Comment: Hot 3 at Nybrokajen 11

This is a report from my room in Hotel Adlon, Stockholm. What a glorious city this is; I have spent many hours walking its streets, admiring its majestic design and its relaxed, grown-up urban ecology, where people seem to know how to function with efficiency in a laid-back, relatively stress-free environment.

The concert at Nybrokajen 11 was, in fact, not just by the two talented musicians I listed in a previous posting, but by Hot 3, a trio made up of said two talents plus violist Torbjörn Helander. The line-up, then, is flute, guitar and viola. The full programme was as follows:

Anders Hultqvist: Rain and After, Composition No. 6
Klaus Huber: Ein Hauch von Unzeit
Agustín Fernández: A to Z
Madeleine Isaksson: Fibres
Rebecca Saunders: Molly’s Song #3
José Manuel López López: Trio n:r II


Before the concert, also in the grand setting of Nybrokajen 11, there was an introductory talk hosted by Goran Bergendal, a doyen of new music in Stockholm and former senior producer at Rikskonserter. He interviewed Stefan Östersjö (the guitarrist in Hot 3 and the man responsible for commissioning A to Z), Madeleine Isaksson and myself on topics relevant to the night’s programme. The talk was in Swedish but mercifully Goran switched to English when my slot began.

The venue is blessed with very good acoustics, even though this was not in the main hall but in the café. I didn’t count the seats but there must have been about sixty, of which probably fifty of fifty-five were occupied. This didn't do much to allay my misgivings about the size of new music audiences, but I won’t launch into that discussion here. Those who were there seemed a committed bunch, except, perhaps, for the young man sitting next to me, who before long began to nod off, gradually progressing from nodding to dozing until my piece began, which is when dozing became deep slumber. When, at the end of A to Z, I walked up to the front to take a bow, on returning to my seat I found the young had gone. Nor did he come back for the second half. Embarrassment? Or annoyance at finding that he was at the wrong event? We’ll never know.

The musicians played a very challenging programme with much panache and commitment. All the pieces were demanding each in its own way, and I was taken aback by the scale A to Z has taken on now that it has nine movements plus several transitional passages added to smooth over some of the instrument changes. The duration is at least twenty-two minutes and the energy expenditure is high and unrelenting throughout. Even the slower pieces, ‘Última nana’ and ‘Danza oscura’, have a tension that seemed to take a lot out of the players. What first came to life as a collection of little études is now a tour de force, and the études, if they can still be called that, are, in technical challenge if not in size, transcendental along the lines of Liszt’s or Ligeti’s piano études. But Östersjö and Thiwång delivered them with aplomb and virtuosity.

Of the rest of the programme I was particularly impressed by Isaksson’s Fibres, a delicate exploration of instrumental colour thoughtfully organised in a coherent structure of clear harmonic steps, and Saunders’s Molly’s Song #3, which displayed a searching approach to sonic possibilities well before the radio receivers and the music box were switched on.

Comment: Orkest De Volharding at The Sage Gateshead

Today, 30 November, Orkest De Volharding came to Tyneside, and their concert at Hall Two in The Sage Gateshead was inspirational. Christopher Fox, excellent composer and Professor at Brunel University, was there too, introducing the programme in his capacity as its curator. Before him, Ros Rigby came on stage to greet us, tactfully calling us an ‘elite audience’. There were, indeed, a disheartening small number of us. Where was everybody? Music students who profess an interest in composition? Their teachers, who want to keep abreast of things new? Professional musicians who play the instruments represented in the band, and would therefore greatly benefit from exposure to De Volharding’s muscular approach? Anyway, enough of that. Ros made us aware that BBC Radio 3 would be recording the concert, which added a certain electricity to the atmosphere, and not just that flowing to the microphones – surprisingly many of them for a live recording. Not much faith in the acoustics of Hall Two at the BBC, it seems.

The programme was neatly arranged in two halves, each made up of one funny piece, one impenetrable piece and one exciting piece, exactly in that order in both cases. Did Fox designed it deliberately with that structure in mind? Probably not, since the programme order was re-arranged at the last minute.

