The last meeting of the Society was a presentation by Peter Horwood on modern music. He called it 21st Century music 2. For some, modern music is a bit of a mystery. Often seemingly tuneless, with no discernable structure it meanders through a series of discordant sounds until finally coming to an unexpected end with a crash. At the Prom concerts where they often give new compositions a hearing, there is polite applause and the composer emerges from the audience to take his or her bow.
Peter’s presentation took us through a number of modern pieces and although some might take a while, the audience took immediately to several of them, proving that with a little effort and concentration, modern music can be rewarding and accessible. Of particular note was – probably for the first time in the Society’s history – there were two compositions by (wait for it) women.
Peter has very kindly sent me the script for the evening which is well researched and very informative. As a departure from normal practice therefore I have included the whole of it with grateful thanks to Peter. It will make this the longest blog for this site but it is worthwhile and will be a reference for some of the composers he mentions. I have left it in the first person.
21stCentury Music 2
Following my last survey of new music 3 years ago ‘Bright, Shiny and New’, not only have new works continued to appear at a prodigious rate but my own listening has unearthed other previously unknown, to me, pieces that I have found rewarding. Hopefully this brief survey today will provide snapshots of at least a few composers you may not have encountered so far and will stimulate further enquiry and journeys of increased enlightenment.
As before the main problem in creating this presentation is a question of what to leave out. Many top names have not been included, this time.
However, we will hear some other major or upcoming composers that I hope will make up an interesting programme and that I hope you will enjoy.
Without further ado let’s start our journey. Welcome to the 21st Century:-
THOMAS SCHMIDT- KOWALSKI
Symphony 3 : 1st movement – excerpt
You’ll be forgiven if you think I have made a mistake and this presentation is about early 20th century music. The ‘Brahmsian’ glow of this particular composer’s third symphony, written in 2000, of which we heard the opening minutes, is obviously stuck in a time warp, but some would argue, none the worse for that! Late romanticism lives on, or did!
Unfortunately German composer Thomas Schmidt- Kowalski passed away in 2013, but not before producing a number of notable works including four symphonies, concertos for piano, viola, violin and cello, chamber pieces, piano and choral works. Born in Oldenburg in 1949 Schmidt-Kowalski studied in Berlin and in the course of his studies turned from the musical avant-garde and chose to write in a more traditional vein. Let’s now take this opportunity to hear an excerpt from the adagio of his cello concerto Op 84, completed in 2002: –
THOMAS SCHMIDT- KOWALSKI
Cello Concerto Adagio – excerpt
Well, that‘s a lovely wallow in late romanticism, and written in all sincerity. Schmidt-Kowalski did not consider his tonality and romanticism to be at all nostalgic! His use of traditional instruments, harmonic patterns and absence of processed sound was fully intentional and lies in strict contrast to a lot of contemporary composers, as we will see. And his approach found a ready market as since the late 1970s he earned a good living as a freelance composer, mainly writing commissioned works for soloists and events.
Aheym. That stimulating piece was written in 2009 by American composer Bryce Dessner and commissioned by the artists playing in that recording, The Kronos Quartet. The title of the piece is ‘AHEYM’, meaning ‘Homeward’ in Yiddish, was written as a musical evocation of the idea of flight and passage. The composer’s grandparents were immigrants to America and this piece helps express their past cultural identity and connection to their roots, held as a race memory.
Bryce Dessner, born in 1976 gaining a master’s degree in music at Yale. Dessner’s compositions draw on elements from Baroque and folk music, late Romanticism and modernism, as well as minimalism. His unique and individual voice as a composer has earned him a number of high-profile commissions from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, The New York Philharmonic, Kronos Quartet, Carnegie Hall, The Barbican Centre, Edinburgh International Festival and Sydney Festival. A recent commission has included Concerto for Two Pianos, written for The Labèque Sisters, premiered with London Philharmonic Orchestra in April 2018. Also worth noting is his score in 2015 for the Oscar winning – The Revenant). Active in all traditional classical genres he is one to watch, I think!
