In concert – Birmingham Contemporary Music Group & PRiSM: Iannis Xenakis Centenary – Maths and Music

CBSO Centre @ 3pm:

Xenakis Plektó (1993)
Pattar Philosophy should stop at midnight (2022) [World Premiere]
Tzortis Croque strideurs (2022) [World Premiere]
Xenakis Anaktoria (1969); Nomos Alpha (1966); Phlegra (1975)

Arne Deforce (cello), Musicians of BCMG: NEXT / Melvin Tay

CBSO Centre @ 5pm:

Xenakis Ittidra (1996)
Fernando Breathing Forest (2022) [Sound and Music commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Akanthos (1977)
Howard Compass (2022) [BCMG Sound Investment commission: World Premiere]
Xenakis Jalons (1986)

Anna Dennis (soprano), Julian Warburton (percussion), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group / Gabriella Teychenné

The Exchange @ 7pm:

Luque It Is happening Again (2019-21) [UK Premiere]
Xenakis La Légende d’Eer (1978)

Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre, Sunday 29 May 2022

by Richard Whitehouse

There could been no better way for Birmingham Contemporary Music Group to round off its current season than with this extended tribute to Iannis Xenakis on his 100th birthday. Over three events, a representative selection of the Greek composer’s work was heard within the context of new commissions and realizations of graphic scores.

The latter featured in the Synesthesia concert, after an earlier session where this ‘free, internet-browser-based music application’ (continuing from the UPIC programme that Xenakis pioneered in the 1980s) was made available – two previous graphic scores forming the basis of those pieces heard this afternoon.  Philosophy should stop at midnight found Frédéric Pattar following quite literally the contours of the score, a deft humour pointed up though the verse by Richard Brautigan (perhaps a latter-day ‘consolation of philosophy’?), whereas Croquis strideurs found Nicolas Tzortis aligning his score with poetry by Arthur Rimbaud in what was a more capricious or ‘off the wall’ approach.

The three pieces by Xenakis (above) were well chosen to demonstrate the expressive range of his music. Plektó (Braids) is typical of the music from his last years with its teasingly subversive take on a mixed ensemble, while Anaktoria (a lover of Sappho) puts an ensemble as modelled on Schubert’s Octet through its paces in music by turns ingratiating and obstreperous. Most impressive was Phlegra (being (different) regions of modern and ancient Greece), written at the advent of that period when ‘arborescence’  principles brought a new evolutionary dynamism to the composer’s thinking evident in this assured reading by musicians of BCMG: NEXT under the attentive direction of Melvin Tay.

Cellist Arne Deforce earlier took the stage for a performance of Nomos Alpha, typical in its utilizing mathematical abstraction to create viscerally emotional music. Visuals by Marcus de Sautoy and Simon Russell, as derived from the symmetrical properties of a cube, were arresting but it was the musical realization which commanded attention.

Three more pieces by Xenakis were included in the late-afternoon concert. Among his last works, Ittidra (unusual for this composer with its being the reverse spelling of the dedicatee’s name) is a brooding and ultimately fatalistic reassessment of the string sextet, and Akanthos (a city in ancient Greece) extends its instrumental remit to include woodwind and brass as well as soprano whose vocalise adds an often ethereal but at other times keening timbre to the ensemble – vividly conveyed here by Anna Dennis. Again, it was the closing item which made the most lasting impression. Xenakis’s relations with the modernism as represented by Pierre Boulez might at times been strained, but there was evident accord by the time he wrote Jalons for the latter’s Ensemble Intercontemporain. Here those ‘signposts’ or ‘landmarks implied by the title emerge as gestural peaks in music whose headlong motion generates irresistible excitement, and not least with BCMG sounding so responsive to the  guidance of Gabriella Teychenné.

Alternating with these works in either half were new commissions by very different composers. With its libretto by Zoe Palmer, Breathing Forest is described by its composer Samantha Fernando as ”A meditation on the inner struggles of a woman and her transformation through the Japanese art of … forest bathing”. What resulted was an exploration of its atmospheric text, realized with audible precision and elegance by Anna Dennis, whose musical substance – while not unappealing in itself – remained too inert to convey the emotional catharsis likely intended. More absorbing was a BCMG commission from Emily Howard, whose Compass takes those spatial and nautical connotations of its title as basis for music that unfolded as a cohesive dialogue between string septet with Julian Warburton‘s array of percussion. Few latter-day composers have shown Howard’s zeal for the interplay of music with mathematics, BCMG’s committed realization vindicating her latest piece musically as well as conceptually.

