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Mahler in Manchester: Take Eight

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The Mahler in Manchester concert series is reaching its climax as we clamber up to the final, vast symphonies whose ambitions outdid all predecessors and Mahler 8 is the largest of them all, combining the forces of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and CBSO Chorus, not to mention conductor Mark Elder and the eight vocal soloists. The journey has been an interesting one, enlivened by the conceit of pairing each symphony with some new, specially commissioned music, usually bearing some relationship with its symphonic cousin. The new works have been variously successful (as are, of course, the Mahler symphonies) and while the hapless tinkering of Uri Caine’s piano playing frequently being swallowed by the directionless mélange that was his Scenes from Childhood programmed alongside Mahler 5 may not have pleased everyone, it is the potential for serendipity that is appealing. Besides, as Gustav’s granddaughter Marina notes in the programme, ‘an open, curious, demanding ear, willing to listen, always searching for something lovely, something true in the music of our own time — this is truly honouring Mahler’s music.’

Sunday night’s pairing with Mahler 8 couldn’t have been more fitting. The ecstatic religious element of the symphony was echoed in a 20-minute improvisation on the Gregorian hymn ‘Veni, Creator Spiritus’, the text of which forms the first part of the Mahler, performed by organist Olivier Latry. Latry has held one of the four posts as organist at Notre Dame de Paris since 1985 and is steeped in the French tradition of organ improvisation as the main musical accompaniment to the Catholic mass. This tradition is strikingly modernist when one compares it to the liturgical organ tradition of the British Isles and Latry’s musical ancestry can clearly be traced back to the devout, if unorthodox, Catholic Olivier Messiaen, who held a similar post at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité for 61 years, until his death.

Opening with the unadulterated plainchant line, which dates from the 9th Century, Latry quickly set about moving through kaleidoscopic worlds of timbral and motivic variation, exploiting every possible colour and register of the 5,500-pipe Bridgewater organ. He moved with ease and agility through raucous sequences of chords flung about the pipes to vanish and reveal the quiet, air-shaking depths of the lowest pedal notes. High babbling textures with an almost electronic feel, reminiscent of the gurgling boys’ voices in Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, segued into gaping horror movie chords. The improvisation seemed to become a series of interlocking chorales and arias, and its symphonic ambition was clear as the theme returned and evolved before burning out in the — only slightly incongruous — final, fiery glow of an apocalyptically joyous wall of major key sound. That is, of course, precisely how Mahler 8 finishes and despite Latry’s note in the programme that ‘an improvisation must be spontaneous […] I won’t listen to Mahler’s Symphony No.8 before the performance,’ one wonders whether he may have at least half-planned the ending’s spirit.

Mahler’s Eighth Symphony is an unusual work, closer in many ways to an oratorio than a traditional symphony, but one of the most surprising things about Mahler’s music today — a century since this symphony’s first performance — is its modernity. The symphony is replete with jagged, dissonant lines, composite sounds built from cymbal attacks and string decays, strange juxtapositions such as choir and wayward solo violin, and of course the harmonium and mandolins expanding the standard orchestral palette yet further. The first chorus of Part Two, gently disturbing an orchestral stillness with syllable-by-syllable text setting, is still stunning and was performed with great restraint by the massed choirs, evoking Goethe’s awestruck poetry. The sublime quiet of the pre-climax final stanza, ‘Alles vergängliche / Ist nur ein Gleichnis’ [Everything transitory / is but an image], was sung with similar delicacy. A good vocal soloist is hard to find, let alone eight, but Gerald Finley (of course) stood out as Pater Ecstaticus. The Canadian baritone must rarely have so little to do in a concert — just twelve short lines — but his voice and stage presence rarely fail. Second soprano Aga Mikolaj, singing the role of the penitent, also impressed with control and feeling as she sang ‘Neige, neige / Du Ohnegleiche’.

With 121 instrumentalists, 383 chorus members and 8 soloists on stage, Mahler was never going to end the ‘Symphony of a Thousand’ quietly. After the awe-filled hush of ‘Alles vergängliche’ the orchestra gradually stirs before rising to one of the loudest and most orgasmic finales of the repertoire. The Bridgewater Hall can only rarely have been treated to such a gripping and physically powerful sound that conveys the passion and strength of five hundred plus performers emptying the last ounces of their energy into those final notes. This is the passage of which Maher wrote, ‘that the universe begins to vibrate and resound. These are no longer human voices, but planets and suns rotating.’ It was greeted with rapturous applause and a standing ovation.

The symphony is dedicated to Mahler’s wife, Alma, and, to return to Messiaen, it is striking how, 40 years before Turangalîla, the combination of ecstatic, human love and a belief in the holy joy of God resulted in a musical outpouring on a similarly large scale. It takes a lot of time, planning and effort to arrange a performance of this symphony — it took Mahler three years after its composition to organise the premiere — and the collaborative efforts of BBC Philharmonic, Hallé and the various choirs should be celebrated as a wonderful musical gift. It is the turn of the Ninth Symphony in a few weeks. It will take quite something to outshine Sunday’s performance.

Wege & Waldstille Performed by Psappha

Wege & Waldstille, for clarinet, percussion, piano, cello and electronics, will be premièred by the fantastic Psappha at 17:00 on Friday 30 April in the Cosmo Rodewald Concert Hall at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama. These guys really know how to play and it’s been an absolute pleasure hearing them rehearse, so come along! The concert also features works by other University of Manchester postgraduate composers (almost all world premières) — Soojung Park’s Looking over the Land, Josh Kopeček’s the warrior fallen, Mauricio Pauly’s La Prisa Educable and Yvonne Eccles’s Multiple Infections.

