Monday, December 24, 2007


Warm Christmas wishes to all NewFrontEars readers, whatever kind of music chimes with your festive mood.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2007


This year I've missed a host of concerts that, in a less complicated world, I simply wouldn't have contemplated slipping past my ears. Post-minimalist contemporary classical ensemble Pianocircus with Bill Bruford alongside , for a start, and also the London live debut of innovative drummer Brufordfree form pianist Michiel Borstlap in November 2007 at the London Jazz Festival. Thankfully the BBC is helping me (and possibly you) out, because it recorded the show and it can now be heard on Wednesday the 12 December on Radio 3's 'Late Junction' at 11.15pm GMT. The duo have recently released their album, In Two Minds, on the Voiceprint label. Bruford, who is now a well-recognised jazz and experimental musician, but whose fame came from stints with Yes and King Crimson during the 'art rock' era, is interviewed on web radio here and featured in The Times newspaper here. Famous for "never playing the same thing once", he declares: "Happily jazz exists. Everyone hates ‘jazz’ but it’s the only word to describe a musician who wants to say something fresh and react to what others are doing around him." His longstanding project, Earthworks, is currently in abeyance. “It’s parked up, refuelling. The key is still in the car and I can drive it any time but I do think you do need a clear idea of what you’re doing when you play a concert.” Borstlap (left in the picture above), a conservatoire trained musician who has also moved into the zone of freedom labelled 'jazz', has had few headlines over the years (no bad thing, many would argue), but makes up for it in creativity and intensity. They are a formidable pairing.

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Sunday, December 02, 2007


Virtuoso cellist Steven Isserlis (pictured) was charm itself during his appearance on BBC Radio 4's iconic Desert Island Discs this week. That was not just a personality thing, but a consequence of the fact that he has a real passion for music, which forms an essential part of his life. Well, he's a musician, of course. And I'm certainly not saying that the programme should be restricted to musos. That would miss the point entirely. But too many of the guests that get on to the show these days seem to be there simply because they are 'celebrities' or otherwise prominent in the Beeb's lexicon of 'public life'. The problem arises when it becomes evident that the choice of music is basically an incidental feature of what can easily become another PR interview. ("Ah yes, I need to stick in another record now, don't I? Well, let's try this one. Now, about that important career highlight of mine we were talking about...")

is the radio show many music-lovers would die to go on. For my licence-fee money, that ought to be a non-negotiable requirement for anyone appearing, famous or not. BBC Radio 3's Private Passions, with composer Michael Berkeley, is a counterpoint to DID, of course, and one I also love. It's more cerebral, more musically involved, and much less focused on the non-musical elements of its subjects' existence. By contrast, the joy of Desert Island Discs, when it works, is that it shows how good music of all genres can be an illuminating and enlivening part of the fabric of anyone's life, narrating its sorrows, joys and moments of sheer inspiration. But they've got to care about it, in whatever way, for that to be the case. [Pic (c) BBC]

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Friday, November 23, 2007


How delightful to be back in contact with my former colleague and friend Paul Fisher - whose life is now mostly dedicated to composing and the arts. His website is here, and includes details of various recordings - including Places and Stories, available from Priory Records, on which Kevin Bowyer plays Paul's fine organ music on the Willis organ of Glasgow University Memorial Chapel. It was recorded in April this year (2007), and the cover picture is Tintern Abbey. I've only had a brief listen, as I am involved in a writing project right now, but it was a special pleasure to hear the full The Fire and the Rose: A Suite of Six Pieces - the first time it has been available complete on disc. Paul and I share a love of T. S. Eliot's poetry, a key inspiration here, and I have only previously heard excerpts performed live, twice, by the composer himself. Once was on the organ at Southwark Cathedral. I do have the sheet music, however, which was happily made available some years ago. A longer review will follow.

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Following his recently completed US tour, which included residencies in Los Angeles and New York, Morrissey has decided to start 2008 with six concerts at London's Roundhouse. Tickets went on sale at 9am this morning and, predictably, were sold out in a few hours. So I missed out. I've always wanted to see the Mozzfather live, having inexplicably turned down a ticket to witness The Smiths in Brixton on 12 December 1986. It turned out to be their last ever gig. This is getting to be a habit, of sorts.

There are as yet unconfirmed rumours that Morrissey will play L'Olympia in Paris on 4 February. In the wake of his 2006 album Ringleader of the Tormentors, he terminated his relationship with Sanctuary Records, but says he intends to release a new CD in September 2008. He has been trailing a number of new songs in the US.

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Thursday, November 22, 2007


Good to see Andrew Clements' positive review of Steven Osborne's important recording of Sir Michael Tippett's Piano Sonatas Nos 1-4, together with the Piano Concerto and the early Fantasia On a Theme of Handel. It's fashionable to knock Tippett these days. But quixotic though some of his music is, it remains immensely powerful and will have its day again, of that I'm sure. I haven't heard this disc yet, but it's on my Christmas wish-list. I was privileged to see one of Osborne's recitals featuring the sonatas at the Wigmore Hall during the Tippett centenary celebrations in 2005.

Clements writes: "Osborne is superb at delineating the characters of the four sonatas, and underlining how, in their very different ways, they relate to the piano tradition. The First, from 1942, is the most surprising, for its florid, almost improvisatory writing sometimes seems to be modelled on the bravura style of Liszt and Rachmaninov, which Osborne projects dazzlingly, while under his fingers the Second Sonata, composed in 1962, emerges as a gritty and uncompromising masterpiece, indebted both to late Stravinsky and to Messiaen.

"But it's in the less often performed Third and Fourth Sonatas, from 1973 and 1984 respectively, that Osborne's ability to grasp overall shapes while also respecting the smallest details is most thoroughly tested, and his performances are coherent, vivid and coursing with drama."

Hyperion are to be congratulated on this two CD set, which also features Martyn Brabbins and the fine BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

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Monday, November 19, 2007


Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain
Oliver Sacks; Knopf, 381 pages, $25

From a review by Scott LaFee: His latest book, Musicophilia, [focusses] upon a subject that his clearly close to Sacks' own heart and mind: the relationship between music and the brain.

