New Music North West 2016 (opening weekend)

New Music North West (NMNW) kicks off tomorrow at the RNCM with, amongst other things, a performance of Gary Carpenter’s Listening SymphonyThis is a massive festival of new music; over a hundred composers have music being played and there are over 50 premieres.

There are so many things in the festival I want to shout about; music by Harrison Birtwistle (who is visiting the festival for three days); concerts by Distractfold; ACM; ddmmyy; a wide range of music performed by, in particular, RNCM and Manchester University Students; and two short concerts by my group the House of Bedlam (I’ll post on that early next week). However, as I have curated the opening weekend (and thanks to festival director Clark Rundell and RNCM artistic director Michelle Castelletti have had extraordinary free rein) so I thought I’d write a bit about this here.

The things going round my head when I was thinking about the programme was how I might interpret the name of the festival, which has traditionally focussed on all kinds of new and recent concert music, what I really mean when I refer to ‘a composer’ and that the RNCM, somewhere with a great deal of vital new music, has a platform to explore some compositional and performance extremes.

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The Vonnegut Collective

The relatively new Vonnegut Collective is performing in the 8pm slot on the Saturday. I’m enticed by a new music collective that started when two BBC Philharmonic instrumentalists (Gary Farr and Gemma Bass), experts and obsessives in new music and new sounds, spent their rehearsal breaks exploring free improvisation.

I sincerely hope this catches on…

They collaborate with the composers they work with (who usually perform with them) and bring together improvisation, composed music, devised music and conversation about music. This is the case at NMNW; Tullis Rennie and Cath Roberts join the collective as composers and performers alongside performance of music by Cornelius Cardew. They are also performing a short work by Gavin Osborn in the Lecture theatre three times at 12pm, 12.20 and 12.40 to very small audiences for an intimate concert experience.

At 2pm there are diverse responses from RNCM student (on the popular music and composition programmes) to current and historic Manchester-based bands. Expect surprising covers from two very, very different ensembles (including a version of Nina Simone’s cover of the Bee Gee’s Please read me (go on click and have a listen – crazy piano playing), because, well because I love it and asked the students involved very nicely). This is alongside Kathryn Williams performing Laurie Tompkins’ recent work for flute and electronics (elusively connected by a short reference to Oasis…).

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Nina Simone

At 4pm the Junior RNCM, whose new music concerts always showcase such good playing and writing, are staging a deliciously ambitious concert. Taking over the concert hall they start with a large-scale open scored piece, gradually downsizing through more conventional ensembles and notation to end with a short work for solo wheelbarrow. As you do. I can’t wait.

And later on, as it’s Saturday night, there will be a couple of RNCM bands playing in the bar. It’s after the Big Band concert so Harry Fausing Smith, playing with his band Pope Vivian, have promised some connection to jazz. Last time they provided some music at my request (for a Decontamination concert) it was a short barrage of unapologetic noise (go on – have a listen). I’m rather glad that, deep down, I don’t really know what to expect.

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Part of Matthew Sergeant’s ‘[Kiss]’ programme card.
Sunday is a rather different and stared, for me, thinking about two works by good friends that I find extremely exciting. The first is Matthew Sergeant’s [Kiss] – a live solo violin work that lasts between 4 and 6 hours. The second is Nina Whiteman’s (I believe on-going) collection of overlapping works of variable duration The Astrolabe Series. I am personally inspired by these ambitious, deliriously (in some respects) impractical pieces was desperate to see them/see them again.

The day begins at 11am with a short round-table discussion with some of the composers about the perception of time in music chaired by expert-in-the-field Dr Michelle Phillips. The music starts at 12 with not only Matt’s [Kiss], but also a new very long video installation of Ian Vine’s, a performance of a recent work by RNCM undergraduate composer John Uren (an hour of piano and electronics) and RNCM students performing one of Morton Feldman’s late monoliths Crippled Symmetry.

