Semi-tonal: Petr Bakla, Bekah Simms

Sunday 21 May 2023

The curiously named Late Night Show collects three piano-oriented pieces by Czech composer Petr Bakla. I’ve heard one piece by him before, the orchestral There is an island above the city which I described as “pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place”. The principle applies here too, with each piece taking an idée fixe and drawing elaborating details from it through increasingly close examination rather than through extension; deduction instead of induction, as it were. The pianist Miroslav Beinhauer is the soloist in all three works and his supple playing gives each piece an insidious warmth that draws the listener in to music that could sound obsessive and alienating in harder hands. Bakla’s writing and arrangements help immensely to create this sound, of course; the pair’s skills are demonstrated most overtly in the closing piece, No. 4 for solo piano, which in the second half unexpectedly opens out into florid runs of notes layered with expressive chords, producing a rewarding complexity that feels like a discovery for composer, pianist and listener alike.

This relaxation of musical strictures may be down to the piece being Bakla’s oldest composition on the album, from 2013. The most recent is his very unconventional Piano Concerto No. 2, written in 2021. Miroslav Beinhauer is accompanied by eight members of Brno Contemporary Orchestra, with Pavel Šnajdr conducting. Beinhauer reiterates an ambiguous, rising scale (shades of Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet) set against hocketing low winds, brass and strings that come and go, transforming the stillness into a pulsating, shimmering surface of dark facets which occasionally catch a flash of light. Major Thirds from 2016 is in fact for piano and string quartet and may be the most striking work here, with Beinhauer and the Brno soloists dwelling on an arpeggio that rises and falls without any significant release until any consideration of pitch is irrelevant other than as a vehicle for other musical attributes to establish themselves as the subject. At times the strings slide in pitch, combining with the piano to create complex tones and multiples, at others they provide staggered layers of accompaniment, divided into pairs with one duo playing so softly as to sound like an electronic reverberation of the other.

The blurb to Bakla’s album describes him as working with sounds more than notes, and this could also apply to the Newfoundland composer Bekah Simms, whose style is a type of splintered, or blasted, expressionism using technique to dramatic effect (cf. Lim Barrett Saunders Romitelli). Bestiaries is a brief survey of three ensemble pieces from 2019-20. The performers here – Cryptid Ensemble and Ensemble contemporain de Montréal – keep the energy levels high throughout while still holding the structure tight so the driving force of Simms’ writing never stagnates into pure indulgences of timbre. Foreverdark has amplified cellist Amahl Arulanandam suitably grinding and groaning against an electronically-enhanced ensemble, while Bestiary I & II puts soprano Charlotte Mundy behind the mic with a similar setup. While keeping to the same atmosphere, the vocal work takes a slightly gentler approach and avoids the temptation of strained histrionics, a surprising achievement in itsef. A work for smaller chamber ensemble, from Void maintains the haunted gothicky sound and disturbing noises without the aid of electronics.

Ostrava Days Live 2019–2021

Friday 20 May 2022

Real life, honest-to-god concerts are happening again, so here’s a quick primer on what you’ve been missing. The Ostrava Center for New Music has put out a two-disc compilation of highlights from the last two biennial Ostrava Days festivals. The selection of pieces sets out the Ostrava Days’ credentials on disc one by starting with Ostrava founder Petr Kotík and the ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra killing Xenakis’ Aïs. This piece is now over forty years old and it still confronts the listener with its wild falsetto baritone and thumping percussion. Baritone Holger Falk whoops and wails with just enough control that you forget he’s the same man when he sings in his natural register. This 2019 performance is the work’s premiere in the Czech Republic.

A mix of the old cutting edge and the new is carried through the first part of the album. Xenakis is followed by Kotík leading the Ostravská banda in the world premiere of Christian Wolff’s Small Orchestra Piece. In its own way, it is an equally strange and singular work to the Xenakis, although Wolff playfully acts out of character throughout this piece. His signature late, discontinuous style is elaborated into coherent passages which seem to invite comparison and comment as they abrupty stop and change course. Listeners’ ears will keep pricking up at what appear to be passing references to other music styles or even pieces, such as when the violins come in about two-thirds way through, echoing a Copland pastoral before mimicking Webern’s Symphony.

