Archive for the ‘new music’ Category

Nico Muhly’s Two Boys at English National Opera



"On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog", a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker on July 5, 1993

Yesterday Kate and I went to see Nico Muhly‘s new (and first) opera Two Boys at English National Opera. Kate’s not much of an opera fan but we’d both seen and loved another Muhly premiere, Impossible Things with the Britten Sinfonia, and so it wasn’t hard to persuade her along.

What a great evening it was. We attended the pre-concert talk, part of the ENO’s Join the Conversation: Live series, and it was far fuller than your usual pre-concert talk with three speakers (including Muhly and the video producer Mark Grimmer from 59 Productions) and a brief recital with Muhly accompanying Valerie Reid on the piano as she sung the character Anne Strawson’s opening aria. I learnt tons about the opera and the talk turned my excitement and expectation up to 11!

And we were not disappointed. Two Boys is a fabulous and gripping opera. Beautiful and thought provoking.

The video promised to be beautiful too. I had already seen 59 Productions work with the ENO in Death in Venice, Riders to the Sea, Doctor Atomic, Messiah, Satyagraha, and The Pearl Fishers so I knew how good they could be – neither background nor foreground but subtly integrated into the staging and performance. I was even more excited to find (in the pre-concert talk) that Grimmer had eschewed the usual graphics used to sum up the internet. Initially I was disappointed. When Grimmer said they’d avoided the obvious I assumed he meant they would not use abstract data visualizations of networks. But that is exactly the aesthetic reference they started with! I was left pondering which more conventional imagery they had discarded. But I was not disappointed for long, because the projections were so well done in terms of integration into the action and in terms of balance with the acting and other staging and just so beautiful that I soon forgot my disappointment and just enjoyed them.

The criticism that proved harder to shake was of the subject itself. Back in the early days of the internet there was a real fear that when you were talking with someone on the internet you had no real idea who they were. This fear was summed up perfectly in 1993 (yes 18 years ago) by Peter Steiner in the New Yorker cartoon above. Academics also explored this idea, most notably Sherry Turkle in her 1995 book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Perhaps the internet would prove a place of continual identity play where we could be whoever we wanted to pretend to be. But no, that is not what happened, and most of these analyses have been revised, even the cartoon.

Response from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Now we realise that the opposite problem may be more real. Like all teenagers I did things I’d rather forget. And indeed I have forgotten most of them. My children play their lives out in an archived medium and so for them forgetting and reinvention is harder, not easier. Jaron Lanier talks about this (amongst other things) in his book You Are Not a Gadget. But even these new fears are not crippling. I grew up surrounded by cars and find crossing the road relatively easy (though I was taught how to do it). My children grew up surrounded by the interweb and by social media. Though I’ve done my bit to teach them how to use it safely I’m sure it is their generation not mine that will be fluent and safe.

Not that the old fear was without founding, the news event on which Muhly and Lucas based Two Boys was real, as was the Lori Drew / Megan Meier case referred to by Muhly in the programme. But these events are uncommon. Nico Muhly is fluent in interweb, so why choose a hackneyed 1990s fear as the driving plot device? Why not look more subtly at  the problems presented to young and old by the internet? danah boyd’s writings are a great resource for this. Or why not recognise that communication on the internet is less about problems and more about adding depth (and texture) to existing real friendships, as is pointed out in Richard Harper’s recent book.

[N.B. In the interests of full disclosure I ought to point out that Lanier, boyd, and Harper are all colleagues of mine at Microsoft Research.]

My criticism is quite abstract. The concrete detail of the opera was wonderful. The plot was gripping. Kate and I spent the interval sipping pink drinks and trying to guess who the guilty party was, and I’m happy to fess up that I guessed wrong. The production, the set, the video projection, etc. were beautiful and really drew us in. The singing was fabulous, especially the boy soprano Joseph Beesley and the main characters: mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley, tenor Nicky Spence, and soprano Mary Bevan. Above all of that goodness the most memorable part of the evening was the orchestration. I’m sorely tempted to buy tickets for Friday and go and listen again. There were some lovely touching parts and I especially enjoyed the way the tuned percussion was woven together from either side of the orchestra pit, with the glockenspiel and two xylophones (marimbas?) on the far right and the celesta on the left. Fantastic.