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Morton Feldman

At 5pm, in straightforward stark contrast (and inevitably containing a number of straightforward stark contrasts), is a concert dominated by miniatures featuring new minute-long pieces by fifteen RNCM staff members, some early James Saunders and pieces by RNCM undergraduate Michael Brailey and former head of composition Anthony Gilbert. I’m a simple person and, to be honest, was initially motivated by wondering if the two less-than-twenty-second movements in Tony’s Six of the Bestiary (which I love, refer to when teaching and have listened to countless times) would sound different to me after hours of Feldman, Sergeant, Vine & Uren. I also really wanted to hear James’ 511 Possible Mosaics. Given that each one is eighteen seconds long it seemed impractical to travel to New Zealand for the premiere back in 1999.

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Nina Whiteman

Nina Whiteman takes centre stage with Trio Atem in the 7pm concert, which culminates in a 30-minute (and to date largest) version of her Astrolabe Series. I’ve lost track of exactly what’s happening in this piece, which is spatialised around the vast canvas of the RNCM’s opera theatre, but I understand the trio is augmented with 17 extra performers, there are pieces that include multiple double basses, multiple flutes and live electronics. The trio also get to showcase their more usual practice with works by Elizabeth Ditmanson and Grace Evangeline Mason and, excitingly for me because it has been a while since he has written for his own trio, a new work by Gavin Osborn.

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Solem String Quartet

The weekend rounds off with the fifth in the Decontamination Series. I was thinking of this concert as something that might untangle the threads of the weekend and the overlapping pieces of Nina’s new work(s). So here we have pop singer/songwriter, storyteller, troubadour and Manchester cult favourite Aidan Smith shuffled with the Solem String Quartet’s return to the series, the latter playing music by their own violist Ali Vennart, the rarely performed in the UK (and frankly f*****g awesome) Hell by Liza Lim and an extract from Henri Duttieux’s ravishing Ansi la nuit; a modest tribute to a great composer in his centenary year. There are so many good songs of Aidan’s but I have a particular soft spot for The Merry-Go-Round of Abingdon Town partly because of a great version I heard him do at a gig a couple of years ago and also because I grew up near Abingdon and know it well.

Aidan Smith
Aidan Smith

So yes, this is essentially a protracted advert, but with good reason. I’m more than chuffed that there are performances of pop music, jazz, improvisation of various kinds, new concert music, 5 hour+ violin works and installations, pieces that last 15 seconds, explorations of modular practice, and so much more all strangely and varyingly connected by the North West of England and, most importantly, a love of musical exploration.

And to anyone involved in making new music you can imagine the number of people involved who have given so much of their time and energy far beyond what can realistically be afforded or fairly expected. So share this, shout about it, come along and, I hope, have a flipping fantastic weekend.

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Still from Ian Vine ‘twenty-seven trios’ (and link to some more information).
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Decontamination #4 – Fantasy & Artificial Landscapes

I’m delighted that I can finally confirm the programme for November’s Decontamination concert featuring composer and cellist Oliver Coates:

Oliver Coates
Oliver Coates

Decontamination #4 – Fantasy & Artificial Landscape
Tuesday 10 November 2015, 8pm
Royal Northern College of Music, Studio Theatre

Trains – Joanne Bailie (cello and soundtrack)
Kottos – Iannis Xenakis (solo cello)
Unreal Estate – Oliver Coates & Lawrence Lek (cello, electronics, soundtrack and projection)
Opus 17a (extract) – Hanne Darboven

You can book tickets here.

The centrepiece of this short concert is Coates’ and Lek’s collaboration from earlier this year. Here Lek uses video game software to imagine a future in which the Royal Academy of Arts in London has been sold off as a privately owned luxury estate accompanied by a soundtrack by virtuoso cellist Oliver Coates and a voiceover of a found text from Russian Tatler magazine, translated into Mandarin by Joni Zhu. You can watch and hear this extraordinary piece of artwork here however the soundtrack and, potentially, the visuals themselves are tailored for each performance.

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Lawrence Lek – ‘Unreal estate’

Joanna Bailie’s 2014 work Trains takes us on a fantastical journey by meticulously blending the her field recordings of trains with sounds from the live cello. As the processing and cello exposes more tangible pitch content the original field recordings are masked and well-known ‘found’ material from the cello cannon is revealed. The result is understated, surprising and ravishing.

