Review: Emanating Sparks

My latest review for the Journal of Music was for a concert I particularly enjoyed: a performance arranged by Louth Contemporary Music Society of music by Karen Tanaka, Tristan Murail, and John Luther Adams, performed by Taka Kigawa and Russell Greenberg:

Kigawa’s playing was impressive – it had to be – but as extraordinary as it was to watch his fingers dance across the rapid, complex passages, the delicacy of his playing was even more striking. In quiet moments, he summoned the merest ghosts of notes, tiny pinpricks just a half-step above silence.

Irish Opera 2: The Sleeping Queen

And in January, I saw a much more intimate staging of Michael William Balfe’s operetta, The Sleeping Queen, another Irish work. This one was a bit older and a bit less ambitious in scope than Eithne (though, I think, much more successful in execution).

During her introductory remarks, Hunt noted the strong possibility of influence from Balfe’s operetta on the later work by Gilbert and Sullivan. I’m convinced: the works share a playfulness and a strong sense of tonal melody; even the libretto shares lyrical characteristics with the later pair’s work (A neighbouring king ‘Proposes an alliance / Offensive and defensive / With treaties most extensive / Immense and comprehensive…’).

The work has some nice musical tricks, though it burns its best one very early on: the second song features a rapid-fire duet between Agnes and the Regent; a ‘Repeat-after-me’-style oath, broken down to the syllable and shot back and forth between the two characters without room for breath or break.

Irish Opera 1: Eithne

Looking at the most recent entry on this blog, I see that somehow I’ve let six months slip by between posts. Time to start catching up.

Back in October, I was lucky enough to cover a unique event for the Journal of Music: a restoration of a century-old opera written in the Irish language, Eithne, by Robert O’Dwyer. While the music didn’t work for me, the night was one to remember. Audience and musicians alike seemed to feel that they were participating in something special:

In hearing the music, perhaps the most striking thing is often the language itself. There was a minor vogue in the early twentieth century for writing opera in the Irish language, but, for a variety of reasons, it never caught on. It is a pity, because the language suits the medium, perhaps surprisingly well. It is bold, earthy and rich, with hard, throaty consonants and long, warm vowels.

When it came to the music, I couldn’t help but feel out-of-step with the audience’s rapturous response, in spite of both the historical significance of the work and the quality of its performance. A review of the 1909 première described O’Dwyer, somewhat damningly, as influenced by ‘what he knows of Wagner’. That more or less gets at the core of the music, in ways both positive and negative. The music of Eithne is superficially Wagnerian: it has Wagner’s warmth of tone, his full-bodied orchestral sound, but it lacks Wagner’s mastery of structure and counterpoint.

What it really lacks, though, is Wagner’s adventurousness. Any time the harmony approaches something daring, it gets cold feet and backs away. In the turbulent musical climate a century ago, it must have felt downright old-fashioned.

The Passing Sound of Forever

My July was so busy that parts of it are still leaking over now that we’re in the second week of August.

As a result, I never had a free moment to link to my latest piece for the Journal of Music. It’s a review of Jane O’Leary’s recent CD of chamber music, The Passing Sound of Forever.

O’Leary knows her musicians well, and writes to their strengths. A considerable part of the album is spent exploring tiny sounds – col legno bowing in the passing sound of forever…, or the alto flute’s echoing of the violin’s resonances in A Winter Sketchbook, or the impossibly distant cello harmonics at the opening of …from hand to hand.

In this way, texture and colour and sensation provide the interest for most of the album, and narrative, clearest in the first work and the last, often seems a secondary concern. So there’s a palpable sense of alarm when the passing sound of forever… develops, seemingly from nowhere, a propulsive, energetic beat. Content until now to be appreciated like a painting, the music suddenly grabs you by the scruff of the neck and pulls you away with it.

“LCMS Is Just Me.”

Great profile of Eamonn Quinn, of the Louth Contemporary Music Society, in The Guardian. Quinn more or less is the society, and has hosted some extraordinary composers and performers.

Quinn makes decisions based purely on personal taste, and the punk premise that “all you need is a room and some cash”. “LCMS is just me,” he stresses. “Before the performance, I’m walking around with the Hoover, lighting the candles. If I don’t have the enthusiasm, I can’t promote it.”

I wrote a review of LCMS’ most recent première, James Dillon’s The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments, for the Journal of Music recently. I can’t wait for the Silenzio festival next weekend.

Yours Truly on James Dillon’s The Louth Work

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the première of a new work by James Dillon, The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments, hosted by the Louth Contemporary Music Society (a local Irish society that has amassed an impressive string of premières and commissions in its eleven-year history).

The Journal of Music published my review:

This is complex music, but ritual is central, and in performance the ear was often drawn towards a single sound – a slow, steady beat on the gong, or cold interjections from the snare drum, or a driving cello motif on a single aggressive note – repeated at the heart of dense textures like a lighthouse flash in stormy waters. Distinct melodic strands – here a duet for clarinet and xylorimba, there an electrifying piano part with a slow song – soar around each other, coming into brief concord before diverging again.

Toner Quinn: You’re Not an Artist, You’re a Start-Up

I recently reread this 2014 piece by Toner Quinn for the Journal of Music. (It was published a few months before I started writing regularly on this blog.)

Start-ups tell a good story. They are positive, highly ambitious and unapologetic about the funding they need to make their business a success. They are also unafraid of making mistakes, of changing their minds, trying something new, even reinventing their entire idea if necessary—known as ‘pivoting’. Start-ups don’t overly concern themselves with sales in the short-term, they are in the world of ideas, imagination and innovation, and focus on being ahead of the curve. Not even complete failure inhibits them. They are imbued with a philosophy of ‘fail fast’ – if it’s not working, quit and move on to the next thing. To have started several start-ups, fail and then start again, is a virtue.

I think Quinn is right: there’s plenty for artists to learn from the ambition, the organisation, and the nimbleness of start-ups. Not least: figure out what you can make that will attract interest, make it unique, and get the word out.

I know a lot of artists have a knee-jerk reaction against association with any sort of business, so here’s Samuel Beckett with the same suggestion:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.