Britten Sinfonia: Britten in America


"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds
"Nico Muhly, through the window of Kaffibarinn" by Roo Reynolds on flickr

During my violin lesson on Friday my teacher Gabrielle mentioned that she was off to see Pekka Kuusisto play with the Britten Sinfonia at West Road. Gabrielle’s great at discovering interesting players with vibrant technique, and remembering what she’d said about the last time she’d seen Pekka play with the Britten Sinfonia I was keen to go along, but pretty doubtful there’d be any tickets left. So I checked the the box office and the website, but it was too late – the few remaining tickets had been handed over to the venue. Given that Kate’s not a Britten fan I wasn’t hopeful, but the programme looked so amazing I was keen to try:

Purcell Fantasia VII in C minor
Purcell arr. Muhly Let the Night Perish (Job’s Curse)
Purcell Fantasia XIII in F ‘Upon one Note’
Tippett A Lament, from Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’
Britten Les Illuminations, Op. 18
Steve Reich Duet
Nico Muhly New work (World première tour)
John Adams Shaker Loops

To add to the excitement Pekka and Nico were down to do a pre-concert talk at 19:00. I knew that Nico’s pre-concert talks were liable to be entertaining from a blog post (or should I say blog rant) he wrote about naff questions at pre-concert talks:

It worked out well. We dropped tochter and her friends at Bella Italia and then wandered over to West Road and brought one of the few pairs of tickets left 🙂

The pre-concert talk was suitably amazing, Nico talked extensively about his responses to Britten and Reich and tried to get Pekka to reflect on the differences (and similarities) in his playing as he approaches the romantic repertoire he’s famed for and modern / contemporary pieces. I spent a (wonderful) week in Finland once, in Tampere, and one lasting memory is that the Finns aren’t big fans of small-talk. As a Quaker you’d think I’d be up for long silences but even I was challenged! Pekka’s impish wit was perfect for entertaining and informing us the audience, but a full answer to Nico’s interesting question would have been intriguing.

Andrew Bird's pedalsPekka and Nico were planning to do the pre-concert talk over a musical backing and were playing some violin loops through a Line 6 DL4, but a mixture of strange electrical interference and us oldies inability to distinguish talking from background noise. Shame though, it may have been a fun happening!

The concert itself was amazing – I’ve been spoilt by some great concerts over the last year but this was a cracker. The Purcell was beautiful, Pekka’s technique is flamboyant but the resulting sound is very delicate.

One aspect of Pekka’s playing that did make me smile was his bow hold – he olds the bow some way up the stick, not adjacent to the frog. Earlier in the day Gabrielle had been correcting my hold as it kept slipping up the stick, towards Pekka’s 😉

The Tippett was a revelation, not the architectural eclectic Tippett I’ve heard before. A touching little piece inspired by Purcell’s Dido’s Lament. I’m going to keep an eye out for performances of the whole of his Divertimento on ‘Sellinger’s Round’.

Next up was Britten’s Les Illuminations. I’ve heard several recordings of this (Spotify has a Pears/Britten one, along with other recordings) but I wasn’t prepared for how beautiful it sounded live. Pekka and the Britten Sinfonia brought a haunting fragility to the playing that perfectly complimented Mark Padmore‘s expressive narrative tenor singing.

The second half started with an exciting performance of Reich’s Duet. How Pekka and Jacqueline Shave kept their line as what they were playing wove in and out of each other is a mystery. Beautiful and high energy stuff.

Nico Muhly‘s piece was great. It’s always exciting to hear the premier of a piece and this was so expertly written for Pekka, the Britten Sinfonia, and Mark Padmore that even Kate – not a fan of contemporary classical stuff – loved it. The programme really showed it off too, bringing out the Britten like evocative qualities and the Reichian energy. The end of the piece reminded me of Andrew Bird (the Line 6 box had put me in mind of him earlier) as it called for Pekka to play and to whistle.

If I had to criticise anything it would be the programming of Adams’ Shaker Loops. It’s a wonderful piece, and the string orchestra version gave us another opportunity to hear Pekka’s wonderful playing. But. After the Reich and the Muhly it would have been nice to have a greater change of scene – perhaps moving the Tippett to the end of the concert.

West Road was the first UK date for this concert (after performances across The Netherlands), but if you are near Dartington tonight, London’s Southbank Centre’s Queen Elizabeth Hall on Monday, Christ Church in Cockermouth on Tuesday, Southampton on Thursday, or Norwich on Friday, then do check it out.

"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia
"Pekka Kuusisto" by brittensinfonia on flickr

Spotify playlist for just Chapter 12 (“Grimes! Grimes!” The Passion of Benjamin Britten) from Alex Ross’ The Rest is Noise


beach sunrise by thornypup on flickr
"beach sunrise" by thornypup

I’m an avid Spotify fan and an avid classical music fan. Over Christmas it was great to finally sit down and get reading Alex Ross’ amazing book "The Rest is Noise" in which he surveys twentieth century classical music. It is an amazing work, stretching to 591 pages. At times it’s too good. One reads Ross describing the works he loves and get so swept up in his descriptions that when you stop and listen to the piece you are left wondering what medications he’s on, and where to buy them 😉

In the book each chapter focuses on a composer, an event, a piece, or a period and brings in piece after piece to contrast and explain the historic people and events. As an appendix he also includes a list of key recordings, and he does the same thing on his blog.