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Joanna Bailie
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Iannis Xenakis

Kottos, Xenakis’ 1977 monolith for solo cello, is a piece of immense physical energy . The music evokes the fantastical imagery suggested by the title, Xenakis write in the score ‘Kottos is one of the three Giants (Sons of Ouranos, the Sky, and of Gaia, the Earth). Each one had a hundred arms and fifty heads. They were the allies of Zeus in his fight agains the Titans that were eventually defeated; allusion to the fury and the virtuosity necessary to the performance of this piece.’

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Hanne Darboven

German conceptual artist Hanne Darboven’s Opus 17a forms part of her Mathematical Music output. Systematically controlled numerical data, prevalent in her installation work, informs the organisation of this  characteristically uncompromising minimal music.

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Decontamination #3

I’m very happy that Decontamination #3 is happening this Sunday at 11am and 3pm in the RNCM Library and Studio theatre as part of the Big Weekend.

It’s humbling how many people have contributed so much time, effort and energy to this programme. There are seven acoustic world premieres for the occasion from exceptional RNCM students; four short responses to Erik Satie’s furniture music from Ben Parker, Aaron Breeze, Sergio Cote and David Curington; a prepared improvisation by double bassist and composer Otto Willberg; a response to Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music for Airports from Richard Evans and; a new piece for saxophone and ensemble considering ideas of ambient music by Jack Sheen. I’m particularly looking forward to hearing and seeing the RNCM library used for half of this concert.

There are also new or new versions of electronic pieces by Michael Brailey, Aaron Parker and Harry Fausing Smith’s band Pope Vivian.

Other featured composers are Morton Feldman, Michael Perrett, Erik Satie, Kaija Saariaho and Tom Rose.

In the Foyer you will have the chance to hear music by Eric Satie, Brian Eno, John Cage, Matthew Sergeant, Aaron Parker, Chris Watson and myself with an unusually specialised sound system and some interesting mixing or works. This will be running all day.

Each part of each concert will last less than 40-min. Full programme details below.

Decontamination#3Programme

Decontamination#2 – Melodies, harmonies, hymns, anthem and lament

The second Decontamination concert is coming up. Music and films by artists I love played by great instrumentalists.

from Angel's Gate
from Angel’s Gate

Thursday 27 November 2014 – RNCM Studio Theatre – 9pm

Melodies, harmonies, hymns, anthem and lament

Music by John Cage and films by Bill Viola

Six Melodies for violin and any keyboard instrument – John Cage

Anthem – Bill Viola

No. 5 (“The Lord Descended” – William Billings) from Apartment House 1776: 44 Harmonies arranged by Roger Zahab  – John Cage

Angel’s Gate – Bill Viola

No.21 (“Heath” – William Billings), No 15 (“Bellingham” – William Billings, No.42 (“Rapture” – Supply Belcher) and No.28 (“Greenwich” – Andrew Law) from Apartment House 1776: 44 Harmonies arranged by Roger Zahab – John Cage

Lyn Fletcher – Violin
Benjamin Powell – Fender Rhodes

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Bill Viola

Two of Bill Viola’s extraordinary films: Angel’s Gates is ‘a succession of individual images focussing on mortality, decay and disintegration, are delineated by long, slow fades to black’ and Anthem ‘a post-industrial lamentation, structured on the single piercing scream of a young girl as she stands in the cast chamber of Union Station in Los Angeles’ is put alongside a selection of Roger Zahab’s beautiful arrangements of John Cage‘s Harmonies from Apartment House 1777, themselves studies in erosion of traditional hymns. Opening the concert is Cage’s early modularly constructed masterwork Six Melodies.

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from ‘Anthem’

I heard the Roger Zahab arrangement of the 14 Harmonies from Apartment House 1776 several years ago on a CD by Annelie Gahl and Klaus Lang. I already knew the 1950 Melodies which I had discovered when studying the Quartet in Four Parts as the two pieces share composition processes (a modular approach in which different fragments of the music are separated into ‘gamuts’ for subsequent organisation). Some of the open approach to composition that features in Apartment House 1776 (as well as so many of Cage’s pieces) is prefaced in the Melodies and Quartet in Four Parts so despite Zahab’s fixed (and Cage sanctioned) arrangement of 14 of the Harmonies there is a logical progression between these pieces as well as the close relationship in sound and (in this case) instrumentation.

