Bridgewater Hall, ManchesterClosing an energetic evening, the 1941 ballet Estancia marked the start of the BBC Philharmonic's exploration of the works of Argentina's best-known composer, Alberto Ginastera
A re-examination of the Spanish and South American repertoire has been central to Juanjo Mena's tenure as the BBC Philharmonic's chief conductor. His latest concert, a ragbag programme of 20th-century virtuoso works, marked the start of his exploration of the music of Alberto Ginastera, Argentina's best-known composer, whose 1941 ballet Estancia brought the evening to a powerhouse close.
Influenced by Bartók, Stravinsky and Copland, it's a virile, sexy depiction of a day on the Argentinian pampas, structured round a loose narrative dealing with an affair between a city gent and a cowgirl. It's rhythmic complexity and hard-to-pace momentum make it a difficult prospect for performers, but Mena seemed infinitely alert to its mix of relentless energy and sensuality, while the dexterous clarity of the playing was persuasive in the extreme.
Dexterity and energy, in fact, dominated the evening. The concert also formed part of The Mancunian Way, the orchestra's season-long examination of Manchester's role in UK music-making. Thomas Adès's These Premises Are Alarmed and John Adams's Slonimsky's Earbox were both written (originally for the Hallé) to mark the opening of the Bridgewater Hall in 1996, though Adès's hyper-complex miniature bewilders next to Adams's gloriously immediate homage to Stravinsky and the Russian musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky, whose theories impacted strongly on his work.
The first half of the programme juxtaposed Turina's 1928 ballet Ritmos with HK Gruber's percussion concerto Rough Music, with Colin Currie as soloist. Hampered by a lack of thematic distinction, Ritmos is more impressionistic and fluid than its title suggests. Gruber's concerto whirls between edgy humour and violence, but feels discursive. Currie, though, was thrillingly athletic with it – a joy to watch as well as to hear.
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Wigmore Hall, LondonHarpsichordist Christophe Rousset and his Talens Lyriques relived the 18th-century conflict between the French and Italian musical traditions in dapper style
The rivalry between the French and Italian musical traditions that climaxed in the Parisian pamphlet war of 1752-4 known as the Querelle des Bouffons had its origins in previous aesthetic battles that were reflected, if not quite laid to rest, in the works by François Couperin that formed the bulk of this programme by Les Talens Lyriques under their director, harpsichordist Christophe Rousset.
Jean-Baptiste Lully is associated with an earlier phase of this nationalistic conflict. Born Giovanni Battista Lulli in Florence in 1632, at the age of 14 he was swept off to France, where his musical and terpsichorean abilities saw him rise to a position close to Louis XIV and where his Trios pour le Coucher du Roi were written to accompany the public ceremony of the Sun King's bedtime rituals; Rousset's varied selection of five examples highlighted his ensemble's period colours, with the reedy duo of oboists Emmanuel Laporte and Jean-Marc Philippe, plus bassoonist Catherine Pépin-Westphal, gaining an easy sonic ascendancy over the delicate fluting of Jocelyn Daubigney and Stefanie Troffaes.
Disavowing the Italian style he grew up with, Lully went on to vaunt the superiority of those French idioms he helped to create. Also ostensibly flying the flag of French music in his La Françoise from his collection Les Nations, Couperin in fact united elements of the two traditions. Rousset's dapper direction of his finely co-ordinated ensemble brought out Couperin's intricate melodic decoration here and in his programmatic works, in which Lully and the Italian Arcangelo Corelli are symbolically welcomed to Parnassus by Apollo and the muses. The flamboyant bowing of violinists Gilone Gaubert-Jacques and Gabriel Grosbard made its mark both in these disarming reconciliatory apotheoses, and in Corelli's inventive Ciaccona trio sonata, offset by the discretion of viola da gamba player François Joubert-Caillet and lutenist Laura Mónica Pustilnik.
Royal Opera House, LondonThe literal and the lofty collide in Royal Opera's epic production of Wagner's great swan song
Religiosity, illness, sex: Wagner chose heady ingredients for Parsifal, his last opera, which took nearly four decades to reach fruition. This tale of the "pure fool" who can bring salvation to the sickly Grail brotherhood remains the composer's most dramatically repellent – there are other contenders for that title – yet his most musically potent. In the closing pages of the score, when suppurating wounds have healed and any confusion (or longueurs) of the previous five hours is washed away, the score ratchets up a gear, dazzling the senses in a great meteor shower of sound. Those massed male voices, the colossal, tolling bells and thudding timpani of the finale, pound through your brain for days to come, even if you curse their very existence.
