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30 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Beat Furrer

30 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series continues with a celebration of music by Austrian composer, and founder of Klangforum Wien, Beat Furrer. Watch the free performance on Sunday 5 November at Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall. In this post, Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces Beat Furrer's intricate style.

Works for stage – seven so far and an eighth (Violetter Schnee) in progress – run like a spine through Beat Furrer’s output. Of them, FAMA (2005), performed in London last November, is perhaps the most renowned. In Ovid’s description Fama, the Roman goddess of fame and rumour, lives at the centre of the world in a house with ‘a thousand openings, and no doors to bar the threshold. It is open night and day: and is all of sounding bronze. All rustles with noise, echoes voices, and repeats what is heard.’ Furrer’s hour-long ‘sound theatre’, which combines Ovid with Arthur Schnitzler’s 1924 novella Fräulein Else, was originally staged inside a specially built box. The audience sat inside while the musicians, outside, played and sang through shutters – lined on one side with bronze – that opened and closed, continually amplifying, filtering and altering the sound.

FAMA, described by one reviewer as ‘a miracle’ after its premiere at the Donaueschingen festival, is almost a summation of Furrer’s work, and motifs of echoes and reverberations, as well as processes of filtering and layering, overflow into his instrumental pieces. The piano in particular – with its built-in echo chamber of copper-wound strings – has been an important instrument. After nuun (1995–96) for two pianos and large ensemble, ideas of resonance and shadowing were taken up in the piano solo Phasma (2002) and the Three Piano Pieces (2005) – the latter essentially studies in reverberation effects. The Piano Concerto (2007) sets these investigations within a highly dramatic trajectory. Over its 18 minutes the work traces a broad sweep across the full range of the keyboard, beginning with silently depressed bass strings that resonate sympathetically with the sounds of other instruments, up to the woodblock-like snap of the very highest register. Throughout, the ensemble (which includes a second, ‘shadow piano’) acts like a resonating chamber for the soloist, although not a straightforward one: it has its own agenda, and its reflections – like those within FAMA’s shuttered box – are often recoloured or recharacterised.



Nicolas Hodges, piano soloist

Twice the upward spiral is interrupted, the music’s frenetic dynamism freezing suddenly like a ‘bullet time’ sequence in an action film. The first instance feels like a system error as piano and ensemble appear to have peeled apart and halted one another. The second, after 10 minutes, is longer and has a more melancholy feel however, as though the piano, having reached its topmost register, knows that the game is up. Soloist and ensemble rally briefly, but the music – which had such momentum – has become stuck in ruts and loops, like a damaged CD. Left with nowhere to go, apart from a few cries of defiance, it simply burns itself out.

Despite his love of resonance as a dramatic and thematic device, the surface sound of Furrer’s music – exemplified in both this evening’s pieces – is rather dry, dominated by snapping pizzicati, staccato piano (especially in its very highest, least reverberant register) and muted brass. Resonance, then, is less a matter of washes of echoing sound, but of crisp relationships between a thing and its double.

Furrer’s doubles developed into polarities after the composition of another theatre piece, Wüstenbuch (Desert Book, 2010), whose libretto is concerned with the desert as a place between earth and the afterlife (it is based on Ingeborg Bachmann’s diary of her journey to Egypt in 1964, made in the midst of sickness and after the breakup of her relationship with the playwright Max Frisch). Linea dell’orizzonte (2012) picks up these themes: the ‘line of the horizon’ is where ground meets sky, and Furrer’s piece for nine musicians holds opposing elements – at the start, staccato jabs and drooping glissandi – in a similar balance, at the same time evoking the skyline’s intense, hazy glare.

© Tim Rutherford-Johnson, 2017

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press).


3 Oct 2017

Music of Today: Michael Daugherty

3 Oct

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's 2017/18 Music of Today series opens with a showcase of music by American composer Michael Daugherty. Watch the free performance at 6pm on Thursday 5 October. Read Daugherty's introduction to the works featured in the programme below.

 

Mermaid Avenue (2016)  from This Land Sings: Songs of Wandering, Love and Protest inspired by the life and times of Woody Guthrie

In 1943, three years after composing "This Land is Your Land,” American singer-songwriter and political activist Woody Guthrie was ready to settle down. He and his new wife Marjorie moved to a modest house at 3520 Mermaid Avenue.  Mermaid Avenue was located near Coney Island, the iconic amusement park located on the last subway stop from Manhattan on the Atlantic Ocean. The years Woody spent on Mermaid Avenue were the most stable and prolific period of his nomadic life.  During his years at Mermaid Avenue, Woody embraced the yiddish culture which surrounded him, along with the carnival atmosphere of the Coney Island boardwalk and beach.  But tragedy was just around the corner: in 1952, he was admitted to Brooklyn State Hospital, beginning a long battle with Huntington's chorea which lead to his untimely death in 1967.  

