Wednesday, November 30, 2005


"Art is not the recovery of the innocent eye, which is inaccessible. 'Make it new' cannot mean, set it free of all learned frames and names, for paradoxically it is only a precise use of learned comparison and the signs we have made to distinguish things seen or recognized that can give the illusion of newness…One cannot think at all without a recognition and realignment of ways of thinking and seeing we have learned over time. We all remake the world as we see it, as we look at it."

— A.S. Byatt, Still Life

Monday, November 28, 2005

Listening to...

...Cathy Berberian sings Monteverdi. On the kitchen stereo, while I was checking the lamps in the Advent lights, that have been stored away in a box in the small house in the backyard since last Christmas. (Click on the header of this post, and you will hear Monteverdi and more from a site dedicated to Berberian).

Found a whole new concept was introduced at SibeliusMusic today. A website for streaming or download of classical music (and some other sorts of serious music). The site looks ugly, but the things offered are a little bit of everything. Maybe not with the artists I prefer always. I only searched what they had of Schumann lieder. Margaret Price, mostly. And a barytone or two. A hasty overview gives the impression of a mix of commercial download/streaming site, and educational resource site. Interesting idea, however.

A while ago I found an interesting variation on the web radio theme - Pandora. It is a commercial site where you can design your own "station" with a theme based on an artist or song you like and wish to use as a reference point for further explorations in popular music. From a database with classifications of thousands of pieces of recorded music (judged by humans!) the "station" will play music that has something in common with the choice you started it with. The idea sounds stupid at first - who wants to hear only the same, and more of the same?, but the result is varied enough, and you can retrain the programming with your reactions (thumb up/down) to the pieces. Chances are you find more music you like, but never knew about before. (Only pop/rock/jazz music.)

[Sunday night:] ...Purcell's Dido & Aeneas. Wonderful witches.

[Monday morning:] ...interesting big band jazz on a personal Pandora station. This far it has played pieces by Carla Bley, Dave Holland, Anthony Braxton, Maria Schneider, Duke Ellington, and Don Ellis.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

BBC Philharmonic & SPNM Concert

On 25 November 2005, the BBC Philharmonic under the direction of James MacMillan gave a concert of four new works by four young composers in the Studio 7 Concert Hall for future broadcast. The concert was given in association with the SPNM (Society for the Promotion of New Music).

James MacMillan introduced each of the composers and gave them a brief opportunity to expand upon their programme notes which helped the modest audience of about 100 to understand the pieces.

“Six Pieces” by Jordan Hunt was written originally as six separate movements based on the same Chaconne. They were then ‘spliced and re-ordered with a certain amount of serendipity’. The thinking behind this was to create one movement assembled from the fragments like a film put together in the editing stage.

The idea is intriguing, however for this listener the individual movements which made up this collage did not appear to have an individual enough character so that one felt that the splicing was being taken from a different camera angle. The piece was well written and the construction was sound, but the sum of the parts lacked sufficient audible individuality, either in orchestral sound or tempi for the original movements to make it work. I did not make a note of how long the piece lasted, but it struck me as overlong. Having been negative, I am sure that the basic idea could be better presented with more contrasting music.

The second piece was “Illumination” by Fung Lam. Here I must state a bias, I already know him and I went to the concert specifically to hear his piece. He also sent me the score, which gave me a head start. Although he is not a religious person (his words), he was trying to convey the sense of achieving enlightenment, an aim which succeeded. The opening reminded me of Ligeti’s “Lux Aeterna” or “Lontano”. This soon takes on a life of its own leaving the unconscious model behind. Glissandi and colouration from the mainly tuned percussion and rhythmic repeated notes built up to a magnificent climax. The music shimmered and a sense of enlightenment arrived in a state of ecstatic serenity as the strings and flutes ascended through their registers.

The intensity and relentlessness of “Illumination” was followed by “Ausland” by Ed Bennett. This too was relentless as it built up with an inevitability achieved in the climax and resolution. In its construction this was an ‘old fashioned’ piece, but the language was intelligible. Stabbing brass interrupted the flow. The piece as it built up put me in mind of Birtwistle’s “The Triumph of Time”. There is very little of detail to recount as the entire piece was one large sweep, organic. The closing was reminiscent of the technique of Davies, another Mancunian composer. All in all, this was probably the most satisfying piece.

