Tag Archives: contemporary music

Music of our time: premiere recording of lost Philip Glass manuscript challenges the current crisis

If, like me, the music of Philip Glass was a brash, strident and hypnotic part of your growing up, listening to the forthcoming premiere recording of the reconstructed Music In Eight Parts throws open the door to your childhood, and immediately ushers in the familiar stark architecture of Glass’ soundworld that Music in Changing Parts, Music in Twelve Parts, the exuberant 1,000 Airplanes on the Roof and other works created for this impressionable teenager.

Sol Lewitt: ‘Open Cube in Black and White,’ image courtesy of Karkow Witgin Gallery, Boston

As soon as the recording began to play, I was back in my teenage years again, listening spellbound to Glass’ music that was utterly unlike anything I’d heard before, being a classical pianist and steeped in the traditional classical orchestral fodder. Glass’ bold, and at that time refreshingly modern combination of saxophones, voices and electric keyboards, brought an invigorating chamber ensemble sound endlessly turning in and around itself, creating an apparent aural contradiction between a sense of stasis with a slow process of incremental change, all topped off with a restless textural surface, that you don’t really notice if you’re not paying close attention; for me, it was (and still is) endlessly fascinating. I recall a schoolfriend yelling ‘This has all the appeal of listening to A DRIPPING TAP!’ in exasperation at my nth playing of Einstein on the Beach. I could see how this might be, but only if you weren’t listening properly.

Philip Glass in 1993. Image: Pasquale Salerno

And that’s what Glass’ music does best; it dances away on the surface, but if you engage with the unfolding process and the commensurate different rhythmic patterns that evolve, it becomes something completely beguiling. Sometimes, the rhythmic patterns become incredibly nimble, the music dancing on its feet, as the material ducks and weaves through asymmetrical patterns. (Around eight minutes in, it suddenly blossoms and becomes, well, funky, too).

Since the manuscript vanished after a handful of performances in 1970 (only surfacing again in 2017 at an auction in Christie’s), the piece has been reconstructed for the line-up of the Philip Glass Ensemble, the group formed by the composer in the late 1960s and dedicated to taking Glass’ robust chamber music to the masses.

And it’s a recording for the times, too; with performances of the work across Europe cancelled in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, the recording has been assembled from each member of the ensemble recording their part in isolation. Listening to the music unfold for the first time since 1970 under these circumstances, it assumes a greater, almost unstoppable momentum, powering ahead with a relentless force that declares that, even in these challenging times, the power of music will continue.

The premiere recording of Music in Eight Parts by the Philip Glass Ensemble is released on May 22 on Orange Mountain Music.

A Variation a Day: first two days

The ‘Variation a Day’ project exploring each of the pieces in Variations for Judith began yesterday (see rationale here); preceding each variation with the aria to which each responds, ‘Bist du bei mir,’ throws up the resonances between them.

Day One began with fourth-year soprano Kathryn Cox singing the aria, before Anthony Burton’s Breaking Away, whilst earlier this afternoon the aria prefaced Stephen Johns’ evocative Spitalfields Echoes. These delicate responses to the aria have really drawn the audience into the performance, both Burton’s filigree fragments of part of the melodic line above a singing lower-register incarnation, and Johns’ bell-like incantations floating above static chords.

The odyssey continues tomorrow at 1.15pm with the aria and Antony Payne’s excitingly dissonant canonic variation. See you there…

In memoriam: Sir John Tavener

A sad loss to the world of contemporary music, the death of Sir John Tavener yesterday at the age of 69.

Sir John Tavener: 1944-2013
Sir John Tavener: 1944-2013

It’s become something of cliché to write Tavener’s music off as a sort of ‘holy minimalism,’ yet this is to glibly dismiss a music that tapped into a unique corner of the British musical landscape, and one in which the composer’s profound religious faith found articulation in a music that combined striking simplicity with chromatic colours and soaring lines. His music touched the heart of millions round the world when his serene Song for Athene was sung at the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales; his rhapsodic, ecstatic, spine-tingling The Protecting Veil achieved widespread popularity under the bow of Stephen Isserlis; his musical language – accessible, yet richly colourful – made him that wondrous thing, a contemporary composer who spoke to many, and gainsayed the argument that modern music appeals only to a tiny elite.

Listen to pieces such as The Lamb, or Today The Virgin, and hear the workings of Tavener’s unique language operating beneath the surface colours – proof, if any were needed, that modern music can touch the heart.

He leaves behind a body of work that affirmed his profoud faith, and affords a glimpse, for his willing listeners, into a realm of reflection and takes them perhaps one step closer to God.

Life in colour: launching the Prism Ensemble

And we have lift-off for the department’s new ensemble, Prism, which met earlier today for the first time.

Focusing on contemporary and / or unusual music, the group has come together to realise Terry Riley’s seminal, challenging and provocative In C, arguably one of the most influential pieces of the twentieth century.

We are developing the piece for a performance at a lunchtime concert next term; several of the performers had lecture and deadline commitments and were unable to come, but those that did took to the piece with vibrant enthusiasm; the suggestion of putting it on in a concert in the summer was greeted with great excitement.