 

Walk the Walk (2005) 

Walk the Walk for baritone sax and percussion was commissioned by Opus 21 for a concert honoring pianist Joe Hunter (1927-2007) and the Funk Brothers, a group of Detroit studio musicians who played on all of the historic Motown releases from 1959 to 1972. Using a deconstructed fragment from the Temptations' My Girl as a compositional idée fixe, I  take the listener through a world of virtuosic Detroit blues, rock, jazz and Latin Motown musical grooves.

 



 

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover (1993)

Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover for string quartet and pre-recorded sound was commissioned by Kronos Quartet.  The first performance was given by Kronos Quartet on January 23, 1993 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. My composition is about the man who directed the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation virtually unchallenged from 1924 until his death in 1972. 

My composition opens with one of J. Edgar Hoover's favorite mottoes: “The FBI is as close to you as your nearest telephone.” This “reassurance” to the American public also served to authorize his systematic invasion of their privacy: for Hoover, the telephone became an instrument for playing out his lifetime obsession with collecting sensitive information for his so-called “secret files.” Throughout his 48 years as director of the FBI, Hoover ordered the wiretapping of the telephones of movies stars, gangsters, presidents, civil rights activists, politicians, communist sympathizers, entertainers, and anyone who opposed his own political and moral agenda. 

For me, the motto offers an opportunity to listen in on Hoover’s voice, and to manipulate it for my own compositional purposes. The telephone, like the digital technology I have used, mediates voice so that it is both distant and near. I wanted to bring the dead voice of J. Edgar Hoover back to a posthumous life through technology, so that it may “sing” of its own death. I created the tape part by digitally sampling bits of actual historical speeches delivered by Hoover from 1941 to 1972, to such diverse audiences as the American Legion, Boys’ Club of America, and the FBI National Academy. 

It was eerie to be the first person to hear these tapes since they were made available to the public. I composed string parts to “sing along” with Hoover, in order to convey my sense of Hoover’s grim, threatening, yet darkly comic personality. The part played by the string quartet is also inspired by sounds associated with the FBI, such as sirens, American patriotic songs, and machine gun syncopations. The quartet therefore creates another context for hearing Hoover’s own words: “I hope that this presentation will serve to give you a better knowledge and a deep understanding of YOUR FBI.” 

 

Dead Elvis (1993) 

Dead Elvis was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva and Chuck Ullery, principal bassoonist with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It is more than a coincidence that it is scored for the same instrumentation as Stravinsky's Histoire du Soldat (1918) in which a soldier sells his violin and his soul to the devil for a magic book. In Dead Elvis, the bassoon is Elvis (or perhaps an Elvis impersonator). Does this rock star sell out his Southern folk authenticity to the sophisticated professionalism of Hollywood movies, Colonel Parker and Las Vegas in order to attain great wealth and fame? Dead Elvis goes far beyond this romantic Faustian scenario. For me, the two clashing Elvis images (the hip, beautiful, genius, thin, rock-and-roll Elvis versus the vulgar, cheesy, fat, stoned, Las Vegas Elvis) serve as a sturm und drang compositional algorithm. Further, my use of the dies irae (a medieval Latin chant for the Day of Judgement) as the principal musical theme of "Dead Elvis" signifies yet another aspect of the Elvis myth: some people believe Elvis is dead, while others believe he is alive and well in Kalamazoo. Perhaps the question is not whether Elvis is alive or dead, but why the phenomenon of Elvis endures beyond the grave of Graceland. Elvis, for better or worse, is part of American culture, history and mythology. If you want to understand America and all its riddles, sooner or later you will have to deal with (Dead) Elvis.

Programme Notes by Michael Daugherty

 



21 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Meet the Composers

21 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Gareth Moorcraft, Lisa Illean and Donghoon Shin, will have their works performed tonight at 6pm.

In this blog post, each of the composers introduce their work.

 

Gareth Moorcraft

Reflections (After Gibbons)

My new work Reflections takes inspiration from the Fantasias for viol consort by English composer Orlando Gibbons (1583-1625). I think of the piece as a kind of musical conversation which develops and distorts the sounds and materials of the originals, exploring how they can be re-imagined in new musical contexts. Fragments from Gibbons's works form the basis for five short movements, each of which focuses on a single musical element (lines, harmonic progressions, imitative devices and contrapuntal textures). The movements might be considered as miniature portraits or studies, each posing a new question and exploring Gibbons's materials from different perspectives.



