From the archive: Workers Union Ensemble

April 22, 2013

(Part of the Sounds New Festival, Theme GB last year, the Workers Union ensemble with Benjamin Oliver in concert.)

Under the baton of composer and conductor, Benjamin Oliver, the Workers Union ensemble performed an eclectic lunchtime concert programme which included Two Elegies Framing A Shout for soprano sax and piano, delivered with astonishing accomplishment by saxophonist Ellie Steemson and pianist Edward Pick. A lyrical first elegy for unaccompanied sax, requiring sustained control of lengthy phrases, is followed by the Shout, in which spiky gestures are punctuated by periods of tense silence, before opening out into a real tour de force for the saxophonist over restless piano riffs. The second Elegy is familiar from Turnage’s epic Blood on the Floor, a beautiful, jazz-hued movement with weaving melodic lines over rich jazz-inflected harmonies. Saxophonist Ellie Steemson demonstrated superb control of her performance, delivered with conviction and commitment and consummate lyrical skill. The piece as a whole is a fine riposte to all those who claim that ‘modern music has no melodies;’ next time you hear it, point them gently in its direction…


In rehearsal

The programme also included Benjamin Oliver’s Ripped Up, for the complete six-piece ensemble. Delicate opening piano chords lead into a driving groove pitching four-against-three rhythms; an elegiac episode interrupts with a cluster-chord, and showed some careful textural writing in the creation of some effective woodwind and percussion sonorities. A ticking shaker sees time fragmenting in its erratic utterances, whilst the piano picks out some gossamer-thread shapes above hushed, low saxophone trills; but the rhythmic impetus is not to be denied, and returns with driving momentum. The faltering ticker interrupts once more, accompanied by haunting mobiles from the xylophone that fall across the barline, before a hesitant conclusion sees the piece finishing with wide-eyed expectancy.

A fascinating programme, delivered with real accomplishment by youthful former members of the Guildhall School. Expect to hear more from them, and from Benjamin Oliver in the future.

(And for anyone who couldn’t make the concert, here they are performing the piece in concert in 2011.)

Originally posted 14 May, 2012 by Daniel Harding

Hotter than July: contemporary music at this year’s Prom

April 18, 2013

This year’s BBC Proms season has now been announced, and there’s a veritable feast of contemporay music on offer this year. Continue reading

From the archive: What the flock: audiences for contemporary music

April 10, 2013

(Originally posted on 13 March, 2012).

I was heartened by an article in The Guardian a few weeks ago, which proclaimed that ‘difficult’ concert programmes are attracting audiences in their droves, and that contemporary music audiences are actually in robust health (Audiences flock to ‘difficult’ contemporary classical music, 30 January; click here to read). Alex Needham`s article paints a portrait of people turning out in their droves to a plethora of modern works being programmed over the coming months, from a festival of Minimalism in Scotland to political opera in Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer at ENO and to the Glass/Wilson libretto-less marathon, Einstein on the Beach.

20130401-172847.jpgPeople have been proclaiming the decline of contemporary classical music ever since the avant-garde were thought to have lost touch with their audiences in the twentieth century. The image of the high-minded composer writing difficult works, deliberately antagonistic to audiences, and uncaring as to whether people came to listen to them or not, is an enduring one, trotted out whenever pundits want to paint a depressing picture of an art-form increasingly in decline. Or so they would have us believe.

But contemporary composers aren`t like that anymore. It may have been desirable, in the middle of the last century, to write music in Darmstadt that sought to alienate listeners, and, as Needham mentions, if your concert attracted more than thirty people in the audience, it had to be immediately rejected as populist and therefore deplorable; but these days, composers are striking a balance between pursuing their own inner vision which may indeed involve a challenging musical language, with finding ways actually to draw audiences in, instead of turning them away.