Here too are the expected (and yet somehow unexpected) case histories: the woman who suffers spasms whenever she hears songs that remind her of childhood; the psychoanalyst who has hallucinations of a singing rabbi and the surgeon struck by lightning who becomes obsessed with Chopin.

Sacks talks too about people for whom music offers no attraction at all, a condition called amusia in which melody, harmony and rhythm are nothing more than “plinking noises” and “an arbitrary succession of more or less irritating sounds.”

Some of these “amusiacs” are quite well-known. Among them: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Nabokov, William James and Ulysses S. Grant.

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Sunday, November 18, 2007


Adey Grummet, über-soprano supreme, writes: "That glorious and magical engine, the Stoke Newington Opera Cabaret, is about to steam off into unknown territories once more. With a very starry cast of singers and the inspirational support of two stalwart pianists, this is an occasion to come and revel in the marvellous excesses of a night of opera greats. I shall compere in my usual, excitable style."

We are promised "an evening of glorious singing, fabulous frocks and operatically heightened emotions. Fight to get a ticket... Bar on site - bring your own picnic!" Sounds unmissable. Well, except that I will be elsewhere that evening, sadly. But you need not be.

Proceedings commence at 6.30 pm on 15 December 2007, at The Round Chapel, corner of Lower Clapton Road & Glenarm Road, London E5. Tickets £16 (£14 concessions) available from the redoubtable Farquhar McKay: farquharmckayATblueyonderDOTcoDOTuk, or telephone 07504 4811 849. Adey's own website is here.

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Sunday, November 04, 2007


Frighteningly enough, in transit to a quite different TV experience, I found myself catching a few minutes of BBC1's Antiques Roadshow tatfest this evening - a programme I would normally go out of my way to avoid, as one would any kind of hospice, until it is strictly necessary. What caught my attention, though, was a classic Jefferson Airplane poster from Haight Ashbury in 1967. One of Wes Wilson's psychadelic graphic creations. So this is what the post-modern retirement home looks like? There is hope. Of a kind.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007


This, slightly edited to read, from a good BBC radio interview by John Tusa. One inspiration on another (very different one), from my point of view. Read the whole thing here. It's about Birtwistle's formation, his journey in music, his approach to it, and the often confused controversy that has followed him. The idea that he writes atonally, for example, which, as he says, is "far from the truth".

[H]ow things are introduced, how things gather... that moment is extraordinary. And Messiaen to me is rather like that. The first Messiaen that I heard, I thought, there is another way of writing music. And he sort of explained it. I think that I performed in the first performance of the Quartet for the End of Time... but at the beginning of the Quartet for the End of Time, is that little chart about rhythm... And that was pretty moving because I thought , it gives you courage... somebody else is doing it, maybe there is something there. To talk to him about it, to listen to him talking, you'd think that he was in [that] tradition of music from the beginning of time, but he really did invent a sort of music in one go and he was still doing the same thing at the end of his life. I mean he managed to shuffle the cards in different ways ... but you know, the melodies he invented at the beginning were the same melodies at the end.

[Pic: Olivier Messiaen]

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Friday, October 19, 2007


Maybe Blog Action Day (on the environment) passed you by in 2007 - it was 15 October - but you can sign up for 2008, and they have a groovy little toooon going on in the background which will make you smile (unless you're a bit of a fuddy-duddy). "March to your own green beat"...

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Thursday, October 18, 2007


I can't believe I missed out on this. Careless. And tragic. Hope it isn't the last ever performance.

The Handel-Hendrix Experience is a fascinating comedy about a surprising meeting between musical revolutionaries Handel and Hendrix, who lived in adjoining houses on Brook Street in London but over two centuries apart. For one night only, the dramatised reading took place at the splendid Handel House Museum on Sunday 2 September, with two performances at 5pm and 7pm.

The Handel-Hendrix Experience is a play by Perry Pontac, from an idea by Jack Rosenthal, directed by Maureen Lipman and starring Timothy West as Handel and Joseph Mydell as Hendrix. Laurence Cummings performs on harpsichord.

The play imagines how both immigrant musicians might have influenced and changed each other's musical careers. Some comic moments include Hendrix helping Handel to finish Messiah, and Handel advising Hendrix how to dress like a rock star and play the ‘guitar’ with his teeth.

See also: From Handel to Hendrix – The Composer in the Public Sphere by Michael Chanan, Verso, Londres, 2000, 342 pp. ISBN 1-85984-706-4 (Hbk)

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Saturday, October 06, 2007


Extraordinary though it may seem (I blush at the memory myself), I once tried to date someone by inviting them to hear a five-hour performance of works by Karlheinz Stockhausen, including Stimmung, which I still think is wonderful. Needless to say, the response wasn't exactly "you've pulled". Though the fine woman concerned has since discovered an admirable taste for contemporary music, I gather, it certainly had little to do with me, I'm sure. Ah, well. That was 31 years ago. But Stimmung still marches on, and has been well reviewed by Andrew Clements in The Guardian.

"Like all the greatest music it is unclassifiable - part meditation, part gigantic motet, part phonetic game - and totally resistant to imitation. Though in essence it is a vast elaboration of a single six-note chord based on the overtones of the note B flat, it never seems to stale in performance, partly because of the extraordinary variety of rhythm, attack and colour that Stockhausen generates within the 51 "models" into which he divides the 70-minute piece, and partly through the freedom for performers that is built in to the score, allowing the singers to decide the order in which the models are sung and where in the sequence a series of 66 "magic names" and four erotic poems are inserted. This is only the third commercial recording of Stimmung; 25 years ago Paul Hillier was a member of Singcircle, the British group behind the second, following the original by Collegium Vocale Cologne, who gave the first performance in 1968. Now, with his Theatre of Voices, Hillier has directed his own version, recorded in Copenhagen last year." Continued here.

