The songs of extinction: Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Liza Lim and Laurence Osborn

We are really proud to be launching our ReNew concert series at Kings Place on 14th February with the UK premiere of Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus. The following text is a short programme essay by Tim Rutherford-Johnson on some of the themes of that piece, and the two others in the same concert: A memory of birds (ii) by our director Aaron Holloway-Nahum, and Ctrl by Laurence Osborn, a work that we commissioned and premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017.

Tickets for the concert may be purchased here.

It is a wonder and a horror of our age that the songs of extinction will be preserved. Go online and we can find – in digital form and always, forever – the sounds of species that no longer exist. Songs heard and conserved in alien landscapes, looped and replayed until … when? Google the Hawai’ian Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō bird and you can hear its curving, circling song. But this bird was the last of its species: it died three decades ago.

The song in Aaron Holloway-Nahum’s Like a memory of birds (ii) is stylized and does not imitate any particular species (the piece is a sequel to a 2017 work for marimba and cor anglais). But its setting recalls the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s online avatar. The song takes the form of a duo between clarinet and bass clarinet. It is shared between them, but dips in and out of alignment, like echoes in a forest. Its surroundings are malleable and uncertain: soft string harmonics and the eerie whistle of corrugated plastic pipes increasingly give way to the hard-edged timbres of piano and drums. As background becomes foreground the clarinets’ song is overwhelmed and almost entirely forgotten, until a habitat becomes no more than a space.

In Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl, the song is a football chant (one familiar to Arsenal fans in particular). Soprano Sarah Dacey appears, amplified, autotuned and in male character, to sing a threnody to failed masculinity. ‘Body is amazing’, she sings, ‘Body is equipped for work and sex and sport. Me and my body, we do what we want.’ The music cycles and swells: the sweat and surety of Beethoven and the moshpit. But the chant is a lament, the bravado a lie, the story toxic. The third movement is a dark lullaby in which strength dies in a Beckettian repetition of hangovers and despair: ‘Saturday morning … Black blinds … At the bottom of everything.’ Hopeless? No: the work ends with a plea, with tenderness, and a last-ditch desire to reach out.

Late in the day, humanity is realising the harm its relentless drive to acquire, occupy and consume is doing to a habitable planet. In its first movement, ‘Anthropogenic debris’, Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus sets the tone of ecological crisis. (The recording below is of the West German Radio broadcast of the premiere, performed by Klangforum Wien. The music starts at around 5’45”.) The debris in question is the vast collections of plastic that have ended up in the world’s oceans and have been gathered by circulatory currents (known as gyres) into giant, swirling patches of rubbish and pollutants. As they turn, plastic is drawn into them and then ground into smaller and more dangerous particles – which themselves pose an existential threat to life on Earth. As well as a large sheet of cellophane that is absorbed into its percussion section, Lim’s piece is full of representations of looping and turning, as well as degradation and loss: she transcribes the song of the Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō; recycles a violin solo of her own, based on tracings of a ninth-century Chinese star map; and inserts allusions to historical music, in the form of bars from Leoš Janáček’s late-Romantic piano piece On an Overgrown Path. All of them represent forms of extinction. The star map predates Western astronomy by five hundred years, but its achievement has been erased by history. The Kaua‘i ‘ō‘ō’s mating call will never be answered. The Janáček, warped almost beyond recognition in Lim’s piece, was described by its composer as comprising reminiscences ‘so dear to me that I do not think they will ever vanish’.

Circulation also entails slippage: as debris loops back, it recalls both the past and its present. Slippages occur on every level, whether the timbres of brass instruments playing unstable half-valve sounds (as in the opening duo between horn and trumpet), or the larger-scale slippage of identity in the fourth movement, in which a solo violin attempts to ‘teach’ or transmit her music to a percussionist playing a rudimentary string drum. The last movement is based on another real – and extraordinary – singing phenomenon: the ‘dawn chorus’ of coral reef fish that takes place in the changing light of morning. Lim recreates this mass of clicking, rasping percussive sounds through the sound of Waldteufels (small string drums) and windwands being swirled in the air – an effect that is as visual and tactile as it is sonic. Plastic returns, in the form of a one-metre tube that extends the range of a contrabassoon theoretically below the edge of human hearing. And so the final song is one that we can no longer know nor understand, pointing to a future perhaps no longer meant for us.

Fish choruses, recorded by Robert McCauley and colleagues at Curtin University in Perth, Australia
Photograph by Chris Jordan: http://chrisjordan.com/gallery/midway/

November Music: Saunders & Osborn

Date: Sun 3rd Nov, 2019
Venue: ‘s-Hertogenbosch, The Netherlands

From their new album Speak, Be Silent, Riot Ensemble perform Rebecca Saunders’ Stirrings Still III which continues her longstanding fascination with the writings of Samuel Beckett, sharing its title with Beckett’s final work of prose. Through its fragile and haunting soundworld, the piece’s brittle textures and distant keening explore minute musical activities on the edge of extinction.

Alongside this Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl which was premiered by Riot Ensemble at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017. Ctrl is a three movement song-cycle about masculinity written from the fragmented perspective of a male character and sung by a female singer.  