Andrew Hamilton’s Music for People Who Like Nature was amusing in its persistence on unmodulating triadic harmony and its pockets of manic repetition in designated sections of the ensemble. Although I would have welcomed more harmonic movement, and although I experienced a degree of tonic-dominant fatigue, I was amused by the mock-pastoral character of the whole thing.

Joanna Bailie’s Intermittence was enigmatically unengaged, as if written from an enormous psychological distance. The idea of re-examining the same musical argument from different viewpoints could have been used to create interesting contrasts, but instead we got a picture painted in monochrome with an economy of tools that failed to capture the imagination.

De Groote Muziek by Fox himself displayed clear thinking from the onset, with six strongly cadencial groups of four chords providing an arresting energy that did not let go of our attention until the end. Bright quasi-triadic sonorities juxtaposed to uproarious textural overlays gave the music a festive feel, which the musicians visibly enjoyed doing justice to. At the break I rushed to the bar needing a glass of rich red wine to celebrate the exhilaration of a most effective and characterful piece.

The second half opened with Concerto Grosso by Michael Wolters. This was amusing in its parody of baroque rhetoric, with Bach quotations smoothly integrated into a postminimalist flow. The joke was in the post-Kagelian stage displacements, where the musicians are invested with tireless itchy feet, moving constantly across the stage, often to play nothing more than a few notes at their new location before they move on somewhere else. Especially funny was the synchronised muting and un-muting of the three trombones, involving choreographed knee bends to pick up and put down the mutes on the floor.

During Laurence Crane’s Ullrich 1 and 2 I think I suffered a lapse of concentration, for which I apologise. It was Vogelvrij/Outlawed by Richard Ayres that made the strongest impression in the second half. This is music of the most uncompromising gesturality, blood relation to Varèse and Xenakis, but with a more immediate appeal. Textures, rhythm and pitch material are brought to subjection by a more generic necessity, the need to create broad gestures, spatial blocks of sound one can almost touch in their solidity. At times chords are recognisable from a former tonal life, but not always, and in any case it doesn’t matter, since in this discourse chords are only one of the things pitch superimpositions generate. You are made to listen more sonically here. Rhythm is perceptible as rate of movement or speed of gestural unfolding, but nothing you are likely to tap your finger to. This is musical sculpture of a very high order, except that it has colour too, and very vivid strokes of it. Richard Ayres, I don’t know anything about you, but wherever you are I wish you well, and I hope that you are writing more music.

Comment: November concerts came and went

It was an intensive month with the two concerts of Northern Sinfonia and everything that surrounded them.

15 November at The Sage Gateshead
This was a most rewarding occasion. The concert was part of a series I run, in my capacity as senior lecturer in composition at Newcastle University, in partnership with Martyn Harry of Durham University and, of course, our friends at The Sage Gateshead.

Baldur Brönnimann, the young Swiss conductor, was impressively well prepared for the rehearsals, and was evidently committed to understanding the works and offering a good rendition of them. He not only ensured that the notes were accurately placed, but he also engaged with character and expression, which is more than we often get in performances of new music. How reassuring to feel that for the person in charge the new works were not a bothersome distraction from his real job of conducting classical masterpieces, but a central part of what he does. Brönnimann and his band were outstanding in approaching sensitively the two student pieces, Reverberations by Matthew Rowan and Ramses by Kelcey Swain, and in tackling the two hardest challenges of the evening, my Peregrine and Barry's From the Intelligence Park, a hair-raisingly difficult piece to play. It was exhilarating to witness the conductor's pacing of Peregrine, gradually gathering momentum towards and effective dénouement, and their fearless plunging into the angular ensemble unisons of From the Intelligence Park.

