Sunday, March 30, 2003


A live recording of the fascinating new orchestral portrait by Scottish composer James Macmillan, “A deep but dazzling darkness” (which received its world première at the opening of St Luke’s Centre, a hospice in London, on 27 March 2003) was broadcast on BBC Radio 3 yesterday morning. It features Gordan Nikolitch (violin) and the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Macmillan himself.

After an unsettling, shimmering opening with no fixed tone centre, the piece is almost Bartokian in its questioning string textures. There is, as the title suggests, an interplay of light and shade, dramatised by the destabilising interventions of two pianos tuned a quarter tone apart. Macmillan has long been interested in mixing standard and microtonal elements in his compositions, which are neither noticeably traditionalist nor particularly avant garde in character. He is a composer who likes to weave his musical language around thematic ideas.

Further details about the work are given at the LSO website. There will be a further performance at the Sherbourne Festival on 2 May.

The title, incidentally, is a quotation from the C17th Welsh poet, Henry Vaughn: “there is in God, some say, a deep but dazzling darkness.” It has been taken as the title of the US edition for a collection of sermons (Cowley, 1995) by the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams. Macmillan and Williams have a mutual admiration for one another's work.

[120.2] QUOTA

"Creation, to me, is to try to orchestrate the universe to understand what surrounds us. Even if, to accomplish that, we use all sorts of stratagems which in the end prove completely incapable of staving off chaos." -- Peter Greenaway

"I certainly had no feeling for harmony, and Schoenberg thought that that would make it impossible for me to write music. He said, 'You'll come to a wall you won't be able to get through.' So I said, 'I'll beat my head against that wall.' " -- John Cage

"I know that I have done many things to give you reason not to listen to me." -- Sinead O'Connor


Systems Theory is an internet project based around "performing a progressive electronic/world music hybrid, welding high-tech modern electronica, dark ambience and acoustic ethnic styles with spacerock aggression, free jazz exploration, and symphonic prog", apparently. The individual projects of the members explore these and even stranger avenues and musical styles, they say. Sounds like an intriguing fusion of heaven and hell. See which envelops you first...

Alternatively, if you are feeling in a post-rock and indie zone, you could try

Saturday, March 29, 2003


Perhaps my biggest musical confession is a studied agnosticism (bordering on complacency) towards Beethoven. Maybe it was something to do with my father's over-wrought devotion in this well trodden field of musical endeavour, but I found myself leaping straight from Bach and Handel to Bartok with no caution or inhibition. I've been filling in as well as venturing forward in the intervening years, but I have more work to do to get my 'classical period' repertoire up to scratch. Mind you, I'm pretty fond of the late Beethoven Quartets... but then sometimes they almost sound as if they are the early twentieth century Hungarian maestro's.

Which brings me back to the Symphonies. I've known for some time that I should visit them, and I realise just what a sturdy influence they have been on some of my musical heros, such as Tippett. But somehow I can never muster the enthusiasm. Until now. I have to hear the new Simon Rattle / Vienna Philharmonic live recordings. Rattle has done wonders already with the Berlin Philharmonic, and he's a strong artculator of contemporary music with a bold interpretative approach.

The indefatigable Norman Lebrecht sums up the situation in his recent (26 March 2003) review in the London Evening Standard. He ends up on the questioning side of admiration. But then he has just lost a bet with EMI about whether their leading conductor would hit the top of the classical charts again. He did, and a top hat (for the eating) has been promptly delivered to Lebrecht! Even so, Rattle, he writes:

"... made the Viennese set aside their time-hallowed scores and relearn the symphonies from a steam-cleaned scholarly edition prepared by the British conductor Jonathan Del Mar from the composer's manuscripts. The variances between the Beethoven we know all too well and the notes he actually wrote are legion, affecting not just literal discrepancies but the structural balance of key passages in the Third, Seventh and Ninth symphonies. Even a casual listener will notice atmospheric changes just before the "Freude" chorus in the Ninth. For the professors in the Philharmonic these exhumations, allied to Rattle's sparkling enthusiasm, elicited concert performances of, by most accounts, astonishing clarity and excitation." (c) N Lebrecht

A must, I think, even if the scrutiny of recorded sound can't quite avoid one or two flaws masked by the present energy of concert performance. So go for that 'luxury 5-CD set' now... and the full Lebrecht review is here.

Friday, March 28, 2003

[118.1] NICE TRY (AGAIN)

If guilty pleasure is your thing, and you're of a certain generation, you might be tempted to check out '70s prog keyboard whizz Keith Emerson and his re-sprayed band The Nice on 17 October 2003at the London Astoria. I caught them on 6 October 2002 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and was left in two minds. On the one hand, Emerson is a substantial player, and his short solo piano set (shades of Meade Lux Lewis with a little Bachian chromaticism and embellishment) gave some indication of what he's capable of. On the other hand... Lee Jackson's voice was simply atrocious, and the laudably-conceived instrumental takes on some of the better Emerson Lake and Palmer fayre ('Tarkus' and 'Aquatarkus', notably) ended up as near train-wrecks. The poor acoustics at the back didn't help much, either. A judiciously fair and detailed review has been provided by the estimable Charles Imperatori on Evophonic. He knows more of the Nice material than me, so I'll leave this particular field to him. Both the good and the not-so-good Emerson are on show on the latest CD, Emerson Plays Emerson, incidentally. 'Cumbersome, Fake and Trauma'? Sometimes, but also with flashes of quixotic genius, too. The Five Bridges Suite is still a glorious (and gloriously flawed) testament to an era of rock-classical-country innovation and innocense, by the way. 'High Level Fugue (Bridge No. 4)' is worth the entry charge alone. And not because it's on mid-price these days...

Thursday, March 27, 2003


Internet users can listen online to the BBC Radio 3 World Music Awards, tonight at 19.30 GMT and tomorrow at 21.00. Alongside its pioneering role in the classical arena, it is encouraging that Radio 3 has continued to champion other serious musics, and to build a small but growing 'crossover audience'. Their 'world' coverage is now among the best on the airwaves. Awards ceremonies are inherently tedious, I suppose, but this one should definitely be enlivened by the range of creative music on offer and forthright responses to the Iraq war from participants! Full details here. You can also, says the promo, "read profiles and listen to complete tracks from all this year's nominees, download our new .. screensaver and watch the TV trail. A wonderful new double album featuring all the nominees is now available. Read a review of this compilation."


