Sign of a masterpiece: Mallet instruments, voices and organ

I’ve known Steve Reich’s hypnotic Music for Mallet instruments, voices and organ ever since my second year of college, when someone in the sixth form made me a recording, together with Six Pianos, Large Ensemble and Vermont Counterpoint, which pretty much defined my musical love ever since. That means I’ve known the piece for well over … *coughs, mumbles into hand… years; it’s gone through most of the recorded formats I can think of – cassette, CD, mini-disc, mp3, DVD – and yet I am still hearing new aspects of the piece when I listen to it.

This may, of course, be due to several factors; different recordings have different values, perhaps highlighting different lines or patterns compared to others; seeing the piece performed means the ear can be draw to different lines by virtue of the eye being drawn by some aspect of the visual spectacle; and listening in the car, immersed in the sound emanating from speakers fore and aft, is a very different experience to listening through headphones.

Album coverBut I’m still being surprised and delighted by the discovery of patterns I hadn’t heard before, textural shifts I’d not noticed, harmonies that are altered by suddenly hearing a new pedal-point or sustained note. There’s a wonderful, deft live performance by Alarm Will Sound, broadcast as Reich at the Roxy that I’ve watched often, which showed me new material by my watching the performers in actin and highlighting certain textural aspects I hadn’t discerned previously.

It’s often said that one of the signs of a masterpiece, in any artistic medium, is the work’s ability to sustain the repeated experience and yield new elements. If this is true, then Reich’s piece stands as an example of just such a work.


What a wrench! Torke’s grasp of rhythm

If you’ve not encountered the joyful, ebullient, and rhythmically versatile music of Michael Torke, you’re in for a treat: herewith the opening few minutes of his chamber piece, Adjustable Wrench.

Perhaps best-known for his orchestral piece Javelin, which mercifuly seems to have avoided being used exhaustively this year during the Olympics, Torke’s light-footed, deft and mesmerising music combines aspects of repetition with a real rhythmic drive, full of twists and turns, that constantly delights. The music is never still – as a listener, you have to pay attention to the intricacies of its endless variety, but it’s effortless in its creativity.

With bright, brash ensemble sounds, his music shines with an irrepresible energy: just listen to the bouncing baritone bass-line in July, for saxophone quartet;

Or the brisk, sure-footed rhythms of Change of Address:

Or the unstoppably vivacious Telephone Book:

There’s the song-cycle Proverbs, or the opera Italian Straw Hat, a concerto for saxophone, and Rapture, the concerto for percussion, amongst a wealth of output.

Torke is sometimes clumped together with the school of Minimalists, alongside composers such as Steve Reich, Philip Glass, or post-Minimalists such as John Adams. Whilst his music embraces aspects of repetition and cellular or rhythmic development (perhaps extension would be a better word), his rhythmic intricacy perhaps owes something to the ‘sprung rhythm’ technique of Tippett. With whomsoever you care to pigeon-hole him, Torke’s music refuses to sit still.  His Four Proverbs, for instance, mixes text and melodic line around, whereby each word has a fixed pitch: as the melodic line is sliced and diced, so too is the text; this has the effect of liberating the chosen proverb from a linear meaning and making instead new associations, as the words are jumbled as freely as the notes of the melody.

There Is Joy

Hold on to your (Italian Straw) hat: the music of Michael Torke.

(Audio extracts via LastFM).

Temper, temper Mr Nyman

Dear me, Mr Nyman. Calm yourself down.

It has been reported in the Telegraph recently and elsewhere that Nyman has recently thrown his toys out of the pram on being told the Covent Garden will not be commissioning an opera from him. In petulant style, Nyman is reported as having ranted on Facebook about not wishing to pay his taxes to a nation that does not wish to support his work.

As a composer-colleague of mine observed on Wednesday, Covent Garden are turning composers down a lot of the time, and why should Nyman be any different ? Simply because Nyman is already an established and successful composer doesn’t mean that a major national opera house should take work from him by default. Covent Garden declared that Nyman’s musical language ‘is not what we want to pursue in our next commissions,’ before adding that this is not a dismissal of Nyman as a composer.

It does seem appropriate that British musical institutions support home-grown composers; and Covent Garden do so – earlier this year saw the premiere of Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune, and last year it was Turnage’s Anna Nicole, whilst the Linbury has in recent years housed Luke Bedford and James Macmillan premieres. So he can’t throw that at them.

Whatever your views about Nyman’s music, it does seem rather childish to adopt an ” I’m British, therefore British opera houses should commission me” attitude, which rather smacks of childish temper-tantrums. Especially when your shouting and stamping can be heard all the way from your home in Mexico City.

Come along, Michael; other composers have been disappointed too. Just get on with it.

Happy birthday, Philip Glass

As media around the world are observing, today is the seventy-fifth birthday of one of the giants of American music, Philip Glass.

Here’s perhaps my favourite piece, ‘Lady Day’ from North Star, by way of a birthday salutation; with its trademark repetitive figures, textural writing combining wind instruments, voices and keyboard, it remains as fresh today as it did when I first encountered it whilst at school in a cold-water-dashed-in-your-face manner which opened the doors to Minimalism.