The final event, an acousmatic concert by Birmingham Electro Acoustic Sound Theatre (BEAST), relocated from CBSO Centre to The Exchange – an impressive Grade Two-listed building on Centenary Square under the auspices of University of Birmingham. Its third-floor conference room certainly suited these two pieces – starting with It Is Happening Again by the Mexican-born, now Madrid-based composer Sergio Luque. Drawing on his development  of Xenakis’s stochastic synthesis process, this proved to be a short while evocative study in density of sonic waves whose inherent abstraction was far from being without a tangible atmosphere through its succession of sonic ideas.

Although hampered by microphone malfunction, Christopher Haworth‘s introduction to the next piece was full of relevant detail concerning the purpose and reception of electroacoustic music. Not least when the piece in question was La Légende d’Eer, most expansive and all-encompassing of those Xenakis realized and which caused no mean controversy when initially heard as a musical facet of Diatope at the inauguration of the Pompidou Centre, with its apparently high level of amplification. The present multi-channel version was more easily accommodated, if not at the expense of its dazzling variety – Xenakis evoking the Platonic legend of a soldier returning from the dead via a symmetrical form which takes in an array of instrumental and synthesized sounds as they build to a sustained peak of organized frenzy before the almost regretful evanescence. Had nothing else survived, Xenakis would still have been thought a key creative figure from the post-war era and its impact has not lessened with time or expectation.

It certainly set the seal on a finely conceived and impressively realized sequence of events that reaffirmed Xenakis as a composer whose legacy is undeniable and his influence enduring. The 2020s will bring a whole succession of notable centenaries (that of Ligeti being just a few months away) and BCMG has set the bar high for those to come.

Click on the names for more information on the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, composers Frédéric Pattar, Nicolas Tzortzis, Samantha Fernando and Emily Howard, and performers Sergio Luque, Anna Dennis, Arne Deforce, Julian Warburton, –
Melvin Tay, Gabriella Teychenné and Christopher Haworth.

In concert – Do we need a new compass? / BCMG NEXT @ Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, Symphony Hall, Birmingham

compass

Meredith Four to the Floor (2005)
Heather Ryall, Emily Wilson, Beth Nicholl, George Blakesley (bass clarinets)

Mason Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow (2010)
Rebecca Speller (flute), Joe Howson (piano)

Howard Cloud Chamber (2006)
Emily Wilson (clarinet), Mikaella Livadiotis (piano)

Anderson Scherzo with Trains (1993)
Heather Ryall, George Blakesley (clarinets), Beth Nichol (basset horn), Emily Wilson (b-clarinet)

Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space @ Symphony Hall, Birmingham
Thursday 17 March 2022 (1pm)

Written by Richard Whitehouse

BCMG NEXT may have had a major role in tonight’s concert at CBSO Centre, itself marking the culmination of a major project that has already featured events in Bologna and Hannover, but it was a worthwhile move to include more of these young musicians in a lunchtime recital.

Anna Meredith has written numerous chamber pieces, among which Four to the Floor has an immediate appeal – not least through the uniform line-up of its clarinet quartet in music whose methodical exploration of timbre almost inevitably results in the descent intimated by its title. It may have been a transcription of the final item from his song-cycle after Christina Rosetti, but Christian Mason’s Heaven’s Chimes Are Slow felt no less evocative in this incarnation for flute and piano – not least as rendered with such poise by Rebecca Speller and Joe Howson.

Emily Howard’s composing career has unfolded parallel to her scientific research, such that Cloud Chamber bridges any likely divide through its iridescent timbral interplay for clarinet and piano – realized here with precision and verve by Emily Wilson and Mikaella Livadiotis. The recital ended with Scherzo (with trains), one of Julian Anderson’s most engaging shorter works whose inspiration in Thoreau as well as rhythms of high-speed trains puts its diverse clarinet quartet through an unpredictable discourse here ensuring a characterful performance.

This diverse and enjoyable recital was also the second BCMG-related event to be held at the Jennifer Blackwell Performance Space, adjacent to the Circle level at Symphony Hall – itself much improved as a setting with the overhead promotional screen turned off for the duration.