Listings: Facebook / Psappha / Venue

Wallander: “Not even Stockhausen could have come up with a din like that!”

Wallander: “Not even Stockhausen could have come up with a din like that!”

Raise Your Voice Line-Up Announced

Raise Your Voice Collective, which I help run, have just announced the line-up for their second outing of contemporary classical, experimental electronics and chilled-out beats at Centro Bar in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. It’s an exciting mix, stretching from Martin Suckling’s Passacaglie for cello and electronics originally written to make use of the Hyperbow developed at MIT, via the sordidly urban angular lines and irregular rhythms of Tom Coult’s Avian Riots, to Steve Pycroft’s Richter VS Dragon, which applies re-mixing and mash-up techniques to instrumental music, and ending with a live DJ set from Al Sonar of Hit&Run. Also among the pieces being played will be my piece The Golden Lion Hotel for percussion and electronics.

The night is Friday 14 May and takes place as part of the FutureEverything Festival Showcase. Check out the Raise Your Voice website for more details.

A stillness on the ear

At 17:00 on April 30th contemporary music group Psappha will perform a new work of mine, Wege & Waldstille, for clarinet, handheld percussion, piano, cello and electronics (see event listing). In writing it I thought a fair amount further about silence and near-silence in my music, how it can behave and how it can become a construction material in its own right. Here are a few more thoughts on that subject.

In A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland observes that, ‘Silence has no narrative. Silence intensifies sensation, but blurs the sense of time.’ Silence was one of the first things I came to explore when I started having music performed. Before I had experienced the gripping vacuum at the heart of Helmut Lachenmann’s Gran Torso, before I had heard Luigi Nono’s Fragmente-Stille sparkle on the horizon, before I knew how Salvatore Sciarrino’s music can totter and weave on the brink of audibility, even before I had read John Cage’s Silence or understood 4’33” in any real way, silence was something I discovered, uncovered and loved.

Why this isn’t a paradoxical attraction for a composer to have is simple: as Cage realised, there is no such thing as silence, at least not in that pure sense of a complete absence of any aural stimulation. Instead there is this immensely seductive stillness that ‘intensifies sensation’, which, if employed well, draws a listener in, heightens their concentration and brings to the fore subtleties, structural possibilities and novel experiences. So, the German ‘Stille’ and ‘Ruhe’ are perhaps more precise here with their multiple connotations covering not only absolute silence, but also its less extreme manifestations: peace, quiet and stillness. In the first piece I had performed in the UK, Sketches in Silence, I found through thought experiment that given the powerfully expectation-thwarting quality of silence in a concert hall context it was possible to sustain a minimum of material for quite extended periods. This achieved, I think, an interesting duality of experience as the audience found themselves reaching a sort of meditative stasis but also entering a zone of heightened awareness allowing them to discern more oblique structural processes. The latter is I suppose akin to the adjustment of our eyes as we hunt for outlines in the gloom, but aurally that which we hear at the extremities seems to bear a crispness and a presence that does not equate to the impaired blur of darkened sight.

At the outset this interest drew on a couple of inspirations. The idea of subverting expectations came from my first thorough education in Classical tonality. I reasoned that the repetitive and relatively static material found in minimalist music (specifically that of Steve Reich, whose music I still find frequently excellent) shifted the expectations of the audience and allowed for the use of tension and release that mirrored in some sense that of Classical tonality, but functioned in terms of repetition and change rather than harmonic progression (which is arguably a learnt set of signs requiring education to perceive). Of course, this is somewhat simplistic as Reich’s music can also have a strongly harmonic drive, but I felt that my experience of it was grounded in the repetition building expectation of change (tension) which can then be released in various ways providing a compelling musical discourse. Having at the time recently read Jerzy Pietrkiewicz’s Other Side of Silence: the poet at the limits of language (OUP, 1970), I was influenced by his suggestion in relation to poetry that

Silence resembles a listening companion rather than a place emptied of all sounds. It has the attentive quality of a person. What is unspoken may be intended and therefore imply meaning.

So, the idea of Sketches in Silence, which was definitely largely an experiment, was to explore the potential of silence to act similarly to the repeated material of Reich: the listener goes to a concert, expects sound, seeks and constructs meaning from sound, in the absence of ‘performed’ sounds  (they are few and far between in this piece) the listener will continue this process indeed perhaps imagining some sounds which aren’t there. To push the possibility of listener-constructed narratives, I also included some genuinely silent gestures for the performers to see whether those might become triggers for either imagined sounds or for sound to become differently source-bonded.

After Sketches in Silence, silence became less of an explicit focus for me and more an area I felt an affinity to, something I felt needed exploring, but not in solitary confinement, instead alongside other kinds of music, within less extreme situations, giving it weight not as ‘an experiment’ but as an integral part of a wider language. How does one achieve stillness, spaces for reflection without losing tension? How do you reach silence without it retaining its traditional meanings of closure (be it final or inter-movement)? Can you give silence a narrative or a linearity? All these questions have been part of my recent work to various extents and this continues in Wege & Waldstille, but I feel as if I am at something of a turning point. I am excited about the start of rehearsals to hear how what is on paper comes across and to work with the fantastic players from Psappha. It’s always fascinating to see what you’ve done wrong.

Wege & Waldstille will be performed by Psappha at 17:00 on 30th April 2010 at the Martin Harris Centre for Music and Drama in Manchester.

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