Reminiscent of a minimalist influenced Bossa Nova with Astrid Gilberto on vocals that was an excerpt from the title track of what can only be described as a modern ‘song cycle’ as conceived by English composer Graham Fitkin. Scored for small ensemble soprano and two countertenors this score has been part of a recent European tour funded by The Arts Council, as was this recording.
Fitkin’s work is broadly classified as minimalist and post-minimalist, tonal in nature and frequently complex. Between 1994 and 1996 Graham was resident composer with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. Since, amongst others, he has had work commissioned by The Halle, BBC Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony, RSNO, BBC Orchestra of Wales, New York City Ballet and BBC Symphony Orchestra and various international ballet companies, including The Royal Ballet.
Recent works include Circuit, for soloist Kathryn Stott with BBC Philharmonic, a Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma and Lens for violinist Janine Jansen.
This brings us to the next musical example, a multiple keyboard suite titled KAPLAN and performed by Fitkin and Ruth Wall. We will hear the first half of part K2: –
Kaplan K5 – excerpt
I’m sure that you are thinking, this doesn’t sound like classical or serious music, it’s more like modern dance, or trance? However we only need to go back a century or two and a lot of classical music was dance music, the type of thing people would play at social events. This is maybe indicative of a crossover return to these roots, rather than preserving serious music as a preserve of the elite? Maybe?
Another historically based language of the people, through religion, is the celebration of the sacred rite, and in Europe the Christian Mass. The use of these ancient texts has been carried into modern music through such composers as James Macmillan, John Tavener and Christopher Wood.
However, we will now look at another contemporary composer using these texts, in this case a Requiem Mass as realised by Armenian composer Tigran Mansurian in 2011. Let’s hear the Kyrie:
Requiem – Kyrie
That piece, part of an eight section composition entitled ‘Requiem’ is “Dedicated to memory of the victims of the Armenian Genocide.”
Tigran Mansurian , now in his 80th year, is a leading Armenian composer of classical music and film scores. His works convey nostalgia, both for his country’s ancient traditions and for the departing Romantic style. He began to be noticed in the West from the 1990’s and his vast output ranges from large scale orchestral works to individual art songs.
He rose to greater prominence in the new millennia when his “Monodia” album was nominated for the 2005 Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition. Well worth exploring further as this composer has a unique voice and tonal palette.
Now we turn to minimalisn, a movement that was a huge influence on composition from the 1960’s onwards and that is still evident, to a greater or lesser extent, in many contemporary composers.
Jeroen Van Veen, hailed as ‘the leading exponent of minimalism in Holland today’ by Alan Swanson (Fanfare)” is a Dutch pianist, performer and composer of minimalist works. Recordings of works by Part, Crumb, Glass, Ten Holt, Yiruma, Tiersen, Richter, Nyman and Riley testify to his immersion and acclaimed ability in this style.
His various compositions could be described as Minimal Music with different faces, crossovers to jazz, blues, soundscape, Avant-garde, techno, trance and pop music.
Lets hear some of his work. This is the last seven minutes from the first part of his composition for two pianos Incanto No 4. Joining him to perform this is his sister Sandra (they often tour as a duo)
JEROEN VAN VEEN
Incanto No 4 – Part 1 – excerpt
I think that you can hear in that a number of influences including jazz, minimalist repetition and dance. In my last survey I expressed regret at not including any contemporary female composers. Now here is one: –
That was a piece entitled ‘Insight’ composed for String Trio. Well, I think that’s a pretty formidable piece composed by someone still in their 30’s. The lady concerned, Dobrinka Tabakova is a Bulgarian composer just beginning to make a name for herself.
She was born in Bulgaria, then moved to London where after study at the RAM she was awarded a PhD in composition from King’s College, London. Her composition “Praise” was sung at St. Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Winner of the GSMD Lutosławski Composition Prize in 1999, the Adam Prize of King’s College London and in she was awarded first prize and medal of the Sorel Organization’s choral competition in New York.
Tabakova has received commissions from the Royal Philharmonic Society, BBC Radio 3, Cheltenham Music Festival, Britten Sinfonia, Three Choirs Festival, Wigmore Hall and the PRS for Music Foundation’s first UK New Music Biennial in 2014.
