Christian Morris talks to John Palmer, a composer of both acoustic and electroacoustic music whose wide influences include Jungian psychology, Buddhism and mythology.
Tell us something about your background.
I have always loved music and any form of sound and sound making. My father had a music shop and a recording studio in our home. As a little boy I would try to play any instrument I would come across. I grew up listening to a lot of pop music and jazz – we are talking about the sixties – and I started to study the classical piano at the age of six.
How did you start composing?
First of all by playing back and trying to imitate the songs I heard on radio. In those days I had a little organ and a piano. When I started taking piano lessons I would spend most of the time improvising in the style of Chopin, for example. Nothing spectacular, really, but I always wanted to get a first-hand experience at the music I was taught in the lessons, you know the usual classical repertoire. When at the age of 13 I got my first guitar I started writing my own songs. That was 1973. Meanwhile I kept improvising at the piano. I had my first band at around that time. Initially mainstream pop, later on progressive rock. Experimental and free-jazz followed in the early and mid-eighties. In 1980 I started again to study the classical piano from scratch and in the mid-eighties I was admitted to the Lucerne Conservatoire where I also started writing my early piano and chamber music.
What was your first success as a composer?
In order to answer this question I have to tell you something about my life: I have never been in the centre of a big musical scene and I have always been working in silence following my own path as both an individual and a musician. I have lived rather isolated for many years and have struggled to make a living in many different places in Europe. I didn’t have the support of my parents and have lived more or less ‘on the road’ from the age of 18 to 20. For many years I have tussled with having to make a living with any job I could find and getting myself a serious music education at the same time. Nothing has been easy in my life and my profile is certainly not typical for a composer. Perhaps this is the reason why I measure success in terms of individual growth rather than public recognition. I am not saying I disregard acknowledgment, but I tend to feel successful, for example, every time when the aural experience of the performance has matched the imagination of my inner ear. A similar sense of ‘success’ occurs when I can clearly ‘hear’ the codes of my musical idiom in the performance of a piece of mine. These are moments when I feel very happy with myself. One of these moments was certainly the performance of ‘koan’, for shakuhachi and ensemble, by Teruhisa Fukuda and the Tokyo Comet Ensemble at the World Music Days in Yokohama in 2001.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
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Penderecki Works: Polymorphia, Analasis, Fluorescenes, Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, Intermezzo, Kosmogonia (Antoni Wit) Naxos NAC-LP002-03
Written in 1959/60, Anaklasis, for 42 string instruments and percussion was the work that established Penderecki’s radical credentials with its extensive use of sounds that emphasise sonorous effect as opposed to pitch-based harmonic and melodic argument. It was swiftly followed by 8’37’’, for 52 string instruments, renamed Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima after the composer heard it in performance. It remains one of his best-known pieces, its radical and energetically deployed effects – clusters, microtonal tuning, playing behind the bridge, slapping the instrument body – providing a visceral and disturbing listening experience that lives up to its revised title.
Polymorphia, for 48 string instruments, written in 1961, is less brazen than Threnody. The gradually expanding clustered opening is brilliantly paced and opens out into an extravagant section full of percussive extended string writing. The work culminates in a return to dense clusters that end in a C major triad, the composer claiming that this was a natural result of musical processes at work. In other contexts, such as the final chord of the St. Luke Passion (1966) or in Kosmogonia (see below) the effect works triumphantly well. Here, however, it is rather less convincing: the chord feeling more like a petulant challenge to musical tradition rather than a natural consequence of what precedes it. It rather spoils an otherwise fine work.
Fluorescences, written from 1961-2 is a more ambitious piece that includes brass, wind and a large range of percussion instruments, including güiros, gongs and a typewriter. The score was considered a departure, with Penderecki declaring that ‘All I’m interested in doing is liberating sound beyond all tradition.’ The range of felicitous sonorities easily maintains interest, even if the more subtle structure is harder to follow. The much later Intermezzo (1973), by contrast, and despite being considered to be part of this radical period, is much easier to grasp; whilst still making use of many extended techniques there is a much greater sense of melodic development and even of pitch-centeredness.