This was certainly the impact of the Royal Opera's new Parsifal, directed by Stephen Langridge, designed by Alison Chitty and conducted, with a steely-nerved amplitude and restless attention to detail, by the company's music director, Antonio Pappano. He is not one to boast, as Pierre Boulez did in Bayreuth in the 1960s, of conducting the swiftest account of the work ever and stripping away all that dubious ritualistic solemnity and miasmic mysticism. Instead, Pappano yielded to its grandeur but refused to be swamped by it. Far from losing a half hour, as Boulez claimed, he probably added one.
We rush to heap praise above all on the singers: this was a mighty cast and their collective cheers and applause were deserved. But in Wagner there is no rest for orchestra or conductor. The Royal Opera orchestra played with nuance, concentration and vigour, spinning glistening colours with endless variety. I heard only one real mishap the entire duration, a feat in itself. Think of the violinist who has to hold up his or her bowing arm for nearly two hours without let-up the next time you grumble about the long intervals which turn Wagner operas into a marathon activity best suited to the leisured classes.
Out of a tiny handful of musical motifs Wagner plants a forest of ideas, dominant among them the so-called "Dresden Amen", that six-note sequence which is used to conjure the mystical powers of the Holy Grail. Its repeated appearances underpin and support the text – Wagner's own, inspired by Parzival, an epic poem of the 13th century. The more you read it, the more it seems a wild piece of bunkum, ecumenical, lofty and infuriating. What is Wagner trying to tell us about Christianity, Buddhism, race, blood, sin, redemption?
In Langridge's production, laden with signposts and visual rubric, there was plenty of opportunity to ponder these questions. The touchstone was Francis Bacon. In Chitty's clean, far from mystical designs, a central cube variously appeared as light box, display case or a Damien Hirst-like tank. The curtain rises on Amfortas in a hospital bed, alone in the box. He might well have been a pickled shark. Gerald Finley acts so well that the staggering and wincing of a man in pain was only too convincing. He put that same pallor and world-weariness into his voice, a risk since some might think he had forgotten how to sing, which paid off.
If at times the interpretation felt too literal, it worked hard to amplify the foggy drama and its backstory using tableaux: how Amfortas sustained his wound (via Kundry's kiss), or why Klingsor is so emasculated (self-castration). The Grail chamber is opened to reveal – quelle surprise – not a chalice but a boy, naked save for a loin cloth. My colleague Andrew Clements was not alone in suggesting that the production was stripped of Christian iconography. To me it seemed stuffed with it: in a direct biblical reference, the spear is used to pierce the Grail child's side. The boy's slumped body mirrored the descent from the cross. The red-tressed Kundry is in Mary Magdalene mode. Parsifal is what you make of it. The music alone brings coherence.
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At the end of Act II, the outcast magician Klingsor tosses the coveted holy spear at Parsifal intending to wound him. According to Wagner, after hovering in the air the sacred weapon falls into Parsifal's hand, Klingsor's iniquitous kingdom collapses and Parsifal hurries off ready to redeem all and sundry. Here Klingsor walks over and blinds Parsifal, who then staggers off in Lear-like pathos. Blindness is indeed mentioned in the text but surely it is meant symbolically?
The action was updated to a more-or-less fascistic 1940s setting, with the Flower Maidens in black belted coats and headscarves, discarded to reveal short, spangly and sequinned cocktail dresses from a later era. The knights of the Grail carry guns. Klingsor wore the long black leather overcoat which Willard White has worn in many roles in many productions and in which he looks his finest. White retains plenty of vocal strength too, as does the magnificent Robert Lloyd as an ancient Titurel.
Simon O'Neill in the title role has a reedy, bright timbre. Angela Denoke as Kundry, looking terrifyingly emaciated and shaven-headed at the start but ever compelling, has a muscular, unadorned quality to her voice, and René Pape as the wise, troubled, authoritative Gurnemanz, is warm and rich in tone. This resulted in an arresting interweaving of voice types. Pape won special cheers, but Gurnemanz usually does. He's the nearest to an ordinary chap we get in this opera, even if he did look like an off-duty Bavarian civil servant. Hear Parsifal on Radio 3 on Wednesday from 4.45pm or see it in cinemas on 18 December.