Finally, Philip Venables’ “Arc” was performed. A magnificent finish to a well constructed concert. Various solo instruments surface and subside into the orchestral texture, starting with the viola. He used the orchestra effectively, though there were times when the winds could have been more clearly audible. Although Bennett said the starting point for his piece was visual, ‘Riley, Pollock and de Kooning’, “Arc” conjured up images in my imagination of bubbling hot springs or lava. He could be another excellent art composer to transfer his musicianship to writing soundtracks, not unlike Glass in the ‘skatsi’ films.

The orchestra played commendably as one would expect. A few bumpy moments happened, but this is pardonable given the four different new pieces they were called upon to perform, and probably without sufficient rehearsal time to iron out all the wrinkles. Although an orchestra is an ensemble it is fair to single out some for particular mention, the percussion particularly in Fung Lam’s “Illumination”, the solo viola (Steven Burnard) in Philip Venables’ “Arc” and the brass in Ed Bennett’s “Ausland”.

MacMillan directed each work sympathetically, with the kind of understanding and insight that only a composer can bring to the works of others.

The BBC and the SPNM should both be congratulated on such an excellent event. It shows what can happen when a public service broadcaster and a single minded organisation can achieve together.

The memory I have taken with me from the concert was of four young and able composers, each of them writing convincingly in a different way for the orchestra. But the most important feature of the evening was the music was written with full knowledge that the twentieth century had happened. Each composer has moved into his own world, looking for his originality, his understanding, and with composers like these the future for art music is secure.

tim ellis

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Music to drive by

I have a battered old cassette deck in my car. Rather unwisely I have started to listen to my old collection of personal favourites while driving in and out of Norwich and Cromer. Today it was the turn of Prokofiev - his first Violin concerto and Cinderella music. Is there a more exquisitely delicate piece of orchestral scoring than the return of the main theme in the first movement of the concerto? If there is, I don't know it. It could melt the heart of a mass-murderer. What a wonderful, amazing, miraculous thing music is!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

A look at other blogs

Just making some notes of what I am looking at on the web. Will edit and comment this later, ongoing.

NewMusicBox Chatter I looked at the dialogue with arguments pro/con buying and/or downloading music online, or getting it via traditional formats and a real life shop.
Sequenza21 have some (good?) resources from the portal page; other subpages are:
The Sequenza21 forum which is in blog format (worth reading sometimes - today a little discussion of the concept "harmonic rhythm")
A list of music blogs (useful)
The wiki page (project) about new music.

[and in the grey light of the next day's morning, Lady M was drinking her instant coffee, when something interesting appeared on the screen:]
Look! I found a blog written by a friend!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Santa Cecilia

I use to narrate her life to my students, every November the 22th: Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music. Today, I asked to the class: "Do you know? Today it is Saint Cecilia's day". To my astonishment, my students had never heard about her. I decided not to narrate her life to them. Anyway, they always find Saint Cecilia very dumb; she kept her virginity and she could not avoid to be beheaded and it looks like she could't sing or play the organ after all. I must tell my students that she actually sang while she was being beheaded. "And then the executioner did not kill her, at the last minute!". No, I answer, she was killed, what did you expect?. Naturally, she looks even dumber, what a fraud. Sometimes I change the ending: Saint Cecilia is about to be eaten by a lion. And then she starts to sing. The public is in awe, suspenseful. "And then the lion did not eat her!" I answer: but naturally, the lion ate her all the same. "And why is she the patron saint of music? She was dumb!".

Furchte nicht!

[the picture - called "Hope" - is borrowed from Anna. I will return it when everybody has viewed it. Don't copy, please! Look at more paintings and other works at the artist's site. BTW, the Swedish word for "hope" - hopp - is the same as the word for "jump", and you can see the double-meaning played on in the picture!]

Don't be afraid of words. They can be wrong; they can be right. They can be music.

Two-page piano painting

This is what I told my friends when I had published a short new piano piece:

for all of you: if you detect an influence / plagiarism in my piece that I haven't understood about myself, please report! The obvious sources of influence when I write like this are the short piano works I have played or listened to, by Schumann, Brahms, Debussy, Ravel, Kabalevsky, Stravinskij, Fryklof, L-E Larsson, and other German, French, Russian or Swedish composers, mainly from the 1920s. The more subtle and harder to detect and entangle, are influences from fellow Sibelians, since I listen so much to works on the site, but not always remember what I have heard and seen, and where. Piano works by JA Gach, J Gardner, B Hughes, MW Morse, RA Moulds, and many more.

The piece is called Lady M pays a visit to a painter, and the sheet music can be found at SibeliusMusic.


Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Yet another experiment

This is a blog site which will be used for promotion and discussion of new music by a group of composers who met on internet some years ago because they used the same notation software, and became friends for quite other reasons than just that fact.