Remiss of me not to mention before the sad passing of composer Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003), one of the most important figures in Italian twentieth century music. Less known abroad than, say, Berio, Petrassi produced (among many other works) a fascinating series of eight Concertos for Orchestra. He was particularly interested in the clarity of the different instrumental voices, but his wholesale turn to serialism in the latter part of his career won him few new allies in an increasingly eclectic, post-modern musical climate. Elliott Carter remained a long-time friend and champion. "I seek to create new sonorities based on pure instrumental sounds," he is quoted as saying in Martin Anderson's very good obituary published in The Independent today.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003


Very good programme on, of all places, BBC Radio 2, last night at 21:30. The high altar of mainstream pop and rock made way for an interview between Branford Marsalis and Stan Tracey, celebrating the classic 1965 jazz album, 'Under Milk Wood'. Pianist Tracey was inspired by Dylan Thomas and accompanied by the immensely classy Jeff Clyne on bass, Jack Dougan on drums and breath-less Bobby Wellins on sax. This is the recording that really showed what European (specifically British) jazz could come up with. I'm delighted to own a copy of the original pressing, in more-or-less mint condition, with Tracey's moniker on the front. But you might also want to check out the re-mastered CD on Jazzizit JITCD9815 (1999). Here, for Crimsoids short of jazz memory, is to be found the original musical version of 'Starless and Bible Black'. The sleeve notes from the original album and the live re-recording in London at the Wigmore Hall May 22, 1976, with Donald Houston (narrator), Art Themen (tenor sax), Dave Green (double bass) and Bryan Spring (drums), can be read here. There are also soundclips.

Finding himself accompanied by Stan Tracey during a season at Ronnie Scott's, Sonny Rollins asked the British music press: "Does anybody here know how good he really is?" Some of them still don't. Good on you, Branford.

Also check out Franc O'Shea, another Wellins collaborator...

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

[115.1] CUTTING EDGE TOUR 2003

The British Music Information Centre (BMIC) 'Cutting Edge 3' tour kicked off in Durham and Guilford earlier this month, with strong performances by Okeanos and Sound Intermedia with Clive Williamson, respectively. There are further dates in May, June and July, with more to be announced for the autumn. 'Cutting Edge' is becoming an important showcase for innovative contemporary music. Isabel Ettenauer and her toy pianos pop up in several places; pianist Tania Chen performs a funky programme in Oxford alongside New York classical ensemble The Clogs; the dynamic string group Opus 20 (which records for Robert Fripp's Discipline Global Mobile) finds its way to Nottingham; and the maverick composers and performers of Noszferatu help to launch the Cheltenham Festival. The emphasis is on British composers. The full calendar is here. Further information will be forthcoming about associated educational events, BMIC promise. There is plenty of information about some fine, intriguing younger artists at Cadenza, too.

Monday, March 24, 2003


There is an air of eerie presience, perhaps, to the fact that -- at just such a moment in history as this -- acclaimed Danish composer Poul Rouders' opera, 'The Handmaid's Tale', utilising a libretto by Paul Bentley based directly on Margaret Atwood's classic dystopian novel, receives its UK premiere at the English National Opera on 3 April. It then runs on 5, 9, 11, 14 and 25 April and 2 May 2003. Full production details are here. A free sampler CD is available for those who register. There are also sound clips. A full synopsis will follow shortly. The production was created and given by the Danish Royal Opera Company in 2000. The story concerns the fate of American society under a repressive religious theocracy. Atwood wrote of the experience of seeing her work turned into an opera in Saturday's Guardian. Her book has already appeared as a film and has been translated into 35 languages. She comments on its central theme:

"The inclination towards tyranny, the wielding of absolute power by the few over the many, knows no ideological boundaries and is not confined to one time or space. I never trust anyone who says: "It can't happen here." Otherwise ethical people will commit the most serious injuries as long as they believe they are doing their "duty" - committing these injuries in a good cause. Lenin was not alone in believing that the end justifies the means: lots of people believe it, or act as if they do. It takes bravery of a different sort to maintain that the means defines the end: risk it during a time of high group stress and you're likely to be called naive, or a traitor." (c) Margaret Atwood, 2003.

Sunday, March 23, 2003


Writer Margaret Drabble has penned a powerful article ('Sound and Fury') on her own struggle to appreciate music against a backdrop of 'tone deafness' and discouragement from schools and family. Finally the piece that clicks for her is Brahms' Serenade No 1 in D-major, Opus 11 (for large orchestra) of which she writes, ecstatically:

"[N]ow I know that piece of music. I played it, again and again and again, and it filled me with an inexplicable delight. I still play it, though less incessantly, and find it still performs the same miracle. Why? Is this what music is? Is this what other people mean when they say they love a piece of music? What is it for? What does it mean? And why do I respond to it so much? It doesn't seem to mean anything. And yet it exists, and it is beautiful, and it haunts me. I feel that I am unworthy of it. It is too good for me. I do not deserve it. Each time I play it, I cannot quite credit my good fortune." (c) Margaret Drabble, 2003

Thursday, March 20, 2003

NOTE TO READERS: On Friday 21 and Saturday 22 March NFE will not appear. It will be back again on the evening of Sunday 23 March. Check in again then, or have a hunt around the extensive archives in the meantime...

[3/20/2003 03.54:26 AM | Simon Barrow]

War breaks out...

"The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it...Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate....Darkness cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."
Rev Dr Martin Luther King


"My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity... all a poet can do today is warn..." Wilfred Owen

Well, maybe music didn't die exactly. But it is difficult to concentrate on harmony and resonance when the deafening silence of a world on the brink of war and destruction is all around you. Appropriately, then, the new catalogue for the forthcoming Brighton Festival (3 - 25 May 2003, in over 30 venues throughout the city) highlights as one of its premier musical events a performance of Britten's salutary and passonately engaged 'War Requiem'.

Written for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral, partially destroyed by bombs in the second world war, it was first performed on 30 May 1962. Interestingly, fellow conscientious objector Michael Tippett's psychologically complex and instrumentally taut opera King Priam (currently enjoying a fresh production in the Netherlands) was featured alongside it that day.

