A fiery farewell from Joshua Bell and friends at Wigmore Hall

Joshua Bell and friends brought their brief residency at Wigmore Hall to a fiery finale with impassioned performances of Smetana and Dvořák. These chamber pieces became virtuoso vehicles in the hands of the five musicians, with the dialogic nature of the repertoire prompting the players to spur one another on. The first half of the programme may not have been up to the same high standard, but this was still a successful and memorable collaboration.

Read the rest of the review here.

Dealing with Boulez

Dealing with Pierre Boulez is proving to be one of the biggest challenges of my project. Although his involvement with musical technology was minimal during my period of study (1946-1958), his influence on post-war French musical thought was huge. He shot to prominence in the wake of World War II with works including his Second Piano Sonata and Le marteau sans maître, and his thoughts on musical aesthetics were no less influential. Dismissing Stravinsky’s neo-classicism and developing a more gestural species of serialism, Boulez established himself as one of the foremost French composers and placed his generation at the forefront of musical developments.
His contact with Pierre Schaeffer may have been brief, but it clearly planted a seed. In 1977, after years of hounding the French government, IRCAM opened its doors. A top-notch centre for electro-acoustic music and research, the centre attracted composers associated with the musique spectrale movement. The exploratory aspect of the institution is remarkably similar to the principles held dear by Schaeffer, who considered musical research crucial to establish an experimental music.
Perhaps the most telling parallel between the two is the quest for musical expression in electro-acoustic music. Although Schaeffer stated the importance of this aspect early in his career, Boulez initially took a very different view. His work in Schaeffer’s studio was an attempt to fuse serial and concrete music, with the stable material utilised in the latter increasing the amount of compositorial control. However, his position changed during the early 1950s: Boulez began to move towards a more fluid and gestural serialism, embracing a more expressive idiom.
The differences between Schaeffer and Boulez are many, but their brief intersection was surely significant. Even today, France is renowned for its electro-acoustic facilities and the unique structure of IRCAM, an institution in which scientists work alongside musicians. Pierre Schaeffer’s oeuvre may be relatively small, but his legacy still resonates across the musical landscape of France and beyond.

A forgotten pioneer

2015 brings with it the usual flurry of events to celebrate composers’ anniversaries. This year, the birthday celebrations are for Scriabin, with 2015 marking 100 years since his birth; Nielsen and Sibelius, who both turn 150; and Arvo Pärt, a comparatively youthful 80. However, there is another figure who is significant in his absence from the spotlight, despite having died just 20 years ago. For a figure who has left such a huge legacy, particularly for composers working in film, TV or electronic music, Pierre Schaeffer’s outsider status seems puzzling.

Schaeffer began his career working in French national radio, before circumstance allowed him to turn the equipment to different ends. With the airwaves jammed during World War II, Schaeffer embarked on his first radiophonic experiments. Although his oeuvre also encompassed sonic experiments and experimental music, it is for musique concrete that Schaeffer is remembered. For this reason, his studio attracted some of the leading lights in composition: Pierre Boulez, Iannis Xenakis, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and even Olivier Messiaen. (Legend has it that Messiaen’s only musique concrete creation, Timbres durées of 1952, utilised a flushing toilet as one of its sound sources. Listen here.)

But just what is musique concrète? Imagine a sonic collage comprised of recorded sounds, and you won’t be far off. Originally, the genre was restricted to recordings of instruments, voice and the natural environment, but it later began to incorporate synthesised sounds. Given the nature of the sonic material, the meanings of terms such as ‘melody’ and ‘harmony’ are either greatly stretched or become redundant. Not only was Schaeffer responsible for the initial experiments which formed the basis of the genre, but also for formalising musique concrete as a compositional practice.

Schaeffer’s contribution to the genre was two-pronged: not only did he create a number of classic works himself (alone or in collaboration; see below), but he also established a theoretical framework for those approaching the genre. As well as painstakingly documenting his work, he also wrote numerous treatises which make fascinating reading. Schaeffer’s work provides a fascinating way to trace the history of sound: early in the 1950s, the introduction of the magnetic tape opened up a whole new world of possibilities, while the spatialisation of sound proved no less revelatory.

Progressive as his sonic experiments were, many did not consider Schaeffer’s work to be music. While debates on Stravinsky, 12-tone composition and Messiaen continued to play out in post-war France, he occupied a strange position. However, his compositions operate under musical principles: in his diaries, Schaeffer talks of rhythm and texture. His works explored the possibilities of a whole new branch of music, one which has inspired generations of composers since.

The legacy left by Schaeffer is much broader than this brief resumé might suggest: outside of the studio, he played a major part in establishing radio networks across North African territories. He also founded the Ocora music label to preserve African soundscapes and train technicians from numerous national broadcasting services across the continent. As musician, technician and thinker, Schaeffer certainly deserves celebration in 2015.

Listen up

Pierre Schaeffer, Cinq études de bruits (1948)

Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950)

Pierre Schaeffer & Pierre Henry, Orphée 53 (1953)

Pierre Schaeffer, Étude aux sons animés (1958)

PhD – first impressions

About a year ago, I was in the midst of a flurry of PhD applications and interviews. Juggling my Masters course with work for a project I might not even get to do certainly wasn’t easy, but it paid off: I was lucky enough to receive full funding from the London Arts and Humanities Partnership, enabling me to take up my place at King’s College London.

That all seems a long time ago. I’m now over four months into my PhD, and have fully adjusted to London life – in any case, as adjusted as one can possibly be to this bustling city. Is the PhD what I expected? It’s hard to say: coming into the degree, I was absorbed completely by the thought of my project, and hadn’t given a great deal of thought to what life as a PhD student would entail.

