words for music / words for world


Articles, programme notes

& reviews by John Fallas








latest news/updates


Recent CD booklet essays (late 2017/early 2018): Philip Venables’s NMC portrait album Below the Belt – a selection of works combining music with spoken text, including poetry by Simon Howard and Steven J. Fowler – and, on the Prima Facie label, Return of the Nightingales, a survey of recent piano works by Sadie Harrison. I’ll upload excerpts from both essays soon; at the moment I’m a bit busy with a longer-term writing project.





Like last year, autumn 2017 seems to be conference season. I’m speaking at and/or organising three events:


Expanded Musicologies: Fields and Frames is a panel which I’ve convened at the Royal Musical Association’s annual conference (University of Liverpool, Thursday 7 September). My own paper will discuss Christopher Fox’s string quartet The Wedding at Cana in the context of changing generic expectations for the medium of the string quartet – I’ll also touch on the theme music for Fawlty Towers and University Challenge. My co-panellists, Tenley Martin and Tim Rutherford-Johnson, will talk, respectively, about changes within the discipline of ethnomusicology and about the implications of a widened field of music(ologic)al awareness for how one frames a history of recent music composition.


The following week, Tim Rutherford-Johnson and I reverse roles and I appear in a panel discussion convened by him. New Music Histories: The Musical Present in Scholarly and Critical Discourse (University of Surrey, Wednesday 13 September) features me, Tim, Jennie Gottschalk and Seth Brodsky talking about our respective approaches to both short- and longer-form writing about new music. I’ll be talking mainly about the way I’ve approached the writing of CD booklet essays over the past eleven years, but also about the large-scale project ‘Afterlives of Genre’ on which I’m now engaged.


Finally, Christopher Dingle and I have convened a one-day conference, Heaven is Shy of Earth: Julian Anderson at 50, kindly hosted by the Guildhall School of Music & Drama on Friday 20 October as a prelude to the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Total Immersion feature on Anderson’s music (which takes place at the Barbican Centre the following day).





Spring 2017: I discuss Howard Skempton’s surprising recent embrace of extended formal structures in my booklet essay to a new NMC release. Time was when a Skempton album might contain thirty or so two-minute works, rather than the two thirty-minute works – The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Only the Sound Remains – presented beautifully here by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and soloists Roderick Williams (baritone) and Christopher Yates (viola).


[Update: the album is an Editor’s Choice in the June 2017 issue of Gramophone magazine. ‘Superbly recorded and informatively annotated,’ says Richard Whitehouse.]





Three speaking engagements in autumn 2016:


… to set one line against another: Afterlives of Counterpoint (King’s College London, Wednesday 19 October), a presentation of some of my current research which doubles up as an introduction to this concert;


Michael Finnissy: Dialogues (University of Huddersfield, Thursday 17 November), a one-day symposium in which I’ll be discussing Finnissy’s relationships – both personal and musical – with other composers, including Howard Skempton and Laurence Crane;


and Old is New: The Presence of the Past in the Music of the Present (Lisbon, 24–26 November), where I’ll be talking about string quartets by James Dillon and Salvatore Sciarrino.





My profile of Philip Venables, commissioned by The Royal Opera, appears in the programme for the premiere run of his opera 4.48 Psychosis, co-produced by The Royal Opera and the Lyric Hammersmith. It’s an adaptation of the remarkable text for theatre by Sarah Kane. Performances run from 24 to 28 May.





New in early 2016: booklet essays for a new Martin Butler portrait disc on the NMC label – a collection of works for piano and for various chamber combinations featuring woodwind instruments – and for Arne Deforce’s two-disc set of music for cello and electronics by Richard Barrett on the French label aeon.


I’m delighted that Séverine Ballon’s recital disc, also on aeon, for which I wrote the booklet essay last summer, has appeared on the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik’s first Bestenliste of 2016.





Composer profile of Donnacha Dennehy, commissioned for the programme book of the opening night of Edinburgh International Festival 2015 to mark the premiere of Dennehy and librettist/director Enda Walsh’s opera The Last Hotel.


Reprinted in programmes for the production’s transfer to Dublin (Dublin Festival Theatre, September 2015) and London (Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House, October 2015).





I’ve written a booklet essay to accompany Séverine Ballon’s debut recital disc Solitude, featuring cello works by Rebecca Saunders, James Dillon, Liza Lim, Mauro Lanza and Thierry Blondeau, which is due for release on aeon in mid-2015.