Two other events to mention: an explosive account of Shostakovich's Piano Quintet at Wigmore Hall by the Pavel Haas Quartet (who also gave stylish energy to quartets by Schubert and Britten) with the 22-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov. Catch him in 2014 if you haven't already. And in this year's British composer awards, names new and familiar and all male won in 13 categories. Harrison Birtwistle, the most nominated as well as the most successful in the awards' history, won for his piano piece Gigue Machine. "Nicolas Hodges is becoming my Peter Pears," he joked, referring to the pianist he regularly writes for. Colin Matthews, Brian Elias, James MacMillan and George Benjamin also triumphed. Rodrigo Barbosa Camacho won the student category for American Candy – What the hell is Yellow No. 6?!? for solo viola (Sarah-Jane Bradley, playing and narrating) and a bag of marshmallows. Who said the classical music world was straitlaced? Maybe the man in the stalls at Parsifal who arrived clutching two teddy bears was not so odd after all.
A welcome present of fresh, tuneful carols here from Bob Chilcott, a master steeped in the genre – he sang both as a boy and a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge, a choir synonymous with Christmas. Sure to be a hit with singers everywhere will be his Song of the Crib, an instantly likable, warm and sweet setting of words by Charles Bennett, and his profound treatment of Gerard Manley Hopkins's The Bethlehem Star, written in response to the murder of Alan Greaves, the Sheffield organist attacked on his way to play for Midnight Mass last year. And I challenge anyone to listen to Gifts for the Child of Winter and not be moved.
Soloists, Swedish Radio Choir & Symphony Orchestra/Ticciati(Linn) (2CDs)
The Christmas triptych that Berlioz conceived is one of his most lyrical works and originated with the famous "Shepherds' farewell", written in self-consciously antique style. There have been several lovely recordings, dating back to Colin Davis's first account, and this new one is beautifully fluid, flexible and transparent. Robin Ticciati and his soloists shape the lines responsively and warmly: some might prefer Roger Norrington's cooler account with Mark Padmore as narrator, but Yann Beuron here has warmth and vivid drama. Véronique Gens and Alastair Miles, who sings the unenviable line: "Jesus, quel nom charmant!", are very fine, and the Swedish Radio Choir is truly transcendent in the ethereal apotheosis.
Melbourne Symphony Orchestra/Gardner(Chandos)
Australia's oldest orchestra, the Melbourne Symphony, founded in 1906, brings high energy and finesse to these Bartók performances under the incisive baton of Edward Gardner. Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta opens mysteriously with the chromatic Andante tranquillo. The Allegro is demonic, the Adagio luscious and the Allegro full of runaway spirit and urgency. Solo keyboard and percussion work is fresh and vigorous – the celesta, by the way, far less in evidence than the works title suggests (the piano is far more prominent). That suppleness carries through to the Miraculous Mandarin suite, which glitters with strange orchestral colour, and to the Four Orchestral Pieces, less showy but well worth hearing.
Kurt Vile | Clare Teal | York early music Christmas festival | Neko Case | Intersect | Wooden Shjips
As with many great artists, Kurt Vile is always different but somehow also always the same. Terrific on his own, his acoustic guitar-playing reveals the John Fahey-meets-Johnny Marr wellspring on which his music draws. With his band, the Violators, the smoke machine is turned on in his head, and the same ingredients take on a more overtly psychedelic dimension. His latest album, the great Wakin On A Pretty Daze, seems to find Vile embodying a kind of nu-slacker ethos, happily wrapped up in his own ambling music and unfussed world view. The truth is, you can't be that relaxed without knowing you've done some hard work, and that's Kurt Vile all over. Prolific, because he doesn't fail to develop any of his ideas. Content, because he's getting somewhere; those ideas are getting better all the time.
O2 Shepherd's Bush Empire, W12, Wed; Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, Fri; touring to 17 Dec
When her schoolmates were listening to Duran Duran in the 1980s, Clare Teal was poring over her parents' old 1930s swing records. Plenty of retro jazz artists clone those long-gone styles, but award-winning vocalist and radio host Teal has matured into a witty performer of old big-band hits, elegant fusion and originals with sharp lyrics. She can inhabit the sound of bebop-inflected jazz singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Anita O'Day, evoke the soulful intimacy of a Laura Nyro or the torchy sassiness of her beloved Peggy Lee, and she celebrates the Great British Songbook as creatively as its American counterpart.