At the Brighton Festival the 'Requiem' is to be performed on 16 May at the Dome by the City of London Sinfonia under the baton of Richard Hickox, with Janice Watson (sop), James Gilchrist (ten) and Christopher Maltman (bar) -- alongside the Brighton Festival Chorus and Youth Choir. Hickox, of course, is now set to head up Opera Australia in Sydney.

There are rather fewer new music / contemporary classical events announced for the Brighton Festival this year than last. What is on offer so far is signalled as Music Now. No doubt it will grow slightly (with 'fringe' events, et al) in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, March 19, 2003


NFE's hunt for weblogs in the 'new music' area continues, with patchy success. Worthy of recent note is 'Mostly Weird, Some Normal', an intriguing collection of set lists, commentary and review in the general area of jazz, experimental and rock. Some of it is a little mainstream, perhaps, but the studied eclecticism is welcome, and there's some acute observation going on. This on Arthur Doyle from a few days ago:

"I don't always get that feeling [of premeditation] from Arthur Doyle. I get the feeling of primitivism, but not a calculated primitivism like the Art Ensemble of Chicago engaged in when the occasion demanded. I feel sometimes, when I'm listening to Arthur Doyle, that he can't play it straight. That he's not fully in control of his instrument. Maybe it's because I've never heard him play in any other way than his full-on screaming reed-busting manner (which, of course, is more than welcome around this house—there are few free jazz records as viscerally satisfying to listen to, either through headphones or blasting out of speakers, than Alabama Feeling), but sometimes I wonder if he practices. If he's ever had a lesson. Or if I'm listening to the free jazz equivalent of Wesley Willis (a schizophrenic whose ranting "songs" have been recorded and distributed by several smirking-hipster indie labels, and even by Rick Rubin at American, who should know better)."


Spirit House is "dedicated to tracing the ecstatic spirit in jazz." Broadcast on Eastside Radio 89.7fm in Sydney, Australia, on Mondays between 21.30 and midnight, the programme covers everything from early avant-garde to freshly minted masterpieces. Presenters are Sean O'Brien and Gerard Hogan. The accompanying webblog aims to document the music played on Spirit House, "and hopefully provide an insight into why we play what we play through reviews, links and anything else that comes to mind."

Tuesday, March 18, 2003


An entirely non-representative and non-comprehensive selection of intriguing musical events happening in NFE's neck of the woods over the next few weeks... the links will no doubt give you other dates, as well as wider information.

18-19 March
Richard Alston Dance Company: settings of Britten, Mozart, Italian and Moorish medieval music; Gardner Arts Centre, University of Sussex, 20.00.

20 March
The Dedication Orchestra (formed 10 years ago to celebrate the music of exiled South African musicians such as Mongezi Feza, Harry Miller, Chris McGregor, Dudu Pukwana, Johnny Dyani and Nick Moyaka). With Keith Tippett, Evan Parker, Lol Coxhill, Elton Dean, Jim Dvorak, Julie Tippetts and Steve Beresford. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 19.45.

4 April
'Greek Ikons of Light and Passion'. The Composers' Ensemble, with Mina Polychronou (sop). Works by Theodore Antoniou, Periclis Koukos, George Kouroupos. Purcell Room, London, 19.30.

8 April
Phoenix Dance Theatre: settings of Jocelyn Pook ('DV8', 'Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut'). Gardner Arts Centre, University of Sussex, 20.00.

23 April
Electronica: London Sinfonietta, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. Boulez, 'Anthemes II', Matthias Pintscher, 'Tenebrae', Jonathan Harvey, 'Bird Concerto'. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 19.45.

24 April
Arditti String Quarter with Thomas Ades (piano). Music by Ades, Berg, Dutilleux and Lachenmann. Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 19.45

Monday, March 17, 2003


Very good feature by Simon Hatterstone on eclectic Indian musician Nitin Sawhney in today's Guardian. One tantalising quotation should suffice:

"Sawhney loves complexity. Take his music. For those who haven't had the pleasure of hearing it, let me try to explain. Take bits of Indian and European classical music, add a bit of blues and jazz, a smidge of hip hop and soul, sprinkle with funk and flamenco, spice with bhangra and dance beats, and Bob's your uncle. Record shops tend to store it under world music, which is ridiculous. The music, composed of all those disparate and complex elements, is somehow pure and emotional, and very beautiful." (c) Guardian Unlimited / Hattenstone.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

[108.1] SHOUT IT OUT

'On Arrival' is the new CD by The Shout, an 18-piece British choir, or 'vocal big band' as they call themselves, formed in 1998 by the composers Richard Chew and Orlando Gough. NFE has championed them in the past -- and BBC Radio 3 played an excerpt from the album (which can also be previewed at the Carbon 7 site) last Thursday. The collection was previously issued as a demo CD called 'Tall Stories' after Gough's piece, which premiered last year (24 April) at the Battersea Arts Centre in London, UK.

The singers come from the most varied of backgrounds - gospel, jazz, blues, contemporary classical, opera, Indian music - and the group includes several improvisers. The Shout is an ensemble whose personalities are revealed by the music and who are given the freedom to sing solos and improvise, and yet it is also capable of a homogeneous effort. It explores the possibilities of both 18 individuals and of a single voice with 18 components.Among its luminaries is my good friend the Australian soprano Adey Grummet. Richard Gough is interviewed at AI magazine here. Unfortunately The Shout's biog and information page seems to be down at the moment. They also appear on an Unknown Public CD, UP 11 Beauty and Terror. See also COMA Voices...

Saturday, March 15, 2003


One of the great secrets of radio unveils itself to a small audience between 22:15 and midnight from Monday to Thursday on BBC Radio 3. Late Junction is a "laid-back, eclectic mix of music from across the globe, ranging from Mali to Bali, and from medieval chant to 21st-century electronica." It is presented regularly by Fiona Talkington and Verity Sharp. You can get a flavour from the playlists here, and of course you can listen on-line. Late Junction is also a record label. A review of oner of the recent collections, ‘Nordic Nights’ will follow shortly on NFE.

