music imparted. The music on the current disc is from an earlier period, and whilst the later chamber works display a tonal language that becomes less openly Mediterranean, perhaps, in its tonal palette, Keeley’s harmonic language remains clear, full of colour; at once immediately accessible yet rich in its tonal colours. There’s a Ravelian quality to the piano writing, with occasional reminiscences of George Benjamin; there’s mischief too, alongside the sonorous landscape evoked by pieces such as Bells of Halkis. Keeley’s formal organisation seems to rely less on traditional methods than on evolving patterns, hinted ostinati that evolve, or question-and-answer exchanges between instruments, musical lines engaged in dialogue, and through-composed, singing melodies possessed of a resourceful inventiveness. Keeley writes great endings to his pieces, too; either darting, scurrying lines that conclude abruptly, inconclusively, or sonorities that are left deliberately poised, waiting to pursue harmonic avenues left unexplored; as a listener, you are left wanting more.
This disc is released on the NMC label, which last year celebrated its twenty-fifth year, an age belied by the youthful vigour of its catalogue; the survey on this album shines a light through the stained-glass hues of some of Keeley’s equally vibrant chamber music.
Listen to Rob Keeley's music on Soundcloud here.
(Review originally written for Sounds New).
Written in response to competition funding for the 2012 London Olympics, Five Rackets for Trio Relay is scored for the unusual arrangement of double piano trio; composer Cheryl Frances-Hoad makes full use of the multitudinous textural opportunities and contrasts afforded by the instrumentation.
There’s a bold opening to the suite, a strident beginning in Archery and Curling. Subsequently, skeletal piano figures are answered by string glissandi as the music begins to explore whole-tone scales.
The buzzing opening to the second movement contrasts with pointillist steps, and throughout the movement Frances-Hoad indulges in an enthusiastic exploration of different articulation techniques across the instruments – glissandi, tremolo, staccato, pizzicato.
By contrast, the third movement, Sailing, displays wonderful colours in rippled piano chords, with a lyrical violin melody over sonorous cello shapes. Clever handling of widely-spaced textures creates a rich yet clear ensemble sound, with an harmonic language that is accessible yet evocative. The tranquil nature is resotely dashed in the bold, rhythmic strokes of Boxing, in which Torke-esque block chords and homophonic textures abound. The spiky opening of the final movement, Marathon, Relay, Walk, Spring!, sees oscillating piano figures beneath repeating string shapes in an exciting musical language that is brash and vigorous.
Written for both professional and amateur musicians, the music is sympathetic to the needs of younger players without compromising on the tonal language or the inventive rhythmic nature of the
piece. In spirit, the work feels like a twenty-first century answer to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It’s an entertaining, spirited and inventive piece, deftly played on this
recording by the Lawson Trio and students from Pro Corda, in a disc including works by Turnage, David Knotts and Anthony Powers, on the Prima Facie label.
Here’s a live performance of Marathon, Relay, Walk, Sprint! performed at King’s Place.
Recent comments by the conductor of the Budapest Festival Orchestra, Ivan Fischer, anticipating that orchestras 'have only a few more decades left at most,' bring to mind an article several years ago, in which the late Jonathan Harvey proposed abandoning the idea of conventional audience behaviour at concert halls, in a bid to attract younger audiences.
With developing young audiences of the future a concern for arts organisations, it is important to engage them without burying live experiences beneath all manner of stultifying conventions that will almost certainly put people off; younger audiences are potentially the Ticket-buyers of Tomorrow. The almost religious state of obeisance required to sit still and attentively through classical repertoire is alien to those who attend jazz gigs and rock concerts. Clap in the wrong place during a symphony, and you’re greeted with icy stares or patronising glances: clap after a particularly fine instrumental improvisation at a jazz gig, the musicians will nod their thanks.
Harvey advocated amplifying music in performance, standard practice in rock and jazz gigs but greeted with a sharp intake of breath at classical concerts.
There is a big divide between amplified and non-amplified music. The future must bring things that are considered blasphemous, like amplifying classical music in an atmosphere where people can come and go … and certainly leave in the middle of a movement if they feel like it.
