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The String Quartets of Liz Johnson

We can be so surrounded by a sea of music. Never has so much music been within the grasp of ear and eye. We can so easily miss new stars rising in the firmament of music composition. But for me, unexpectedly, out of the ether (of BBC Radio 3) dropped a 4-minute jewel of a string quartet, and with a title that was hard to forget, Tide Purl by Liz Johnson. It was played by the Fitzwilliam Quartet as a trailer for a concert to launch 2-CD retrospective including all this composer’s work for the string quartet medium.

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

Part of the MS Sketch of Sky Burial for voice and string quartet

I was a thoroughly captive audience at the time, quite seriously ill in hospital, and this tiny piece broke through the miasma of mental lethargy and physical discomfort. I was immediately hooked, and as soon as I could, traced the new CD set on Spotify and began to acquaint myself with what I now think (after several ‘listenings’) is a significant body of English music for string quartet. This essay will discuss Liz Johnson’s four string quartets, in particular a most ambitious and striking work for soprano and quartet.

Looking through the excellent booklet of liner notes of the CD production my eye was immediately taken by the title of Johnson’s Quartet No.4, Sky-Burial. This is the title of a narrative poem by Kathleen Jamie, a poet I have followed as much for her beguiling and beautiful prose as her award-winning collections of poetry. Jamie represents a significant voice in and beyond what has come to be called ‘the new nature writing’. In her books of essays, Findings and Sightlines, she has engaged with the natural world of her native Scotland in a powerful and very individual way.

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Music and Painting

Looking briefly at recent writing on music and composers there seems to be a preoccupation with what a piece of music is about, rather than what a piece of music is.  This isn’t helped by the titles composers give; they lead you in a direction, they are often meant to lead you in a direction, towards a right state for listening. After all, so few of us now begin our experience of new music from studying or playing a score. We come to rely on the programme note, the spoken introduction or interview.

Attempting to write about music and composers begs questions and seeks answers. As a listener it isn’t so much an analysis one is after, more often a way into the mystery that is the experience of something newly heard. There is much music today that because of its surface, organisation of sound, and musical grammar reveals itself immediately to the listener who is musically literate. I read books of a certain type because I possess a history and knowledge of literature, and I enjoy the frisson of something new, something I have not seen before on the page. Looking at a painting is just the same; that joy of a first encounter, that taking in of what one thinks is the whole effect, even essence, but, of course, is not. But we may not feel we understand the words on the page, the image on the wall, even with our past experience of previous reading and looking. Perhaps we seek meaning, and meaning does not always reveal itself immediately, even after repeated attention.

Harmony of the Northern Flora - Paul Klee (1927)

Harmony of the Northern Flora – Paul Klee (1927)

For many years I have struggled to find meaning within the music of Harrison Birtwistle. He is a composer who fascinates, a composer whose prestigious and varied output of scores I find extraordinary and challenging by turn. I have written about his work previously on these pages – on his early composition Refrains and Choruses and its connection with the artist Paul Klee. I have sought to understand something of his music through acquiring scores and recordings, and studied the several available monographs on his music and musical ideas. I listen to his work and I do achieve moments of illumination, entering a world of music that carries a sense of wonder and mystery. That said, much of what he composes still seems to hold me at arm’s length.

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The Recent Music of Michael Hersch

Writing serious critique on music in our time does not always enjoy the same opportunities afforded to those writing on the visual arts. True, there are programme and liner notes that can go someway to match those gallery exhibition catalogues, but they are rarely able to cover the critical and interpretative ground expected by those attending major exhibitions. Look at Sarah Churchwell’s extended and illustrated essay The Reality of American Gothic for a current example, or, topical and valuable to my own current project (see the end of Blog #63), Adrian Searle’s keenly critical newspaper article on David Hockney.