In 2013 an album devoted to her music, entitled String Paths reached No.2 in the UK specialist classical chart and attracted numerous positive reviews and a Grammy nomination. I think we can expect more great things from Dobrinka. I’ll certainly be looking out for them.
Whilst compiling this presentation I have become aware of the number of really good concertos for string instruments, cello, viola and violin, that are now being created. To give us all a nice warm glow before the break we’ll now hear part of the Barcarolle from British composer Paul Patterson’s violin concerto no.2:-
Violin Concerto 2: Barcarolle –excerpt
The English pastoral tradition lives on, definite influences of Vaughan Williams discernible there I think. Paul Patterson is a British composer and teacher. He composition at the Royal Academy of Music and returned there to become Head of Composition and Contemporary Music and is a regular guest on international composition competition panels. Currently Composer-in-Residence with the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain Patterson has produced a number of large-scale choral works including the Mass of the Sea (1983), a Stabat Mater in (1986), Te Deum (1988) the Millennium Mass (2000).
Recent commissions include a Double Bass Concerto premiered in 2018 and Mosquitoes, for the 4 Girls 4 Harps first performed in the Ryedale Festival in 2015.
My last survey was subtitled ‘Bright, Shiny and New. This certainly applies to this next piece:-
Symphony 1st movement – excerpt
That tightly expressed and dynamic piece is an excerpt from the first movement of Huw Watkins Symphony (his first) and was premiered in 2017 by The Halle orchestra, who played on the recording we just heard.
Well known as a piano accompanist Huw has also been very active in this new century in creating an extensive catalogue of orchestral and chamber pieces. He has received commissions from amongst others, the BBC Symphony, the LSO, the Nash Ensemble and is composer in association with the BBC National orchestra of Wales and in 2016 he wrote a cello concerto for his brother Paul that was performed at The Proms in 2016. Currently teacher of composition at The Royal Academy of Music and is an honorary research fellow of that esteemed institution.
Now for something completely different, and I’d pay careful attention towards the end of this excerpt: –
PAUL GIGER –
Pert Em Hru:
Media Vita in Morte sumus
This piece, first performed in 2007, is from Swiss performer and composer Paul Gigers’s oratorio ‘Pert Em Hru’. This title is taken from the ancient Egyptian book of The Dead and translates roughly as ‘The Soul emerges into full daylight’, an alternative way of expressing the Christian thought of ‘From Darkness to Light’. You may of noticed that at the end of that section that we heard a brief sample of the Gregorian chorale ‘Pieu Jesu’. This melding of medieval mysticism, orientalism and jazz reflects Gigers background.
He travelled Asia as a busker and was concertmaster with the St. Gallen Symphony Orchestra before he embarked on a freelance career, playing a repertoire that ranges from the Baroque to contemporary composition, improvisation, jazz, music of diverse folk traditions and most important: his own music. Giger has composed choral and orchestral pieces as well as chamber music, music for films and music for dancers.
We’ve already heard music from a female composer, now here’s another:-
Sulamith Ballet Suite: Introduction – excerpt
That excerpt was from Sulamith, a ballet based on a story by Kuprin concerning King Solomon’s love for a poor girl, a servant from his vineyard and the only love of his life. This piece was composed by Alla Pavlova, a Ukrainian born composer who moved to Moscow in 1961. She gained her Master’s Degree in Moscow in but in 1990 moved to New York. Her American life has seen her become prolific in creating compositions across a wide range for orchestra, her first symphony was published in 1995, chamber, instrumental and the voice.
Her works combine classical, romantic and contemporary styles, and sometimes include elements from gospel and popular genres. She has become popular in Russia through the efforts of leading Russian conductor Vladimir Fedoseyev.
A fervent supporter in the cause of promoting women composers Pavlova is a member of New York Women Composers, Inc and an active member of The International Alliance for Women Composers.
In 2017 Pavlova completed and premiered her 10th symphony to popular acclaim. In a recent review on Music Web International Rob Barnett commented:
Have you given up on modern symphonies as sources of melodic reward? Pavlova will restore your faith.
Max Richter is a composer whose level of visibility and development has fallen entirely within this new century and represents an almost quintessential example, in his range of work and use of techniques, of what being a serious composer in the 21st century represents and how this has translated into acknowledged achievement.
