Tuesday, February 11, 2014

RTE Orchestra Horizons Series IV

Hard to say Goodbye

Over the last four weeks, it has been my great pleasure to attend the 2014 RTE National Symphony Orchestra Horizons Series. Each of these concerts has been a unique and entertaining treat. I have enjoyed the whole experience of each individual shows. They have given me a long overdue taste of modern classical music- and I've found some new favorites.

The featured composer of the final chapter of this year's Horizon Series was Seán Clancy. This young rising star selected a very interesting program of his own music and that of his personal influences and mentors.

"Six Objects in a Concert Hall"

Joe Cutler- Ulf (2005)
Seán Clancy- Changing Rates of Change (2012)
Michael Wolters- Spring Symphony: The Joy of Life (2002)
Ed Bennett- Freefalling (2013) RTE Commission
Howard Skempton- Lento (1991)
Seán Clancy- Ten Minutes of Music on the Subject of IKEA (2014) World Premiere

Composer in Conversation

Per usual, the composer sat down with Evonne Ferguson, director of Contemporary Music Centre (CMC) for a brief interview before the performance. At a previous Horizons event, a young Seán Clancy first heard Lento by Howard Skempton. Hearing the possibilities of composition in that one piece helped him decide to pursue music professionally. When asked about Lento and what drew him (and so many others) to it, he put it very simply. To paraphrase, the piece is incredibly beautiful despite (or because of) being so straightforward in its construction. We would hear these same thoughts again later- during the performance.

Seán Clancy had his first musical experiences playing in pop bands in his parents' living room. I can relate to that personally, having played around in long-haired 1980's heavy metal bands for the whole of my high school career. I don't know if Mr. Clancy had the same look, but his list of influences (including Nirvana and Sonic Youth) is certainly a contrast to what most people imagine in traditional classical music.

His most current focus has been on some rather meta-musical features of composition- time, duration, and structure. Our collective attention span is getting shorter- down to about two minutes of real focus on a single task. He has recently challenged himself with exploring longer musical ideas that are still interesting, relevant, and exciting beyond the common two minutes. His inspiration for the new IKEA work was a piece by a French band. This piece was a single repeated riff, over and over- with only the texture of the sound changing from loud to soft, heavy to light, and effects in and out. The premiere work on IKEA takes a different stance on this variation, but we'll get there.

Among his other time-based recent pieces, he mentioned writing a piece to fit the scenes of one particular episode of the popular British soap-opera, EastEndersHe observed that audiences can sit through a half hour television show, but can't keep attention through so many other things. On closer inspection, he discovered that the show is usually fast-paced and quick-cutting in the first few minutes, slower with longer scenes in the middle of the episode, and fast-paced again for the finale. Inspired by this (I love how he called it) "palindromic" pacing, he set out to compose a piece that would fit the pacing and cuts of a particular episode of this show. His next project is the setting of, believe it or not, the first half of a 1994 World Cup soccer match, in which "we" (presumably Ireland) scored a goal against Italy early, then "sat in the back of the net" for the rest of the match to prevent them from scoring. It was fascinating to him to see hundreds of thousands of fans in the stands and on television watching a match with little or no action. As an American sports fan, I'll leave out the unnecessary commentary on the general lack of action in any soccer match. That'll be for another time...

The Program

I believe I have failed to mention in this series of posts the knowledgeable and entertaining presenter of these concerts, Bernard Clarke. Mr. Clarke provides some guidance and context for each piece, and presents it in a very approachable way, especially to the many young people present. These concerts have each been rebroadcast on his Sunday night radio show, NOVA. He kicked off the performance today with a humorous reading of the program from an IKEA instruction manual- with great apparent difficulty. The first piece, Ulf was part of a series of pieces by the composer titled after first names. Ulf is apparently the nickname of a famous Swedish table tennis player. The piece was a demonstration in modern music contrasts- the first half of the five-minute movement being loud, bombastic, and full of percussive hits. This faded to a slow series of very tonal chords from the strings with the horns playing a single note drone.