Barnfield Theatre, Exeter, Mon; Concorde Club, Eastleigh, Wed; Pizza Express Jazz Club, W1, Thu & Fri
The National Centre for Early Music organises events all year, but it's the two seasonal festivals it promotes that are the highest-profile elements of its activities. This festive soiree (their summer event was in July) features Brecon Baroque's interleaving of Bach's Art Of Fugue, medieval and renaissance pieces from the York Waits and a visit from the European Union Baroque Orchestra.
National Centre For Early Music, Sir Jack Lyons Hall & York Minster, to 15 Dec
Rather like Kirsty MacColl, Neko Case is an artist maybe better known as a high-profile guest star than for her own work. A powerful singer who has the kind of emotional veracity that plays well with indie crowds, Case has fronted her own bands but has also acted as a go-to singer for groups such as Canada's New Pornographers, to whose busy intellectual music she helped add considerable heart. Her own sixth solo album should help redress that disparity. The compositions there are acutely well-observed and raw. A balancing act between confession, wit and hard-won wisdom, Case's music can be devastating; the work of an artist old enough to bear the scars and young enough to still care.
Oran Mor, Glasgow, Sun; Button Factory, Dublin, Mon; Ryl Northern College Of Music, Manchester, Tue; Concorde 2, Brighton, Wed; HMV Forum, NW1, Thu
In a piece of bold programming intended to become a habit with the alternative music clubs of Dalston, neighbours The Vortex, Cafe Oto and the Servant Jazz Quarters are staging a joint 4pm-till-late Saturday programme. Among the cast at the Vortex are composer-pianist Matthew Bourne, the multinational Orchestra Elastique and eclectic punk-jazzers DOLLYman. Bourne is a suitably deconstructivist force for such a venture; he might recast Polly Wolly Doodle as an aria, My Way as a punky thrash, or mash up Simpsons samples with virtuoso free-jazz piano. The five-piece DOLLYman splice jazz, pop and classical music in ways that have been likened to a fractious Portico Quartet. Rising young keyboardist Dan Nicholls joins dynamic Outhouse drummer Dave Smith in the duo Strobes, and Irish singer Lauren Kinsella appears in the distinctive Blue-Eyed Hawk quartet alongside young trumpeter-composer Laura Jurd.
Cafe Oto, E8, Servant Jazz Quarters, N16 & The Vortex, N16, Sat
A band with an impressively minimalist approach, Wooden Shjips have so far managed to make two chords last six albums. That doesn't mean the group spread their ideas thinly; instead, they are all about subtle variation within the limited source materials that they have chosen. The band's current album, Back To Land, is a case in point: though not a showy record, it finds the San Franciscans casting their own spell. A band who know the power of the long-form drone-out boogie, theirs is a game of texture and rhythms played at an unhurried pace by gentlemen of a certain age.
Audio, Brighton, Mon; Scala, N1, Tue; The Brudenell Social Club, Leeds, Wed; SWG3, Glasgow, Thu; The Menagerie, Belfast, Fri
Symphony Hall, BirminghamBrahms's Third began almost glutinously, but recovered irresistibly, while the violinist Isabelle Faust's Britten was startlingly fresh
Last season, Andris Nelsons worked his way through all nine of the Beethoven symphonies, but he is taking his time exploring Brahms with his City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Having conducted the Second Symphony in Birmingham a couple of seasons ago, he added the Fourth to his CV a month ago, and quickly followed that up here with its more compact predecessor.
Not that Nelsons's performance of the Third seemed particularly compact. There were moments, in the first two movements especially, when he appeared to be determined to make the work seem as massive as possible, with tempi that were distinctly measured and textures that were generously moulded rather than crisp and clear. Some passages in the opening Allegro verged on the glutinous, and things nearly came to a complete halt in the transition to its recapitulation, but the second half of the symphony had more sense of purpose, and the finale's second subject had an irresistible lilt.
Before the symphony, Nelsons had given a final nod to a couple of this year's important anniversaries. He'd begun with a beautifully paced account of Wagner's Siegfried Idyll, which managed to be convincingly intimate, with exquisite pianissimos, despite using the majority of the CBSO's strings, before moving on to what turned out to be the evening's highlight. No doubt there have been many performances of Britten's Violin Concerto this year, but few, I imagine, can have been as searching and startlingly fresh as Isabelle Faust's, with its savage, selfless precision, rasping double stopping and sense of always knowing exactly what the destination of this disquieting musical journey really was. Nelsons and the orchestra aided and abetted her every step of the way. Faust's encore, the Sarabande from Bach's D minor Partita, effortlessly poetic and conversational, was an extra treat.