I had given much thought to my research, but not to the degree – although my efforts will be focused on the project which will eventually turn into a thesis and (touch wood) earn me the title of Doctor of Philosophy, there is so much more to the PhD. It is a training course, and as such, PhD students are expected to spend a certain amount of time each year developing skills, both for the degree and for whatever may be ahead. As well as analysing your area of study, you will also be expected to analyse yourself. My personal development activities have included French classes and sessions on effective presentations and speed-reading. While these elements might sometimes feel like distractions, all are (or will be) valuable, whether in my day-to-day research or further ahead.

I’ve been challenged in ways I didn’t expect. One of the things I’ve found most difficult is being able to switch off: immersing yourself in your project means that it’s hard to take a step back. My commute to and from the library has been useful in this respect, helping me to compartmentalise the ‘work’ and ‘relaxation’ parts of my life. Another challenge has been that of academic self-confidence. The primarily solitary nature of the degree means that it is common to worry if your work is the right standard, or if you’re doing enough.

The PhD certainly isn’t for everyone. It demands so much more than a passion for your subject, and many of the personal accounts which I read before embarking on my own were more than slightly scary. My experience so far suggests that self-confidence and determination are essential, as are time to relax and to pursue other hobbies.

However, the experience of a PhD is like nothing else. It can be liberating to have three years to delve into a topic tailored to your interests, making new connections and discoveries, and getting a glimpse of life as an academic. Each day I arrive at the British Library, I’m greeted with a stack of books and journals which I know will fascinate and stimulate me. I’m finding it satisfying to build up such a comprehensive knowledge of my particular area, while at the same time I am excited at the prospect of how much more there is to explore. But then, there’s always tomorrow.

Thrilling French fare from the LPO and Juanjo Mena

It seems that French music is en vogue recently. With the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s focus on contemporary Gallic fare last season and the Philharmonia unrolling their ‘City of Light: Paris 1900-1950’ later this month, the London Philharmonic Orchestra made their contribution in a concert of 20th century French repertoire with a Spanish flavour. A lesser-known piece by Pierné rubbed shoulders with some classic works, in an evening only marred by a rather bizarre performance of Poulenc’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in D minor.

Read the full review at Bachtrack.

Poulenc’s Revelation: his sacred music after 1936

Francis Poulenc
In 1936, Francis Poulenc had an experience which changed his life. The death of Pierre-Octave Ferroud had shaken Poulenc, prompting him to take a pilgrimage to Rocamadour in south-west France. In the church of Notre Dame he saw the Black Madonna, reputedly carved by Saint Amator. This triggered a religious reawakening of sorts, prompting Poulenc to rediscover his Roman Catholic faith.
The effect of this experience was captured in his Litanies à la vierge noire, composed the same year. Written for SSA and organ, this piece is an introverted contemplation of faith. The diatonic choral writing lends the piece a sense of purity, and the frequency of repetition lends a sense of stasis.
Not all of his religious works were quite so sombre. Despite the subject matter, Poulenc’s 1950 Stabat Mater balances pathos with throw-away settings of the sequence. The approach to religion in this piece appears to be respectful, but curious: the bright harmonic language lends the piece a sense of wondrous exploration. Most of all, Poulenc’s setting is theatrical. ‘Cujus animam gementem’ is a short burst of volatile energy lasting little over a minute, followed by the spaciousness of ‘O quam tristis’. He takes advantage of the declamatory possibilities offered by the Latin text to add propulsion to the setting. Whether the tone is agitated or pensive, the overall impression is an affirmation of faith.
Poulenc’s tendency towards the dramatic can also be seen in his Gloria for soprano, chorus and orchestra of 1959. From the tongue-in-cheek ‘Laudamus te’ to the glacial cool of the ‘Domine Deus, Agnus Dei’, the mood changes at the drop of a hat and creates a sense of tragicomedy. Allusions to a range of musical antecedents are incorporated into the work, not least to Poulenc’s own works. The work ends with a sustained soprano D, referring to the G major and B minor heard earlier in the movement: resolving everything, and at the same time nothing.
The sacred music produced by Poulenc after 1936 still carries the sense of joie de vivre found in his other works. His religion is clearly informed by his world-view, encompassing a wide range of life experiences. Ultimately, though, Poulenc’s sacred music is an affirmation and a celebration of his faith.

Perceptions: the Music of Tristan Murail

Tristan Murail
Where do we draw the line between what is music and what is not? How can music alter our sense of time? Where do we see ourselves within a piece of music?
Spectral music raises all of these questions and more. The spectralist movement began in 1970s Paris, when a cluster of composers decided to use the acoustic properties of sound as the basis of their compositions. The term ‘spectralism’ is a reference to the sound spectra upon which their music is based. By reconsidering the basic elements of a piece of music, the spectralists invite us to consider what we perceive as music, and why. The movement has proved influential to a range of twentieth-century composers (including Magnus Lindberg, Jonathan Harvey and Kaija Saariaho).
The techniques used by the spectralists have particularly fascinating implications for the sense of space and time in their works. I have been particularly drawn to the music of Tristan Murail. Murail was a member of the Groupe de l’Itinéraire (alongside friend and fellow spectralist Gérard Grisey). There is a sense of spaciousness to Murail’s music: this is partly due to the focus on timbre (tone colour). The distinction between electronic and acoustic sounds becomes ambiguous, as does the boundary separating white noise and consonances. The sense of time in works such as Murail’s Winter Fragments is more meditative than anything else, allowing a free exploration of the various musical components. These elements are often inseparable: for example, space and time. Murail’s textures are constructed from layers, with each timbre carrying its own registral tessitura and sense of time.
The music of the spectralists prompts us to consider what we consider to be music, and why. Entering into their world reveals surprises in ours.