Thursday, March 13, 2003


Back on 26 February NFE previewed the exciting Warp Works and C20th Masters concert at the RFH on 9 March 2003. There is a good review of the proceedings at the New York Times (you have to register to get through). A few snippets from John Pareles on 12 March:

“The program made the clear if tacit point that ideas anticipate technology. Composers using mechanical processes presaged the loops and repetitions of computerized dance music, and composers fascinated by untempered, nonorchestral sounds foreshadowed the textural variety and obsessiveness of electronica.

“Video … accompanied some live pieces, including … Ligeti's 'Poeme Symphonique for 100 Metronomes,' with individual lines twitching for each ticking metronome.

“The concert was not some misguided attempt to elevate electronica into concert music; it was an appreciation. And for an audience weaned on electronica, all of the concert's dissonances, flickering patterns, sonic apparitions and jolts of rhythm made perfect sense, whether they came from Mr. Ligeti or Aphex Twin.”

The London concert has also excited some lively responses on

Composer David Horne wrote:

"The whole concert was an awesome experience for me, personally, I must admit. To see a packed RFH with a mostly under-30s crowd is extremely unusual for contemporary classical music -- certainly I've never experienced it. And while most of the audience was definitely coming from the Warp perspective, I felt there was on the whole a real enthusiasm for the Ligeti, Cage, Stockhausen etc. Also, while some may turn up their nose at the thought, I thought that the enthusiastic applause and whistles between the movements of the Ligeti were wonderful!

"Also very refreshing in my opinion was to hear people bubbling with comments about the whole event in the 'intermission' (there were still videos going on then.) There were real conversations and arguments going on, but all of it with enthusiasm, whether pro or con. I can't say I usually experience that, unfortunately. I daresay I can't expect to have concertgoers walking down the aisle with beers during my upcoming premieres either!"

Wednesday, March 12, 2003


In case the fact had so far escaped you, this week, 8-16 March, is National Orchestra Week across Britain. Russell Jones, Director of the Association of British Orchestras says: "National Orchestra Week is about celebrating the diversity and vitality of Britain's orchestras. New music, new audiences and young people are at the heart NOW's objectives." There's still time to catch a host of performances, including student composer Rosemary Toll's prosaically entitled 'About Fish' (inspired by Antarctic science) premiered by the London Philharmonic at the Royal Festival Hall on Sunday 16 March. It's got to be said that the LPO doesn't exactly blazon this on their website, so one fears that they've put it in the 'worthy' basket a little too readily. It takes place at 11.30 am, and also on the FUNharmonics (ouch!) menu is John Adams' stellar 'Short Ride in a Fast Machine' and some Carl Stalling 'Looney Tunes' (of the kind beloved by avant-maestro John Zorn).

See also the ABO information bank here.


There are starkly contrasting choices for outings in London this Saturday night (15 March 2003). My musical preference would definitely be to hear Thomas Ades conducting the London Sinfonietta -- who keep cropping up on NFE at the moment -- as they tackle four intriguing premieres: Irish composer Gerald Barry's 'Before the Road' and 'Sextet'; John Woolrich's 'Bitter Fruit Suite'; and Judith Weir's 'Tiger Under the Table' (a selection from the mini-opera). Accompanying these pieces is the late Niccolo Castiglioni's 'Quodlibet' as an opener. The concert takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at 19:45.

Then again, you might feel obliged (though not thrilled, given the line-up) to head over instead to the 'One Big No' anti-war concert. You will see performances there from Paul Weller, Faithless (playing a rare acoustic set), Ian McCulloch (Echo and the Bunnymen, Electrafixion) and Evan Dando, as well as Garbage, Beth Orton and comedian/activist Mark Thomas. There will also be video messages from Yoko Ono, David Gray and Badly Drawn Boy (hopefully not singing!), poetry from Benjamin Zephaniah as well as short contributions from film director Ken Loach and MP George Galloway.

For my money --- and I'll probably donate to Our World Our Say and nip over to the South Bank -- the only really curiosity-generating act there is Faithless, whose trip-hop, smoothly avant electronica definitely makes the grade. McCulloch is a wildcard. Zephaniah's dub will certainly be worth catching. But the rest palls, artistically anyway.

The gig takes place at the Shepherds Bush Empire and all ticket proceeds will go to the Stop The War Coalition and CND. Tickets are on sale now, priced £20 and £30 from Ticket Line on 0870 160 2831 or the Shepherds Bush Box Office on 0870 771 2000. Doors Open at 7.00 pm, allegedly. “Due to the nature of this conflict, we've had to pull this concert together in an extremely short space of time," said the organisers, Lily Sobhani and Emily Eavis, on SoundGenerator. "But it's going to be a unique night of collaborations and one-off appearances with some very special unannounced guests. This is the only big live music event happening to make a noise about the need for a peaceful resolution to the impending war with Iraq." One of the surprises, so it is rumoured, will be Moby, in transit between L>A> and New Zealand.

Tuesday, March 11, 2003


Yesterday saw the long-awaited UK premiere of Luciano Berio’s new finale for Act 3 of ‘Turandot’, Puccini's final opera. Left incomplete at the composer’s death, the work is usually brought to a conclusion by Franco Alfano’s less than adventurous scoring. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Leonard Slatkin the Berio version has another powerful advocate. BBC Radio 3 are allowing listeners to hear the work online for themselves from 1pm today (GMT) until Monday 17 March.

Three other major conductors have tackled Berio’s Act 3: Riccardo Chailly in the Canary Islands and Amsterdam, Kent Nagano in Los Angeles and Valery Gergiev in Salzburg. Gergiev was particularly enthusiastic: “I absolutely endorse it. It ‘s wonderful to have an ending that is musically and dramatically so interesting.”

Truman C. Wang, editor of ‘Classical Voice’, sums up the situation from the perspective of putative sceptics:

“Many may wince at the thought of commissioning an avant-garde modernist to finish the work of a late Romantic melodist. The result, far from sounding incongruous or inartistic, is in my opinion nothing short of brilliant. Side by side, the two Finales resemble only in the vocal contour of the Calaf-Turandot Duet. The Berio version, with its subtle harmonic shifts, tonal ambiguities, and exotic scoring, sounds more akin to Puccini’s vision, despite the nearly 80 years of stylistic chasm separating the two. The constantly shifting major and minor harmonies and hints of atonality not only are in keeping with the rest of the score that Puccini did write, but also nicely mirror the emotional turmoil of the newly de-iced, humanized Princess. Moreover, the reprise of a big aria ‘Nessun dorma’ (transfigured harmonically), absent in the Alfano version, has ample precedents in other Puccini operas, notably ‘E lucevan le stelle’ at the end of ‘Tosca’.” (c) Classical Voice

Berio is without doubt Italy’s finest living composer. But the long-term success of his ‘Turandot’ finale depends on repertory, not simply the backing of major conductors and the critics (though that has been pretty fulsome so far). Hopefully it might also prod a few so-called traditionalists towards his other works.