The only vocal work on offer is Kosmogonia (1970), written to mark the 25th anniversary of the United Nations. By this time the composer was well versed in deploying his radical effects, many of which will be familiar from the earlier works here presented. The piece feels more epic than its rather slender 18 minutes would suggest, the varied sonorities being moulded into a convincing and satisfying whole.
This two-disc set, convincingly performed by Antoni Wit and his Warsaw forces, provides an excellent introduction to Penderecki’s sonoristic style of the sixties and early seventies. It is also, perhaps, marks a good moment for us to reflect upon Naxos’s unrivalled work in support of contemporary music. Their Penderecki catalogue now contains his eight symphonies, his most important choral works such as the Polish Requiem and St. Luke Passion, various concertos and chamber music and the opera Die Teufe con Loudon. It is a commitment that Naxos extends to many other living composers, both well and less well known. For sheer breadth and depth, Naxos is the one record label contemporary music could not be without.
The rest of the month’s releases
As if to reinforce the point, there are a number of other interesting releases on Naxos this month: Shin-ichi Fukada plays the complete guitar music of Toru Takemitsu in the first of an on-going series of Japanese guitar music; there is a disc of viola music and another of various chamber works by Frank Ezra Lévy; two Flute Concertos by Christos Hatzis; Cage Works for 2 Keyboards played by Xenia Pestova and Pascal Meyer; Desbrière’s Piano Concerto, Cinq Pieces Etranges and Huit Préludes Intérieurs; and Richard Danielpour’s Toward a Season of Peace oratorio.
There are two upcoming releases on NMC to look forward to: Violin Concerto, Concerto for Orchestra and Orion Over Farne by John Casken (released 20th April) and Gawain by Harrison Birtwistle (18th May). You can listen to extracts from these recordings now by following my links. On Nonesuch, John Adams’ City Noir and the debut recording of his Saxophone Concerto is now available for preorder; whilst composer Jacob Cooper’s debut Silver Threads, consisting of a six-song cycle performed by Mellissa Hughes, will be released on April 29th.
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It’s been a busy couple of weeks: leaving one of my jobs, moving house and preparing to leave the country. I shall be spending a month in the lovely city of Basel, continuing my research into French Composer Henri Dutilleux at the Paul Sacher Foundation. I hope my blog posts next month might reflect some of this local colour.
My trip to the city coincides with Basel Symphony Orchestra’s More than Minimal concert series. Works on offer include: Michael Nyman’s Prospero’s Books, Trombone Concerto and The Draughtman’s Contract; Philip Glass’s Cello Concerto, Naqoyqatsi, Plutonian Ode and Mishima; Arvo Pärt’s These Words and The Banishment; and John Adams Harmonielehre. For those not in Basel, the orchestra will be touring these works around the UK at the end of the month, with concerts in London, Basingstoke, Cambridge and Cardiff.
Also in Switzerland, the Lucerne Festival at Easter takes place from 5th – 13th April. There’s not, sadly, much contemporary music on offer, though one concert does stand out: the world première of Riccardo Panfili’s The Last Land which will be performed by the Human Rights Orchestra Ensemble together with students from the festival on 12th. Also on this day there will be the opportunity to hear works by Bartók and Ligeti.
Oliver Knussen and BCMG are spending some time in the States this month, where they will perform in the Library of Congress, Washington on April 8th and 11th. Their programme includes Knussen’s Ophelia Dances, Ophelia’s Last Dance and Cantata; Niccolò Castiglioni’s Tropi; Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs; Elliott Carter’s Epigrams; and Marc Neikrug’s Piano Trio. There are also two new multimedia works in the US: Life, Love and Death on 11th April and Bora Yoon’s Sunken Cathedral 23rd.
