Thinking Music Opens Minds at Peninsula Arts Music Festival

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Miranda, Baltas, Brasa, Bessell: Ten Tors Orchestra / Simon Ible (conductor), Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, Plymouth University, Plymouth. 8.2.2014 (PRB)


Eduardo_Reck_Miranda(credit Peninsula Arts)
Eduardo_Reck_Miranda(credit Peninsula Arts)

Eduardo Reck Miranda: Sounds from Underground
Linas Baltas: AIR
Ignacio Brasa: Zart, for four trombones                                          
Eduardo Reck Miranda: Anathema
David Bessell: Imprint

Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival is an annual event promoted in partnership with Plymouth University’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Research (ICCMR), and is firmly establishing itself as an important platform in the UK for new music exploring ideas emerging from leading-edge research that is helping to pave the way for the music of the future.

 This year’s festival theme – Thinking Music – ‘invites composers and performers to take risks, to venture into the unknown, and audiences to listen actively, open their minds and emotions to the unheard and engage in the debate’ – as it says on the tin.

 ‘Thinking Music’ also happens to be the title of a new book by Eduardo Miranda, Professor of Computer Music at Plymouth University, and the festival’s co-director with Simon Ible, Director of Music at Peninsula Arts. The three-day festival has been timed to coincide with the book’s launch, which describes the concepts and processes with which the author engaged in the composition of his choral and orchestral work Sound to Sea, premiered in September 2012.

 Contemporary music, with its prepared pianos, computer-controlled electromagnets and ring-modulators, might not seem to have very much in common with the world of Bach or Beethoven, something which is usually apparent after a few seconds or so.

 But the reason why Miranda’s Sounds from Underground seemed to emerge head and shoulders above the rest of the evening’s programme was not simply because of its unique soundscape, but because there was a discernible sense of form and structure within each of its three contrasting movements, as well as perceptible cohesion between them – something which any successful piece of classical music should similarly aspire to.

 True there were some quite magic sonorities, which Lithuanian pianist Lauryna Sableviciute elicited with profound understanding, aided by a nifty piece of bespoke software to control the electromagnets placed inside the prepared piano, and which could vibrate the strings independently of the piano’s hammers.

 But the music still spoke for itself. While inspired by a short paragraph of prose – a quote from Dostoevsky’s book ‘Notes from Underground’ – there was no apparent need to explain the subsequent compositional processes involved, unlike some of the other composers’ works heard later. With the aid of a small string ensemble, this work definitely had something to say, even if the language was not immediately familiar to more classically-trained listeners. Even occasional hints of South-American rhythms – harking back, no doubt, to Miranda’s Brazilian origins – integrated so seamlessly and aptly, rather than appearing to have been added merely to spice up proceedings.

 Linas Baltas is described as a ‘contemporary classical composer’ from Lithuania. According to the short programme note, AIR is ‘a unique work for two string orchestras, which is comprised of two previously discrete compositions – Nitrogen and Oxygen’ – from the same composer.

 Listening to the work, the somewhat Ives-like concept of two self-contained independent ensembles both in opposition and juxtaposition, something which the American composer had experimented with before the turn of the twentieth century, was clearly apparent, but such is the nature of air in the physical sense, that most of the ideas just seemed to vaporise, amidst passages of cascading broken chords from the high strings – and none-too-easily manageable at the chosen tempo – while lower strings often supplied a more rhythmic impetus, sometimes canonically. Again, the programme note states that ‘The piece aims to sound fresh, and enjoyable musically…’, and to all intents and purposes it achieves the latter aspiration, albeit in a kind of Karl Jenkins Palladio fashion. But it really doesn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said before, and especially when considered against other great works for string orchestra, or double string orchestra, by the likes of Elgar, Tchaikovsky or Vaughan Williams.

 Zart for four trombones – by the Spanish pianist and composer Ignacio Brasa – makes no use of electronics or amplification – merely four players and their mutes, inserted from time to time. The title, unlike Baltas’s AIR, which might simultaneously imply not only the stuff we breath, but equally a short tune in musical parlance – seems somewhat enigmatic. ‘Zart’, in probably its most common connotation for musicians as a German adjective, means ‘tender’. Further linguistic investigation suggests that it might even be from the Hungarian word ‘zárt’, meaning ‘open’.

 In terms of what we then heard though, neither word seemed to provide an apt title. However, from the Polish we have the word ‘żart’, a ‘joke’ – something said or done for amusement. There were certainly some quite comical sounds from the players, though according to the composer’s programme note, which I take the liberty of quoting in its entirety below, this doesn’t seem to be the case either:

 ‘…contrasting timbres, irregular proportions, repeated formulas and interweaving patterns are combined to create a dialogue between two worlds. Rhythmic sections and slower, sustained passages outline a discourse in which extrovert and ethereal elements seem to contradict each other. Mutes become prominent in this piece as they contribute to differentiate the two sound identities that give shape to the work. However, the structure of Zart [sic] aims at revealing how seemingly contradictory particles often represent the same indivisible reality.’

 However, in reality this could be applied to virtually every piece of music ever written, from antiquity right to the present day.

 Miranda’s second offering – Anathema, a short intermezzo for string orchestra and piano – comes from his aforementioned choral symphony Sound to Sea. Here, as with the evening’s opening work, Miranda has again been completely up-front in his description of the piece as being influenced by Stravinsky’s music – no convoluted circumlocutions, or words for words’ sake here – and something so clearly paralleled by the music itself.

 It would be good to quote the composer’s programme note for the evening’s final work once more in its entirety. However, it’s probably sufficient to point out that the musical material of David Bessell’s Imprint is derived from two low trombone notes which are combined in various ways, and subjected to computer analysis, to reveal only the frequencies common to the two notes. All the notes played by the strings are then derived from the resultant trombone frequencies, while the trombone sounds are further imprinted on each other using an analogue ring-modulator to produce new sonorities.

 Suffice it to say that many of the loud, low-frequency brass sounds heard in performance caused the centre of attention to shift somewhat from the usual ‘viola’ jokes to almost constant schoolboy sniggers during the work’s early rehearsal stages.

 It was, though, especially rewarding to see that, while this pivotal concert might not have appealed as much to the Ten Tors Orchestra’s regular classical followers, healthy audience numbers on the night did not reflect this. The players, led by Malcolm Latchem, who was able to bring many years’ playing experience with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields to the task, under the confident baton of Simon Ible, certainly pulled out all the stops in such unfamiliar, and frequently quite challenging repertoire, doing their utmost to convey each composer’s intentions with the greatest professionalism and musical integrity.

Philip R Buttall