Turnage in particular has managed to combine a musical vocabulary rich in wild textures and shrieking harmonies with a self-confessed love of James Brown, Tower of Power, jazz-funk and pop tunes to create pieces which audiences notice; Blood on the Floor, with its improvising jazz trio at the heart of a modern ensemble; the piece Hammered Out at last year`s Proms wrong-footed a few critics, who failed to notice its roots in Beyoncé when younger audiences got it immediately. Fair enough, his choice of salacious, head-line generating subject matter in the opera Anna Nicole may have been a shrewd move, but within the brash music he wrote for the piece, there lurk some affecting melodies, deft jazz writing, and even a moving aria or two.

Festival programmers are responding to this desire for new music. The ravishing orchestra-meets-electronics vision of Jonathan Harvey was celebrated in a `Total Immersion` weekend at the Barbican; one is also devoted to Australian composer Brett Dean, and a similar festival will focus on the music of the Estonian composer, Arvo Pärt.

As the composer John Adams observed in his autobiography, there was a time when nineteenth-century concert-going audiences expected to hear new works at concerts, and were actually disappointed when they didn’t (Faber, 2008:48). Some shrewd programming by Simon Rattle, when at the helm of the CBSO, would see him sandwiching challenging modern works between classical staples of the repertoire, such that he was able to champion composers such as Turnage, keeping this tradition alive and cannily using programmes of better-known works to introduce audiences to contemporary pieces at the same time.

People will always proclaim the ‘death of classical music’ or harp on about its dwindling appeal and declining audience numbers. But a closer look at what’s happening across the UK – with festivals of contemporary music ranging from here in Canterbury in the south across to the Huddersfield or Edinburgh Festivals in the north – suggests that the truth may be a lot healthier than you think.

Posted by Daniel Harding

From the archive: Powerplant in concert

April 9, 2013

Warp Ten: boldly percussive explorations with Powerplant

An icy-blue glow and plethora of audio-visual equipment turned Augustine Hall into a shrine to electronica last night, a dimly-lit hall and an expectant hush for the start of the Powerplant concert. The waiting audience was greeted by a screen on which the heads of sightless dummies rotated in endless circles, back and forth, a metaphor perhaps for the often de-humanising isolation of modern life which was about to be exploded in vigorous fashion.

Striding purposefully onto the stage, percussionist Joby Burgess launched into Piece for Percussion by Nancarrow, a work bristling with the familiar complex poly-rhythms that characterise the Hermit of Mexico’s later pieces for player-piano. Projected onto the screen behind was a parade of still-photographs of horses, famous from zoetrope, each of which was triggered by Burgess into stages of movement; this almost detracted from the technical mastery Burgess displayed as he moved around the various pieces of percussion.

20130409-223616.jpgMatthew Fairclough’s The Boom and the Bap, a homage to a sixties drum-break for solo drum-kit and electronics, builds from small fragments in a series of samples and loops into full-on grooving with subtle warping bass-lines – a kind of drum’n bass-meets-Radiohead collage, with Fairclough himself at the mixing-desk. This was followed by Fitkin’s Chain of Command, written for Burgess’ trademark instrument, the xylosynth, an electronic xylophone which triggers all manner of samples and effects; the piece builds a dense tapestry of sounds from speech samples à la Steve Reich, with snatches of speech from George Bush Jnr and Donald Rumsfeld; behind Burgess, uncomfortable images of barbed-wire and obscene graffiti blossomed piece by piece on the screen like drops of blood pooling on a surface, reflecting the menacing political overtones of the sampled speech about Guantanamo Bay, created by artist Kathy Hinde.

24 Lies per Second by Max de Wardener brought the first half to a close, a trio of pieces ranging from shimmering and swooping electronics (occasionally reminiscent of Mark Snow’s incidental music to ‘The X-Files’) to tinkling glockenspiel, a menacing child’s lullaby, into a breakdown of Schubert’s Im Dorfe, a Kagel-esque collage of percussive effects, piano samples and film, in which rapid jump-cuts between a pianist’s hands and a metronone reflected the changing textures. This last movement was almost Nancarrow-esque in its dizzying whirlwind of rapid piano figures and flashing syncopated stabbed chords, perhaps a nod to the piece with which the concert had begun.