Before the concert, there was a public conversation with Gerald Barry, a wonderful composer and a most engaging speaker. He was our guest composer for this venture. Simon Clugston, the programme director for classical music at The Sage, and I, co-interviewed Gerald, and the interviewee expressed himself with unpretentious wisdom and arresting candour on topics of new music and creative work. He was scathing about electroacoustic music ("most of it is crap") and about Sibelius users, particularly those composers who let the programme generate material for them by the simple expedient of repetition. He was dismissive of those who expect all the words in opera to be heard and understood; if you want to hear all the words, Barry said, you don't waste your time going to the opera; you go to see a play. Most disarmingly, in response to a quote from a Toronto newspaper likening his music to the "hysteria associated with systems under stress" Barry claimed that he was softening now, and was trying to come up with "music I could play over breakfast". The audience, made up mostly of students from the two universities, was clearly transfixed to be hearing so refreshingly frank views expressed with such verve.

19 November at Huddersfield Town Hall
Attendance was sparse at the Town Hall, which made me wonder how many of Northern Sinfonia's loyal audience were aware of the event - or, for that matter, how many of the new music scholars at the universities of Newcastle, Huddersfield or Manchester. I immediately regretted not having drummed up more support from my Tyneside constituency, although the heart sinks at the thought of always having to act as your own publicity agent. But goodness knows that Sinfonia's committed performances of Ligeti and of the two new pieces would have merited wider exposure. Once more I had occasion to admire the excellence of this ensemble and in particular some of its individual players. Richard Martin, the first trumpet, dazzled again with his superb tone control, clear tonguing and sensitive phrasing. John Casken's new work benefited from the participation of two outstanding soloists, the viola player Ruth Killius and the magnificent soprano Patricia Rozario, who delved into the convolutions of Casken's musical thinking with panache and suberb musicianship.

The audience, although small, responded with warmth and, at times, audible enthusiasm. I had come to the concert with some trepidation about my own Mystical Dances, a work that marks a fresh departure in a number of respects, largely to do with writing fewer notes and clearer harmonies than hitherto. I also allowed melody to reign supreme, which was perhaps not calculated to endear myself at the holy temple of the avant garde at Huddersfield. I stand by what I wrote, although, as always in the past, I reserve the right to make corrections after the première. In particular I intend to re-write the third movement, which at it stands fails to hang together. The ceaseless flow of melody comes across as an overflow, and the internal logic that binds the various melodies to each other and to the preceding movements is not sufficiently evident to the naked ear. I'll address these issues before the next performance, which should be sometime in 2007 at The Sage Gateshead.

As to the press's responses, I was aware of two. The Guardian's reviewer must have been with his mind elsewhere to brush off the two premières as airily as he did, mine with the double-edged compliment "rather cinematic". The Independent's critic did better, engaging seriously with Casken's work. She did not deign to mention mine, but I thought I read an oblique allusion between the lines. If this were true, I can't say I totally disagree, in the light of the comments I make above. But I wish the press were braver when faced with the new, instead of circumventing it to devote yet more space to the grand established figures who are now beyond criticism.

May 2007

10 and 11 May
Venue TBC
Valladolid, Spain

12 May
Venue TBC
Salamanca, Spain
Orquesta de Castilla y León
Alejandro Posada, conductor


Programme to include Agustín Fernández, Fuego

February 2007

Performance: Monday 19 February
The Old Tollbooth
Stirling
Mr McFall's Chamber

Tuesday 20 February
The Queen's Hall
Edinburgh
Mr McFall's Chamber


These two concerts will feature my Botanic Spider and a new work for Northumbrian pipes and ensemble which I'll be writing as a companion piece for Kathryn Tickell's Lordenshaws.

In the programme will also be Kathryn Tickell's pioneering Lordenshaws, a work for Northumbrian pipes and ensemble first commissioned by Northern Sinfonia and performed on a Contemporary Music Network tour in 2002.