Leave in the middle if they feel like it ? Blasphemous indeed, perhaps – to some. But precisely this premise was part of Glass' Einstein on the Beach, written in 1976, the opera lasts for around five hours, and consists of nine scenes linked by short interludes known as ‘Knee Plays;’ there is no plot, and the audience members are free to enter and leave when they wish.
There is of course (but not always) something of a divide between audiences for classical concert repertoire and jazz and rock lovers: but as composers such as Mark-Anthony Turnage and Tansy Davies are proving, it’s not an insurmountable one. (Frank Zappa's The Yellow Shark, anyone ?) And if you go to a concert given by groups like Icebreaker or to hear music by Steve Reich, Steve Martland or Andriessen, amplification is almost de rigeur.
Fischer's comments echo Harvey's prediction that “if orchestras and conductors hang on to the orthodox method of performance they will end up playing to empty halls.” Whilst one hopes fervently that this will not be the case, there is perhaps some room to accommodate new ways of listening to music, in a way that will attract new audiences. Groups such as Ensemble Modern, Alarm Will Sound and Icebreaker emerged in response to a developing non-traditional orchestral repertoire. The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment's Night Shift programme presents classical music in a night club setting. As an expressive means, writing orchestral music continues to attract new composers; and the sound of a symphony orchestra in full flight can be a deeply thrilling experience.
Continuing to defy predictions of its demise, the orchestra still plays a part in contemporary music and in the concert-hall; keeping it that way is perhaps about how we present and programme them in the future. We're not finished with the orchestra yet.
The third disc from composer Dai Fujikura is a richly-hued portrait of the composer, focusing on four works recorded by a single orchestra. The pieces demonstrate Fujikura’s organic approach to composing, a technique in which he relies less on traditional formal precepts than on the gradual unfurling of ideas latent in an initial gesture – the pieces feel as though they are exploring possibilities offered by the first sound.
Yearning gestures blossom from a single sustained note at the start of Tocar Y Luchar, with strings rich in portamento answering static woodwind and brass. Over a gradual development, lines begin to echo one another, falling over themselves in their eagerness to articulate their ideas. A mysterious, lambent chord across the whole orchestra blossoms and slides before breaking down into restless, shifting string shapes. Woodwind like a wind-blown mobile oscillate searchingly, underpinned by rich string sonorities. The piece subsides into brittle martello writing, brought to a sudden halt by a punctuated brass chord. A ‘Rite’-esque pounding on bass-drum interrupts; the orchestra gradually recovers, finding its feet through a series of homophonic arguments between sections of the orchestra, eventually exploding in a blazing tutti chord with rumbling percussion. Now the music becomes wistful, almost reflective, subsiding in a series of languorous, rainbow-hued gestures before a short clarinet statement leads into a final chord which sees the orchestra evaporate in a glittering haze. A wonderful thirtieth-birthday present for its dedicatee, Gustavo Dudamel, the piece feels like Fujikura’s take on a concerto for orchestra, exploring the expressive possibilities in each individual section of the orchestra, where the focus is constantly shifting between them rather than giving each sustained periods of solo material. And, as elsewhere on the disc, there’s some sumptuous string writing too.
The Bassoon Concerto examines the close relationship between soloist and ensemble at an even greater level of auditory magnification than usual – the opening orchestral chord is an extension of the multiphonics created by the bassoon; the opening sonority therefore becomes, as often with Fujikura’s music, the wellspring from which subsequent material is distilled. Fujikura talks of being attracted to the bassoon’s ‘unique and mysterious possibilities’ when he began working with the soloist for whom the work was written, Pascal Gallois, who delivers the solo part with great authority; the work pushes at the limits of the instrument’s expressive potential, leaving no corner of the instrument left unexplored with high, lyrical melodic writing and low-register multiphonics.
There’s a wonderful elasticity to the cello section in Mirrors, as though the piece is exploring the flexibility of a single section of the orchestra. Surging, restless celli, shifting gestures punctuated by stabbed pizzicato – two means of articulation that are contesting for supremacy. Throbbing rising-and-falling plucked shapes vie with buzzing, vigorous tremolo. The piece eventually passes into tranquil sustained sul ponticello, harmonics-laden chords and gently evaporates with textural unity having been reached.