Also from the same disc, the bright-shining ‘Are Years What,’ even more invigorating.

Happy birthday, Philip Glass.

Great musical beginnings: Hallelujah Junction

I love the pulsing, driving impetus of the opening of Adams’ two-piano titan from 1996,  Hallelujah Junction.

JOhn Adams

Image credit: LATimesblogs

The bold clarion-call of the opening gesture, picked up by the second piano and imitated but slightly out of synch, sets up a relentless energy that can’t fail to grip the listener and take them with it.

The use of the key of Eb major can’t be an accident:  it’s the key of heroism, of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, and is tremendously life-affirming as it resounds between the two pianos.

Then, the impish bassline that begins twelve seconds in to the above extract (or at 1’25” on the video below); impudent, puckish, it slowly finds its feet and darts along underneath the continuining rhythmic imperative of the opening.

There’s more about the piece, plus an audio extract, on Adams’ own website here. And if you can forgive the tuning between the two pianos, here’s a short video clip plucked from YouTube.


(Audio extract via LastFM).

Crusade for the New: there’s more than just the classical canon

Glance through most classical music festival programmes or most popular requests for pieces played on a classical radio station, and there’s an excellent chance that you will see familiar works from the mainstream, classical repertoire: Bach, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart.

Whilst the venerable classical tradition of such composers will always have a place in the concert repertoire and the listening library, it is also important that audiences are introduced to, even challenged by, contemporary music, the music of their time.

The endless recycling of Great Masters is a self-rotating roundabout that can ultimately lead nowhere: there’s no development, nor indeed perhaps any desire for it. When festival-organisers and radio programmers know that a particular tranche of long-standing popular favourites will almost guarantee ticket-sales or healthy listening-figures, there’s a great reluctance to programme modern or challenging works that may drive audiences away.

But modern music need not be viewed with suspicion, with fear that audiences will be put off by recent works. Contemporary music has the capacity to embrace contemporary issues: ‘Soldiers of Heaven hold the sky’ from Nixon in China,

or The Death of Klinghoffer, and Dr. Atomic by John Adams show opera grappling with political issues of the twentieth century. And it can do so with a musical language that reflects its age: from the car-horns in Gershwin’s  American in Paris to the sirens in Antheil’s Ballet mecanique or the sampling keyboards playing non-musical ideas in Steve Reich’s City Life, contemporary music has the language and the sound-world to reflect modern life, and make us view it afresh. It can be fun and funky: think of Michael Torke’s bouncing dance-ryhthms in the percussion concerto, Rapture,

or Michael Nyman’s bright textural writing in Chasing Sheep Is Best Left To Shepherds.

It can be spiritual and reflective, as in the great Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel,

or the work of the late Henry Gorecki, or Sir John Tavener.

Of course, music from previous eras can always have some relevance to the current political or social climate: Mozart operas being set in underground car—parks or Shakespeare plays staged in council tenement blocks can always draw contemporary relevancy from a work. But that can also be seen as imposing contemporary resonances on a work from a previous age. Contemporary music, like contemporary art, doesn’t need to have such meaning impressed upon it: it’s engaging with such issues directly. And it often does so in a refreshing, vibrant way that makes you re-evaluate its subject-matter.

As Ezra Pound famously put it, ‘Make it new.’ It’s time to trust that audiences are willing to be open to new music addressing contemporary issues, and to crusade for the new.


(Audio extracts via LastFM).

The music of the spheres

I have often wondered how the Music of the Spheres might sound, that music created by the movement of the planets, or what the music of the afterlife (should there be one) might be like.

I think I may have found it. A disc brought out by The Change-Ringing Handbell Group in 2009 of various bell-ringing patterns, normally rung by church bells but here realised by handbells instead, presents some shimmering cascades of sound, like a cross between minimalism and sacred music: process music for the ecclesiastically minded.

Listening to patterns such as Treble Bob Sixteen-In, you can almost sense the bright vision of angels and the ringing celebration of eternal harmony.

Or Bristol Surprise Maximus

I love process music, as early Minimalism is often also called, the working-out of pre-ordained sequences of music until the pattern has been completed, before moving on to the next one. Steve Reich’s influential Music for Eighteen Musicians is built entirely on this principle, working out patterns over a sequence of eleven chords; the piece is complete when the cycles have been worked through over each of the eleven chords, at which point the chords are played through  in pulses and the music ceases.

The principle applies here, as the changes are rung through until completion. But this doesn’t mean that the music, of the handbell group or of Reich’s piece, lacks colour, harmony, or feeling. On the contrary, there are some tremendously expressive harmonies in the Reich, and the tintinnabulations of the handbell sequences have a wonderfully bright sheen, glittering with colour. There’s an infectious sense of celebration, of jubilation and good cheer about the bell-ringing patterns, an eternity of endless sunshine-drenched summer, of rainbow colours.

Process music need not be without espressivity.

(Audio extracts via LastFM).

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