New in summer/autumn 2014: booklet essays for Helen Grime, works for orchestra and medium/large ensemble (Hallé/Mark Elder & Hallé Soloists/Jamie Phillips; NMC), Gabriel Jackson, works for choir and pianola (BBC Singers & Rex Lawson; Signum Records) and James MacMillan, music for string quartet (Edinburgh Quartet; Delphian). Excerpts here [Jackson] and here [MacMillan].


Programme note for Harrison Birtwistle, Night’s Black Bird (BBC Philharmonic/Juanjo Mena), BBC Proms, 30 July 2014.





Booklet essay on Brian Ferneyhough’s complete string quartets and trios (Arditti Quartet 40th-anniversary release; aeon, 3 CDs, released April 2014).


Short essay on Bruno Maderna’s Serenata No 2 and Elliott Carter’s ASKO Concerto for the programme book of the 2014 Aldeburgh Festival.





26 March 2014, Wigmore Hall: programme note for Harrison Birtwistle’s The Moth Requiem (BBC Singers & Nash Ensemble/Nicholas Kok).


The Moth Requiem also concludes a collection of Birtwistle’s choral music released in February 2014 (BBC Singers; Signum Records), for which I provided the booklet essay.





Booklet notes for James Erber’s ‘Traces’ Cycle and other works for solo flute and piccolo (Matteo Cesari; Convivium Records), released in November 2013:


unusually extensive and perceptive liner notes

– Arnold Whittall, Tempo, July 2014


[The ‘Traces’ Cycle] comes freighted with metaphors of memory, disintegration and palimpsest-like survival that are deftly expounded in John Fallas’s booklet essay.

– Paul Driver, Sunday Times, 15 December 2013


Read an excerpt here.





Raymond Yiu’s The London Citizen Exceedingly Injured, for whose world premiere (BBC Symphony Orchestra/Long Yu, Friday 18 January 2013) I wrote the programme note and composer profile, is shortlisted in the Orchestral category for the BASCA British Composer Awards 2013 – Yiu’s fourth appearance at the Awards, after shortlistings in the Choral category in 2004 and Chamber category in 2012, and a win in the Chamber category in 2010.





Profile of Marko Nikodijevic – Ernst von Siemens Music Foundation Composers’ Prize Winners 2013.


Programme notes for the LSO Discovery Panufnik Young Composers Scheme final workshop, 11 April 2013.





‘Conditions of immediacy: Howard Skempton in interview’ out in October 2012 to mark Skempton’s 65th birthday (Tempo, Vol 66/262, pp13–28).


Friday 19 October 2012, 4.30pm, King’s College London: John Fallas in conversation with King’s PhD composers Kim Ashton, Paul Evernden and Matías Hancke de la Fuente, prior to the launch of a CD of their music performed by Lontano on the Lorelt label (London New Voices, LNT137). At 7.30pm the same evening is a portrait concert of Silvina Milstein, also by Lontano. Admission free to both events.





‘Triple portrait (with father figures)’ – on the music of Marko Nikodijevic, Robin Holloway and Andrew Toovey – forthcoming in 2013, in an issue of Contemporary Music Review devoted to the theme of ‘Quotation and allusion in 21st-century music’.


Entries on Robin Holloway, Alexander Goehr, Peter Maxwell Davies, Julian Anderson, George Benjamin and Michael Berkeley commissioned for a forthcoming Routledge Encyclopedia of Modernism.





Three booklet essays in CDs released May/June 2012: the JACK Quartet on Wigmore Hall Live, the Arditti on aeon playing string quartets by Harrison Birtwistle, and (again on aeon) the pianist Cédric Pescia in a centenary recording of John Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. Extracts are linked from the covers on this page.





Notes on music by Michael Gandolfi – Witold Lutosławski – Arnold Schoenberg for Aldeburgh Festival 2012.


Programme note for Helen Grime, Virga (Hallé/Mark Elder, 17 November 2011).





Three interlinked composer profiles – on the unlikely troika of Arvo PärtJulian Anderson and Elliott Carter – for three short chamber concerts by London Sinfonietta players at Kings Place, London, 8 September 2011.


Words for new music at the 2011 BBC Proms: new works by Graham Fitkin (31 August, programme note) and Robin Holloway (4 August, composer profile).


Programme notes for London Sinfonietta’s Written/Unwritten concerts at Kings Place, London, 2 June & 3 June.