The opening of a movement from 'End Stages'

The opening of a movement from ‘End Stages’

In the USA there has been a slew of journalistic writing about the phenomenon that is Michael Hersch, composer and pianist, just as there has been similar writing in the UK on his exact contemporary, Thomas Adès. The exceptions, with Adès, has been an excellent and yet accessible journal article on his music by Christopher Fox – Tempestous Times: The Recent Music of Thomas Adès. and a book of Conversations with Tom Service. I’m hoping to go into the music of Hersch by standing on the shoulders of two established critics, Andrew Farach-Colton  [The Vanishing Pavilions (Vanguard Classics/Musical Concepts)] and Andrew Druckenbrod [Hersch/Josquin/Rihm/Feldman (Vanguard Classics)], who have contributed fine liner notes to Hersch’s early CD recordings. Both these writers have written effective guides to listening, and listening to demanding and unusual music. What I hope to do is a) examine something of the relationship of Hersch’s music to both the written word and the visual image, so important a trigger or base layer for much of Hersch’s output, and b) start to look at the musical mechanisms that result.

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Do Composers Read?

Perhaps we take for granted that composers read, and spend time with books (as well as scores). People do. It is part of belonging to a culture, though the physical book may appear to be in decline as the on line presence of the word takes precedence (though sales figures for 2016 show digital sales at £554m against print books at a healthy 2.76bn). There is no need to surround ourselves with texts laid out on shelves – so that as the eye quickly scans the tale told of how we view the world. Our choice of reading can become known (to on-line companies such as Amazon who collect our search data) or via our blogs and Facebook pages. Want to know what Brian Eno is reading (and has read)? Very easy.  Just look here.  So much of our nature, knowledge and imagination comes out from what we read; a list or a sight of books that belong to us, can say so much. Biographies are often measured in books read, books absorbed, books returned to, books loved and remembered.

The poet Kathleen Raine, upon launching her research into the visionary art of William Blake, set out to read all that Blake read – and what an astonishing list that seems to have been! As I began studying the life and work of Beethoven, with particular reference to the reverence Beethoven has engendered from the Chinese, I sought to discover what that composer might have known, and that means might have read, about that very distant mystery that was China in the early years of the 19C (Further background on my reasons for doing this can be found here). And to do this I was to find that Beethoven’s library was currently being reconstructed. Here is a statement of intent from the Beethoven-Haus in Bonn:

Biographical and composition-related studies have always raised questions concerning Beethoven’s mind and the mindset of his environment. What influences was he exposed to? How did he educate himself? What principles and rules of thumb did he follow? In order to study Beethoven’s intellectual interests, all books and sheet music the composer read, studied, copied, extracted, put to music, owned, borrowed and lent, gave away or planned to buy need to be identified. The result would be a long list. However, even Beethoven’s core belongings, his own book and music sheet collection, are only known in parts. In a joint effort, his library is now to be reconstructed. Librarians and scholars contribute their knowledge and antiquarians and private collectors sell their books granting special conditions. Friends of the Beethoven-Haus can contribute, too, by adopting books.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 11.31.15Looking through the already assembled list of publications we see a composer who read widely, not just the latest treatise on music, but on the sciences, the natural sciences, travel and explorations, theology, poetry and the newly emerging medium of fiction. He even owned some cookery books! Does this matter? Did his engagement with books affect what Beethoven thought and wrote? Of course, but only a close attention to his letters, diaries and sketchbooks can begin to tell us how. As soon as one begins to look at, for example, the collections of poetry he possessed, a world opens up that we might not have imagined.