Monday, March 10, 2003


A recent diversionary newsgroup exchange about dynamics in jazz, classical music and progressive rock led me to be reminded (courtesy of Dave Binder) about Australian keyboards musician Mike Nock and his important and often overlooked 1960s jazz-rock group The Fourth Way. Some years later, Nock is now the head of Naxos Jazz, having produced a prodigious number of albums over the last 35 years. There is a good interview with him on Miriam Zolin's fine Cyber-jazz site - an excellent entree to the Antipodean scene. Nock also talked about his vision for Naxos Jazz when he came into the role in 2001. While you're there have a look round Jerry Jazz Musician, "...a counterculture world of ideas, entertainment, gifts, and mid-twentieth century America..."


Jim Lindstrom writes:

“The San Francisco Chronicle [has run] a piece about the challenge of finding originality after a century of such outlandish newness from the likes of Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, James Joyce and others. The article [suggests] that perhaps the twentieth century pining for newness stemmed from cataclysmic world events: two world wars, [the] threat [of] nuclear annihilation, the fall of alternatives to capitalism. If that is the case, the writer continues, [maybe] today's fragmentary, transitional, uncertain world outlook does not warrant such brash newness, but [rather] a thoughtful revisiting of overlooked ideas of the twentieth century.

“... [By contrast] this fall I attended the weekly Composers' Forums at University of Illinois, where the focus was different each week, but always related to new music. In the final Forum, a professor -- a self-proclaimed member of the ‘old guard’ -- spoke to us about the disappointing conservatism in today's young composers (read: artists, in general). In response a 20-something graduate student shot back -- and I paraphrase: "The twentieth century produced a wealth of new ideas. The conceptual production of that century is second to none. Rather than calling today's young composers 'conservative', I would call them 'thoughtful.' The aim of seeking newness can be an empty goal if one never flushes out the capacity of any one system to really produce anything." I'm inclined to agree … the depth of twentieth century conceptual thought towers over the depth of actual pieces of work from the same era ...

“When art outsiders today ask, ‘Where are our Bachs and Shakespeares?’, I think this is what they are getting at. The general public doesn't care about conceptual production. They want their Beethoven's 5ths and their Mona Lisas. Perhaps the 21st century will be remembered as the concretization .. of the brilliant conceptual output of the 20th century.”

Sunday, March 09, 2003


Ventured on the Gyorgi Ligeti spiderweb yet? If not, make sure you've got Macromedia loaded and then head straight off to the Ligeti site. You're in for a treat. The whole experience was produced by Illuminations Interactive, now known as Braunarts, and was commissioned by the Philharmonia Orchestra with funding from The Foundation for Sport and the Arts and Vincent Meyer.

Ligeti is creating perhaps the most significant solo piano cycle in contemporary music at the moment. If you want to dip your toe in, there's an ideal budget opportunity created by the good people at Naxos. Idil Biret performs the 'Etudes for Piano Books I & II' on 8.555777 (2002, £4.99).

The catalogue comments: "As György Ligeti himself describes it, the impetus for '... composing highly virtuosic piano études ... was, above all, my own inadequate piano technique'. Solo piano music is prominent in his output prior to his ‘escape’ to the West in 1956, notably the Musica ricercata cycle completed in 1953, but little emerged during his involvement with the European avant-garde over the next two decades. At the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, Ligeti rethought all aspects of his composing idiom, resulting in music which might be described as ‘post-tonal’ in its creative and unprejudiced approach to the ‘Classical’ tradition. Among the first fruits of this reassessment was Book I of the piano Etudes, comprising six pieces and completed in 1985. A second book of eight pieces was composed between 1988 and 1994, while a third book was started in 1995. (c) Naxos.

In spite of the composer's own self-deprecation, it has to be said that these pieces demand a high level of technical skill. Turkish-born pianist Biret does a fine job, though she has been accused by some reviewers of smoothing the edges and slowing the tempi a little. This recording still impresses though: and let's face it, it's a bargain.


Talking of keyboards, the Piano Festival 2003 features 17 days of performance and celebrates the 150th anniversary of iconic manufaturers Steinway & Sons. Curated by Kathryn Stott, the Festival runs at Manchester's Bridgewater Hall from 14 - 30 March. The full guide and programme is at Manchester Online. Russian music (including Prokofiev's three piano concertos) features prominently, partly because Manchester is twinned with St Petersburg, coinciding with the great city's 300th anniversary. Alongside the BBC Philarmonic, St Petersburg Philharmonic and Halle Orchestras are a host of famous classical performers - Nikolai Demidenko, Peter Donohoe, Barry Douglas, Angela Hewitt, Jin Ju, Piers Lane, Aleksander Madzar, Alexander Melnikov, Martin Roscoe, Kathryn Stott herself, Grigory Sokolov and the legendary Krystian Zimmerman. There are masterclasses with students from Chetham's and the Royal Northern College of Music.

Sadly there is little new music on show. Graham Fitkin is the only contemporary British composer given any significant space with the premiere of 'Circus For Two Pianos' on 21 March. Talented jazz pianist Julian Joseph, who pioneered the introduction of jazz to the otherwise rather traditionalist London chamber venue the Wigmore Hall a few years ago, has two showcases - one with Des'ree and the Halle. On 25 March Takashi Yoshimatsu’s extraordinary 'Concerto for Saxophone, Piano and Percussion-Cyberbird' makes an appearance. And the Pablo Ziegler Quintet for New Tango makes an entrance the next day. Apart from that it's high quality but traditional fayre. No Joanna MacGregor, no Nancarrow, no Ligeti... ... Still, with a dozen pianos, 28 international pianists, 68 events, a red Ferrari grand and top-flight musicians, the Piano Festival 2003 is undoubtedly an adventurous enterprise.