The programme will include:

Agustín Fernández: Fantasia (world première)
Tim Garland: In Translation (UK première)
Agustín Fernández: Botanic Spider
Kathryn Tickell: Lordenshaws (première of the 2006 version)
Astor Piazzolla: Adiós nonino
...and other McFall hits

December 2006

Performance: 10 December 2006
Venue TBC
Malmö, Sweden
Stefan Österjö
and Terje Thiwång
Agustín Fernández: A to Z


Performance: 5 December 2006
Stefan Österjö
and Terje Thiwång
Nybrokajen 11
Rikskonserter
Stockholm
Agustín Fernández: A to Z

The work is a series of studies for two musicians, one playing charango or ten-string guitar, the other playing flute or piccolo or alto flute. It has been performed before in growing degrees of completion, as these two fantastic musicians kept accepting the new studies I've been sending their way. The one on 5 December will be the first full performance. The complete piece lasts eighteen to twenty minutes.

November 2006

Performance: Sunday 19 November
Huddersfield Town Hall

Huddersfield Festival

Northern Sinfonia
conducted by Thomas Zehetmair


Works by Ligeti, John Casken and the world première of Mystical Dances.

Performance: Wednesday 15 November
The Sage Gateshead, Hall Two
Northern Sinfonia
conducted by Baldur Brönnimann


Works by Gerald Barry, Martyn Harry, Matthew Rowan, Kelcey Swain, and the UK première of the 2005 version of my Peregrine, a work composed for Joel Sachs and the New Juilliard Ensemble, who gave the first performance on 22 November 2005 at the Alice Tully Hall, Lincoln Center, New York.

News October 2006

After a strenuous period of work, my latest piece Mystical Dances is ready. It was commissioned by North Music Trust for Northern Sinfonia, and it will be performed at the Huddersfield Festival next month by this excellent orchestra under their principal conductor Thomas Zehetmair.

In a related development, contracts have been signed with Tritó S.L., the Barcelona-based music publishers, for the publication of four of my works: Mystical Dances, Peregrine, Danza de la loma and Fuego. I am pleased that the deal has been finalised and I look forward to years of fruitful collaboration with Tritó.

July 2006

To the best of my knowledge there were two performances of my music in July, and both were on the same day: 9 July.

In the afternoon, the Edinburgh-based ensemble Mr McFall's Chamber played Botanic Spider at All Saints Quayside, as part of the ¡Vamos! Festival. In the same programme the McFalls played a piece by one of my students, Sergio Camacho's Four Dances for the One Moon.

¡Vamos! being a festival of Hispanic and Lusophone culture, the rest of the McFalls' programme was a judicious selection of classical works such as the Cuban Fabio Landa's Pequeña suite cubana, Ignacio Cervantes's Adiós a Cuba and several pieces by Astor Piazzolla.

An outstanding aspect of the concert was the singing of Taylor Wilson, an extraordinary performer who offered arresting renditions of songs by Weill and Brel.

Almost at the same time, across de water a group of talented young musicians was performing my Trío at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The players were Miranda Cuckson, violin, Christopher Gross, cello, and Philip Fisher, piano. I couldn't be in both places at the same time, so I had to leave the New York event in the capable hands of its animateur, Joel Sachs. According to his report, and to a very positive review on the New York Times (11 July), the performance went very well and the reception was goood. This was the Trío's first performance outside Bolivia, where it had been played several times before by Trío Apolo, who commissioned it with funds from Fundación Arnoldo Schwimmer.

My thanks to these wonderful musicians and to their promoters, ¡Vamos! Festival and Joel Sachs, for bringing my music alive.

Welcome

Who I Am, What I Do

If you have got this far you probably know already, but for manners’ sake I should introduce myself: I am a composer, born and raised in Bolivia, a resident of the United Kingdom since 1984.

What kind of music do I write?

Uncomfortable question. The only valid answer should be to play you an example of my music, but the question presupposes that the example is not at hand.

So here it is: I write concert and stage music seeking to engage in a dialogue with the classical tradition, while continuing to absorb the experiences of the recent past to formulate viable directions for the future informed by the popular musics I have come into contact.

There. You can’t say that I avoided the question.


I am beginning to learn about blogging, and this post is my first attempt. All going well, there will be more.


Welcome to the blog of
Agustín Fernández,
composer.

While my website is being renovated, this blog will be the most up-to-date source of information on my work.

 
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