 

Lisa Illean

Januaries

Landscape and natural elements seem to deeply influence my mind, my memory and the way I put sounds together. My piece takes its title from Southern hemisphere summers, where elements often seem to share two states at once: where air is swollen with water, and where afternoons give way to steaming rain one sweats in. The sensation of this lingered with me as I composed. It coloured re-imaginings of earlier sketches of music written for the Philharmonia Orchestra (so much so, that I eventually titled the work Januaries).



 

Donghoon Shin

The Hunter's Funeral for Ensemble



For a long time, I have been fascinated by different types of funeral march music in diverse cultures. What intrigues me is the irony in this specific genre - melody and harmony in minor keys express sorrow and remorse while a rhythmic feature repeats itself underneath, evoking slow dance music. For instance, in the third movement of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, what starts as funeral music turns into a sarcastic dance. According to the Mahler scholar Constantin Floros, Moritz von Schwind’s woodcut ‘The Hunter’s Funeral’ (1890) was possibly the inspiration for this music.

The Hunter’s Funeral is my response to the same woodcut. It depicts animals carrying the coffin of a hunter in a solemn march. This paradoxical scene gave me a strong inspiration for the piece. It starts with a very simple and rather mundane pitch cell, C-D-E-F. The harmony structure and the melodies in the piece are all derived from the simple pitch cell, which gradually changes colour from bright to dark.

The music is divided into two movements with no gap in between. The first movement has a fast and rhythmic feature like dance music- groovy, sharp and energetic. The tempo of the dance music gets slower and a funeral march emerges in the second movement. Over the repetitive rhythm of the strings, the melodies in the woodwinds and the brass dominate the movement. In the final section, the melodies become heterophonic and eventually obsolete.





15 Jun 2017

Composers' Academy 2017: Lisa Illean on Januaries

15 Jun

2017


The Philharmonia Orchestra's Composers' Academy is a scheme that gives three emerging composers the chance to work with composer Unsuk Chin, Artistic Director of our Music of Today series, alongside members of the Orchestra. The project culminates with a new composition by each composer, performed in concert as part of the Music of Today series. This year's recipients, Donghoon Shin, Lisa Illean and Gareth Moorcraft, will have their works performed on 21 June.

In this blog post, Lisa Illean gives an insight into the process and inspiration behind her work, Januaries

 

I returned to my desk to finish work on Januaries in April, after two weeks in Australia with family in New South Wales and Queensland.  I had at this time many, many sheets of manuscript and some recordings: experiments with microtonal harmony and sketches made throughout the past months for our lessons with Unsuk Chin. There were many versions, unwinding across the page in different speeds and densities.

What I inevitably brought to the desk in this final phase were lingering sensations and memories that were awakened while I was travelling. Like the materials on my desk, these memories always settle in pieces and with some distortions, assembled in a logic closer to that of dreams than waking life. But underpinning these was a sensation—simple and precise—and it was this that I worked towards in the final version of the piece. 

In a world that seems to prioritise the visual, I’m very interested in the relationship between sounds and sensations (and how much of one’s interior life can be communicated through sound).  This is a question that I’ve taken into the many rehearsals, concerts and workshops that I’ve been privileged to attend throughout the Philharmonia Orchestra Composer’s Academy.  I’m very grateful for these opportunities to sharpen my imagination and practical understanding of instruments (and disrupt the pull of solitude that accompanies composing). 

In considering sensations that elude the eye, I am reminded of a description by Simon Leys (sent to me recently by a friend):

“Australian scenery is of inexpressible beauty, it is true, but it is also utterly inconspicuous and non­spectacular—and impossible to capture with a camera: this worn­down immensity, with its half­erased profiles constitutes a magic space entirely devoid of focal point; like ghosts, mirages, and supernatural visions, it escapes the photographer, it does not leave any impression on film.”

Januaries will be premiered alongside two other brand new works by Gareth Moorcraft and Donghoon Shin at 6pm on Wednesday 21 June in a free performance. For more information, click here https://www.philharmonia.co.uk/concerts/1596

Photography © Catherine Pyle



30 May 2017

Music of Today: Mei Yi Foo

30 May

2017


On 8 June, pianist Mei Yi Foo presents a specially selected set of solo miniatures alongside Abrahamsen's Piano Concerto, as part of our free Music of Today series. Tim Rutherford-Johnson introduces the programme.