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Helen Grime: Picture to Music

For the composer there is nothing quite like the hush of an art gallery. To walk, or should we say promenade,  from one painting to another, letting the curiosity and imagination wander at will.  The art of music has long appropriated visual art as a source, a starting point, a rationale for musical creation. Before the age of mechanical reproduction, and galleries had passed from private ownership to public accessibility, the composer witnessed painting and sculpture as a part of a building, as a worthy decoration possibly to enhance prestige, personal reflection or as a record of an historical event. In the 19C, as the painter and the composer gradually became divorced from exclusive patronage and became their own masters, there began a crossover of subjects that often stemmed from poetic or pictorial origins. Painters sought to reference human emotions through a kind of dissolution of their subject matter, and that led to early forms of abstraction. In the late piano works of Liszt for example, the pictorial image as reference began to appear, and music started to blur at the edges in rhythm and tonality. And by the time of Debussy’s experiments in the Trois Nocturnes we can hear how Whistler’s paintings, his Nocturnes of scenes of River Thames, provided the composer with that blurring, that dissolution of strict form and perspective, where colour became imprecise and unstable as part of a field of subtlety mixed and overlapping tones.

Nocturne in Blue & Silver

Nocturne in Blue & Silver by Whistler

For the composer Helen Grime the artistic image and the poetic utterance keep close company both as titles, foregrounds and backgrounds within an impressive portfolio of music for someone who in her late thirties  has already received commissions from most UK orchestras.

Whilst orchestral music is often associated directly with painting, think of Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, the Frescos of Piero della Francesca by Martinu and Mark Anthony Turnage’s Three Screaming Popes, associations with chamber music are less common, but for this writer more intriguing. There is possibly less to get in the way of the message, whatever that happens to be.

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The Recent Music of Edmund Finnis

Captivating and intriguing by turn, was how I first described listening to the music of Edmund Finnis. Nearly two years later I’m returning to write a little more about his music having recently heard his latest orchestral work, Air, Turning played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volcov.

When I first heard Finnis speak on BBC Radio 3’s Here and Now he was discussing Seeing is Flux, a work commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. His starting point had been seeing the exquisite draftwomanship of Nasreen Mohamedi. I visited her exhibition at Tate Liverpool and came away feeling I’d stepped into a private world away from all current preoccupations, something out of time (and later wrote Three Canonic Quartets  for 4 violins). So it was good to be led again by Edmund Finnis to a poet this time, Robin Robertson, whose poem Finding the Keys provided a background to his new orchestral piece Air, Turning.

An antiphonal moment in Air, Turning

An antiphonal moment in Air, Turning

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The Crimson Bird – Nicola LeFanu & John Fuller

The New Year has brought with it a situation that most composers are probably familiar with: when what is going on in the real world begins to interfere with the imagination. This was certainly the case following the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States. It was not so much the event itself, but the inauguration address. The text, no doubt written by close advisers, appeared to vilify the institutions and legacy of the previous administration, and in language with a vehement tone of delivery that was harsh, even offensive to some of those listening. To others it may have represented a robust declaration and promise to change the status quo and ‘give power back to the people’. It was a far cry from the inauguration address of his predecessor who, before taking the oath of office, had commissioned a short piece, Air and Simple Gifts, from movie composer John Williams for performance by Itzhak Perlman, Yo-yo Ma, Anthony McGill and Gabriela Montera.

I found and played the YouTube video of Air and Simple Gifts in which its star performers mimed the performance on the steps of the Capitol because of the extreme cold of that January day in 2009. Nevertheless, it seemed entirely fitting, entirely right, to hear such music, and from such performers.

In the days following the inauguration Radio 3’s excellent Music Matters had broadcast a short feature on the place of music in presidential inaugurations sandwiched between an interview with John Adams and a panel discussion on Brexit . Adams deftly skated around any political opinions he might own but had underlined how marginalised he felt contemporary music had become in concert programmes and with public engagement. Sad though that Radio 3 declined to even mention the music commissioned for the 58th   presidential inauguration by John Wykoff to words by Michael Dennis Browne. This 5 minute choral work Now We Belong was sung by the Missouri State University Chorale. New Music Box invited Wykoff to write about his commission and can be read here, where you can also hear his composition.