Changing Rates of Change was the first piece by the featured composer today. It was based upon a song by semi-popular 90's progressive-alternative rock band Faith No More. He practices what he calls artistic intervention on pieces, taking a familiar and old idea and giving it a fresh treatment or a different context. For your own context, I have embedded the source material for this piece here, the Not-Safe-For-Workly named, Jizzlobber.

The following piece was maybe the most unique of the concert for me. Spring Symphony is a four movement symphony depicting the joys of the coming of Spring. The piece comes with an extra page of poetic observations about each of the four movements, making it, (I think...) program music. The reason I'm not sure of its designation is in its duration. Four movements in sixteen seconds. That's right, seconds. And that includes the traditional page-turning and percussion rearranging between the movements. Each movement was but a couple of intense seconds, followed by the shuffle of the shifting orchestra. In the lobby before the concert, they displayed the whole score on a large screen. All of the directions were in English (rather than the traditional Italian directions like Allegro, Moderato, Dolce, etc.) much like one of my favorite concert band composers Percy Grainger. What made them stand out was the nature of the directions themselves. I wrote down only a few, but each page was filled with directions for the orchestra to play some of their measures, 
Homage to Woody Allen
Longing for the Golden Girls
In the mood you are in after listening to Total Eclipse of the Heart
Realizing the VCR has not recorded the last five minutes of a film
 With the conviction of doing a Spring cleaning
And many many more. I can only assume the orchestra players did their due diligence in trying to perform a rapid 32nd note triplet arpeggio with visions of The Golden Girls dancing in their heads.  

Oh, modern music. It can be wonderful in its unpredictability and its "anything is possible" nature. The next piece was a great example of just that. Freefalling was inspired by and named for the Austrian daredevil Felix Baumgartner and his death defying jump from the outer reaches of Earth's atmosphere. The piece really had me on the edge of my seat, wondering what was going to happen next. The imagery was very strong throughout, with generous uses of string glissandos ascending and descending to portray (in my mind) a third person view of him falling down and a first person view of the ground rapidly rising up to meet him. I was almost almost quivering with anticipation at the end, as the orchestra slowly faded to silence. I was waiting for a loud crash signaling his terrestrial impact, but none came. Oh, modern music.

As a stark contrast to the free and unpredictable form of modern music, Lento provides a new and fresh feel in a very familiar and approachable context. The piece is a repeated statement, with a very predictable minor chord progression, from high strings to low strings to winds, and finally to the whole orchestra. The feel is distinctly familiar and traditional, yet one would never expect to hear a piece like this from Mozart or Beethoven. It had the minimal, simple, and fresh sound that only modern music has. Also, I must take a moment to celebrate the trombone feature in this piece. How wonderful it was as a bass trombone player to hear a thirty-second trombone trio after all those high strings. The symphony orchestra may be the greatest single instrument only because it contains a trombone trio. Citation needed, I suppose.

Before the world premiere of IKEA, the composer was brought to the stage to answer a few more questions, this time from presenter Bernard Clarke. When asked if re-working familiar material (like Faith No More) was artistically constraining, Mr. Clancy answered that the challenge presented in working with material produced for another medium was liberating and rewarding in its own right. The follow up question had to go almost without saying,
"Have you ever been to IKEA?  It doesn't seem very liberating..."
True that, I say. The piece captures the repetitive experience of walking through the hellish maze-scape of any IKEA warehouse. There is a simple melodic statement, repeated over and over but with ever-shifting accents and time signatures, making it difficult for the listener to locate the point of repetition or get a comfortable feel of the pulse. It has a very minimalist treatment, much like the style of IKEA furniture, simple, utilitarian, and inexpensive. The piece begins and ends with a harp/vibraphone/marimba statement of the repeated melody before the rest of the orchestra joins the drone. IKEA successfully kept my attention for the ten minutes, and I won't soon forget this world premiere.

That's All For Now

This concludes the 2014 Horizons Series. I had a wonderful time attending and writing about each performance, and will be waiting eagerly for the series again. I was introduced to some new music and new composers to enjoy, thanks to the hard work of everyone involved.

 RTE National Symphony Orchestra
National Concert Hall
Contemporary Music Centre
Composer Seán Clancy
RTE lyric fm- To listen to this concert in its entirety, follow this link.

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