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Friday, October 05, 2007


Mercurial jazz-fusion guitarist Allan Holdsworth has announced the dates on his upcoming and long-awaited British tour, featuring an established trio and no keyboards. I shall certainly make every effort to be in London, and perhaps Southampton, too. The line-up is as follows:

Allan Holdsworth - guitar
Chad Wackerman - drums
Jimmy Johnson - bass

International Guitar Festival Of Great Britain,
Birkenhead, Pacific Road Arts Center
Tel. 0151 647 0752
Pacific Road, Birkenhead, Wirral CH41 1LJ.

Kendall, Brewery Arts Center
Tel: 01539 795090
Highgate, Kendal, Cumbria LA9 4HE

Swindon, Arts Centre
Tel: 01793 614837
Devizes Road, Old Town, Swindon SN1 4BJ

London, Jazz Caffé
Tel. 0207 534 6955
Parkway, Camden Town, London, NW1

Milton Keynes, The Stables
Tel. 01908 280800
Stockwell Lane Wavendon, Milton Keynes MK17 8LU

Manchester, Academy
Tel: 0161 275 2930
Manchester University Students Union, Oxford Road,
Manchester, M13 9PR

Newcastle, The Cluny
Tel. 0191 2304474
36 Lime Street, Ouseburn, Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne
and Wear NE1 2PQ

Leeds, Rios
Tel. 0844 414 2182
The Grand Arcade, Leeds LS1 6PQ

Southampton, The Brook
Tel. (023) 8055 5366
466 Portswood Road, Portswood, Southampton SO17 3AN

Nuneaton, Queens Hall
Tel. (0)2476 347402
75 Queens Road, Nuneaton, Warwickshire CV11 5LA

Abertillery, Metropole
Tel. 01495 322510
Metre Street, Abertillery, Bleaneau Gwent NP13 1AL

Bilston-Wolverhampton, Robin 2
Tel 01902 401211
The Leisure Factory 20-22 Mount Pleasant,
Bilston-Wolverhampton WV14 7LJ

Penzance, The Acorn
Tel. 01736 365520
Parade Street, Penzance, Cornwall TR18 4BU

Thursday, October 04, 2007

(International bloggers' day for Burma... let the music of justice and freedom play on...)

Saturday, September 29, 2007


As part of my gradual re-curating of links, I have added a 'Michael Tippett Focus' section, to indicate that one of the regular intentions of NewFrontEars is to maintain interest in the late, great and (comparatively) sadly neglected composer - one of my favourites. Eventually I will index some of the key material on this site, with MT material a particular priority. In the meantime, I hope to be able to signal forthcoming performances of his work, live and on the radio. Below is an upcoming R3 broadcast touching on Tippett's life and music.

The Making Of Music – War Again
Monday 8 October 2007
4.00-5.00pm BBC RADIO 3

BBC Radio 3 presents performances of the music James Naughtie mentions in his BBC Radio 4 programmes (3.45-4.00pm) charting the relationship between 1,000 years of history and the classical music that became its soundtrack.

This programme explores the Thirties and those composers who didn't join the artistic diaspora out of Europe, but instead stayed behind to deal with the catastrophe of war.

Dmitri Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony (the Leningrad) was written during the 900-day siege of that city in which 750,000 Russians died.

In Britain, Michael Tippett spent a few years in the Communist Party during the Thirties, but soon lost faith in its creed. On the day war broke out in September 1939, he began to write the oratorio A Child Of Our Time, inspired by the story of the Polish Jew Herschel Grynspan, whose assassination of a German diplomat in Paris in 1938 was one of the causes of Hitler's organised assault on German Jews on Kristallnacht in that year.

As a pacifist and conscientious objector, Tippett was jailed for refusing to undertake war work as an alternative to military service. In A Child Of Our Time, he deals with the question of the outsider, or the group that can't be understood.

Presenter/Louise Fryer, Producer/Anthony Sellors

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Thursday, September 27, 2007


Thanks to Deirdre Good for drawing my attention to this one: "Tonight Marin Alsop will shatter the glass baton. As she steps onto the podium for her inaugural concert as Music Director and Principal Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra (BSO), Ms Alsop becomes the first woman to assume the leadership of a major American symphony. The baton she will grasp will be a simple wooden one, worn and slightly crooked, handcrafted by her father. Here's the website of Marin Alsop."

Formerly PO of the Bournemouth Symphony, Alsop was also involved with the Building on Excellence: Orchestras for the 21st Century statement, which Andrew Clements comments on here.

Back in April, she declared: "Britain has some of the leading voices of the 21st century, composers that I revere such as Thomas Adès, James MacMillan and Oliver Knussen. What we have to do is maximise on that stature and encourage younger voices."

The 10-year mission statement also promises that musicians will perform in non-traditional venues. The document is signed by the orchestras' chief conductors, including Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Jurowski and Vasily Petrenko, and a lone British name, Mark Elder, the Hallé's music director.

Marin Alsop added: "The UK's orchestras are ... filled with musicians who want to make a contribution to the future of humanity."

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I've just been listening to some wonderfully chromatic Bach, and for some reason found myself wanting to hear Allan Holdsworth. I love his effortless legato style, weird modes, and ability to rework a tune harmonically (this one is by the late Tony Williams, of Lifetime fame) while improvising. Leaves some people cold, I know. But I could listen to him for hours. And Have. Sadly I missed him last time he was in London, so I'm delighted to learn that Allan will tour England in November/December 2007. Venues and dates are due to be announced soon. The band will feature Chad Wackerman on drums and Jimmy Johnson on bass. Then 2008 will see Allan splitting his time between recording and touring. He will focus on the completion of several delayed recording projects of his own and has plans to play in Japan, Australia, Europe, and the USA, apparently. Unmissable.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007


While most of the media attention has gone, understandably, to Pavarotti, the musical demise that has impacted me most has been the death today of the extraordinary Austrian pianist Joe Zawinul. His time as keyboard player with Miles Davis and his co-founding of Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, guitarist Miroslav Vitous and bass player Jaco Pastorius are true milestones in contemporary jazz. But he was so much larger than this. I was privileged to see him in improvisatory mode (a pulsating set of avant, blue note-inflected classicism and world beat) in Cardiff a couple of years ago. He was sharing the honours with Bill Bruford's Earthworks.