John Cage
John Cage

I have not been able to get this music our of my head. At the moment I listen to these pieces more often than anything else.

The two films and two sets of pieces examine comparable ideas of formulaic and free organisation as well as erosion/disintegration, religious music and practice.

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Ben Powell

I’ve been listening to Ben Powell play the piano since our student days when he was playing with Ensemble 11 – a new music group formed by Geth Griffith and Carl Raven which I was involved with. He is one of the finest interpreters of new music in the country, recently appointed pianist to Psappha and the 2010 British Piano Music Competition winner.

Lyn Fletcher
Lyn Fletcher

As leader of the Hallé I’ve heard Lyn Fletcher play often but a particularly memorable performance was her performance of The Quartet for the End of Time with fellow National Youth Orchestra tutors. One of the most moving performances of this piece I have ever heard. I have enjoyed talking to Lyn about new music and new ideas about music.

I can’t wait to hear her and Ben play this music.

DECONTAMINATION#1 – Darkness & Light

I’m very excited that the first of a series of concerts I’m curating with the Royal Northern College of Music takes place this coming Tuesday:

Tuesday 28 October 2014 – RNCM Studio Theatre – 20.00

Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco – Jonathan Harvey

“In iij. Noct.” (String Quartet No.3) – Georg Friedrich Haas
Performed by The Solem String Quartet

Gran Coda Andante – Robert Curgenven

RNCM concert information here and box office here.

 

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Georg Friedrich Haas

I’m looking forward to hearing these three pieces together. “In iij. Noct” is a string quartet by Georg Friedrich Haas than can last for at least 35 minutes and potentially considerable longer. The instrumentalists are positioned around the audience and play the modular score, as much text and instructions as notated music, in an order decided during the performance by a musical negotiation of the materials. It is played in pitch darkness, an intense and demanding situation for performers and audience, and oscillates between beautiful spectral harmonies and textures and more dissonant music of various kinds structurally punctuated by a quotation from Gesualdo.

 

Jonathan Harvey
Jonathan Harvey

This substantial quartet is framed by two purely electronic pieces. Jonathan Harvey’s monumental Mortuos Plango: Vivos Voco is inspired in part by the inscription in the church bell at Winchester Cathedral (the wonderfully evocative Horas Avolantes Numero, Mortuos Plango: Vivos ad Preces Voco – I count the fleeing hours, I lament the dead: the living I call to prayer) as well as the sound and spectral quality of the bell and his son’s chorister voice and singing. The music is realised through eight speakers placed around the audience – in part imagining what it would be to make music inside this massive church bell.

 

Robert Curgenven
Robert Curgenven

 

Finally Robert Curgenven, a sound artist living on the south coast, has made a track called Gran Coda Andante of his amazing album OLTRE. This short piece takes a dubplate he made in Milan (a dubplate is a one off single sided vinyl record – slightly softer than a normal record) and then uses this in live performances until the sound start to degrade. This meditative drone-based piece examines how the sound changes as this record gradually falls apart.

 

 

 

I’m delighted that The Solem String Quartet have taken on this unusual and demanding work. They are recent graduates of the RNCM and University of Manchester, are wonderful players and an exciting up and coming quartet (they have had numerous recent successes including winning the very prestigious 2014 Royal Overseas League Ensemble Competition).

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The Solem Quartet

the house of bedlam – some stills from forthcoming films

In the next couple of months I’ll be making a new website for the house of bedlam which will include the films of our recent concerts. This will include music by Alvin Lucier, Ian Vine, Matthew Sergeant, Fabrice Fitch, David Horne, Tom Rose, Bethan Morgan-Williams as well as myself. I’ll also be announcing some new concerts, music and other plans. In the meantime here are some stills from the films.

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