Saturday, March 08, 2003


The web is a wonderful locus for niche interests. Take the extraordinary International Archives for the Jazz Organ site, which does exactly what it says on the packet: it provides world surveys, links, sheet music, access to sound sources (mp3 etc.) and much more. As you would anticipate, there is great devotion to the classic Hammond B3. But among less expected features is a section on church organs as vehicles of jazziz. I've come to appreciate the dexterity and sheer musical perversity of the electronic instrument, of course. There's nothing like a good wail. But somehow those pipes retain a purity and power which is -- well, in a different league. If you haven't heard it, I particularly recommend that you rush out and buy the beautiful, strange and atmospherically captivating CD by John Taylor and Ian Carr (church organ and flugelhorn respectively), Sounds and Sweet Airs (Celestial Harmonies, 01371130642). Recorded in the mid-'90s at Southwark Cathedral in London, it is replete with Shakespearian themes, shards of bluesiness in a classical ambient, and an authentic just-audible thunderstorm setting the scene. Remarkable. has a few clips, and there's background here. 'A Sea Change Rich And Strange' remains my favourite piece, first discovered through Unknown Public.

Friday, March 07, 2003


The Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu, who died on 20 February 1996, created a vibrant world of colour and texture through his music, blending oriental themes and instruments with all that he absorbed through the Western classical tradition. He was equally (though differently) at home in both vernacular and avant-garde environments and will continue to inspire and influence us in coming generations. Great news, therefore, to hear via Schott Actuel (March/April 2003) of Shogakukan Inc's continued development of their 'complete works' edition of Takemitsu's enormously varied output. The orchestral works were published (12 CDs) in November 2002. This month sees the unveiling of volume 2, instrumental and choral music (11 CDs). In July 10 CDs of music for cinema appear, with another 10 in November. Finally, the catalogue will be completed in exactly one year's time with popular songs, tape music, music for theatre and radio and addenda (12 CDs). Together with essays, reviews, commentaries and assessments from writers across the world, this amounts to the definitive account of one of the great figures of twentieth century music - 5 volumes and 55 CDs in all. Get saving... and see also Peter Burt's book on Takemitsu.

"I would like to develop in two directions at once: as a Japanese with respect to tradition, and as a Westerner with respect to innovation. Deep down I would like to preserve both musical genres, each in its own legitimate form. But to take these fundamentally irreconcilable elements simply as a starting point for varied compositional uses is in my opinion no more than a first step. I do not want to remove the fruitful contradictions; on the contrary. I would like the two forces to struggle with one another. In that way I can avoid isolation from the tradition and yet also push toward the future in each new work." Toru Takemitsu.

Thursday, March 06, 2003


Composer Jonathan Harvey (whose 'Bird Concerto' is performed at the QEH in London on 23 April) is giving a talk on 'Understanding Creativity' on Sunday 13 April 2003 at the Sussex Arts Club, 7 Ship Street, Brighton. This is an event sponsored by the British Association of Analytical Psychotherapists, but it is open to all. Tickets may be purchased by ringing 01272 607529.

This news made me return to my copy of Harvey's interesting book, 'Music And Inspiration' (edited by Michael Downes, Faber and Faber, 1999), in which he investigates the writings of many fellow-composers for the sources of their creativity. Unsurprisingly, given his own compositional processes and life commitments, Harvey ends up sympathising most (alongside Schoenberg) with those composers who "right up to the present day have continued to attempt to communicate a vision of paradise in their music." But he is broad and eirenic in his survey, taking seriously those who detach their art from overt emotional engagement - or even from the attempt to reach out to other than the smallest peer audience.

Given the new vacancy for Master of the Queen's Music (an anachronism, but the nearest we have in Britain to a focal 'composer-in-residence'), what Harvey has to say about composing 'for the nation' (p111ff) and 'for the world' (p115ff) might be of particular interest. But he mostly weaves around the notion of national and cultural 'moods' and, unsurprisingly, cites Beethoven's 'Ode To Joy' as the archetypal 'people's music'. So there is nothing new or profound here.

Given that this is primarily a personalist account there is also little deep probing into the darker nationalistic psychologies that have inhabited public music, with only a passing reference to Wagner's anti-Semitism or, conversely (p92-93), to Tippett's social responsibility and internationalism. There is nothing on music and militarism, either; an omission made starker by the present looming war clouds. But the genesis of this work was, it has to be noted, a thesis from Glasgow in the 1960s, and although the material has been updated with the assistance of an editor, Harvey makes it clear that his own priority is compositional expression rather than situational reflection.

Jonathan Harvey's book is, in summary, warm-hearted and thoughtful without being over-wrought. His connectedness with the inner world of sensibility and inspiration will, I am sure, make his talk in Sussex a thoroughly worthwhile event. The first two section of 'Music And Inspiration' (on the categories of the unconscious and experience) are among the best broad surveys of these cultivated impulses that I have seen. But the complex relationship of all this to the social, cultural and political forces that shape and reflect individual personalities is less in the foreground.

A further work, 'In Quest Of Spirit' (University of California Press, 1999) probes further into the realm of religion and spirituality, together with the impact of electronics and spectralism on the creative process. It has an accompanying CD:

Harvey explores aspects of music that he connects with spirituality: self-identity, ambiguity, unity, stasis, and silence. In the course of his explorations he offers corroborating statements about music and spirituality from sources ranging from Nietzsche to Oliver Sacks. The book and CD include samples of his own music as well as of compositions by Mozart, Scriabin, Stockhausen, and others that help to illustrate the profoundness of what Harvey deems "the good listening experience". (c)

Wednesday, March 05, 2003


Adventurous promoters Serious and IJAZZ are backing a short five date UK tour by composer, bandleader, improviser, Weather Report co-founder and legendary Miles Davis alumnus Wayne Shorter. Coinciding with the launch of his new album 'Alegria' on 25 March, Shorter is supported by Danilo Perez and Brad Mehldau on piano, John Patitucci on bass, Brian Blade and Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, and Alex Acuna on percussion. The concerts start in Brighton (where else) at the Dome on Thurday, followed by Birmingham Symphony Hall (7 March), Usher Hall in Edinburgh (8 March), Poole Lighthouse (9 March) and London's Barbican Centre on 29 March.'Alegria' is described by its promoters as "epic, panoramic, transcendent jazz." I'll let you know in due course... Meanwhile, there's a good (earlier) Shorter interview here.