Ahead of an opera version of Ted Hughes's How the Whale Became, librettist Edward Kemp reveals the challenges of rounding up a menagerie of vain and devious animals for the stage
I first encountered Ted Hughes's How the Whale Became in the edition lushly illustrated by Jackie Morris, which we bought by chance on a family camping holiday in Wales. As the gales lashed the tent roof ever closer to our heads, my children and I immersed ourselves in these eclectic fables where whales balloon like marrows, polar bears win beauty contests and cats spend hours practising the violin. Drawing on a tradition in which Kipling's Just So stories are the most obvious precursor, these tales begin in the soils of Africa, Asia and North America as much as ancient Europe. Anyone familiar with Hughes's Crow will recognise aspects of the cosmography, except that these early stories, first conceived when on honeymoon with Sylvia Plath and then retold for their children Nicholas and Frieda, lack the savagery of that later work.
Not that the animals in the Whale tales are rose-tinted: they're vain, lazy, competitive and devious, but mostly they are preoccupied with the challenge of "becoming". This becoming, trying to find your place in the world, is a confusing business: some creatures establish their identity with swift confidence, only to find that it brings them into conflict with others, while those such as Bombo the elephant make many attempts before they find a place where they fit. It was a view of the world to which my children, then aged seven and five, responded with instinctive sympathy.
Although an inveterate changer of one form into another – novels into plays, plays into ballets, films into concert works – I didn't imagine "doing" anything with these stories, nor was I aware that Hughes had written two further collections for older children, Tales of the Early World and The Dreamfighter, until John Fulljames, associate director of opera at the Royal Opera House, approached the composer Julian Philips to create a family opera for the Linbury Studio theatre.
Family opera – a piece that might entertain a nine-year-old as much as her parents – does not have a long tradition. I've seen productions of The Magic Flute that might fit the bill, and Britten, Menotti and Malcolm Williamson all sought to engage young people in the form, but the results can too often tend towards the worthy, a sense that Opera Is Good For You, rather than just a gorgeously fun way to animate a story.
My previous collaboration with Julian, The Yellow Sofa, based on a novella by the Portuguese realist Eça de Queiroz, had exploited that writer's mischievous shifts of tone, the acerbic rubbing shoulders with the sentimental, to sustain a story in which many high operatic tropes – lust, murder, suicide, duels – are hinted at but never quite achieved. We wanted to find a similar playfulness here, believing a kaleidoscopic style would give us more opportunities to show what an opera can be and can do, as well as increasing the "entry points" for those who might never have experienced an opera, certainly a contemporary opera, in their lives. Hughes's fables, told with the apparently improvised ease of the great bedtime storyteller, full of inconsistencies and anachronisms but with a strong central message of creative potential, of becoming, seemed like an ideal foundation.
Our director, Natalie Abrahami, Julian and I each chose a personal hit list from the three collections. Fortunately, these were remarkably consistent. The reasons for acceptance or rejection were various: some stories simply demanded musicalisation, while others felt too plot-laden to convey in the relatively cumbersome form of opera, or too sketch-like to be worth dramatising; one, "How the Fox Came to Be Where It Is" felt too close to Janáek's The Cunning Little Vixen.
In several of the fables, especially in the later collections, a creator figure called God plays a key role. Part-divinity and part-tinker, he has a workshop where he experiments with clay, and a garden where he grows vegetables. Prone to fads such as dinosaurs or bad weather, he is occasionally at the mercy of beings that he may or may not have created: demons, fleas, whales. This sometimes accidental, Heath Robinson approach to genesis, as much like Darwinian evolution as Judaeo-Christian creation, felt playfully akin to Hughes's own methods as a story maker, and offered a helpful clue to a structure and a language.
We made God a more central focus than in the story, but not one embodied by a single performer: instead, sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes solo, sometimes chorus, this is God more as creative impulse than personality.
The sense of the latent, the amorphous creature in the clay, waiting to be shaped and breathed into life has suffused our work. Our "clay" is a multitasking ensemble, in which singers play instruments and the instrumentalists are characters. There is no orchestra pit and the set includes multiple "evolutions" of instruments: a toy piano alongside a disembowelled upright and a grand, a garden hose with a bass and contrabass clarinet, a saw and a violin. Percussion – bottles, jars, dustpan and brush, a branch – is everywhere. We were thwarted in our plans to remove all the seating from the Linbury, but we have tried on every front to make the divide between audience and performer "porous". The libretto includes rhymes that aspire to Cole Porter but also those that you'll hear in any playground: at one point, language surrenders altogether to musicalised animal sounds. There is immense skill on display, but it's still connected to the boy who beats differently sized glasses at the table, or the father who makes up a bedtime story to soothe his daughter.