By far the most interesting piece began the second half, Temazcal by Mexican composer, Javier Alvarez. This was a tour de force for maracas and electronics, in which Burgess turned playing the shakers into a real performance art. A rich sonic tapestry clothed his frantic playing, in which instrumental effects were morphed electronically into warping gestures and drum-beat samples drifted in and out of focus, accompanied by a haunting and lonely repeated figure. The piece slowly assembles into a Venezuelan folk-song, from which all the material previously heard is generated, a sudden, bizarre transition into a sunny folk-song greeted with amused laughter by the audience; the contrast is extreme, and the piece finishes in far sunnier climes than expected, the change into a guileless calypso-style a little head-scratching.

Gabriel Prokofiev’s Import/export; suite for global junk brought the evening to a close, a piece which is basically a ‘concerto for sound effects’ built from an oil-drum, plastic bags, bottles and a de-constructed packing-crate, all held together by self-sampling and looping. What the piece lacks in concision, it makes up for in the diverse range of sounds distilled from unorthodox materials, all consummately played, as the whole performance had been, by Burgess with real flair.

(Originally posted by Daniel Harding on 10 May, 2012).

Images © Peter Cook / Sounds New

Skin Deep: George Benjamin review via @icareifulisten

April 4, 2013

Last year’s performance of George Benjamin’s luminous At First Light at Sounds New, given by the London Sinfonietta, was one of the festival’s most memorable moments  – for me, at least – and I’m very excited at the possibility of hearing his new opera, Written on Skin, which has been getting high praise in the press.

George Benjamin

George Benjamin

Premiered in Aix-en-Provence last year, with a libretto by Martin Crimp, the opera has been getting rave write-ups, including this insightful one by composer Aaron Holloway-Nahum on the always-interesting blog, I Care If You Listen.

There’s an assessment of Benjamin’s music on the Guardian from Tom Service here, and here’s a video of preparations in Aix for the premiere last year.

And here’s the final part of At First Light, with those wonderful, richly-hued chords, and the epic climax and filigree resolution, that means the work hasn’t stopped sounding in my ears ever since hearing it live last year. I’m looking forward to getting round to seeing Written on Skin at some point, and being able to say, as the commentator does towards the end of the video above, ‘J’était là.’

Posted by Daniel Harding

From the archive: Let’s Get Lost: the thrill of the unknown in music

April 1, 2013

I was reminded of the title of Bruce Weber’s documentary on the life of Chet Baker when reading John Terauds’ feature on Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach on his vibrant blog, ‘Musical Toronto’ recently. The Glass-Wilson libretto-less opera was being given its Canadian première in June, and Terauds asks if the work’s success is in part due to the fact that, as an audience, there is nothing that we have to understand in the work: as Wilson himself has apparently said, it’s ‘a work where you can go and get lost.’

20130401-100349.jpgAs Terauds observes, ”I wonder how many people who buy tickets for a new piece of music or theatre, or who buy a novel from a first-time author — any situation where one can’t see beyond the curtain or the cover until the act of engaging with the creator(s) has begun — are able to commit such a leap of faith?”

In an age of high consumerism, where buyers demand value for money, contemporary art and contemporary music in particular can be a risky venture; putting on contemporary works and premières, launching new commissions, and performing new repertoire does seem to ask potential audiences to trust that they will be experiencing something worthwhile, something valuable which will widen their cultural horizons. There’s perhaps a feeling that, if consumers don’t know what they will be getting, then they’ll be unwilling to risk investing in a ticket for a concert when they aren’t familiar with the actual product beforehand. There is a certain sense in this: as purchasers, we don’t want to waste our money on something if we are unsure what it will provide; instead, we turn to those products with which we are already familiar, safe in the knowledge that we know what we’re in for, and that we like it.