In the UK, there is a John Woolrich 60th birthday celebration with the London Sinfonietta on April 6th, with the chance to hear his In the Mirrors of Asleep; Evnvoi and Farewell; Watermark; A Dramolet at St John’s Smith Square. ENO also mount a major new production of Thomas Adès’s precocious Powder Her Face, an opera that ‘charts the glamorous rise and seedy fall of the notorious socialite beauty, Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.’ Performances run from 2nd – 19th April. New works, finally, to look forward to in April include John Casken’s Oboe Concerto at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester on 10th; a concert of new saxophone and piano works in Cambridge on 6th; and the first performance of Codebreaker, James McCarthy’s exploration of the life of Alan Turing, performed at the Barbican on April 26th.
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NMC, the label that has done more than most to nurture new music in the UK, is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a plethora of new releases and projects.
Building upon the success of their 20x12 programme that ran alongside the Olympic Games, the New Music Biennial Project in collaboration with PRS is an international celebration of new music as part of Glasgow 2014, the cultural programme of the XX Commonwealth Games. The twenty commissioned composers will have their works played in various parts of the UK during the course of 2014.
The Higher Education Programme run by Sound and Music features 12 young composers currently studying in UK universities and conservatoires. Those selected are working with the London Sinfonietta, Sound Intermedia and leading soloists to develop 10-minute pieces that will be performed at a showcase as part of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival 2014.
NMC will release recordings from both of these projects during 2014.
The label also plans to support emerging composers through five more releases in their Debut Discs series, those selected being Larry Goves, Ben Foskett, Helen Grime, Charlotte Bray and Richard Causton. More established figures, too, will be represented with major releases of operas by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Gerald Barry and Judith Weir.
NMC have a page dedicated to their birthday celebration where more announcements will be made in coming weeks. This is a good time to reflect upon the vital work that this label does for composers in the UK. Why not visit the page and leave them a birthday message?
New Music Collections is a new mid-price series on NMC that explores its back catalogue of piano, electronic, orchestral and choral music. There are a wide range of composers represented, both well-known and less-so, so this would be a good starting point for anyone interested in a particular genre to discover new works. Also soon to be released is a disc featuring Mark Anthony Turnage’s UNDANCE, Crying Out Loud and No Let Up. Extracts are available to dip into now, with the music scheduled for release on 31st March.
New on Naxos, Bright Sheng’s The Song and Dance of Tears combines Chinese and Western sonorities in an evocation of the impressions made on him by the music of that region. Also on the disc, Colors of Crimson expands the timbre of the solo marimba through a spectrum of orchestral effects, whilst the The Blazing Mirage was inspired by the artistic treasures of the Dunhuang Caves. Works are performed by the Hong Kong Philharmonic, conducted by the composer.
From nearby Japan, meanwhile, Toshio Hosakawa, like many of his countrymen before him, takes the connection between man and nature as his theme in an album that features his Horn Concerto Moment of Blossoming and Piano Concerto Lotus Under the Moonlight. His Chant, on the other hand, is inspired by the ceremonial music of Japanese Buddism. Works are performed by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Jun Märkl.
Naxos have also added a new album to their collection of music by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies: The Boyfriend, based on a 1954 musical by Sandy Wilson, introduces a large dance band and period motifs, while dramatic extremes depicting the film’s themes of corruption, exorcism and execution within a medieval religious setting are explored in The Devils Suite. Seven in Nomine evokes Maxwell Davies’ interest in medieval plainsong. The composer himself plays two of his most popular piano pieces, Yesnaby Ground and Farewell to Stromness, with their evocations of Orkney landmarks.
There are two new CD collections to consider. Taverner’s untimely death is marked with a 5-CD box set that includes his The Protecting Veil, In Alium, Ex Maria Virgine, Lament for Jerusalem and a number of shorter works, including, of course, The Lamb and Song for Athene. Meanwhile there is a 3-CD set of music by Henryk Górecki that headlines with his Symphony No. 3 Sorrowful Songs, Symphony No.2 and Concerto-Cantata, conducted by Antoni Wit.