The chemistry of those events in the latter part of January became an unwelcome preoccupation, a distraction even. I had a large-scale commission (The Arrival of Spring) that could not be further away from the social and political concerns in the daily / hourly news. But these distractions got the better of my attention and resulted in an altogether previously unplanned new work, Vehemence, written for the same ensemble forces that the 44th President had commissioned in 2009.

Nicola LeFanu

Nicola LeFanu

In seeking to write about the intersection of world events and music, and not wanting to wholly focus on my own work, I had the opportunity to listen to a new work by a composer who has featured on these pages previously. Nicola LeFanu is an English composer, now in her 70th year. I have come to know her music more vividly since writing about a fine work for strings, Catena.  I notice I have described this work previously as an ‘adventure in listening’.  Recipient of a recent RPS bursary from the estate of Edward Elgar she has now composed a large-scale concertante work for soprano and orchestra titled The Crimson Bird.

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The World of Eric Wubbels

I’ve come to this composer through the recommendation of a performer I admire. His name appeared on a concert programme, and being curious I looked him up. His website was a delight, and introduced me not only to a body of work and performances, but to a new community of composers and performers I feel ashamed not to have come across previously. His community is The Wet Ink Ensemble based in New York. It was established some sixteen years ago and now has a repertoire and recorded presence that is impressive. Even more impressive is the quality of their music.

Eric Wubbels - The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire

Eric Wubbels – The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire

All this aside I was attracted instantly to what I could see and hear of a composer’s work that showed a precise and highly inventive handling of timbre and pitch combined with a vigorous rhythmic energy. Listening to the video excerpt of a large-scale piece for violin and piano there was a joyful celebration of a very contemporary play of sounds that caught my attention from the outset. And I wanted to hear it again – immediately. The Children of Fire Come Looking for Fire is a twenty-five minute duo that is a remarkable essay in the duet medium where both instruments are intimately joined together to make a vivid display of sounds and fused timbres without bypassing the musical interest (The only other work I have heard that comes close in sheer sonic invention is by Roberto Gerhard, his Gemini for violin and piano).

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Michael Finnissy @ HCMF 2016

Michael Finnissy has been on my personal radar since 1969 when I heard a short piano piece at a London concert. It was unlike anything I had heard before. Part of the memory included the fact the pianist restarted his performance, so I got to hear part of the work twice. It included a torrent of extraordinary chords in the very highest regions of the piano. That was the abiding memory – a glittering shower of sound played with a velocity and purpose. And, looking at the excellent monograph Uncommon Ground: the music of Michael Finnissy (sadly almost unobtainable – have you got £290 to spend on a used copy?), it seems the work I heard was likely to have been Autumnall. So I was pleased to be able to attend a Symposium to celebrate his 70th birthday year as part of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I was also to hear two concerts featuring his music throughout the festival.

Part of Piano Concerto No.4 by Michael Finnissy

Part of Piano Concerto No.4 by Michael Finnissy

Finnissy’s catalogue, up to the publication of Uncommon Ground in 1997, lists some two hundred and twenty works. So I expect by 2016 there’s three hundred at least. True, some pieces are tiny, minute long works for piano, but others extend to lasting an hour or more. The two pieces I heard at HCMF were of this duration.

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The Difficulty with Complexity

I grew up as a composer in a time of radical change in the way music notation looked on the page. In the 1960s the ‘new notation’ of graphic symbols and rhythmic complexity began to become apparent in published musical scores. I vividly remember my first sight of the early scores of Penderecki, his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and later his St Luke Passion. After seeing Kubrik’s 2001, A Space Odyssey I used to peruse the scores of Gyorgy Ligeti in his publishers Schotts in London and gradually acquired the scores of a number of works – his Ramifications for two ensembles of strings, one tuned with a quarter difference, and Nouvelles Aventures for voices and instruments. Aspects of improvisation were encouraged in some notations where the metrical grid was removed in favour of time/space techniques.

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