Further information on BCMG events in the 2021/22 season can be found at their website. Click on the names to read more detail on composers Julian Anderson, Emily Howard, or for more on Christian Mason and Anna Meredith

In concert – Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group: Soliloquies & Dialogues – Music made in Lockdown

bcmg-soliloquies

Members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group [Oliver Janes (clarinet), Ryan Linham (trumpet), Colette Overdijk (violin), Julian Warburton (percussion), Amelie Thomas (trumpet)]

Oram Counting Steps – first version (2020)*
Murail Les Ruines circulaires (2006)
Ma Xiao-Qing Back to the Beginning (2020)*
del Avellanal Carreño speak, sing… (2020)*
Donghoon Shin Couplet (2020)*
Howard R (2021)*
Reich New York Counterpoint (1985)
Birtwistle The Message (2008)
Oram Counting Steps – second version (2020)*

[Works indicated * received their live premieres]

CBSO Centre, Birmingham
Tuesday 15 June 2021

Written by Richard Whitehouse

It may have been unable to present live events during the past 15 months, but Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has not been inactive – commissioning a series of pieces from composers around the world for performance online as part of its Soliloquies & Dialogues project. Having been performed at Bristol’s Arnolfini Gallery last Friday, a representative selection of these was this evening presented at CBSO Centre – in the process, confirming that ‘‘while we were all unified by lockdown, our reactions were still highly individual’’.

Tristan Murail’s Les Ruines circulaires was written well before the pandemic, but it vividly encapsulates the ‘dialogues’ aspect – clarinet and violin in confrontation, before opening out into a melodic discourse in a two-way process that might always be the same, only different.

It was vividly realized tonight, violinist Colette Overdijk then having two solo pieces – the first a live hearing for Ma Xiao-Quing’s evocative Back to the Beginning which, while less demonstrative than the online premiere, integrated elements of music and speech with greater subtlety and finesse. Donghoon Shin’s Couplet placed its expressive contrasts in stark relief – thus, an ‘aria and toccata’ in which long-breathed lyricism was succeeded by music whose gestural force and its rapidly accumulating energy were rendered with no mean virtuosity.

Between these works, clarinettist Oliver Janes gave the premiere of speak, sing…, where José Del Avellanal Carreño took advantage of new developments in Machine Learning technology – recorded improvisations by the soloist forming a basis for the interaction between ‘human’ responses as written by the composer with ‘artificial’ responses as generated by the prism-samplernn programme. The outcome was an eventful and unpredictable dialogue, though the subfusc quality of the electronic element rather stood in the way of more engaging synthesis.

Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint was no less radical in its interplay between clarinet and tape four decades ago, Janes (understandably) sounding more at ease in the dialogue with his pre-recorded self in this performance of appealing deftness and not a little quizzical humour. Beforehand, percussionist Julian Warburton took the stage for the live premiere of R, where Emily Howard explores geometrical concepts as well as the possibilities of sonic growth and decay in a piece whose variety is more immediate given its concision and sense of purpose. Afterwards, Harrison Birtwistle’s The Message provided a telling foil in its halting dialogue between clarinet and trumpet – tersely curtailed by the arrival of military drum; a piece that commemorates the fortieth anniversary of the London Sinfonietta in the pithiest of terms.

Framing the whole, two versions of Celeste Oram’s Counting Steps anticipated then reflected on what was heard. Taking its cue from Fux’s treatise Gradus ad Parnassum, specifically two aphorisms with their expressing strength through courage in the face of weakness and decay, its methodically elaborating trumpet part against a graphic video projection was confidently rendered by Ryan Linham – with, in the second version, Amelie Thomas hardly less assured in support. An arresting framework in which to present this always enterprising programme.

You can find information on the next BCMG live performance here, while Colette Overdijk gives the online premiere of Back to the Beginning here

Talking Heads: Emily Howard

Interviewed by Ben Hogwood

Meet Emily Howard, the featured composer at this year’s Aldeburgh Festival. We will hear four works from her impressive canon – a new orchestral piece, sphere, receiving its UK premiere together with Magnetite in a program from the BBC National Orchestra of Wales and Mark Wigglesworth. This concert comes a day after Afference, her string quartet, which will be played by the Piatti Quartet.

Her biggest work to date, however, is a new opera, To See The Invisible. Developed with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and director Dan Ayling, it will receive three performances at the head of the festival. Arcana was able to chat with Emily to get her thoughts on the new pieces. As is traditional, however, I began by asking for her earliest recollections of classical music.

“I was lucky that it was always around me since I was young,” she recalls. “My dad, a medic, also played the cello. I was brought up in the Wirral, near Liverpool, and I remember going to see the Liverpool Mozart Orchestra, and really loving it. I was taken to operas as well, and because my mum is a pianist too, I was around music all the time.”

