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Discover This! 5 Pieces by Florent Ghys

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Florent Ghys

Bordeaux, France

“Double Bassist and Composer Florent Ghys’s music has been described as ”highly contrapuntal, intelligent…and inventive…” (WQXR); a ”thrilling breed of post-minimal chamber music” (Time Out NY).

His “pieces blend elements of minimalism, pop music and a dose of extravagant wit” (John Schaefer, WNYC).

Ghys has been commissioned by some of today’s most influential and exciting new music ensembles and soloists including the Bang on a Can All-­Stars, Jack Quartet, Kathleen Supove, So Percussion, Nicholas Photinos, Dither Electric Guitar Quartet, and Vicky Chow, and his music has been performed at Lincoln Center, BAM, the Barbican Center, M.I.T., Sydney Opera House, San Martin Theater in Buenos Aires, and the Muziekgebouw in Amsterdam. Films he has scored have won honors from Sacem and the Cannes Festival, and appeared on television in France and Germany. He has also worked as an arranger, producer, and MAX MSP programmer with and for artists from a variety of different genres, including French singer-songwriter François Cha, broadway singer John Lloyd Young, and Steve Reich.

As a double bassist, Florent has performed with the Paris Opera Orchestra, the Wordless Music Orchestra, and the ensemble Ear Heart Music, and has released three solo albums on the Cantaloupe label. His new low string quartet, Bonjour, will release their self­titled debut album Cantaloupe Records in August 2016.

Florent holds multiple degrees in Performance, Composition, and Ethnomusicology, has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Norton Stevens Fellowship, and is currently a Ph.D candidate in Composition at Princeton University.” – florentghys.com

Discover This! 5 Pieces by George Antheil

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George Antheil

July 8, 1900, Trenton, NJ, USA
February 12, 1959, New York City, NY, USA

“George Antheil (1900-1959) was an American composer—born in Trenton, New Jersey—who began his professional career in Europe, where he was friends with, among many others, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Ernest Hemingway, Eric Satie, and Igor Stravinsky. In the early ’20s, he lived at the literal center of English-language culture in Europe: above Sylvia Beach’s legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookstore on the Rue de l’Odéon, in Paris’s Latin Quarter. (Beach was the original publisher of Joyce’s controversial and groundbreaking Ulysses.)

Antheil wrote over 300 musical works in all major genres, including symphonies, chamber works, film music, and operas. He was extremely outspoken and articulate, and wrote numerous articles, as well as an autobiography, Bad Boy of Music, which is still in print.

As a young composer, he considered himself to be quite the revolutionary, and his music, especially in his early career, employed many unusual sound sources and combinations of instruments. In many ways, both musical and technical, he was far ahead of his time. His concerts routinely caused riots all over Europe, which at the time was considered a sign of genius.

Besides composing, Antheil was an excellent writer, an inventor, and a student of many disciplines, including endocrinology, criminal justice, and military history. He was co-holder of a remarkable patent (with actress Hedy Lamarr) for a “secret communications system” which is today in wide use and known as “spread-spectrum technology” — although neither he nor Lamarr ever received a dime for it.

Antheil left Paris in the late ’20s and went to Berlin, and then as German society began to fall under the influence of the Nazis, returned permanently to America. He settled in Hollywood, where he enjoyed a reasonably successful career as a composer for film and television. He died in 1959.” – antheil.org

Discover This! 5 Pieces by Jonathan Harvey

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Jonathan Harvey

May 3, 1939 – Sutton Coldfield, United Kingdom
December 4, 2012 – Lewes, United Kingdom

“Jonathan Harvey was born to Noel and Gerald Harvey on 3 May 1939 in Sutton Coldfield. Gerald, his father, was a keen amateur musician and composer which gave both Jonathan and his brother Brian a taste for music from an early age. At the young age of six he already knew that he wanted to be a composer.

Jonathan was a chorister at St. Michaels Tenbury and from there went to Repton School where he continued his musical education. At Repton he won a scholarship to St. Johns Cambridge to study music, and then subsequently moved to Glasgow with his wife Rosaleen to complete his PHD, where they lived in a caravan through the winter of 1963. Following the advice of Benjamin Britten he was tutored by Erwin Stein and then Hans Keller.

Their daughter Anna was born in 1964 and Jonathan took up the post of lecturer at Southampton University. In 1969, two years after the birth of his son, Dominic, he won a Harkness fellowship to study at Princeton University where he composed his first electronic piece “Timepieces”, subsequently travelling around twenty four states in one year with his young family.