In 2004 Zawinul bought a jazz club in Vienna, the Birdland, but continued to tour with his new group, the Zawinul Syndicate. He was due to play this September at the La Villette jazz festival in Paris, but the performance was cancelled due to his ill health. Over the course of his career, Joe was named pianist of the year 28 times by the American jazz magazine Down Beat. That speaks volumes. But not nearly as eloquently as the notes he modulated.

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Monday, September 10, 2007


Open Rehearsal is a Mayor of London campaign taking place across the Uk capital from 27 September to 2 October 2007. Piloted in 2006, the campaign was well received, with South Bank, the Barbican, Wigmore Hall, Dance Umbrella and a variety of commercial and non-commercial theatres participating, and is therefore being expanded this year.

Open Rehearsal will offer the public an opportunity to sample London’s finest music, theatre, dance and opera, free of charge, through access to rehearsals and behind the scenes activity, thus providing a mix of passive and participative activity. As a result more people can enjoy the world-class music, theatre and dance that London offers. Among those participating are the wonderful Britten Sinfonia.

Regular Open Rehearsal partner meetings are held at City Hall. Our next partner meeting is from 3pm-4.30pm on Friday 24 August 2007 in Committee Room 3. Please email if you would like to attend.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007


I'm afraid that, much though I love the Proms as a (indeed the) classical music festival, wild dogs wouldn't force me to watch the embarrassing anachronism that is the Last Night (tonight, BBC 1 & 2). Well, not unless there was a re-run of Harrison Birtwistle frightening the horsey types and yahoos with 'Panic' for sax and percussion. That was great.

I will, however, tune into BBC1 shortly to catch a glimpse of ex-Pink Floyd front man David Gilmour at the Albert Hall - if only because there might be an excerpt from 'Echoes', far and away my favourite PF piece. To be honest I'm not massive on them post Syd Barrett and the promise that sprung out of 'Piper at the Gates of Dawn'.

Prior to the film, which was recorded last year (2006), Gilmour came on stage and performed 'Castellizon' - the guitar piece from his solo album 'On An Island'. He took to a darkened platform with just a spotlight on his guitar.

The footage included several tracks featuring Crosby & Nash performing vocals alongside Gilmour - 'On An Island', 'The Blue' and 'Shine On You Crazy Diamond.' The Albert Hall gig also included David Bowie on two songs: 'Arnold Layne' and finale 'Comfortably Numb.'

After the concert (which included an immense laser light show in the auditorium for 'Echoes') finished, Gilmour came back onstage to take questions from the audience and appreciators around Europe.

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Friday, September 07, 2007


"In the poetry for the Third Symphony, I included a line which I had been ‘forced’ to write: “My sibling is the torturer”. It is a frightening line, and I do not know that I understand what it means. And yet I know instinctively that it is something that we have got to face up to; there is some element, which we have not yet understood, about why people do things in this violent form. I am afraid that unless we make some definite effort to understand we shall not get ourselves round this corner. My emotional responses in favour of the victims of war and in opposition to notions of military heroism do not necessarily make me a better person than the ‘heroes’."

Composer and life-long pacifist Sir Michael Tippett, Individual Responsibility, Talk at PPU AGM.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007


"Music is a shout of foregone conclusions, as long as music plays its part", the song goes. On the other hand, the Mercury Prize, originally hailed as a genre-busting new music award, has become long on foregone conclusions while remaining comparatively short on musical daring. Industry hats go on about 'innovation', but what they mean is previously little known talents in fairly predictable pools. This year those psycho-darling Klaxons (Myths of the Near Future) outvoted rehab Winehouse and the net-tastic Artctics, among others. Congratulations to them. But it's still a scandal that the Basquiat Strings with Seb Rochford (drums) remained an afterthought even on the Independent's arts pages. The Mecuries almost immediately reduced contemporary classical and jazz to token shortlist inclusions, before ditching them altogether (honest, at least). The Basquiat broke the barrier again this year, because, as John Walters put it, "they rock". The dubious honour has at least secured them some valuable additional sales. Not to be sniffed at. But their fine aroma is not sufficient to re-odorize the stench of music biz commercialism surrounding the Mercury muppett show. Music alone is not good enough to pipe its message, it seems.

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Edward Pearce, who has issued a passionate plea for 'traditional values' on BBC Radio 3, is a delightful man. Some years ago, when he worked as a commentator and journalist on a national newspaper and I scribed for an obscure weekly, I sat next to him at a political conference we were both covering. Unlike many 'name hacks' he was unfailingly courteous and good-humoured, even saving my hotly-competed-for place while I went in search of a cuppa. I've always enjoyed his writing, too. It is thoughtful, informed, quaintly punctilious and wryly Swiftian in its denunciations. A breath of fresh air also, because Pearce moved ground from conservatism to a Whiggish and idiosyncratic form of liberalism during the Thatcher era.

That said, his squeal of anguish over Radio 3 is spoiled (as one respondent says) by "[needless] words and phrases such as 'tributary tosh', 'kitsch', 'inferior music', 'inferior taste', and 'long live cultural snobbery'." Ah, well. That's the bluff North Riding traditionalist in him. Bless. Likewise, film music isn't necessarily the best target - Prokofiev, Britten, Walton, Tippett and Korngold didn't despise the medium per se. And rightly so. 'Light music' is, I admit, anathema as far as I'm concerned - Gilbert and Sullivan included, which drives me nuts. And there is surely plenty of other airspace for it?