But being uncertain about a concert, about a new piece, or about a new composer, can also be terrifically exciting. Instead of hearing the same old warhorse from the Austro-Germanic symphonic tradition that you’ve heard before, and instead of knowing in advance the range of emotional highs and lows that you customarily experience during a piece, your emotional spectrum is now a blank canvas, waiting to receive a new work and be led through a previously unchartered emotional landscape. With familiar works, you know that you’ll cry at that phrase, or start getting excited at that point where the brass come in, or that a particular chord or harmonic passage will make your heart stop; but with a new work, you don’t know where the music will take you.

Sometimes, you listen to pieces with which you are familiar because you want that emotional experience you know that piece provides. For me, it’s a particular phrase in Gabriel Jackson’s gloriously colourful motet O sacrum con vivium,for instance, that occurs four times, growing louder with each repetition until I find it overwhelming; the slow and stately opening to the final movement of Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, with hypnotic piano chords and that yearning violin;

Or there’s the open horn-chord and urgent strings ostinato that kick-starts Walton’s First Symphony, or the ‘Infernal Dance’ in Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite that thrums with the menace of deep-throbbing strings and timpani, both of which immediately set the pulse racing. I turn to these pieces when I feel ready to experience the emotional odyssey they offer.

But there’s a sense of excitement in the new as well. I can still recall the first time I heard Antheil’s Ballet mecanique, George Crumb’s Black Angels, Reich’s The Desert Music; all concerts that will resonate with me for years.

In return for surrendering your certainty, there’s the potential for undergoing a new emotional experience, the chance to revel in a new sound-world and be taken both aurally and emotionally across a new, unchartered landscape. It may well require, as Terauds puts it, a ‘leap of faith;’ but the rewards can be worth it.

Come to Sounds New, or indeed to any music festival or concert offering the chance to hear new work; surrender your certainty, and be prepared for a new experience. You won’t be disappointed.

(Originally posted on 15 April, 2012)

Bach and Boulez in a gondola: in defence of modern performance

March 31, 2013

There was a synergy between two articles I read recently, each from a different side of the Atlantic, that struck me as as two sides of a single, crucial attitude to contemporary music, and to modern music-making.

In a recent feature over on icareifulisten on viola-player and exponent of contemporary music, Nadia Sirota, who has commissioned works from several composers including Nico Muhly, Sirota talks about not using music of the Baroque period as a way in to classical music for those new to it; a feature perhaps of teaching music in primary schools in the belief that Baroque’s simple textures and comparatively straightforward harmonic language (ever heard any of the Passion settings by Bach ?!) will offer an access to musical for those unfamiliar with it.

At the same time, music critic Tom Service advises us in a recent Guardian article to be wary of the assumptions fostered by the period-instrument movement that the way we perform Baroque music now is how it should be executed, is what its composers would have expected from contemporaneous performance. As he says, with reference to listening to Mengelberg recording in the 1930s, if we already mistrust performances from over seventy years ago, and greet various performance practices of that time with scorn, how can we safely say what Bach himself would have liked, what Vivaldi would have expected ? Bach would have written for instruments that were, to him, modern, writing for what players around him were capable of playing (and later, in the explorations of Beethoven, sometimes even beyond). Baroque music was realised by its own modern instruments, and so to plunge back into a supposed ‘historically-informed’ or ‘authentic’ school is to deny the possibility of performing Baroque music on instruments of our own time, with our own technical possibilities and approach to performing.

Would Bach have written pieces for the modern piano, or the concert-grand Steinway, if he had been able to do so ? Absolutely. And evolutions in the design of stringed instruments – steel rather than gut strings, differently-shaped bows capable of producing a more sustained sound – that were driven by the desire to enlarge the sound capacity of the burgeoning orchestra playing in larger venues, would be a facility composers may well have seized upon too.