They spent more time abroad in 1972 when Jonathan took a sabbatical in Menorca, staying in a beautiful whitewashed farmhouse belonging to some friends, and it was here that Jonathan wrote “Inner Light”.

In 1975 his son Dominic became a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, and Jonathan composed several choral works encouraged by his friends Martin Neary the Cathedral Organist and the Reverend John Taylor the Bishop. One of these pieces was “I Love The Lord” which was written in memory of his mother, as it was a psalm that she often asked Jonathan to read to her towards the end of her life. Jonathan’s choir music is very much rooted in the Church of England tradition, which is in sharp contrast to most of his instrumental works which have mainly been played in Europe.

In the early eighties Jonathan started working at Ircam in Paris where he could fully explore his passion for electronic music. This fruitful relationship lasted for many years and resulted in some of his best works. By this time he had moved to Lewes in East Sussex, and held the post of Professor of Music at Sussex University. He took up Transcendental Meditation and became more and more interested in Buddhism and eastern religion.

Ten years later he accepted the post of Professor of Music at Stanford University and it was here that he first imagined a composition using the bird song that he heard in the Californian hills which would later become his Bird Concerto.

After Stanford, Jonathan travelled more and more promoting his music and explaining the complex philosophies behind it, which helped to achieve the success that he enjoyed in the latter part of his life.

Jonathan was a member of Academia Europaea and held Honorary Doctorates at Southampton, Sussex, Bristol, Birmingham and Huddersfield Universities, as well as being an Honorary Fellow of St. John’s College Cambridge. He was also a keen sportsman enjoying tennis, skiing and snorkelling until late in life.

Jonathan wrote three books, the first one being “The Music of Stockhausen” published in 1975, and then two more in 1999 which are entitled “Music and Inspiration” and “In Quest of Spirit”” – jonathanharveycomposer.com

Discover This! 5 Pieces by Galina Ustvolskaya

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Galina Ustvolskaya

June 17, 1919 – Saint Petersburg, Russia
December 22, 2006 – Saint Petersburg, Russia

Galina Ustvolskaya’s entire life (17.VI.1919—22.XII.2006) is tied up with one and the same city. She was born on June 17, 1919 in Petrograd (now Saint Petersburg). From 1926 to 1936 she studied composition and cello at the Leningrad Capella. Then for two years she was taking composition lessons in the College. In 1939 she entered Dmitri Shostakovich’s composition class at the Leningrad Conservatory. In August 1941, together with the most of the members of the Conservatory she was evacuated to Tashkent, then went to her mother and sister in Komi ASSR where she was getting combat rations serving as a sentry. In 1944 she returned to Leningrad and continued her studies. Ustvolskaya particularly wanted to study under Shostakovich as she thought him the only composer able to teach her anything. As the years went by, however, and she came to know the man and his music better, her opinions were dramatically revised.
Her composition teacher, who seldom praised his students, valued Ustvolskaya’s work very highly and said of her: “I am convinced that the music of G. I. Ustvolskaya will achieve worldwide renown, to be valued by all who perceive truth in music to be of paramount importance”. He sent some of his own as yet unfinished works to Ustvolskaya, attaching great value to her comments. Some of these pieces even contain quotations from his pupil’s compositions; for example, he employed the second theme of the Finale of her Trio throughout the Fifth String Quartet and in the Michelangelo Suite (no. 9).

On graduating from the conservatory Ustvolskaya was at once admitted to the Composers’ Union and from 1947 until 1950 honed her skills as a graduate student. In September 1947, Ustvolskaya began teaching composition at the Leningrad Rimsky-Korsakov College of Music, and continued to do so till February 1977. According to the composer, she taught “only to subsist on it”, and did not see herself as the creator of any of well-regarded composers: “They were educated at the Conservatory”. In general, she expected her students to work to the same high standards she set for herself and, despite reports to the contrary, she never singled out any of her students for special praise.

Ustvolskaya’s first compositions were a considerable success and were performed by leading musicians at the most prestigious concert halls of the city (for example, Stepan Razin’s Dream, a composition for bass and a symphony orchestra was deemed fit to open four successive seasons at the Leningrad Philarmonic’s Grand Hall). But already by the 1950s her name had begun to disappear from the concert bills, to be replaced by those of the socially connected and the officially sanctioned; premieres of her music became increasingly rare, and many of her works were published decades after their composition. Ustvolskaya started to become more and more isolated, since she did not want to participate in social and political life, and her music was too far from the Soviet ideals. And although there were occasional performances of her works (about once a year), the state-owned record label “Melodiya” was releasing some of her records, and Leningrad’s musical critics praised her talent, the author herself was dissatisfied with the level of performance available at the time.