But sorry Ed, the idea of re-building cast-iron walls between resplendent classicism and resolute modernism depresses me. Drummond and Glock may have seemed over-zealous in their educative missions, but the Proms at its best is now testimony to the fact that musical trenches are unnecessary. I don't mind jazz seeping in and out of the mix, either. Far from it. Given "those twentieth century blues" it's inevitable, as well as desirable. Radio 3 should still unashamedly be about music as art rather than music as distraction. With that I readily concur. But it should seek to discharge this remit by breaking barriers as well as upholding traditions. Both are possible. Quality should never be confused with stuffiness. And as you say, "[a]n audience of 1.78 million for a programme of classical music, long in earnest talk and flecked with avant garderie, is nothing to apologise for."

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Friday, August 31, 2007


A good BBC 1 TV Proms broadcast this evening - the Baroque concert from last Thursday (23 August 2007) featuring a lively collaboration between two leading period-instrument groups, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (with Rachel Podger violin/director) and the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra (with Gottfried von der Goltz violin/director ). The programme centred on Handel, including the famous the ceremonial fireworks music written in honour of King George II, the Concerto a due cori in F major, HWV 333, and arias and duets performed by Kate Royal (soprano) and the wonderful Ian Bostridge (see pic - tenor). We also got Purcell (arr. Catherine Mackintosh), Sett of Favourite Airs, Fantasies and Dances. Telemann's Suite in G minor for two solo violins, strings and basso continuo, TWV 55:g8, didn't make the TV cut, unfortunately.

Some kind of comment on the 'period instrument' issue is inevitable, I guess. The overall sound mix was certainly fascinating, and the virtuosity of the performers extraordinary. The strings are duller in tone than their modern equivalents, and the breath control required for valveless horns and woodwind is considerable. I was full of admiration. The passion and communication of the performers lent the whole concert an undoubted vibrancy.

Yet I remain slightly sceptical. 'Authentic performance' can make a genuine contribution to our understanding and appreciation of the music, yet it is still a tentative exercise, historically speaking. I also can't help wondering how Handel would feel about it. He would find some 'modern instrument' performances of his instrumental pieces quite remarkable, I'd wager, and would crave the control and modulation available to the contemporary performer. "Why deny yourselves the best?", I can hear him saying. There's room for both approaches, of course. But music is alive and should be allowed to develop. We owe it to those who gifted it to us. Not least Handel, whose zest for life was always forward-looking.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007


I've long advocated that eclectic jazz-rock drummer Bill Bruford (latterly heading up Earthworks, also ex-Yes and King Crimson) should delve more into the 'new music' arena. I'm delighted to see that this is going to happen at the end of next month. The concert concerned will take place on 21 September 2007, starting at 19:30, 170 Kensal Road, London, W10 5BN Cost : £10 (£8) advance booking or £12 on door.

The blurb proclaims: "Legendary drummer Bill Bruford and new music’s star keyboard collective pianocircus have teamed up with innovative composer Colin Riley. They perform an evening of this new material at a special performance in London. Riley has created create a set of high-energy and ambient tracks to harness the power and range of the performers, blending electronica, jazz, and the avant-garde." Tickets

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Saturday, August 25, 2007


I caught this on BBC Radio 4 yesterday, and it was both heartening and moving. Norwegian jazz musician Bugge Wesseltoft has used Beeb journo Mike Thomson's interview with Zawadi, a woman horrifically caught up in the conflict in Congo, as the basis for a song on his new album. Bugge Wesseltoft, who has worked with musicians like American guitarist John Scofield and Britain's eclectic composer and performer Django Bates, is to feature parts of the interview in the track called 'Wye'. Lyric royalties from the song are to be donated to the woman from Bukavu in Eastern Congo, who finally escaped her Rwandan Hutu abductors after witnessing the murder of fifty of her friends and family. The album will be released in October 2007. There is a clip on the BBC's website story here. It was in searching for Wesseltoft that I discovered the Maria Kannegaard Trio, too. [Pic: Thomson and Wesseltoft]

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Friday, August 24, 2007


Thanks to Sequenza21 for highlighting this one. Back in 1994, the following composers were invited to weigh in on what music would be like in 150 years: Milton Babbitt, Pierre Boulez (predictable, this one!), Harrison Birtwistle, Brian Ferneyhough (minimal answer), Steve Reich (maximal, funnily enough), Franco Donatoni (looks eerily like the late footballer George Best, on an off day) and Louis Andriessen. The ones who didn't take it as an opportunity pompously to state the bleedin' obvious (that prediction is a mugs game, and not to be taken seriously) wound up having some pretty interesting things to say - offbeat and onbeat.

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While searching for something entirely different, I had one of those happy chancing-upon internet adventures - discovering for the first time the Maria Kannegaard Trio {pictured}. They have some sound files up on their MySpace page, too. Their latest album, Quiet Joy, has been published on Jazzland Records, the label of the daring Bugge Wesselhoft - about whom, more anon. According to Rondomagazine the music "at one moment sounds like Bill Evans having the hiccups, at another like Thelonious Monk in Morse code (...) or like gumbo-backbeat when the drums peu à peu are losing all of their metal parts. That's one of many ways to describe the incredibly surprising style and positive craziness in the music of the Maria Kanneegaard Trio."

This from Roald Helgheim: “I immediately sat up and noticed Maria Kannegaard the first time I heard her … She was playing beautiful tunes, and then there was something about the way she was improvising. Something well defined, conscious, well-thought through: … she speaks to me with music so soulful it leaves one with a massive impression, but at the same time this music possesses an inner calm. … the most original trio-debut in Norwegian jazz for a long time.”

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Thursday, August 23, 2007


Rather unjustly, I think, Andrew Clements has a reputation in some circles for being a 'dour modernist'. Well, he certainly champions demanding new music and maximalism. Good for him on that. But he also operates from a wide musical palette, as is indicated by this enthusiastic review of the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra's appearance in London. The progamme included Shostakovitch's stunning Tenth Symphony - one of my favourite works, and a piece of daunting musical and emotional scale.