And there’s the problem. Today I found (thanks to a twitter shout out from @spotify retweeting @afront) a fabulous looking blog presenting classical music playlists on spotify: One of ulyssestone’s posts is a Spotify playlist of Ross’ book. Here it is (you’ll need spotify for this to work, sorry. I do have some spare invites if you are in the UK and cannot get in). But although @ulyssestoone has rendered Ross’ iTunes playlist into Spotify, neither capture anything like the wealth of information and the texture of the book. So I’ve attempted to render just one chapter, my favourite, chapter twelve titled "Grimes! Grimes!" to a Spotify playlist. It’s enormous, and even so I had to miss a few pieces that Ross mentions but Spotify do not have (e.g. Britten’s Curlew River). What started out as an exercise to build a companion playlist to the chapter ended up, I think, too huge to be of use (with 664 tracks!), but here it is. Enjoy!

The Rest Is Noise photo by marklarson
"The Rest Is Noise" photo by marklarson

In praise of randomness


We have Tuck Leong interning with Richard at the moment continuing his research into the ways in which randomness may be used to help people experience their own content afresh. For his doctorate he’s mainly looked at music (i.e. shuffle listening experiences). By a weird piece of synchronicity (what an apposite concept here) I’d also been thinking about randomness recently:
i) I had a long and interesting talk with Margaret Pearson about the I Ching recently, after we bumped into each other at the Oast House Quaker Meeting in Cambridge. (Which reminds me: I promised her to type out the bits of His Dark Materials where Pullman references the I Ching).
ii) I was reading I was reading Charles Petzold’s coding blog a few weeks ago and came across a post he has on randomness in which Petzold says:
“Wouldn’t it have been interesting for Steve Wozniak or Don Estridge to have also decided that every computer needed a hardware random number generator, and for that feature to have become a standard part of the machines we use today?”
Though sadly he doesn’t go on to speculate on what applications that might enable.
iii) The recent John Cage piece I saw Stephen Gutman perform at Kettle’s Yard reminded me of Cage’s use of randomness, from the performers throwing dice to decide what to do next through to the I Ching computer program that the lecture on anarchy I saw Cage give in Islington relied on.
Tuck has similar inspirations, in fact some of Tuck’s fieldwork-probes sound like wonderful performances of randomness in their own right. So we are having great fun planning what to build and test around photo browsing.

Luke Stoneham – Portrait, Kettle’s Yard New Music Sunday lunchtime concert 27/1/07


Stephen Gutman's scores at the ready

Yesterday my son Will, my father-in-law Paul, and I went to the first of the new season of Kettle’s Yard New Music Sunday lunchtime concerts. It was a programme of piano work by Luke Stoneham. Luke’s an old friend of mine – we went to infant, junior, and senior school together and then found ourselves together again at Sussex where I was doing my doctorate and Luke was studying with Michael Finnissy. I wasn’t expecting him there, but the lunchtime concert opened with a conversation between Richard Baker, the Kettle’s Yard New Music Associate, and Luke.
The concert opened with Stephen Gutman playing John Cage’s “The Seasons – Ballet in one Act” and we were immediately aware of how fabulous Stephen’s playing was. His technique was flawless, and the acoustic in Kettle’s Yard is wonderful, but what really set Stephen’s playing apart was the theatricality. His playing is almost dance-like: at times arrogantly dominating the keys; at times peering inquisitively into the music; and at times gathering the music into himself as he played. Wonderful. Interestingly although Paul was not converted to ‘new music’ by the concert he too loved Stephen’s playing. Will, on the other hand, found it too theatrical. I’d certainly travel to see Stephen play again.
After the Cage we had five of Luke’s pieces which Stephen played with equal sensitivity and panache. First off was “Pour les cinq doigts”, one of a series of companion studies commissioned by Stephen from British composers responding to each Debussy piano études. There were brief Debussy-like fragments in more modern territory.
Stephen then played “Nobody here but us chickens”. I was half hoping for a “Famous Potatoes” homage! This was in fact a wonderful piece that Luke had written for harpsichord, though actually for a friend’s out of tune virginal. Stephen was playing a piano version and the range of expressivity he brought to it, while keeping the sense of it being harpsichord music, was excellent. It was fun watching the score too as there were additional bars glued onto the side (they are just visible in my flickr picture above).
Then Stephen realised he’d missed out Luke’s short piece “Plume” This formed a nice bridge piece between the Cage ballet and the last piece “Mercury in Retrograde” as it was written for dance. It was written by Luke improvising at the piano (I think he said he was blindfold!) This was the prettiest of the pieces, the looping reminding one of smoke curling in upon itself.
“Magenta cuts” had some striking moves between childlike playing that Luke recreated from early memories of seeing a piano at a family friend’s house as a child, and more scholarly adult work.
Lastly “Mercury in retrograde” was a larger piece with Stephen playing three movements: “I Trick”, “IV Glitch”, and “V Wit”. The programme notes point out that this piece had its origins in dance-theatre and Stephens theatrical playing style really brought out each mood and kept it direct and accessible.
There are some mp3s of Stephen Gutman playing some of these pieces on the Critical Notice website. I’ll also scan in Richard’s programme notes on flickr, they were superbly informative.