Ustvolskaya lived in constant poverty. In 1950s she attempted to improve her financial situation and composed a number of contract works as well as music for several documentaries, works which much later she strived to exclude from her Catalog, going to considerable lengths to locate them, in order to destroy all traces of their existence. On the few manuscripts which did survive, she later wrote “for money”, thus defining her attitude towards them. From 1961 onwards, despite the catastrophic lack of money, Ustvolskaya’s life was devoted exclusively to “the true, spiritual, not religious creativity”.

Ustvolskaya’s music is unique and does not resemble any other. It is exceedingly expressive, high-spirited, austere and full of tragic pathos attained with modest expressive means. Ustvolskaya’s musical thought is distinguished by its intellectual power, while a keen spirituality occupies the core of her work. The choice of instruments for her symphonic and instrumental compositions is always ingenious (she never took formal orchestration lessons). Viktor Suslin, with whom Ustvolskaya maintained friendly relations for many years, once called her “a voice from the “Black Hole” of Leningrad, the epicentre of communist terror, the city that suffered so terribly the horrors of war”. Although she was not interested in either history, politics or society, Ustvolskaya liked the scientific metaphor of the black hole, so she started to refer to her music as “Musik aus dem schwarzen Loch”. The only thing she was interested in was her own music. And it was more than an interest — the constant and intensive process of composing occupied all of her thoughts.

Genuine recognition came to the composer only in the late 80’s when a concert in Leningrad was attended by Jürgen Köchel, the director of the largest music publishing house “Sikorski” and Elmer Schönberger, the Dutch musicologist. Mr. Schönberger was so stunned by the music that he did everything in his power to ensure that this concert was heard in Europe. Soon, a series of international Ustvolskaya’s music festivals was organised (1995, 1996, 2005, 2011 – Amsterdam, 1998 – Vienna 1999 – Bern, 2001 – Warsaw, 2004 – Båstad), and Mr. Köchel acquired the rights to publish her works. She unambiguously dismissed subsequent proposals that she should emigrate from Russia: all her life had been connected with St. Petersburg, which she left only a few times in order to attend festivals of her music. Galina Ustvolskaya led a solitary life, thinking over the new works until her last days. “My music is my life” – she said.” – ustvolskaya.org

Discover This! 5 Pieces by Pierre Boulez

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Pierre Boulez

March 26, 1925, Montbrison, France – January 5, 2016, Baden-Baden, Germany

“Born in Montbrison/Loire on 26 March 1925; Pierre Boulez was a composer, conductor, thinker, a motor of international musical life, an emblematic figure in post-war European, indeed, world culture.

He was a living classic. Ever since the 1950’s, composers around the world followed with curiosity what he was writing, to see if they could adapt his ideas in their own music or to reject them in their search for an idiom they could call their own. In 1957, György Kurtág arrived in Paris with the goal to compose something he could show to Boulez (in the end, he left without a work worthy of being presented). The music the French composer has written ever since the late 1940’s was a conscious act of rebellion against tradition as represented by Schönberg or Stravinsky but also his teacher, Messiaen, whose influence has nevertheless left its mark on Boulez’s music.

In his compositions but also in his writings, Boulez was initially an angry and rebellious young man (see his scathing obituary Schönberg est mort). With the passage of time as he became an established figure, with France inviting him back to found IRCAM and the Ensemble Intercontemporain and his career as a conductor also taking off, there has probably been less to rebel against and Boulez has mellowed and broadened his horizons to conduct a wide range of repertoire including Bruckner and Mahler.

Boulez also was a highly influential teacher. In Lucerne he passed on his immense knowledge to fledgling conductors at the Festival Academy.” – Universal Edition

Discover This! 5 Pieces by Giacinto Scelsi

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Giacinto Scelsi

January 8, 1905 – La Spezia, Italy
August 9, 1988 – Rome, Italy

“Count Giacinto Scelsi D’Ayala Valva, aristocrat, poet and composer, was one of the twentieth century’s more unusual musicians.

Born in 1905, he grew up in the Scelsi family’s ancestral castle at Valva, near Naples, where his studies concentrated — according to the composer’s own testimony — on the noble pursuits of fencing, Latin and chess.

His youthful enthusiasms also included the piano, an instrument for which he formed a lifelong affection and at which he developed the habit of improvising for hours at a time — a strange anticipation of his later composing method.