Unlike the visual arts, where the study is usually an exercise on the way to a later, finished work, in music it has become a genre in its own right. Yet the set of ten piano studies Hans Abrahamsen wrote in 1984 have played a more preparatory role than usual. Among the last extended works he completed before a long hiatus through the 1990s, they helped him write two works – Four Pieces for Orchestra (2004) and tonight’s Piano Concerto – before the breakthrough success of Schnee (2008). The concerto’s four movements draw on three studies: the Debussian ‘Arabeske’ is revved up a gear for the work’s glittering opening, the clangorous ‘Boogie-Woogie’ forms the basis of the turbulent third movement, and ‘Rivière d’oubli’ provides a tranquil ending.

If the Piano Concerto shows a composer of immense skill and invention, it also shows him at a transitional moment. Within just seconds of that stunning beginning, with the piano’s shimmering arpeggios enlivening a rich ensemble bloom, Abrahamsen yanks the emergency cord, and the movement abruptly grinds to a halt. The second movement – the only one not based on one of the 1984 studies – begins with the piano attempting to reconstruct something from that false start. The music builds once more, step by step, only to collapse again under its own weight. The third movement seems to find a happier home, although it continues to wrestle with dark interjections. Only in the fourth do we reach a compromise, with the piano withdrawing enough to retain control. There are hints of what might have been, but then the piece is finished, a quizzical last interval from the trumpets underlining its enigmatic quality.



Musical studies are also often exercises for the performer rather than the composer, and for players of different ages or abilities. Music for children and childlike music makes up the other half of Mei Yi Foo’s programme. Of these, György Kurtág’s two Játékok (‘Games’ or ‘Playthings’) are closest to educational studies: Kurtág began his eight volumes of Játékok in 1976 at the request of a piano teacher, and the early pieces (both of those this evening are from Volume I) bear some resemblance to Bartók’s Mikrokosmos in their construction of a progressive (if unorthodox) piano method. Kurtág was also influenced by Rudolf Steiner, however, and aspects of Steiner’s pedagogy are clear in the priority Játékok gives to childlike fantasy and physicality.

Elements of both are present in Helmut Lachenmann’s Ein Kinderspiel and Sofia Gubaidulina’s Musical Toys. The latter’s picture-book quality intends to evoke the sorts of pieces Gubaidulina would have liked to play as a child. Lachenmann’s pieces were written for his own children, but he insists that they are ‘Not educational music and not necessarily for children’. ‘Hänschen klein’ transmutes the popular German rhyme into a descent across the piano’s 88 keys and a study in sonority, while ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’ (‘Fake Chinese (a little drunk)’) smothers a ‘Chopsticks’-like left hand with parallel triads in the right.

Other pieces engage with childhood in different ways. George Benjamin’s ‘Hammers’ comes from a set of ten short pieces, Piano Figures, that are imagistic, Kurtág-like miniatures. The third of Rzewski’s Ludes harnesses the same bebop roots as Gubaidulina’s bass-playing bear; the first is a pot-pourri of half-remembered tunes and playground rhymes. Chris Harman reimagines piano cycles by Robert Schumann: After Schumann II, No. 2 strips ‘Wichtige Begebenheit’ (‘An Important Event’) from Kinderszenen back to its raw rhythms. Peter Eötvös’s Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly evokes dancing wings seen in the garden. Finally, with Unsuk Chin’s scattershot ‘Toccata’ we return to the true compositional étude.

 

VARIOUS COMPOSERS

Musical Toys

For solo piano:

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Perpetuum Mobile’

Chris P Harman After Schumann II, No. 2

George Benjamin Piano Figures – ‘Hammers’

Peter Eötvös Dances of the Brush-Footed Butterfly

Helmut Lachenmann Ein Kinderspiel – ‘Hänschen klein’ & ‘Falscher Chinese (ein wenig besoffen)’

Frederic Rzewski Ludes I & Ludes III

Sofia Gubaidulina Musical Toys – ‘A Bear Playing the Double Bass and the Black Woman’

György Kurtág Játékok – ‘Ráncigálós’

Unsuk Chin Klavieretüden – V ‘Toccata’

*      *      *      *      *      *      *      *      *

HANS ABRAHAMSEN (b. 1952)

Piano Concerto (2000)

For solo piano and ensemble

 

Tim Rutherford-Johnson is author of Music after the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture since 1989 (University of California Press). Discover his work on his blog.