Clements begins: "I am not sure anything quite like Gustavo Dudamel and his extraordinary group of young musicians have ever hit the Proms before. Whatever you have read about the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra - and the astonishing Venezuelan system of musical education that brought it into being - can't convey the brilliance and disarming exuberance of their playing, or the importance of Dudamel's role in channelling that energy. There are some great youth orchestras around today, but none of them is as exciting to behold as this." Read on.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007


The indefatigable Adey Grummet writes: "The Shout will go into rehearsal on their newly devised theatre piece, Fingerprint in September 2007. Directed by Emma Bernard, it deals with the multilayered and kaleidoscopic aspects of [human] identity. The tour is as follows:

* Linbury 27, 28, 29th Sept
* RNCM Manchester 20th Oct
* Portsmouth New Theatre Royal 31st Oct
* Sage Gateshead 8th November
* Dartington Plus (Ariel Centre) 29, 30th November

Details of all this will be here as well as on The Shout's own website. Why not contact them there to be put on their mailing list?"

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Sunday, August 19, 2007


Among the very best 'new music' web initiatives is undoubtedly the NetNewMusic/Sequenza21 New Music Wiki - and, of course, the Sequenza21 blog, which is essential reading. (Yes, I know, I must update my links.) "What we hope to do here is to build a reader-created community/encyclopedia of new music composers, performers, history, schools, important works - you literally name it. Since first person sources are always the best place to start, I am hoping that all of you who are active in creating and playing new music will create entries for yourself and the groups you are associated with."

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Friday, August 17, 2007


I haven't always been successful in seeing my musical heroes in the flesh, before they pass into dust and artistic immortality. I missed Miles Davis' last-ever appearance in London - so never witnessed him play live. I sadly never got to see Shostakovitch, Zappa or The Smiths, either. I caught Ligeti, Copland and Tal Farlowe, but missed out on Messaien - a huge lode star in my sonic firmament.

So I am thankful this evening, having heard the sad news of Max Roach's demise, that I got to see the ground-breaking jazz drummer in action, aged well into his 70s, along with pianist Cecil Taylor at London's Royal Festival Hall. It is a night I wont forget. Roach wasn't walking that easily and looked petty frail. But when he sat on the drum riser he was a man transfigured, and his deftness of touch, tome and rhythmic sensitivity never lost him. There were even signs of the controlled muscularity which he applied in such a customary way -- in the service of a greater musical cause, rather than for its own sake.

The BBC gives a pithy summary of what he was and what he bought to jazz "Born in North Carolina in 1924, Roach became the house drummer at the legendary New York club Monroe's Uptown House in his teens. He helped develop the bebop style while playing with the likes of Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie at Monroe's and another influential New York venue, Minton's Playhouse. Before bebop, jazz was primarily swing music played in dance halls, and drummers served to keep time for the band, Blue Note spokesman Cem Kurosman said. Roach, along with fellow-drummer Kenny Clarke, changed that by shifting the time-keeping function to the cymbal, allowing the drums to play a more expressive and melodic role.

"Roach began drumming before the age of 10In the process, he contributed to the shift of jazz from popular dance music to an art form that fans appreciated sitting in clubs, Kurosman added.
The self-trained percussionist also took part in sessions with Miles Davis, which were later released as The Birth Of Cool. The quintet he co-founded with Clifford Brown in 1954 is considered one of the classic ensembles in jazz. After Brown's death in a car crash with bandmate Richie Powell in 1956, Roach led a series of bands that included a who's who of jazz associates."

He was also a stalwart campaigner for human dignity and civil rights.

There is more on the BBC Radio 3 Profile - which adds: "Some of his duo performances are masterpieces of improvisation, notably his 1989 Paris collaboration with Dizzy Gillespie and a long-lived partnership with pianist Cecil Taylor both on record and in a series of occasional concerts. In the 1980s Roach formed a regular group which included Odean Pope on saxophones and Cecil Bridgewater on trumpet. In addition he worked in an amazing variety of contexts from all star jazz groups to the Beijing Trio, which explored Asian-American links."

See also: Art Taylor: 'Max Roach' in Notes and Tones (New York, USA, Da Capo, 1993); Drummerworld: Max Roach; Max Roach: The Hard Bop Homepage; Max Roach - Wikipedia; Max Roach - Verve Records.

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In The Guardian (whose online redesign really is fab): Second Life goes symphonic - a British orchestra is staging the first full-scale classical concert in the virtual world. Meanwhile, in the 'real world', we're at the Proms halfway point, the paper reminds us.

"The Royal Liverpool Philharmonic has created a virtual, 3-D version of its concert hall and on September 14 users of the website will be able to attend a concert led by the orchestra's chief conductor, Vasily Petrenko."

Encouragingly, the report adds: "Far from compromising with popular classics, the orchestra will perform, aside from works by Ravel and Rachmaninov, two premieres, by Liverpool composers Kenneth Hesketh and John McCabe."

A different kind of 'virtual orchestra experience' was provided by an installation on London's South Bank last Summer (August-September) called Play.orchestra - see illustration. "56 plastic cubes and 3 Hotspots are laid out on a full size orchestra stage, each cube containing a light and speaker. Sit down on the cube or stand in the hotspot to turn on that instrument and bring 58 friends to hear the full piece. "

An intriguing initiative of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Play.orchestra was reviewed at the time by Frankie Roberto.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Ivan Hewett of the Daily Telegraph writing about Prom 18 (Thursday 26 July 2007, while I was in the United States):

"Then came another piece which was thought to be a swan-song: Michael Tippett’s Triple Concerto, written when the composer was 75 (in fact he went on composing for another fifteen years). I remembered its exulting melodies, the three soloists singing like one, but I’d forgotten its dancing energy, the ingenious cyclic form, and the virtuosity of the orchestral as well as the solo writing. The three soloists – violinist Daniel Hope, violist Philip Dukes, and cellist Christian Poltéra, played like heroes. But the orchestra was no less wonderful; in fact the most entrancing part of the performance was the sinuous duet between Hope and alto flautist Michael Cox.