The final work on the disc, Atom, sees brittle textures growing out of the opening repeated note. This mood of restlessness is reflected throughout the orchestra, with various sections similarly oscillating, uncertain. When they do begin to find a measure of unity, the pieces slows into a slow-moving section bringing percussion to the fore, with timpani revellling in portamento and exotic gongs. Rasping brass and scurrying strings reply, before the whole orchestra joins for a rapturous outburst. The restlessness returns, but is soon overwhelmed by broad textural strokes which form the piece’s commanding conclusion.
The disc was recorded in a concert dedicated to Fujikura’s music in the Suntory Hall in 2012. All four works on this occasion are sumptuously performed by the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Tatsuya Shimono.
Mirrors is available on the Minabel label.
It’s almost hard to believe that Cage’s noiseless yet sound-rich, notorious masterpiece, 4’ 33’’ is over sixty. Premièred by David Tudor on August 29 in 1952, the piece has gone on to cause controversy wherever and whenever it continues to be performed (watch a performance here.) The BBC Symphony Orchestra performed the UK’s first orchestral version of the piece in a concert dedicated to the music of Cage back in 2004.
Cage himself reflected on the first performance:
There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.
Cage’s piece draws to the fore the interaction between performer, audience and environment, raising the significance of the non-directed elements present during the piece’s performance; ambient, unintentional noise, aleatoric sounds, events outside of the performer’s control and yet deliberately included as part of the experience. The piece makes room for all those surrounding elements over which the performer has no direct control, and makes them a part of it; it makes us listen not to an arranged series of controlled auditory events, but to whatever sonic incidents happen to occur during that defined time-period during which the piece is ‘performed.’ In fact, the only controlled element of the piece is the time during which these events unfold, defined by the raising and lowering of the piano lid in the piece’s original incarnation. Aside from dictating the beginning and end of each of the three movements, everything else is left to chance.
Back in 2012, the piece was programmed as part of BBC Prom dedicated to Cage's work (for which the back-up system on Radio 3 had to be turned off, a system which kicks in when it detects 'dead air;') even in the era of digital broadcasting, it’s 4’ 33’’ that remains his most notorious, most thought-provoking piece, and arguably one of the most significant works of the twentieth-century. For a piece with no prescribed sound, its impact continues to resonate still.
Written in 2004 and scored for a chamber ensemble of seven players, Neon combines brash woodwind textures with thorny electric keyboard and wild lashings of percussion. The piece taps into a dark, urban sensibility, combined with a love of pop-funk straight out of the music of Prince, or a brooding version of Stevie Wonder’s Superstition (listen to the work below).
The piece swaggers in with a menacing sense imparted by its asymmetrical 7/4 metre; there’s confidence in the matter-of-fact, brusque gestures dealt by the woodwind. Passages of calm, sustained chords in the background from strings or woodwind cannot provide any cessation from the aggressive, punchy percussion; the bassline attempts to continue onwards, but it’s the percussion that prevails. A spiky electric bassline intrudes, but is shouted down by wailing saxophones, whose shrill cries in parallel fifths seem Eastern in origin, and whose cries are imitated by a lone violin. Soprano saxophone and bass clarinet begin a whirling, deranged dance – here the music sounds like a modern version of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale – before the opening idea returns, now strangely humbled compared to its previous appearance, as though chastened by the saxophones’ wild laments. Violin and cello chords punctuate the continuing thorny keyboard line, and attempts by a hushed, wandering bass clarinet and a plucked pedal-note on the violin to slow the music down meet with no success.
A new voice, marimba, enters the dance and provides some textural contrast as it joins in with steps opposite the bass; the percussion starts to spit and bluster, and the opening idea returns, now with pronounced snare-drum accents. For the first time, there is the hint of some kind of belonging as the electric keyboard tries to establish a tonal centre, first with a repeated note, and then with gestures outlining a dominant seventh. But it does not succeed, and after reverting to its jagged line which cannot escape from the low rasp on the first beat of the bar, eventually subsides, leaving the playground free for the previous saxophone idea to return. A final appearance of the rondo idea sees the woodwind becoming slightly unhinged as they add odd shrieks, and the piece eventually comes to a halt with no real sense of conclusion.