Howard began learning her music in a traditional route, but soon realised composition was the discipline for her. “When I was really young I started learning the cello. I was never so good at very regular and disciplined practice – even then I was always more interested in exploring new sounds and tones. Composing came naturally in that way, at the age of eight or nine years old, and what I really wanted to do was write a piece for orchestra. I made a piece for the cello, and transcribed for orchestra. I wrote it all out and the composer/conductor Guy Woolfenden, who was a great influence, was really kind and got the orchestra to play it through!

Fast forward to 2016, when Emily’s Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) enjoyed its world premiere at the BBC Proms in 2016, her ‘home’ orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko. It made a strong impression on those present (including yours truly). She declares herself “really pleased, overwhelmed” with the reaction. “The piece has won a British Composer Award since then, too. You can’t tell necessarily how these things are going to go but I was absolutely delighted!”

To See The Invisible is her biggest work to date, and she considers the challenges in writing such a substantial piece for the stage. “It lasts about eighty minutes in total. To be honest I have no idea how I managed to write something that long, but I suppose you’ve got the narrative and texts, which have helped to extend it to a length similar to that of Mahler’s Third Symphony. I had worked with Selma before on Zátopek!, a mini-opera I completed several years ago. We have been talking ever since, and with our director Dan Ayling, the approach has been truly collaborative, making it a very exciting and enjoyable experience. Composing abstract music is not a sociable activity necessarily, and I have found that throughout the opera process, it really helps when you share ideas with your creative partners, and take on board their viewpoints, often very different. Collaboration is a wonderful thing, and it does change you.”

The opera takes its inspiration from a short science fiction story by Robert Silverberg. “For ages Selma and I had been talking about writing an opera based on the experience of a person who is shunned by a society. The central character would be ignored, rather like being sent to Coventry. While Selma was writing the libretto, her brother said about the Silverberg story in which a character is sentenced to a ‘Year of Invisibility’ for ‘a crime of coldness’. It turned out that Selma had been partially remembering the story and we read it and the opera became an adaption. We were really knocked out by the Silverberg.”

She describes the setting in more detail. “It is a sort of musical deuce, where this person is somehow different, and the story plays on the isolation of people who do not fit the system and are excluded from society. Therefore I wanted The Invisible, the opera’s protagonist, to be vocally distinct from the other characters and I chose for them to be represented by baritone and soprano voice simultaneously, particularly in the character’s private moments.” The singers are required to have great flexibility and dexterity here. “The soprano and baritone have really wide ranges, together they are a meta-voice portraying an emotional journey, with the baritone often a lot higher than the soprano.”

Musically, the opera is about collisions between The Invisible’s world and the World of Warmth. “I have intentionally set up contrasting sound worlds with The Invisible’s language consisting of musical extremes, ranging from ethereal to anguished. The World of Warmth is much more traditional and tempered in feel.” The opera looks beneath the surface of these different worlds. “With the World of Warmth, we are all asking is this really the world of warmth?”

One of the many intriguing elements of Howard’s work is its fascination with the relationship between music and mathematics. This is perhaps best captured in a recent work, The Music of Proof.

A collaboration with mathematician Marcus du Sautoy, it began while Howard was writing another – Torus (Concerto for Orchestra) – itself a musical work influenced by mathematics. “I met Marcus through a friend when I was writing Torus, and we had a coffee at the Royal Albert Hall. We really connected about the piece, and about the doughnut shape of the hall’s construction. He immediately said the Royal Albert Hall is torus-shaped (shaped like a doughnut), and since then we have been meeting and working together on various projects.”

“We presented The Music of Proof at New Scientist Live in 2017, featuring a newly composed work entitled Four Musical Proofs and a Conjecture premiered by the Piatti Quartet, five miniatures for string quartet. Each miniature is related to a different style of mathematical proof and in order to compose them, I had asked myself the question “What if I approach writing music as though I am proceeding with the construction of a mathematical proof?” This was a completely different way of working for me and certainly helped me to brush up on some mathematical proofs I had all but forgotten! In the show, Marcus explains the proof, and I explain what I did in response – I have found very different ways to translate aspects of these proofs into music, and then you get to hear the music. We’ve recently repeated the show in Sheffield at Music in the Round.”

The success of the collaboration has filtered through to Howard’s tuition work at the Royal Northern College of Music. “At the RNCM, we have started PRiSM (which stands for Centre for Practice & Research in Science & Music), and we are encouraging collaborations between music students, scientists and mathematicians. I feel that there are real links to be explored: for me both music and maths are about pattern-making.”