Tuesday, March 04, 2003


Composer Sergei Prokofiev died exactly fifty years ago on Wednesday, sadly on the same day as his nemesis, Stalin. Full details of the celebrations are on the Prokofiev Society index page. A gala concert is being organised on 5 March at St John's, Smith Square, in London. Prokofiev is the composer of the week on BBC Radio 3. There you can hear 'Romeo and Juliet' (Act 1, Scene 2) with Previn/LSO and 'Love For Three Oranges' (Act 3, Scene 3) with Gergiev/Kirov Opera on RealAudio.

Out of interest, there are various other 2003 musical anniversaries catalogued with links at Classical Composers.

Music ... has definitely reached and passed the greatest degree of discord and complexity that can be attained in practice. I want nothing better, more flexible or more complete than the sonata form, which contains everything necessary for my structural purposes. (Prokofiev in the New York Times, 1930)

This was well before Birtwistle and Ferneyhough, of course!


The Nash Ensemble offer 'A Portrait of Elliott Carter' at the Purcell Room on the South Bank tonight (19.30). This intimate tribute to one of America's (and the twentieth century's) most important and characteristically idiosyncratic compositional talents unfortunately coincides with the enterprising Britten Sinfonia's unusual renditions of John Adams and John Zorn a few feet away at the Queen Elizabeth Hall (19.45) -- as previously averted on NFE. Ticket details at the RFH website. An uneviable choice, but one which proves that, in Britain's (music) capital city you can have too much of a good thing. Delicious...

Monday, March 03, 2003

[96.1] MALCOLM WILLIAMSON, 1931-2002

It was sad to hear the news this morning of the death in Cambridge yesterday of Sydney-born composer Malcolm Williamson [excellent MusicWeb biog and appreciation here]. He was alternately a traditionalist and an innovator. He leaves behind a body of work that will charm and intrigue people in years to come. It seems only recently that I was at London's Wigmore Hall for his 70th birthday celebration (April 2001, in fact) - a set of cameos derived from chamber and vocal works interspersed with miniatures from musical colleagues. The affection and esteem was considerable. Williamson was also an organist of note and delightfully erratic in his delivery (and, occasionally, non-delivery) of music for Royal occasions.

It will be intriguing to see what happens to the increasingly anachronistic post of Master of the Queen's Music now. Will it go to an older or newer generation composer, for a start? As usual, extraneous factors (such as being anti-establishment, an atheist, 'too intellectual' or just too darned credible) will rule out the obvious front-rankers such as Maxwell Davies, Birtwistle (what fun that would be!), Knussen and Turnage. Perhaps James MacMillan (a Catholic, a bit radical, writes tunes but isn't backward looking) would be a sage choice for the Royal makeover team? And what about glimmeringly, gaily talented Thomas Ades? There's an ecumenical test for Mrs Windsor... expect a second-tier choice from the RCCM.

Further Williamson links: MVDaily, Australian Music Centre.

Sunday, March 02, 2003


Jazz drummer and bandleader Bill Bruford was in jocular mood for his interview with Claire Martin on BBC Radio 3’s ‘Jazz Line-Up’ (Saturday 1 March, 4.30pm). Highlighting Earthworks’ latest live album and DVD (‘Footloose and Fancy Free’, 2002) and upcoming tour, he talked about recording, the inspiration behind the quartet, working with Tim Garland, the influence of his art-rock roots, and what it means to play at Ronnie Scott’s after all these years.

Earthworks has moved away from its earlier, more experimental phase around Bruford’s old Simmons electronic drums. The band has returned, in recent years, to its post-bop roots. Even so, the music is complex, eclectically melodic, and draws on a range of sound sources without resorting to the cliché and over-statement that gave ‘fusion’ a bad name in the 1980s. Here are a few highlights from Bruford’s remarks:

[On the recording process] “It is brave [to go in live]… Studio is sometimes easier, but to tell the truth I find the whole process like pulling teeth.”

[On recruiting legendary ex-Corea sidesman Tim Garland on sax] “I was flagging somewhat as a composer, and wanted to get in another really good writer … to broaden the scope of the compositions.”

[On playing at Ronnie Scott’s] “Ronnies has a kind of mythical status to it… I went to [the] old place in [London’s] Chinatown years ago, and heard Ornette Coleman and Charlie Moffett … and then the new place, [where] in the ‘60s I [listened to] Roland Kirk, Jimi Hendrix, all kinds of stuff. I’ve done a couple of showcases … but this is the first time I’ve ever played there as an adult!”

[On “the intrepid Julian Arguelles” depping for Tim Garland in Oxford] “He’ll be sight-reading his way through [the lot]… It’ll be a real feast of musicianship. I’ll buy him an alcohol-free pint afterwards.”

“I find it’s the bass player these days who often holds the heart of the thing down… when all is lost I refer to Mark [Hodgson].”

[On Earthworks’ style] “The music is pretty idiosyncratic, so it’s difficult to have somebody to just drop by. It’s very tight… There’s a bit of the old art-rock there… When you say a word like that you could expect quite a bit of high drama in the composition, .. some fancy odd twists and turns .. also a lot of odd metres.. I’m one of those strange individuals who's more comfortable in odd metres than in 4/4. I have great difficulty playing in 4/4”

“I like a good tune, no doubt about that. Something like ‘Footloose and Fancy Free’ is a foot-tapper… one for the milkman – if you’ve got a very hip milkman!”

[asked about whether his writing is as spontaneous as the music sounds] “Oh no.. I have to reluctantly drag myself to the piano, sharpen endless pencils, have lots of coffee .. and it’s very slow-going. And then because I’m a drummer my composition may have some rather questionable harmony attached to it, so Steve Hamilton has to give it the once over, the tick of health.”

[On former collaborator and new music/jazz composer Django Bates] “I love Django, and he’s more than welcome to drop in… we’ll confuse the heck out of him any time he wants!”

[Repertoire in Japan and the Far East] “Sometimes if it’s a festival they want some kind of … Asian-European connection… so maybe we’d play with some Asian musicians. We did that in Hong Kong [recently] with a very good [Chinese] guitar player called Eugene Pao. But generally we just turn up and do what we do.”