Malcolm Williamson, an Australian who relocated to the UK, was a composer whose prominence was marked in 1975 with the award of Master of the Queen’s Music. Sadly, however, his music is now largely forgotten. Hyperion have just released a double-disc set of his four Piano Concertos and Sinfonia Concertante in an attempt to reanimate interest in him. Piers Lane plays the piano accompanied by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra conducted by Howard Shelly.
Keyboard music of a difference sort, Divine Art Records has released Litany, a collection of organ music by Carson Cooman, one of America’s most prolific and feted composers. The album presents a programme of recent works of a lyrical, Romantic and pastoral nature. Erik Simmons performs on the Marcussen organ of Laurenskerk, Rotterdam.
DG, finally, have released a recording of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary. A Passion Oratorio that roughly parallels those of Bach, the work is widely regarded as a masterpiece. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and Master Chorale are conducted by Gustavo Dudamel.
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The London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music, run by composers Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari, is now in its second year. Over four days, from 27th–30th March, there will be nine concerts that include a wide spectrum of contemporary music from twenty countries: fifty-one works, three festival commissions, eight world and several UK premieres. Well known composers include Xenakis, Kagel, Harvey, Holliger, Jarrell, Hosokawa, Oehring and Finnissy, but the festival also offers an opportunity to hear numerous works by less familiar names, some of them younger or emerging composers, others well known in their home countries but less so in the UK. Tickets are priced from £40 for a full festival pass to £5 for some individual events.
On 14th March Total Immersion takes on the music of Villa-Lobos. There are two cinema features, one of which has already sold out, and three concerts. Of the latter, there is a chamber music recital given by students at the Guildhall School of Music that includes his playful work for flute and cello Assobio a Jato (‘The Jet Whistle’) ; a choral concert with the BBC Singers that includes some of the works inspired by Brazilian folk traditions, Latin sacred music composed for the Catholic liturgy and other devotional texts; and a final concert with the BBCSO and Chorus with its Parisian storm-inducing Chôros 10 as its centerpiece.
For those looking for something rather more recently written, on 1st March there are UK premières of Andy Scott’s Jumbo and Jeffery Wilson’s Three Haiku; on 9th March Steve Mackey’s One Red Rose at Wigmore Hall; Hoard Shore’s Cello Concerto Mythic Gardens at the Watford Colosseum on 11th; a series of works by Pelle Gudmundsun-Holmgreen played by the London Sinfonietta on 12th; works by Steen-Anderson, Christensen, Glerup and Worssae also on 12th; a new dramatic work, Anon, by Errollyn Wallen being toured from 14th March by WNO; and Fabian Panisello’s Cuadernos para Orchestra at BBC Maida Vale on 21st. Also worth attending is the Composition: Wales day at BBC Hoddinot Hall, Cardiff, which explores the works of emerging composers born or working in the principality.
In France Hector Parra’s new stage work Te Craindre en Ton Absence written in collaboration with Marie NDiaye receives its world première at the Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, Paris on 4th March with subsequent performances on 5th, 7th and 8th. There are several world premières at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam: an, as yet, unnamed work by Kris Defoort on 13th; a new St. Luke Passion by James Macmillan on 15th.; and works by Willem Jeths and Sander Germanus on 24th. In the United States, finally, the world première of Peri Mauer’s At Home With Allen Ginsberg, Five Songs for Baritone and Piano takes place in NYC on 6th March; and string quartet ETHEL plays a series of new and recently written works by Vijay Iyer, Marcelo Zarvos, Nico Muhly and Son Lux at Trinity Wall Street on 13th.
For a day-by-day roundup of all March events, check out the CT Concert Diary.
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Electrifying Oboe on Métier is a disc of experimental works for oboe (and sister instruments) by Roger Redgate, David Gorton, Christopher Fox, Edwin Roxburgh, Michael Young and Matthew Wright. Collaboration is very much the order of the day in all of these pieces bar one, with many options being left open to the performer and even to the accompanying group of turntable, laptop and electronics. The works are likely to be a shock to anyone with preconceived ideas about the instrument – just about every kind of extended technique is explored, the wacky accompaniments adding to the novelty. The result, however, is highly engaging, though not, perhaps, quite as ‘new’ sounding as billed; the sound world is often reminiscent of Stockhausen or Ligeti’s electronic music of the late 50s.