Hughes had a lifelong passion for nurturing creativity in the young. My own first encounter with his writing was through his broadcast talks and book Poetry in the Making, whose exercises I still refer to regularly when teaching and occasionally in my own practice. Poems such as "The Thought Fox" and "Pike" were formative lessons in how to look at the world closely and without cliche, and in how to render the abstract or internal sensuously present. We want in turn to pass on that inspiration to any child in our audience who might never have heard or seen an opera before, but, you never know, may just go on to develop a fascination with it, even play a role in it.
• How the Whale Became is at the Linbury Studio, London WC2, from 10 December until 4 January.
The guitarist has composed an album for the celebrated string ensemble. He explains how the exciting project was inspired by his Russian grandmother
The conversation about pop and classical – the boundaries, the crossover, the people who move between them, is a really, really old one. There has always been an interesting transference of ideas between the two worlds. The economy of pop music can be useful to any composer – if you are writing a rock song, you want to make sure everything being heard is necessary and primary to the song. The same holds true for contemporary music, even if the rules and context are different.
One key difference, for me, though is the risk-taking you get in contemporary and classical music. All of the great masters – Beethoven, Debussy, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, to name but a few – were breaking new ground in their own way, and it's that tradition which is so exciting to me, a real excitement and openness about risk-taking that you don't find as much in popular music today.
My latest album is a string quartet composed for the Kronos Quartet. The Kronos have been a hugely influential group for musicians of my generation. I first met the string quartet five years ago when my brother Aaron and I were working on the Dark was the Night Aids charity compilation. We wanted the record to be a diverse musical statement, and included the Kronos on those we approached to contribute, asking them to cover the title track, Blind Willy Johnson's Dark was the Night.
Kronos have changed the landscape for young composers and ensembles in some of the same ways that REM did for alternative or indie bands in the 80s and 90s – opening up new territories. I've been listening to their recordings for years, little imagining one day I'd actually be writing for them.
Over a lunch in New York not long after we first met, David Harrington, Kronos's founding violinist, asked me to write a piece for them. He suggested a new string quartet to be premiered at Brooklyn's Prospect Park as part of an outdoor concert series. I had played there before with the National. It's a large outdoor venue for some 7,000 people; David duly suggested that I write something "not too subtle or quiet" – it needed to work in this venue!
The piece became Aheym, and now the title track of our new record, and it is a ferocious piece of music. During that first meeting David also asked me about my background. I told him the story of my grandmother, Sally, a Russian immigrant who came to New York in the 1920s and spent her adult life raising a family in Brooklyn and Queens. Her story of coming to America was always our primary connection to our family heritage and I decided I would write this piece for her. "Aheym" means "homeward" in Yiddish and is an abstract evocation of the idea of her journey and passage. David suggested we retrace, in reverse, Sally's original voyage by performing it a few months later in Lódz, Poland, one of the towns she passed through as a child on her way to America.
Reading on mobile? Listen to Aheym here
A second commission followed for the Kronos. Tenebre was commissioned by London's Barbican as part of Steve Reich's 75th-birthday celebrations, and the new album has four works, all written for the Kronos. People often ask me about the difference in writing for the National and writing classical music such as this. I am the same musician regardless of what I am working on. I use some of the same methods to generate ideas when I am writing songs or more formal compositions.
It's a daunting task, writing a string quartet. It is, after all, one of the great archetypes of the classical tradition, with so much amazing historical repertoire (Bartók – a particular favourite of mine – and Beethoven). But, for the very same reasons, it's been an exciting process. I love exploring the different timbral possibilities of the stringed instruments, and many of the pieces use specific techniques – col legno (playing with the wood of the bow), pizzicato, artificial harmonics, circular bowing patterns and so on.
Inevitably I sit at the piano or the guitar and improvise to find some of the elements which will make up the piece. The primary difference might be that when I am writing a string quartet or classical composition I am working from score to notate in detail everything that goes into the music, whereas a rock band does most everything by ear, and then in our case we often write in the recording studio. Then of course there's the formal differences – a pop song is usually four or five minutes, where the shortest composition on the new record is eight minutes (the longest 17). I can do a lot more ambitious things with this longer form and allow the music to really expand as much as it wants.
Aheym, by the Kronos Quartet / Bryce Dessner is out now on Anti.
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