Although Scelsi never received any formal musical training, as a young man he frequented the house of Respighi in Rome, became an enthusiast for the Futurist music of Luigi Russolo, and later studied briefly in Vienna with a pupil of Schoenberg, writing the first 12-note music to be composed by an Italian. He subsequently lived in London, where he married a cousin of the queen, and Paris, where he published three volumes of Surrealist poetry in French and established a minor reputation as a maverick composer whose influences ranged from Futurism to Berg and Scriabin.

During these years he also travelled in Asia, in particular to India and Tibet, journeys which would later prove of great significance in his artistic development.

The full facts of Scelsi’s life are imperfectly known. Following World War II it appears he suffered an extended nervous breakdown during which, as he would later proudly announce, “I forgot everything I ever knew about music”.

During his recovery, Scelsi fell into the habit of calming his mind by playing single notes over and over on the piano, a form of musical auto-therapy which was, improbably, to form the basis of his mature compositional style.

He also became an adept of Buddhism, meditating three times daily, adding a Zen symbol to his signature and refusing to allow his photograph to be taken.

In 1959, out of his one-note improvisations, came the seminal Quattro pezzi chiascuno su una nota sola (“Four pieces each one on a single note”), the first unequivocal demonstration of Scelsi’s concern with what he called the “three-dimensional” quality of sound.

Each piece takes as its starting (and ending) point a single note — a radical paring-down of musical subject matter which focuses attention inward, making the listener concentrate on what musical sound is, rather than what it does.

The obvious comparison is with the Eastern musics Scelsi admired – whether the Indian raga or the Tibetan tantra, with their hypnotic concentration on a single elemental sonority — yet Scelsi’s strange genius lifts this and all his later work far above the level of mere musical tourism, creating a unique soundworld which is unplaceable in any tradition except its own.

Though none of Scelsi’s subsequent works shows quite the pyrrhic simplicity of the Quattro pezzi, all are based on what is essentially material of extreme spareness. It’s music which is totally lacking in theme, melody, rhythm and (often) harmony, but which instead confronts the listener with the phenomenom of pure sound in seemingly natural and spontaneous evolution — the paradox is that (in his finest works at least) Scelsi manages to conjure such luminous musical effects from even the simplest of note-combinations.

Always an extremely prolific composer, Scelsi’s later music features many pieces for strings especially, including a number of string quartets and the wonderful “violin concerto” Anahit, and also for wind instruments, such as the haunting Kya for clarinet and ensemble — though he gave up writing for his once favoured instrument, the piano, finding its fixed tuning and uniform sound colour too inflexible for his musical needs.

Scelsi also became famous not only for his unique musical style, but also for his unusual working methods, whereby pieces were first improvised — either by the composer himself at the keyboard or in collaboration with sympathetic performers — and then written down by amanuenses (in a strange twist, one of Scelsi’s assistants, the Italian composer Vieru Tosatti, later claimed that he rather than Scelsi was the true author of the works).

Scelsi stopped composing around 1975, but enjoyed belated fame as musicians from all over the world discovered his work.

Article and review pages originally published in The Rough Guide to Classical Music ” – from Composition Today

Discover This! 5 Pieces by Sofia Gubaidulina

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Sofia Gubaidulina

October 24, 1931 – Chistopol, Russia

“Sofia Gubaidulina completed her education of the Conservatory of Kazan in 1954 and continued her compositional studies in Moscow with Nikolai Pejko. Gubaidulina has been a freelance composer since 1963. After her compositional activity was subject to constant repression in the Soviet Union, she moved to Germany in 1992 and since then has lived near Hamburg. Gidon Kremer’s commitment to her violin concerto “Offertorium” in the 1980s helped her to become rapidly known in the West. She is a member of the Free Academy of the Arts and the order “Pour le mérite,” amongst other organisations.

Due to her education, Sofia Gubaidulina is classified with the Russian cultural circle. However, Asian influences stemming from her Tatar origins are definitely audible in her work. Composing is a religious action for the devoutly Christian composer.

Since the 1980s, numerical relationships have played an important role for Gubaidulina; with their help, she structures pitches, rhythms and formal processes. She feels closely related to Johann Sebastian Bach in her efforts towards combining intellectuality and emotionality. She designates the dilogy „St. John Passion“ and „St. John Easter“ as her opus summum, in which she counterpoints the texts of the Evangelists with text passages of the Apocalypse in a bold theological approach.” – www.sikorski.de