Métier has an on going mission to record the works of English composer Michael Finnissy. Their latest disc is a rather novel addition to this project. Before revisions to ‘Peer Gynt’ that he made for performances in 1892, Grieg sketched 250 bars of a Piano Quintet. He never completed it. In 2007 Finnissy decided to elaborate the unfinished sketch into a one movement Kammersymphonie, sticking entirely within Grieg’s stylistic parameters. To what extent Finnissy has mimicked the Norwegian master is for others more expert than me to say. In a sense, however, this isn’t the point: the result is music of ravishing beauty and, like Anthony Payne’s completion of Elgar’s Symphony No. 3 or Deryck Cooke’s of Symphony No. 10 by Mahler, it stands on its own. Of greater interest, perhaps, to Finnissy aficionados will be the second work on the disk, in which he decided again to take the Quintet as his starting point, this time elaborating it in a much freer manner. The result is a fascinating and highly rewarding meeting of minds, the Grieg gradually and gracefully giving way to Finnissy’s contemporary idiom.
The rest of this month’s releases
Signum classics marks the untimely death of John Taverner with a two disc recording of the concert version of The Veil of the Temple performed by James Vivian, Patricia Rozario, The English Chamber Orchestra, The Holst Singers and The Temple Church Choir. Richard Causton’s meditation on the turn of the last century Millennium Scenes performed by BCMG and the Hallé receives its first recording on NMC. There are a clutch of new albums on Naxos: Van der Roost’s Sinfonia Hungaria and From Ancient Times; Maxwell Davies’s Strathclyde Concertos Nos. 9 and 10; Lyell Cresswell’s Landscapes of the Soul, Piano Concerto and Concerto for Orchestra and String Quartet; David Rupert Coleman’s Starry Night and other works; and Peter Boyer’s Symphony No.1, Silver Fanfare, Festivities, Three Olympians and Celebration Overture. There is also a new recording of Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel in the version for piano and violin. On Dutton Vocalion, finally, is a disc of music by Alan Bush that contains his Second Symphony and world première recordings of his Africa Piano Concerto and Fantasia on Soviet Themes; and, also world première recordings, David Mathhews’ Symphony No. 7 and Vespers.
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Christian Morris talks to Alasdair Nicolson, composer, Artistic Director of the St. Magnus International Festival and Director of its Composers' Course.
Tell us a little about the origins of the St. Magnus Festival.
St Magnus International Festival started 37 years ago and was initiated by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and a group of local enthusiasts, amongst them the local writer George Mackay Brown, around the time that Max decided to set up home in Orkney. For such a small place in a remote part of the UK the list of international performers, orchestras and ensembles that have ventured North is quite extraordinary and this has made the reputation of the Festival across the world quite enviable. Equally because it was started by a composer, and once again with me is in the hands of a composer, new music plays a huge part in the programming. Over the years the RPO, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Britten Sinfonia, BBC Scottish Orchestra and Trondheim Soloists have visited with solo artists ranging from Isaac Stern to Christine Brewer, Valdimir Ashkenazy to Nicola Benedetti.
Tell us a little about your role as Artistic Director.
