Tag Archives: contemporary music

Putting the fine in undefinable: the music of Graham Fitkin

Graham Fitkin‘s music first attracted my attention in 1998, when I came across an SPNM sampler disc containing a tantalising segment of Cud and a complete performance of Hook which all but took my head off. That was enough: bam, I was, well…hooked. I think I had those two pieces on the disc on repeat for the best part of a year, a blissful relationship only interrupted by my moving house and losing the disc.

His music defies those neat genre-defining labels that critics and music shop stockists love: classical, minimalist, techno, jazz. Combining repetition, polyphonic rhythmic inventiveness, sampled and electronic sounds and a tonal language glittering with bright colours, it’s a music that refuses to be neatly pigeon-holed.

I love the vibrancy of Hook; the driving rhythmic vitality, brash modern textural writing, and the sheer exuberance in the music that makes it infectious listening.

There’s something rather ‘X Files’-like about ‘Warm Area’ from Still Warm for harp and electronics (although that might just be my response to the tonal colours and the imagery of the accompanying video…!)

There’s exciting news about a new concerto for MIDI harp, premiered at the end of last month, with a sneak preview from BBC Radio 3;

Fervent. for solo piano, has a relentless energy to its ostinato-driven material. Last year, PK was commissioned for, and performed at, the BBC Proms; dealing with the first sending of Morse code signals from Porthcurno in Fitkin’s birthplace of Cornwall, the piece employs Morse code-inspired rhythms, blazing brass and big orchestral gestures occasionally reminiscent of John Adams’ Harmonielehre. Then there’s the contrasting intimacy of Skirting, for solo harp, with its evocative arabesques, or the bustling Vent for four clarinet or saxophone quartet.

Then there’s the minimalist electronica of K2, from Kaplan, that could almost be something by Aphex Twin.

Just listen to the way the music dances and shimmies in the advert for Uniqlo jeans: brief but utterly captivating, like much of Fitkin’s music there’s a wild urgency that cannot be denied, a delight in revelling in bright textures married to bold rhythmic gestures.

It’s compulsive stuff that luxuriates in the sheer joy of music-making. Is it classical ? Is it minimalist ? Or post-minimalist ? Or jazz ? Electronica ? Or all of them, or perhaps none ? Who cares… Keep an ear out: a new piece by Fitkin is always worth waiting for.

(Audio excerpts via LastFM).

2012 Olympics: good for new music

Twenty composers have recently been announced for the ‘New Music 20 x 12’ initiative, unveiled as part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Each commissioned piece will last twelve minutes, and be broadcast on Radio 3 and toured around the UK.

The initiative has been created independently, and is delivered by the PRS for Music Foundation and partners. Composers involved include Julian Joseph, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Jason Yarde, Anna Meredith and Howard Skempton.

Whether you think the Olympics is a good or a bad thing for the UK, here at least is a sign that it will have a beneficial effect on the cultural life of the country.

Percussion Play: Ionisation

Varèse’s Ionisation.

Pierre Boulez conducting the Ensemble InterContemporain.

Playing around with different kinds of pitch (fixed, variable or indefinite) and rhythm, Ionisation was the first piece written for percussion ensemble alone. Nicholas Slonimsky, who conducted the premiere in 1933, talks about the composer in an archived recorded interview here from 1973. He describes Varèse as ”a huge, French desert.”

It definitely gets funky at around the 2-minute mark.

Music, artistry and the problem of popularity.

Mahler’s portentous statement about being appreciated not in his own lifetime but after his death has been negated by the Digital Age. Thanks to the affordability of home computing, music software and YouTube, bedroom music studios have become ubiquitous, amateur performances are posted on-line, and you can have your fifteen minutes of fame spread in short bursts across the globe.

But popularity’s problem exists not only in the medium, which makes performers of many but professionals of few, but in the message. Alexander Goehr identifies the beginning of the avant-garde movement as being the moment when music turned its back on the audience and lost its appeal, when it became concerned less with communication with its audience than expressing the ideas of the composer, irrespective of whether the audience related to those ideas or not. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system: Stockhausen’s electronica; the New Complexity movement of the 1970s; or jazz’s escape from tonal and harmonic structures into the realms of spontaneous improvisation in free jazz in the 60s with Ornette Coleman: such times often coincide with episodes of great creativity but little commercial success – audiences can’t understand what is going on, and feel left behind.

Pop music, however, is all about instant gratification: as its name implies, it is written to appeal to people immediately, and survives (or expires) for as long as that particular musical fad holds sway – and sells records.

Jonathan Harvey considers the relationship between artist and audience in the third chapter of Music and Inspiration, where he comments on composers such as Hindemith and Copland actually altering the path of their musical development, in order to directly engage the listener once more after they felt they had alienated them.

Is it important to consider the appeal of your music as you write it ? Should the listener be taken into account ? If you are using a tonal or harmonic palette which might be difficult for the audience to follow, or are using effects and technical devices that are challenging to the ear, is that a factor that should govern the way a composition is realised ? Or, more succinctly, can a composer take the listener into account when writing without compromising their artistry, what it is they are saying and how they are saying it ?