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Ctrl

Date: Friday 24th November, 7pm
Venue: St. Paul’s Hall (HD1 3DH)

We’re hugely excited to return to hcmf// for the 40th Anniversary Festival with a programme exploring gender and identity in 2017.  Laurence Osborn’s Ctrl – (commissioned with funding from the Arts Council and PRSF) written on the theme of the crisis of masculinity and the persistence of outdated and oppressive notions of manliness, as highlighted in the writing of Grayson Perry – is placed alongside searing and searching works by Katherine Young, Nikolet Burzynska (a joint Riot Ensemble and HCMF commission via our 2017 Call for Scores) and Stephanie Haensler.
This concert is produced as part of the Arts Council England International Showcase; supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia; also supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute as part of the Polska Music Programme

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A few moments with Laurence Osborn

We come to new music in a lot of ways here.  You’ve already been introduced to Yukiko and Lee, the two winners of our 2016 Call for Scores competition.  This Saturday’s concert will also feature more than a dozen World Premieres from New Music Brighton composers – whom we collaborate with in Brighton annually.  Laurence Osborn is a composer we got to know, in large part, because we saw him at a lot of concerts – ours and lots of other people’s, too.  As soon as we heard his music we knew he was somebody we’d like to work with and so we’re thrilled to have commissioned a new piece from him and poet Joseph MindenMicrographia.  

In this interview Laurence discusses his life and music with our artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum. Both Laurence and Aaron will be at the concert this Saturday at 5pm – and the afterparty – so do come say hello if you make it down!

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1. What’s happening in your life?

This evening I got back from Sainsbury’s just in time to see a mouse emerge from a box of cornflakes on the kitchen counter, so at the moment, mouse problems.

2. What’s happening in your music?

I’m writing a 90-minute opera for Mahogany Opera Group. The opera is called The Mother and it’s based on the work of a Polish playwright, painter, and prolific substance abuser called Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Witkiewicz’s work has had a huge influence on my music – particularly his theory of dramatic form, which he calls pure form. I’m interested in creating music-dramatic forms from apparently disparate or unconnected elements that hang together in the same space, so that the story of a piece or a scene is revealed in its overall composition rather than observed through linear narrative. The third act of the opera is made in this way: it comprises twenty-four very short sections intermingled with a standalone choral piece that has been cut up arbitrarily and superimposed on top of it all.

I’ve been listening to and watching a lot of things that work with this principle – Kurtag’s chamber music, and some of Peter Greenaway’s films from the ’80s. And I’m reading Infinite Jest, which does similar things. I’m also obsessed with the new Danny Brown album, Atrocity Exhibition – Danny Brown is amazing at juxtaposing different voices and sound-worlds in order to create an overarching narrative, I think. He’s a total genius.

3. Your piece is inspired by magnified images of tiny particles in substances including blue mould and urine. Are you at heart a true romantic?

Yes, I’m very soppy. But to be honest, it’s possible to get sentimental about virtually anything when it’s viewed through a microscope. The piece is based on Robert Hooke’s Micrographia, which was written in 1665, and details the author’s observations of various things through the microscope. The book contains lots of beautiful observational drawings. 

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Drawing of frozen wee!

Joe’s text really gets to the heart of Hooke’s love for the tiny worlds contained within everyday things, I think. The poetry is so colourful and evocative in itself that the composition of this piece came very naturally to me. Micrographia is much gentler and hazier than the stuff I usually write.

4. So what’s the first note?

It’s a chord! A cheeky little four-note chord on piano and vibes!

5. And what’s the last note?

An F natural. Not very interesting. But the last word of Joe’s poem is ‘hunger’.

6. What happens in between?

The piece is in six small movements, and each movement focusses on a different phenomenon viewed through the microscope – the point of a needle, salt crystals, urine, and so on. For me, the composition of each movement was a little game of magnification and/or reflection. So material is often magnified during a movement either through rhythmic augmentation, or the proportional widening of the intervals in particular chords, or sometimes both.

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Micrographia by Joseph Minden

But (depending on the movement) you also find material reflected in various ways, in retrograde, inversion, and so on. There is no discernible system for this in movements 2–5. Movement 6, however, is a direct inversion of the magnification process used for movement 1. These two would probably make more sense sat next to one another, rather than at opposite sides of the piece. But also, each movement has its own specific sound-world that relates to the physical qualities of the phenomenon represented – I think the audience will be able to hear this when it’s performed.

We can’t wait to perform it!  Thank you very much Laurence!

Micrographia

Date: Saturday 29th October, 5.00pm
Venue: St. Nicholas Church, Brighton (BN1 3LJ)

The World Premiere of Laurence Osborn’s Micrographia – a song cycle for two sopranos and chamber ensemble setting seven new poems (written specifically for this piece) by poet Joseph Minden.  World Premieres from our 2016 Call for Scores winners Yukiko Watanabe and Lee Westwood, and an array of new miniatures from composers from the New Music Brighton Composers’ Collective.

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