Being Artistic Director of St Magnus International Festival is a busy job and is quite wide-ranging. We have a very small professional staff which runs the Festival and so my job is not only to choose artists and repertoire and to invent projects but also has quite a lot to do with the overall running of the organisation. The programme also includes poets, painters, theatre, folk music and cabaret so I also have to be able to think and know about a world beyond concert music and opera. Being a group of islands and with no "state-of-the-art" concert venues, I also have to spend time thinking about appropriate ideas for the spaces we have available, for example a production of Carmen in the cattle market or a wartime concert party in an old barracks. Of course there is a wonderful medieval cathedral in the heart of Kirkwall which has a magnificent atmosphere and is a great acoustic but most of our other venues are created for the Festival from churches, sports centres etc. As a composer myself I'm very keen that there is a constant representation of new work and making sure that in most concerts there is something being played by a composer who is still alive. This is not always possible of course, but we try. In recent festivals we have counted up to 36 world premieres through the Festival programme never mind the music which is just from the last hundred years. I also really like to treat the Festival as an entry point for younger performers and composers and having several courses surrounding the main work of the Festival has allowed me to find interesting young musicians and bring them back to Orkney. I'm also Director of the St Magnus Composers' Course and oversee the Conductors', Writers' and Singers' courses so I have a keen sense that training opportunities are key. The access a Festival provides to lots of visiting orchestras, performers and ensembles is unlike any other summer school or course.
>> Click here to read the rest of the interview
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Peter Maxwell Davies described in a recent BBC interview how close he came to being struck with ‘the curse of the ninth’, having being diagnosed with leukemia that, without treatment, would have left him with just weeks to live, almost certainly preventing him completing his Tenth Symphony. As a result, and with extraordinary physical courage, the piece was largely written in hospital whilst undergoing chemotherapy. Now thankfully recovered, he can look forward to the London Symphony orchestra’s world première of the symphony this Sunday at the Barbican. There is also the chance earlier in the day to hear the orchestra rehearsing the work under the baton of Antonio Pappano, with a discussion with the composer at 2.30.
Also at the Barbican on 15th of February is a BBCSO Total Immersion Day exploring the music of Scottish composer Thea Musgrave. There are two talks, one at the beginning of the day, the other introducing the evening concert; two concerts given by the BBCSO that will include Chamber Concerto No. 2, Pierrot, From Spring to Spring, Impromtu No. 1, Cantilena, The Seasons, Horn Concerto, songs for a Winters Evening and Turbulent Landscapes; and a performance of choral works Rorate Coeli, On the Underground and Ithaca with the BBC Singers.
The Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival runs from 7th–10th February at Plymouth University around the theme Thinking Music. Highlights include a new electronic work by Duncan Williams on 7th and 8th; the Ten Tors Orchestra playing works by Eduardo R Miranda, Linas Baltas, David Bessell and Ignacio Brasa on 8th; a light installation collaboration between David Strang and Sean Williams on 9th; and, also on 9th, a concert that explores the works of Anestis Logothetis, who was one of the first artists to work simultaneously in the auditory and visual dimensions. There are also panel discussions, a book launch, and a concert promoting John Matthias’ new album Geisterfahrer.
In the Salle Pleyel, Paris on 14th February Wolfgang Rihm’s Nähe Fern II and II and Philllipe Manoury’s Zones de Turbulences receive their French premières in a concert that includes Bernd Alois Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten. Also worth looking out for at that venue this month are performances of symphonies by Shostakovich given by Valery Gergiev and Orchestre du Théâtre Mariinsky on 16th, 17th and 18th. The Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, features a number of contemporary music events this month. There are premières of works by Willem Boogman, Reinbert de Leeuw and Magnus Lindberg; a performance of Simeon ten Holt’s Canto Ostinato; and a concert of works by Glass, Adams and Stravinsky entitled Minimalism at its Best. In Athens, Greece, finally, the Update Contemporary Music Festival runs from 14th–21st February and includes music by Pascal Dusapin, Luigi Nono, Nikolas Tzortzis, Raphaël Cendo, Yannis Kyriakides and Georges Aperghis.
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Many composers are inspired by their roots, some so much so it would be hard to imagine how their music would sound if they had been born elsewhere. South African Robert Fokkens is one such composer. His new disc of chamber music on Métier is everywhere infused with the spirit of his home country – its division and diversity, its language, its native music, even its wildlife. These aspects are manifested in a variety of ways: in elements of structure, melodic and tonal procedures and programmatic components. Fokkens is also, however, keenly aware of his antecedents in the Western classical tradition, and these play their part here too.