Watch This Space…

New in town: Prism Ensemble
New in town: Prism Ensemble

Sounds New sees Canterbury celebrating Theme GB next month

Canterbury’s annual feast of contemporary music, Sounds New, kicks off on Friday 4 May. ’Theme GB’ is ‘a celebration of everything British in music,’ and includes a profusion of events, ranging from cutting-edge commissions to poetry workshops (the latter including members of the University of Kent’s Creative Writing Department), all unfolding across the festival which runs until 15 May.

With so much to choose from, it’s difficult to pick a highlight; however, major events include a performance of Sir John Tavener’s The Veil of the Temple with Tenebrae at the Cathedral, at which the composer will also be present; the BBC Big Band and the Julian Joseph Trio come to the University’s Gulbenkian Theatre; the Arditti Quartet concert will be recorded for broadcast on BBC Radio 3; the genre-trashing Powerplant in Nancarrow and Fitkin; and the King’s Singers at the Marlowe Theatre.

Find out more about the festival on its website here, and explore some of the composers and works coming this season with audio and video examples on the blog here; or browse this season’s brochure below.

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On Radio 3 this week: Shorter and the Queen of Sheba

Just to draw your attention to a couple of highlights on Radio 3’s iPlayer this week.

First up, the colossus of the saxophone world Wayne Shorter leads his quartet in a live session recorded at the Barbican earlier this month. Former Miles Davis sideman, one of the original members of fusion giants Weather Report, and a player who showed there could be life after Coltrane, this is Shorter’s first UK appearance for a number of years.

Also on iPlayer is a rarity, a piece from composer Alec Roth: his Departure of the Queen of Sheba, (1999)  received its first broadcast in a concert with the Orchestra of the Swan in Loughborough last night. Roth has written some fantastic pieces: his Chinese Gardens for tenor and guitar is a miniature gem of immaculate refinement, whilst his choral work Shared Ground displays a rich harmonic language with sumptuous colour, with the occasional hint of Vaughan Williams.

Roth’s companion piece to Handel’s lively depiction of her arrival depicts the famous Queen and King Solomon meeting in the Garden of Earthly delights; Roth includes Handel’s theme in an altered fashion, and the work is scored for the same forces as Handel’s but includes a cor anglais. The emotional atmosphere of Roth’s work is far removed from the buccolic jollity of the Queen’s arrival, and instead is profoundly lachrymaic, with the oboe and cor anglais weaving heart-rending melodic lines in a tender dialogue over an almost minimalist accompanying texture.

The piece beings forty minutes in to the programme, and is preceded by a short interview with the composer.

Don’t miss either.

A feast of Fitkin on Radio 3

For all the Fitkin fans amongst us, there’s a veritable Fitkin-fest on Radio 3 this week.

From Monday, and on iPlayer until next Monday, there’s the chance to hear the London premiere of L, written as a present for and here also performed by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Then from Tuesday (also on iPlayer for a week here), there’s an interview with Fitkin himself on ‘In Tune,’ together with the composer playing three short piano pieces live in the studio, and a broadcast of ‘Metal’ and an extract from ‘Circuit.’

From tonight, there will be the chance to hear the Prom premiere of his Cello Concerto, also written for Yo-Yo Ma, after which is a broadcast of some of his chamber works performed by the London Sinfonietta Academy Ensemble, from the ‘Proms Composer Portraits,’ where Fitkin will be in conversation with Tom Service, and presenting his ‘Sciosophy,’ ‘Hurl,’ and ‘Sinew.’

A previous post about Fitkin, including the chance to listen to some of his pieces, appeared on here back in February.

A Fervent Feast from Radio 3: don’t miss.

And here’s part of ‘Loud’ from earlier this year at London’s King’s Place:



A feast of contemporary music: Sounds New festival starts soon!

With just over two weeks until Canterbury is bursting with contemporary music, cast your eye over the events listings for this year if you haven’t already done so. The festival celebrates the music of the Baltic, with compositions and performers from countries including Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania alongside a veritable banquet of contemporary works by other composers.

The Choir of King’s College, Cambridge will be giving the UK premiere of Arvo Pärt’s Adam’s Lament in a concert in the Cathedral on Friday 27; Pärt is this year’s Guest Composer, and the same concert also features his Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten as well as Britten, Gorecki and Nicholas Maw.

Choral evensong earlier in the afternoon on the same day will include Pärt’s I Am The True Vine and Magnificat, with the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral directed by David Flood. Elsewhere during the festival season, there’s also a conference on Baltic music and musicologies, and papers on the music of Pärt in particular.

The BBC Big Band will be appearing in the Gulbenkian Theatre on Sunday 21 with Duke Ellington’s jazz-wise glance at Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, whilst the New Perspective Ensemble on Friday 27 presents music by Magnus Lindberg and Oliver Knussen. There’s also a premiere by the festival director Paul Max Edlin, and music by Sofia Gubaidulina, Poul Ruders, Ligeti, Sørensen, Nørgård and others. Some of the festival will be broadcast on Radio 3’s ‘Hear and Now’ series, including Glass’s Symphony no.3 for strings and pieces by Terry Riley and Pärt on Thursday 26.

This year marks the launch of Sounds New Poetry, and includes the University’s very own Patricia Debney, Senior Lecture in Creative Writing, in a discussion about the relationship between words and music called ‘Roundtable’ on Tuesday 24 at 6pm.

WIth a host of other events including poetry, workshops, film and talks, there’ll be something for everyone. Full details on the Sounds New website, or click here to download the flyer.

Stimulate your senses…