The next two works form an elegy to the late Frederic Rzewski; as pianist and composer. Kotík’s own Spontano is the oldest piece here (1964), revived here by Rzewski as soloist with Ostravská banda. It’s still a bold piece in a brutalist way as it tries to put sounds together in new ways, or rather keep them apart as much as possible. Rzewski is fittingly brusque in playing terse, unresolved statements against silence, or disrupting occasional blocks of sustained chords built up from overlapping layers of pitch. The final (marked ‘furious’) of Rzewski’s 2019 Six Movements for piano appears by way of an encore.

The remaining pieces consist of new work by later generations of composers. While a musical avant-garde emerged immediately after World War II from a compulsion to create something entirely new and reject pre-existing models, subsequent generations have felt this imperative less and less, preferring, perhaps wisely, to take stock of where all these upheavals have led us today. From this too-close perspective, approach is one of assimilation and transformation, of building something new out of what they understand they already have. That understanding has continued to change and artists have learned to adapt to constantly shifting ground. Earlier attempts at assimilation and transformation resulted in collage and pastiche, as a form of deconstruction, but in recent decades this consolidation has become more sophisticated – a blessing and a curse. As ever, the identifying signs of a truly radical work lie in the differences between that which please and that which astonishes.

Martin Smolka’s Quand le tympan de l’oreille porte le poids du monde, played here by the PKF – Prague Philharmonia conducted by Roland Kluttig, seems to explores a given sonority, turning it back and forth, but then moves beyond this reductive method by expanding the material into extramusical concerns of dramatic build-ups, suspenseful ebbings away, before rising to a calamitous yet inevitable climax. The drama, however, comes from the musical means exploited by the orchestra. Petr Bakla’s There is an island above the city (Prague Radio Symphony Orchestra /Peter Rundel) is another preimiere, which at first seems as still and reverent as the beginning of Smolka’s piece, but takes a different turn by pursuing the more sinister implications of settling down in one place. A benign chorale steadily grows more fraught, developing a more turbulent aspect to its character, with an ominous humming rising up behind the strings.

Violinist Hana Kotková and the Ostravská banda (conducted this time by Jiří Rožeň) perform Ana Sokolović’s concerto Evta (2017). Each of the seven movements is named for a colour in the rainbow, proceding through the spectrum and played without breaks. The movements, or perhaps sections is a more appropriate term, are distinguished less by contrasts in mood as by means of construction. If there is any syneesthetic programme here then it is particularly obdurate on the senses: Kotková and the ensemble, both together and apart, pick up the nervous energy in the writing and produce fidgety patterns made out of reiterations of ascending and weaving patterns that slide and stutter over each other. The piece becomes a study in tension, where knots are slackened from time to time but never undone, only to be pulled tight again in the next phase. The soloist eschews the traditional roles of protagonist or adversary, acting much as a figurehead for the combative, querulous mob. Just checked the notes and there’s talk of chakras and folklore.

Led again by Kotík, Ostravská banda’s premiere of Devin Maxwell’s Bonneville Park II sees a return of brutalist construction. A sequel to his earlier electronic work of the same name, fixed media is also present here in a subtle way to flesh out the acoustic sounds. Here, the emphasis is on clashes of sonority over any movement in pitch, dwelling on contrasting colours and textures in succession to make a piece that is more stimulating than likeable. After a short but satisfying choral work by Georgina Bowden (The Fainting Sun, premiered here by Canticum Ostrava) the set concludes with a rousing finale: Miroslav Srnka’s Eighteen Agents for nineteen strings. Members of Ostravská banda & ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra (Bruno Ferrandis conducting) serve up a suitably hot and sour string ensemble, agressively hazy with its fast chromatic runs played in individual meters so that they sound, if not microtonal, then blurry and melted, even as the phrasing is aggressively jagged. It all winds up with a flourish, playing up to being the tricky but spectaular new-music-crowd-pleaser which then makes you wonder if it’s a little superficial. The piece is ten years old now and perhaps seemed more pointed at the time – like I said, the ground keeps shifting beneath our feet.