One of the most seminal influences on his style is that of South African Xhosa bow music. A number of the works on the disc, for example, make use of a type of rhythmic-melodic cycling common to this type of indigenous music. Sometimes this is presented with great restraint and economy, as in Ingwe from Mammals of Southern Africa. Sometimes these small ideas are made to bounce off each other whilst being worked up with joyful skill, as in the exuberant movement Mob of Meerkats from the same work. Microtones also appear, for example in the opening movement of Tracing Lines (which also contains a similar kind of rhythmic-melodic cycling), mainly for expressive inflection. There is also the extensive use of string harmonics, which Fokkens partly traces to the use Xhosa bow music makes of partials to create melody. The result is a musical surface full of capricious interest. Even when lines are comparatively simple, as in the agonised second moving of Tracing Lines, for example, there is often a harmonic aura that renders the simplest ideas otherworldly and strange. There is never a hint of banality.
It would, of course, be possible to attribute at least some of these stylistics traits to other acknowledged Western classical influences: cycling rhythmic cells, for example, might just as easily derive from Stravinsky or minimalism. Fokkens feels these types of dichotomies keenly, the question of identity being an important theme to him. What, for example, does it mean to be a white, classically trained composer, in predominantly black South Africa? What does it mean to be a South African working, as he is now, in Europe? This sense of schism works itself directly into the music. Irreconcilable Truths, for example, pits sections of violent stabbing chords, sul ponts and high-octane anguish against a simple ticking passage that again recalls Xhosa bow music. The two forces compete until the latter is expanded into a long and lovely coda. This musical duality, common in many of the works in the programme, never feels forced. It also has the side benefit of providing the listener with strong structural markers whilst never tiring the ear with too much of one thing or the other.
Also helpful is the economy with which Fokkens builds his structures. Inyoko Etshanini (‘Snake in the Grass’) pits high string harmonics against a bass flute, the two engaging in a simple but eerie dialogue. The interaction is subtle, gradual and very satisfying. Fokkens also extracts considerable traction out of seemingly unpromising musical ideas. Nine Solitudes, a set of studies for solo piano, for example, is built into a substantial and exciting whole out of a series of simple two-note chords.
Fokkens’ sense of his roots is most on display in the final piece in the programme, a moving setting for soprano and piano of David Diop’s poem Africa. As a South African abroad, Fokkens’ attraction to such a work should come as no surprise – the poem’s deep affinity for the continent is overlaid with a sense of isolation from it, though, if anything, the feeling of separation makes the connection even more potent. Beginning in incantatory fashion the music builds powerfully as the words describe the torment of a continent with ‘beautiful black blood spilt in the fields’. The ending is poignant; the last line, ‘The bitter taste of freedom’, an acknowledgement that emancipation brings its own difficulties and challenges. It is set separately and with great poise, a fittingly questioning end to a highly rewarding programme of music.
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It was with great sadness that I learnt of Claudio Abbado’s death on Monday. He is perhaps best known for being appointed as chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic following Herbert von Karajan’s retirement and then sudden death in 1989. Abbado was, however, a much more passionate advocate of contemporary music than his notorious predecessor, whose occasional forays felt like tokenism when set alongside his vast discography of core works. Before expanding the Berlin Philharmonic repertoire, Abbado had also set up Wien Modern specifically to present key works of the twentieth century. Under his direction it has become one of the great European music festivals. It might also be speculated that the more open-minded approach of Abbado prepared the Berliners for the even more radical Simon Rattle.
From his recorded legacy I pick two treasured albums, neither, incidentally, with the Berlin Philharmonic: his emotionally charged recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 7 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; and Kammersymphonie Nr. 1 by Schoenberg, Autoritratto nella note by Sciarrino, and 6 Bagatellen and Dopplekonzert by Ligeti with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The transitional musical vocabulary in the Schoenberg is, in particular, brilliantly shaped.
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