Listen to the Proms on BBC Radio 3’s audio-on-demand service

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Saturday, August 11, 2007


...and an unexpected find on YouTube. For O, For O, the Hobby-Horse is Forgot, by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (April 12, 2005). There are two further portions. Courtesy of OberlinPercussion [Clockwise from top: Ross Karre, Jared Twenty, Michael Lehman, Andrew Burke, Zachary Crystal, Matthew Jenkins]

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Friday, August 10, 2007


My friend he took his final breath
Now I know the perfect kiss is the kiss of death
(Bernard Sumner Peter Hook Stephen Morris Phil Cunningham)

I was delayed, I was way-laid
an emergency stop
I smelt the last ten seconds of life
I crashed down on the crossbar
and the pain was enough
to make a shy, bald buddhist reflect
and plan a mass-murder
(Morrissey Marr)

Sad to hear on the BBC this evening of the death of Tony Wilson - the impresario who created the context for the glorious emergence of The Smiths, in my view the indie band of the 1980s, and who is immortalised (warts and all) in the fine 24 Hour Party People.

"The Salford-born entrepreneur, who managed New Order, Joy Division and the Happy Mondays, was diagnosed [with cancer] last year during a routine visit to the doctor. The 57-year-old, who launched Factory records and the Hacienda nightclub, underwent emergency surgery in January to remove a kidney. He passed away on Friday evening in hospital. Doctors recommended he take the drug Sutent after chemotherapy failed to beat the disease, but the NHS refused to fund the £3,500-a-month treatment. However, members of the Happy Mondays and other acts he supported over the years stepped in and started a fund to help pay for it."

NP in my head: The Smiths, 'Stop Me If You Think That You've Heard This One Before' and New Order, 'The Perfect Kiss'.

Sound and vision files:

The SmithsStop Me If You Think You've Heard This One Before

Ten-minute version of 'The Perfect Kiss' on YouTube.

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The fastest going JSB-related group on Facebook at the moment is the delightfully whimsical "Every time you write parallel fifths, Bach kills a kitten". (You need to be registered to view it). I have gently raised the thorny and well-trampled issue of whether, therefore, he actually wrote Toccatta and Fugue in D Minor, which has plenty of PFs in it. They're mostly students on there. And that's what students are for. In the nicest possible way.

For the baffled, the relevant Wikipedia entry has a pretty succinct summary:

"In music, consecutive fifths (also known as parallel fifths) involve the concurrence of successive intervals of a perfect fifth between two voices in parallel motion; e.g., a parallel movement from C to D in one voice, and G to A in a higher voice. Intervening octaves are irrelevant to this aspect of musical grammar; for example, parallel 12ths (i.e., as created by successive intervals of an octave plus a fifth) are equivalent to parallel fifths. During the common practice period, the use of consecutive fifths was strongly discouraged. This was primarily due to the notion of voice leading, which stresses the individual identity of voices. Because of the powerful presence of the fifth above the fundamental in the overtone series, the individuality of two parts is weakened when they move in parallel fifths."

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Thursday, August 09, 2007


"Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem, followed by Mahler’s 10th Symphony; it would be hard to think of a more intense pairing than this one, given to us last night by the BBC Philharmonic and its new chief conductor Gianandrea Noseda", writes Ivan Hewett in his Telegraph BBC Proms review. Indeed. He adds: "It’s a clever pairing too, as the two pieces go together so beautifully. The doom-laden thump of the bass drum colours both pieces, and they both lead through strange, tormented areas of experience before subsiding in serenity and acceptance. Where they differ hugely is in scale."

For the at-home listener (like me in this instance - go to the Beeb's 'listen again' facility: the immensity and gradualism of the Mahler [pictured] can be a challenge. In years gone by I have struggled with it, rather sympathising with the person who once famously commented that "Wagner's music is better than it sounds" - and applying it to Mahler too! Complexity and density in music (Birtwistle, Ferneyhough, etc.) has never been something that has especially daunted me. But lyrical density and ponderousness has. I know for many it is the other way round.

In the 1970s I got into Bruckner a little, partly by way of self-education. Wagner passed me by. And Mahler 10, except in bruised chunks. But the Proms is an ideal environment in which to stretch one's listening experience. Long may it be so.

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Monday, August 06, 2007


Ouch, sorry about that. What I wish to commend, however, is the short 15-minute-per-broadcast series on BBC 2 and BBC 4 (TV, around 11.20pm, after Newsnight) - York Minster organist John Whiteley performs a series of JS Bach's organ works. The BFI blurb, such as it is, talks up the "innovative camera techniques". Thankfully these enhance, rather than obscuring, the beauty of the music.

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Friday, August 03, 2007


I am staying in West Virginia at the moment, in a country spa hotel situated near the foothills of the famous Appalachian mountains. I've been listening to a young fiddle player called Rob Mann, a street musician and function player, who has been busting a cat gut or two taking us through some of the repertoire for this region. And very talented he is, too.

Of course the vernacular music of the area owes a good deal to English and (especially) Irish folk music, whence it borrowed some ideas and reworked them across the homesteads and bars. One or two of the better known tunes (from a wider span of possibilities) are included in Aaron Copland's famous ballet suite Appalachian Spring, which has always been a favourite of mine.

"An emotional highpoint of the score is a melody based on a traditional Shaker song, 'Simple Gifts.' We hear a chorus sing the original hymn that provided Copland his inspiration, then listen to Copland’s beautiful solo vocal and instrumental adaptations. Throughout the work, Copland brilliantly weaves melodies that evoke simplicity and the “earnest but good-natured piety” of Shaker culture. Composer John Adams discusses the Shaker influence on American culture and how Copland allowed that to shape the piece."

Adams' own orchestral work 'Shaker Loops' is one of the most widely adapted in the neo-minimalist canon, and has been set to words in an abbreviated version by Jon Anderson on the album Change We Must.