This is not to say that there is no place for period-instrument practice – the scholarly pursuit of practices and traditions from the past is a vibrant way of informing how we might approach one way of realising them in the twenty-first century. But it ought not to deny the progress in instrumentation and ensembles that would make performing Baroque music unacceptable with modern orchestras. It is one way – not the only way. Historically-informed realisations should sit comfortably alongside modern ends, each working to inform the other. Listen to the translucent touch of Andras Schiff playing Bach to hear a Baroque sensibility combined with a modern instrument. And Baroque music isn’t as simplistic as school curricula would have you believe makes it suitable as an introduction to classical music either.

For some listeners, what music is doing now, how it engages with or comments upon modern life, with modern sounds and sound-samples, might be equally as important a way in to classical music as Bach or Vivaldi. The sounds of urban life sampled by Reich in City Life, the almost mystical instruments-meets-electronics of Jonathan Harvey or Pierre Boulez; the bristling rhythmic writing and modern textures of Muhly or Turnage; some of these might fascinate and engage today’s musical neophyte.

20130330-220536.jpgWritten in one age, the music of the Baroque, and of Bach in particular, speaks across all of them, to each age in its own voice, allowing us to hear it through the media of our own time, whilst still celebrating its humanist message. So let’s introduce people to classical music across its entire, dizzying breadth – you can never tell what will (if you will pardon the pun) strike a chord with someone – which includes Reich, Adams, Harvey, or Unsuk Chin. And while we’re doing so, let’s allow room for modern orchestral and instrumental performances of Baroque music. You never know what will float someone’s gondola…

Posted by Daniel Harding

Time, please! An interview with composer Paul Patterson

April 26, 2012

Gosh, Paul Patterson is a very busy man; catching up with Paul is something of a challenge, as he combines composing with a hectic schedule of teaching and travelling both around the country and abroad. I managed to do so yesterday when Paul was visiting Canterbury on one of his days teaching at Christ Church University, where he is Visiting Professor of Composition; the previous day, Paul had been teaching in Manchester; he recently attended a performance of his Magnificat in Paris, and on the day before the same piece is performed at Sounds New next month, he’ll be attending a performance in Swansea of his Little Red Riding Hood. A busy calendar…

Paul-PattersonPaul has been a significant figure on the British compositional landscape since the seventies, with a profusion of works ranging from a series of large-scale choral pieces to instrumental concerti, with youthful works such as the Sinfonia for Strings, with its bustling, energetic third movement full of rhythmic vitality. His Mass for the Sea, written in 1983, combines movements from a traditional mass with reflections on the Biblical Flood from a variety of sources, and employs the bold structural device of replacing the usual ‘Credo’ with a meditation on the flood, full of high drama. Later works include Little Red Riding Hood for orchestra and narrator, the Cello Concerto, the Viola Concerto, and last year his String Quartet no.2; ‘Dances for Thaxted,’ using folk and dance melodies.

Formerly Head of Composition and Contemporary Music at the Royal Academy, Paul continues at the Academy as the Manson Professor of Composition, and is also the composer-in-residence with the National Youth Orchestra; as well as teaching at Christ Church, he is also Visiting Professor at the Royal Northern College of Music.

A rather rainy afternoon found us sitting in Paul’s office, where we talked about two of his compositions which are appearing at Sounds New this year; his Magnificat, which will be a part of the Choral Day on Sunday 6 May, and Timepiece, which the King’s Singers will be performing as part of the final concert in the festival, at the new Marlow Theatre on Tuesday 15 May. Commissioned by Sir David Wilcocks for the Bach Choir of London in 1993, the epic Magnificat is written for chorus, organ, brass and percussion and will be performed as part of a day-long celebration of British choral music, including amassed choirs from around the county. Timepiece, a commission from the King’s Singers in 1972, finds Adam getting into trouble when Eve sees him wearing a wristwatch, as Paul explains …


I’m very grateful to Paul for finding the time to be interviewed, and for being such a pleasure to talk with.