Of course, it is not all about making the listener’s life easy: otherwise, Schoenberg would not have created the twelve-tone system, and Ferneyhough would never have written a note; and new music is all about a new listener experience. Then again, composing ought not to be about deliberately challenging the listener in such a way as to alienate them: ought it ?

Composing in the Darmstadt School in the 1960’s was aggressively confrontational, seeking willfully to alienate the listener in order, it seems, to validate its own modernity by repudiating consonant sonorities associated with tradition. As Hans Werner Henze writes, ‘Any encounter with the audience that was not catastrophic and scandalous would defile the artist.’

But time is a great agent of acclimatisation. What caused an uproar when first written, or met with audience bewilderment and critical hostility – the Rite of Spring, for instance – often settles down into becoming a part of the great canon of concert repertoire. The message a piece is trying to convey, innovations it is trying to wreak, or a musical language that at first seems incomprehensible, often crystallises over time, usually with greater listener experience.

I speak from personal experience here. When I was about 11, in a spirit of musical enquiry, I lowered onto the record-player an LP from my father’s collection, an album with a slightly far-out artistic cover depicting a sax player called, the liner notes revealed, Charlie Parker.

I’d been playing the piano from a tender age, the usual fodder of examination repertoire distilled from the Classical tradition, but this was utterly alien to me: I had no idea what was going on, and put it to the back of the stack of records. About three years later, I’d been playing some jazz pieces with a clarinettist – Benny Goodman, Count Basie – and I came across the same LP. This time, when I listened to it, I could see where the music was going, harmonically-speaking: I could hear the underlying harmonies and had a sense of the musical landscape the notes Parker’s improvisation occupied. The music hadn’t changed in the intervening years: I had, my listening experience had widened and my understanding had developed. (Although I’m not sure I will ever comprehend Free Jazz).

Perhaps composers should follow their musical Muse wherever it leads them, trusting in posterity to allow audiences to comprehend their work if the contemporary critical response is not positive. Artistic integrity versus commercial appeal: where do you stand ?

Contemporary music: is it beyond our reach ?

Contemporary music festivals are often perceived as being notoriously expensive. They can need dedicated professionals working at the peak of their powers to realise extremely demanding repertoire, Rolls Royce ensembles, high-profile conductors. Scores and music are expensive to hire or purchase. The music can be fiendishly difficult both to execute and to comprehend: or of course, the music of composers like Howard Skempton and Michael Nyman, which is challenging in a different way. Brash, modern ensembles, amplified instruments, electronics, a battery of percussion: think of groups like Icebreaker, the Orkest de Volharding, or Bang On a Can.

Commensurately, ticket prices can be high, as festival organisers endeavour to recoup some of the cost.

This is, of course, not true. Or at least – not always.

The widespread nature of this misconception is a shame, because contemporary music is part of the lifeblood of contemporary culture. It reflects modern concerns, resonating with the sounds of urban life and society’s hang-ups: the forthcoming opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage is a meditation on the life and untimely death of Anna Nicole Smith. Contemporary music can be riotous and fun: think of the music of Graham Fitkin or John Adams, with its exciting rhythmic vibrancy. It is a way of engaging with current issues, and making audiences consider political or social issues: Nixon in China, for example.

The music of Xenakis might not be the most accessible of modern compositions – Psappha for percussion solo, for instance.

But it has great conviction, and great virtuosity: seeing the performer is as much a part of the performance as listening to the piece itself. Toru Takemitsu’s wonderful soundscapes are full of colour and luminosity.

American composers such as Michael Torke or Nico Mulhy write music brim-full of rhythmic energy and bouncing textures. Torke’s saxophone quartet, July, is full of funky lines, bouncing rhythm and punchy textures.

Or, on the other hand, the contemplative scores of Arvo Pärt, John Tavener, or another Adams, John Luther Adams’ evocative In a Treeless Place, Only Snow.

And modern music concerts can be heard at the Proms for a mere £5, like Prom 28 with pieces by Oliver Knussen and George Benjamin; or discounted on-line prices to hear Stockhausen and Rebecca Saunders at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Or for £8, you could have had a ticket to hear David Matthews and John Casken at the recent Brighton Festival. 

It’s an exciting time for contemporary music, and it’s not always inaccessible, incomprehensible, or expensive. Don’t let it pass you by.

Varese for eight hands

WXQR, New York’s classical radio station, is currently streaming a concert performance of Varèse’s remarkable Amériques  for eight hands on two pianos.

All keyed up

Originally scored for large orchestra, including an eleven-player percussion section which uses sirens, it’s a vibrant and often alarming tone-poem depcting the city of New York itself.

Hearing it in Varèse’s own two-piano transcription, which was not discovered until recently, offers a remarkable perspective on an already notorious work.

Hear it for yourself.