Post-modernist, post minimalist, and yet influenced by these styles, Richter incorporates tonality, traditional compositional development (fugues etc), played by conventional acoustic instruments, with elements of ‘musique concrete’, electronics, digital manipulation, sampling and John Cage’s techniques of using ambient sound and integration.
Let’s hear an example from his Ballet score ‘INFRA’.
We heard Infra 4 and Journey 3 from INFRA.
Max Richter is a German-born British composer who has been an influential voice in the meeting of contemporary classical and alternative popular musical styles since the early 2000s. Richter is classically trained, having graduated in composition from the Royal Academy of Music and studied with Luciano Berio in Italy. Richter composes music for stage, concert, opera, ballet and screen as well as collaborations with performance, installation and media artists.
Richter has very definite opinions about the situation of contemporary classical composition:
Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works, but we also lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this.
In 2002 Richter worked with Radio 3 on ‘Memory House’ an experimental collection of music, ambient sounds and voices (including John Cage) and in collaboration with the BBC Philharmonic. This was critically acclaimed as,‘ a landmark work of contemporary classical music’ and cited by BBC Music mag as: ‘a masterpiece in neoclassical composition’.
Richter’s next project The Blue Notebooks in 2004 used musical extracts, ambient sounds and the actress Tilda Swinton reading from Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks . This was acclaimed ‘…one of the most affecting and universal contemporary classical records in recent memory, and, in view of its anti-war agenda Fact (UK magazine) named the album “one of the most iconic pieces of classical and protest music of the 21st century”.
If Richter’s solo work had indicated that he was primarily a miniaturist, arranging sequences of sounds, voice and short musical pieces to produce an overall effect, this notion was belied by subsequent events. Richter has provided a number of recent pieces where variations are developed and explored over extended periods of time..
In 2015 Richter composed ‘Sleep’, a concept piece with that lasted 8 hours, and intended to be played during the night. (it is interesting to mention that Bach’s Goldberg variations were reputedly written for The Duke of Saxony to cure insomnia!)
The entire composition was performed on 27 September 2015, from midnight to 8:00 A.M. as the climax of the “Science and Music” weekend on BBC Radio 3. The performance broke several records, including the longest live broadcast of a single musical composition in the history of the network. The full-length Sleep has been played live by Richter in Amsterdam, Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, London and Paris. In September 2018 it was played in the Antwerp cathedral for an audience of 400 who were provided with beds for the night.
“I think of it as a piece of protest music,” Richter has said.
It’s protest music against this sort of very super industrialized, intense, mechanized way of living right now. It’s a political work in that sense. It’s a call to arms to stop what we’re doing.’
As you can imagine, difficult to provide extracts from this piece in the short format of this presentation – we might all doze off!
From 2010 Richter had begun a fruitful association with The Royal Ballet’s Wayne Mc Gregor and he commissioned a series of ballet scores, commencing with ‘Infra’, continuing with ‘Vivaldi recomposed’ in 2012 and in 2017, ‘Wolf Works’. The latter is based on works by the writer Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and the Waves, and incorporates read extracts as well as acoustic music, digital composition and ambient sounds mixed in.
The Waves is a 20 minute tone poem of themes that continuously ebb and flow, recalling the dream like narrative of the book, and not easily extracted for this presentation. So, alternatively we will hear extracts from Part 1, Mrs Dalloway, the music for Septimus (in the composer’s words realised as a mini De Profundis using a typically English device of ground base over which a cello solo extends from the bottom of the instrument and ascends out of sight) and we will follow this with extracts from Part 2; Orlando, including a read extract:
Woolf Works – excerpts
60 screen and stage scores and 20 International awards later Richter can now feel creatively independent. At the peak of his powers what will come next? Also, that thought applies to contemporary music overall as it continues to change and develop to provide surprises, challenges and pleasures for us to experience.
Let’s conclude this survey with where we started but, rather than something new that sounds old, let’s hear something old that has been made new! Here’s an excerpt from Vivaldi’s four seasons – as recomposed by Max Richter.
Recomposed by Max Richter- Vivaldi – Summer 1
Text by Peter Horwood