“As a composition student, I had wanted to take ideas from mathematics and science and create musical shapes with them, and to begin with I found this difficult. As my musical craft has grown, I feel as though I’ve become more successful at translating ideas from mathematics into musical ideas on which to base my work. For instance, when I created Torus, I imagined I was on the surface of the shape, travelling around and around in one direction, and encountering different landscapes as I went. Around 14 minutes into the work, there is a significant shift and a complete change of musical soundworld, and this is where I had instead imagined a rotation in the other direction. So considering mathematical shapes in this way does help me to define musical shapes and structure in my compositions.”

Returning to the Aldeburgh Festival, Afference – completed in 2014 – represents a significant foray into chamber music. “That was a very difficult piece to write”, she admits. “I had written several orchestral pieces and I really wanted to write some chamber music. I spent ages on it and it’s helped me a lot to write that piece. Perhaps with chamber music in general and certainly with this work, everything feels much sparser and I find that every note, every gesture has a poignant significance. The Piatti Quartet are playing it at the festival, and it will be very interesting to hear them perform another of my works – they’re such fantastic players. They’ve put in an incredible amount of work on the piece.”

Howard is naturally delighted to be given such a prominent role in this year’s festival. “It’s an honour, I’m really proud of being Composer In Residence, alongside esteemed colleagues such as Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Simon Holt, and of course it’s Benjamin Britten’s festival. It’s a wonderful festival and a magical place – especially for opera. In fact we developed To See The Invisible in Aldeburgh, so the piece has grown up there!”

For more information on Emily Howard, visit the composer’s website

BBC Proms 2016 – Shostakovich, Rachmaninov & Emily Howard from Alexey Stadler, Vasily Petrenko and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic

proms-stadler

Alexey Stadler pictured during his performance of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no.1, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko (c) Chris Christodoulou

Prom 53; Royal Albert Hall, 25 August 2016

You can listen to the Prom on the BBC iPlayer

The BBC Proms should be commended for their commitment to new music, though this does come with a caveat, for it is not often that a commission for the Proms makes it to a second or third performance. Hopefully that fate will not befall Emily Howard’s Torus, a joint commission with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who gave it a thoroughly committed and virtuosic first performance under Vasily Petrenko.

Torus is based on a mathematical phenomenon, but to Howard’s credit she did not make this the domineering feature of the piece – if she did, like all good composers, it was part of the essential framework rather than explicitly signposted. Instead we were able to enjoy the colours of the large symphony orchestra, and especially the percussion, the three players using bows on their cymbals to make the textures glint towards the end.

Though subtitled Concerto for Orchestra, there was no display of gravity defying, musical athletics for the sake of it. Rather we enjoyed the orchestra as an instrument, the melodic content taking on a distinctive falling motif as though the music were heading for a trap door.

proms-petrenko

Shostakovich’s popular Cello Concerto no.1 followed, with a last minute substitute, Alexey Stadler, standing in for the unfortunately ill Truls Mørk. Any doubts about inferiority were immediately quelled, the young Russian cellist finding the soul of the music in a searching account of the slow movement and cadenza in particular. Petrenko and the RLPO, so attuned to this composer’s music in their award winning accounts of his symphonies for Naxos, were superb in support, especially horn player Timothy Jackson – but Stadler rightly stole the show, adjusting to the acoustics of the Royal Albert Hall with commendable ease. His beautiful tone brought both pain and hope to the solo part in equal measure, and led to a gorgeous encore in the form of the Sarabande from Bach’s Solo Cello Suite no.2.

Finally Petrenko led his orchestra in the music of another composer with whom they share great familiarity – Rachmaninov. There are several warhorses in his output that are arguably overplayed in concert, but the Symphony no.3 is not one of them – and how wonderful it was in this account, with soulful melodies, sleights of hand from Petrenko and sudden bursts of light from the orchestra.

The tricky syncopations of the finale were expertly handled, the orchestra delivering the suddenly loud snaps like the slamming of a door, a thrilling effect in the live arena. Yet they were also alive to the music’s lyrical and occasionally less certain undercurrents, where leader Thelma Handy was a superb soloist.

As an encore Petrenko brought out Shostakovich’s arrangement of YoumansTea For Two, and gave it a brilliant send-up, as though conducting the last night. It was a beautifully judged encore, and showed again just how much this orchestra and conductor enjoy working together – which is what it’s all about, surely!

Ben Hogwood