NPR continues: "Music critics were in awe of Copland’s ability to capture a vast emotional world within the limits of the 13-piece orchestration prescribed by the original score (which, in turn, was dictated by the size of the Coolidge Auditorium orchestra pit at the Library of Congress, site of the ballet's premiere). With some strings, a few woodwinds and piano he achieves remarkable effects."

See also Classical Notes on Copland and Appalachian Spring.

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Wednesday, August 01, 2007


"Lore Lixenberg [pictured] and Adey Grummet have worked together for years. Between them they sing some of the scariest contemporary scores know to humanity. Perhaps this is sheer foolhardiness and perhaps this is true courage. Whatever, it means that they never get cast in standard repertoire or considered for nice polite parts in nice polite opera houses with music where you know how many beats are in the next bar. Funny that. And a bit sad.

"However, Graham Coatman, the new artistic Director of the Hexham Festival, heard them whinging about this one day and decided to take them at their word. Dragging their good friend and stalwart support and all-round-nicest-man-we-know, Jonathan Williams, with them, they will be singing just what they fancy singing on 4 October 2007 in Hexham Abbey and no-one is going to stop them!" Updates here.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007


New York, where I was staying with friends recently, is a city pulsating with music. From bars and clubs to concert halls, buskers, street sounds and stores – melody, harmony, rhythm and dissonance seeps uncontrollably from its pores.

As I arrive on Amtrak from Washington DC, a man on the train next to me is listening to Charles Ives on his headset. I can tell this from the CD sleeve by his side rather than any discernible notes emerging from his earphones, but it is enough to evoke the music in my head.

On a Realty company’s forecourt a reggae trio, unlikely and popular with the passing lunchtime crowd, strike out with Bob Marley’s Exodus and more.

Then on one walk the Lincoln Centre comes into view. I remember hearing the Lincoln Jazz Orchestra at the Proms in London several years ago. In the aesthetic battle between Wynton Marsalis and the variegated memory of Miles Davis, I’m on Miles’ wing. But you don’t have to choose. The custodians of tradition and its innovators into new forms and possibilities can live together, if they are smart.

Mostly Mozart is on. But it seems to be mostly Beethoven, Mido, and the merest smattering of contemporary composition – which would not please Wolfgang Amadeus, surely? Steven and I talk Thomas Ades.

Across the road, of course, is Strawberry Fields, the shrine to John Lennon (‘Imagine’) and Yoko Ono’s overlooking apartment. The ‘found sounds’ beloved of John Cage are everywhere. And the imagined silences. Laurie Anderson haunts the sidewalks, resting between the cracks and rushing the red lights.

Somewhere else is the building depicted on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album. And in a studio I get a personal performance (well a rehearsal, actually) from R.U.B...with my friend Steven Sullivan doing the maths on bass for some reworked ‘80s material – including Depeche Mode (when they finally do the gig on 6 August 2007) and Elvis Costello’s ‘Pump It Up’.

Not quite The Juliet Letters, admittedly. But my mind slips naturally to the Balanescu Quartet, Nonesuch, Eno, Kronos Quartet and other border-crossings on the musical superhighway.

Talking of which: in Borders itself, I pick up Suzanne Vega’s new NY-centric collection, Beauty and Crime (11 songs bursting with hope, anguish and delight). Plus I note the relative absence of Tippett, A Child Of Our Time and some Ogden piano sonatas aside.

In another store I peek at the New Orleans jazz (is Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub tonight?), I peer at a Gramophone article on Ian Bostridge rescuing Handel, and I hear a track from the New York Dolls – who I never really liked, to be honest. But beloved Morrissey gets them, so there must be some point.

On CD in Jane and Steve’s apartment I take in, at various times, Bartok, Kodaly, Messiaen, Yes, Starcastle (don’t ask), Montreux, Arctic Monkeys, and the not-quite-forgotten John McLaughlin, Tony Williams (of Lifeime) and Jaco Pastorius power jazz trio. Press random again.

Something I listen to – I forget what, exactly – reminds me of that quintessentially NY downtown new music ensemble and festival, Bang On A Can. And in Virgin records I pass racks of Glenn Branca, whose post-punk orchestrations beat the eardrums into submission while enlivening them with sub- and après-sonic overtones, allegedly.

Last, but not least, is the Summer of Love psychedelia art exhibit at the Whitney – Jimi Hendrix, the artist who painted the cover of Miles’ experimental classic Bitches Brew, Jefferson Airplane, Ginsberg, Warhol and the Velvet Underground, a picture of Adrian Mitchell on the steps of the Royal Albert Hall (he now lives on my street in NW5), Janis Joplin, Julie Felix… more memories than my mind an hold.

Sing on, New York… from The Met all the way out West to Haight Ashbury. And well beyond. [Picture: Suzanne Vega, Beauty and Crime]

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Saturday, July 28, 2007


Thanks to Deirdre Good for drawing my attention to this - missed in the rush to get ready for my US trip. "The rediscovery of the gigantic Mass in forty parts by Alessandro Striggio (1536-1592), lost since 1726, sheds important light on the connections between music and politics in the sixteenth century. Dating from 1566-7, it is one of the most extravagant pieces ever composed in the history of music. Here's a link to the lecture recounting the discovery by Professor Davitt Moroney, University of California, Berkeley."

From The Guardian review of the BBC Prom earlier this month: "Thomas Tallis may have written his revered 40-part Spem in alium motet after meeting the Mantuan composer Alessandro Striggio in London in 1567. Perhaps Tallis even took as a model Striggio's own 40-part mass Ecco si beato giorno, which in its final Agnus Dei rises to 60 parts. For centuries, the missing link in this theory was Striggio's lost mass itself; its rediscovery is an astonishing moment in musicological history. Unveiled in this late-night Prom by the augmented Tallis Scholars, possibly for the first time in half a millennium, Striggio's work is a masterpiece; richer and more extravagant than Tallis's more austerely English motet, but more than fit to be mentioned in the same breath as twin landmarks of 16th-century polyphony."

And here's the choral wiki for Ecce beatam lucem.

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