See the Arguelles article [94.3] below for other musician links. The Japanese import of 'Footloose and Fancy Free' has a bonus track, "Shadow Of A Doubt". This edition of 'Jazz Line-Up' can be heard on line (link above) until next Sunday at 3pm.

Saturday, March 01, 2003


In the midst of their upcoming English tour, Bill Bruford's Earthworks are to be joined by sax polymath Julian Arguelles for their Oxford concert on 20 March at the Zodiac Club (01865 420042). Arguelles will sight-read his way through Earthworks' complex set as a favour to regular Tim Garland, who has a commitment that night with Chick Corea. Corea is playing at the Blue Note Jazz Club in Milan, Italy, from 19 - 24 March. He then resumes a US tour and plays one night in Dresden, Germany, on 3 June.

Arguelles has worked with ex-Earthworks alumni Django Bates and Iain Ballamy in Loose Tubes and Delightful Precipice. His big band appearances have included Brotherhood of Breath and stints with Hermeto Pascoal, Carla Bley and Kenny Wheeler. He has also collaborated with Evan Parker, Tommy Smith and many others. Bruford's acoustic quartet begin their tour in Basingstoke on 8 March and conclude with a residency at London's Ronnie Scott's from 31 March to 5 April. The news about Arguelles was featured in an interview with Claire Martin on BBC Radio 3 today (further excerpts tomorrow). Garland's other projects are detailed here.


Album: Inner Noise
Artist: Asaf Sirkis (with Steve Lodder and Mike Outram)
Released: February 2003
Catalogue: Konnex Records KCD5113
CD: 1

"Like a melange of Yes and the 1970s Mahavishnu Orchestra, with episodes of electric-ambience atmospherics" and references to composers such as Messiaen, declared John Fordham in his recent review of Asaf Sirkis' new album. It was meant as disapproval. To NFE it sounds more than a little encouraging. Sirkis, for those who don't know him, is a composer-drummer of daunting technical skills, a wide palette of sounds, and the desire to combine some of his passions from the vividly colourful and thoughtfully energetic ends of the classical-jazz-rock spectrum.

'Inner Noise' is Sirkis' second solo album (following his Trio debut with 'One Step Closer' in 1995), and his first in Europe since he arrived from Israel in 1999. Besides working with his own band (after which the latest album is named), Sirkis has performed regularly with Gilad Atzmon's Orient House Ensemble, Christine Tobin, the Phil Robson Trio, Martin Speake and Adel Salameh (a Palestinian oud player/composer). He occasionally plays with Theo Travis, Emmanuel Bex, Ari Brown, Gary Husband, John Taylor, John Etheridge, Dave O'Higgins, Claude Deppa and others. This is some pedigree.

Inner Noise consists of Sirkis on drums / percussion alongside Mike Outram on electric guitar and classically trained Steve Lodder (famed for his work with Andy Sheppard and Joanna MacGregor) on organ. The album features nine pieces: "Lucidity" (7:46),"Three Ways" (4:59), "Hope" (8:30), "Floating" (6:53), "Inner Noise" (8:45), "Desert Vision" (11:19), "The Only Way" (9:12), "Questions" (3:06), and "White Elephant" (12:05). It was originally commissioned by the Tel Aviv Department of Arts and toured in Israel during 1997-98, but has taken just over four years to see the light of day on disc. I've only heard a few clips, but it sounds a fascinating brew, and nothing like the monochromatic disappointment indicated by Fordham. Look out also for supporting tour dates on the European Jazz Network pages.

See also James Griffiths' review of Asaf Sirkis with saxophonist Atzmon at London's Pizza Express Jazz Club earlier in February 2003, where the band drew on source materials ranging from eastern European folk through to hard bop, funk and French accordion music. Like his Israeli compatriot, Sirkis has been openly and courageously critical of his government's treatment of the Palestinian people.


Philip Glass is one of those composers whose work hits me asymmetrically. One moment I am entranced, the next strangely unmoved. For no discernable reason. I felt both those responses when I saw the ROH production of ‘Akhnaten’ in 1985: oddly impressed in a laconic kind of way by the painfully slow live production; abandoned to motionlessness on the home sound system. ‘Einstein on the Beach’ I usually relate to more readily. 'Music In Twelve Parts', a minimalist classic, can be enthralling and infuriating. And of Glass' film scores, so far, ‘Koyaanisqatsi' is the one I've really come to love. Oh, and the Bowie and Eno-inspired 'Low Symphony' warms the heart on a cold day, too.

All of which information was right at the back of my mind when I went to see Stephen Daldry's film 'The Hours' in Brighton the other day. Nicole Kidman is extraordinary as Virginia Woolf, and the emotional and historical segue from the writing of 'Mrs Dalloway' (1923) to the stories set in 1951 and 2001 is a great filmic and narrative device. It can feel as if the inner life of creatives is just too tortured to be true ("Oh to be in Richmond, now that melancholy's here!"), but this is undoubtedly a good and serious film. One of its most endearing characters is of course the score by Philip Glass, performed (as on the soundtrack CD), by the Lyric Quartet and Michael Riesman.

Glass builds up a neo-classical sound world of remorselessly dissolving and unresolving intensity. The small gestures and repetitions of his music are echoed in a number of visual episodes on the screen. Arpeggios, elliptical themes, gently persistent rhythms and mournfully colourful motifs blend in and out of Daldry's scenes -- ever present, but somehow never obtrusive or dominant. I'm not yet sure how the aural effect would be without the images and the story, but the point of film music is precisely to cohere eye, ear, mind and heart with sound; and at that transubstantiative level Glass' score works very well indeed. You can hear a little of it on the movie site, after Flash has run its course...

John L. Walters makes a pertinent observation about it in his review yesterday:
"The long 'Morning Passages' section feels like a piano concerto from an alternative 12th century, to which the director has found matching images. In some respects it works as fake classical music in the way that Elmer Bernstein's superb score for 'The Sweet Smell of Success' used fake jazz to skewer its hollow main characters. By contrast Glass's score for 'The Hours' adds dignity and depth to the people and things in the movie." (c) Walters / Guardian Newspapers