Episodic in outline, there is no real sense of development throughout the work; the music ends up almost where it started, as though it has lurched around drunkenly without getting anywhere. The crazed rondo-form structure moves between recurring ideas that admit no evolution, rather a claustrophobic feeling of frustrated aggression, a fruitless search for release that cannot be found. For all the piece’s rhythmic inventiveness, the inexorable hold of the 7/4 structure is inescapable, creating a looming sense of something troubling lurking close to the surface. It’s the menace of Patrick Bateman, Bret Easton Ellis’ Phil Collins-singing madman who hides his evil behind his well-cut suit and professional business-card. But there’s a sense of hunger, too, the need to escape the constraints of the overriding rhythm and break out into something more stable. Scored for a contemporary ensemble, the music pitches the disparate textures against each other, from the upper range of the saxophones to the brooding regions of double-bass and spiky electric keyboard. There is a coolness about this music, a self-assurance in the way it carries itself that is, however, undermined by its fixated stare. This is music with a wild look in its eyes, as though the bright neon lights have become too much; the junkie club-goer zoned out, trying to get home in the pre-dawn light.
Vigorous, brash and assured; take a trip through Tansy Davies’ dark streets.
(Review originally written for Sounds New).
Composed for recorder ensemble, August literally breathes new life into the ancient soundworld of the recorder consort. Written for eight-part ensemble, the work plays on homophonic quasi-minimalist blocks of repeating patterns, which gradually increase vertically, adding more lines in similar motion before subsiding and beginning anew. The central section revels in arching melodic lines which follow almost euphoric natural contours, supported by some luminous harmonic colours. The final section is extrapolated from an initially simple gesture, gradually developed until a brief coda sees a return of the opening. There's a cheerful nature to the material, which bubbles along with terrific verve.
Hertfordshire-based Wrenn talks on her website about the piece being inspired in part by Torke's July, that relentless, vibrant piece for saxophone quartet which one sax quartet admitted to me that many players feared as there's simply no room to breathe; Wrenn is more sympathetic to the player's needs, in a piece that is less muscular than the Torke but is instead more willowy - where Torke bustles out, Wrenn instead murmurs along in a more conversational manner. It might be less robust, but it's more flexible a piece, one which re-invigorates the sixteenth-century consort sound and brings the past to the surface; for a piece named for a summer month, there's a warm, Advent season feel to the music.
When it comes to spotting potential musical voices of the future, for my money you can't beat BBC Introducing; a few years ago, it introduced me to the lyrical inventiveness of saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes, now enjoying a blossoming career as the current Radio 3 New Generation Artist; the same stage played host to another saxophonist, Rachel Musson, also making occasional waves.
This year, BBC Introducing at the Manchester Jazz Festival introduced the astonishingly melodic and rhythmically inventive jazz of guitarist Moss Freed, in a group with singer and violinist, Alice Zawadzki. The set has now, alas, passed from the realm of iPlayer, having been broadcast on Radio 3, but you can get an idea of what you missed by watching a live performance of 'The Bubble' below.
Deft, effortless melodic writing allied to a fleet-footed rhythmic drive makes this a wonderfully effervescent piece, handled in confident fashion by an ensemble working with an instinctive collective unity. Freed's improvisation is skilful, thoughtful, never prone to hyperbole but concise without losing forward momentum. Zawadzki weaves a silken vocal path, her voice adding a sparkling counterpoint atop the group's almost balletic ducking and diving.
Freed's sensitive ear for warm harmonic colours is in evidence also in 'Freud and Jung Ride the Tunnel of Love' (watch here), whilst the minimalist in me was utterly hooked by the shifting ostinati in the violin at the start of 'Lose Ourselves,' showing that even jazz can be beguiled by process music (listen here).
The violin occupies an uneasy place in jazz for many - or for those who don't like Stephane Grappelli and L Shankar - and this week, the instrument lost one of its great jazz exponents, John Blake Jnr. But Zawadzki shows that here, in Freed's group, it is naturally at home.
Listen to more on Freed's Soundcloud page here; prepare to be enchanted, beguiled and utterly enthralled by some consummate musicianship and highly inventive playing. Keep an ear out for more from them in the future.