Tuesday 18 January 2011, 7.30pm: John Fallas in conversation with Beat Furrer, introducing London Sinfonietta concert – Queen Elizabeth Hall, London. Also see written profile in concert programme (edited version here).


Saturday 12 February 2011, 7.30pm: pre-concert talk on Georg Friedrich Haas’s Third String Quartet In iij. Noct., Workshop Theatre, Leeds. The performance by the Kairos Quartet – the work’s UK premiere – follows at 8pm.





‘Sounds of wonder’, on recent works by Julian Anderson, in INTO magazine (December 2010 issue, pp28–33).


Programme note on Anderson’s Heaven is Shy of Earth and profile of composer Sean Shepherd in BBC Symphony Orchestra concert programme for Barbican, 26 November.


Profile of Helen Grime commissioned for BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra programme, 2 December.





I spent the week of 6–13 September in Amsterdam as an observer at Gaudeamus Music Week. Congratulations to Marko Nikodijevic, winner of the 2010 Gaudeamus Prize, on whose music I’ll be writing next year.


I also spent 23–26 September in and around Essen, Germany as a guest of the RUHR.2010 City of Culture programme and its Henze-Projekt. A report follows in Opera Now magazine.





Thursday 15 July 2010, 3–4.30pm: John Fallas in conversation with Martin Butler, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, Silk Street, Barbican, London. All welcome: free admission, including chamber concert at 1pm.


Also see article ‘Songs in haunted daylight’: Martin Butler at 50





Torsten Rasch composer profile in programme book for ENO/Punchdrunk collaboration The Duchess of Malfi (world premiere production: 13–24 July 2010, Great Eastern Quay, Royal Albert Basin, London E16)





programme notes for Vienna Lost and Found: the music of Kurt Schwertsik (Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, 23–24 February 2010), featuring works by Schwertsik and by H K Gruber:


Kurt Schwertsik (1935–): Singt, meine Schwäne (Sing, my swans)


The text, like that of shâl-i-mâr and of several other works by both Schwertsik and Gruber, is by the Viennese poet H.C. Artmann (1921–2000). It is a poem of lost love, rich in imagery, to which Schwertsik responds with musical imagery of an appropriately autumnal richness. But swans, as an old legend tells us, sing most eloquently in the evening of their lives, and perhaps under the surface another story is being told here too – of music sung out of twilight zones, of the eternally necessary and eternally surprising conjunction of belatedness and creativity. Now, at 75, such thoughts take on additional relevance for Schwertsik, ever young and ever making old songs into new.


[also see programme notes here and here, and Schwertsik profile in INTO magazine, February 2010 (pp20–26)]





from the Aldeburgh Festival 2010 programme book (Webern/Stravinsky/ Castiglioni/Stockhausen – Britten-Pears Composers Ensemble cond. Hugh Brunt, 18 June 2010):


After the Second World War, Webern’s music achieved a centrality which it had never known in his lifetime. Epitaphium was written in response to a request from Pierre Boulez for a short piece that might be included in a concert of works by Webern, and Stravinsky was no doubt pleased at the opportunity to align himself both with the older, departed master and with the already influential young composer-conductor. The three instruments never play together, but instead present a succession of self-contained phrases – each consisting of 12 or 24 notes, so that the piece wears its serial structure on its sleeve quite as self-consciously as does Webern’s own music. The alternation of these phrases between the high wind duo and the harp, which inhabits a contrastingly low register throughout, further suggests a set of funerary responses, and Stravinsky designated the piece as a memorial to Prince Max Egon zu Fürstenberg, recently deceased benefactor of the Donaueschingen Festival (which Stravinsky had visited in both the previous two years, 1957 and 1958). But perhaps the specific dedication is less important than the way the piece takes its place in a characteristic late Stravinskian world of ritualised lament. So many of the works of his last decade are private/public memorials – to Raoul Dufy, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Aldous Huxley, J.F. Kennedy – and the permutations of pitch encouraged by serial technique as Stravinsky conceived it give the music a gentle stateliness, like changes rung out over a churchyard of great men’s graves.


Of the many younger composers who in the 1950s also drew on Webern’s technical discoveries, Niccolò Castiglioni was perhaps the closest to Webern’s own emotional world. Intensely aware of the expressive potential of silence in Webern’s music, he also shared the older composer’s deep love of the mountains. Tropi (composed, like Epitaphium, in 1959) begins like a manically exaggerated version of the Webern concerto: short bursts of three or four notes passed between instruments and punctuated by silences; a small group of strings and winds sometimes joined and sometimes opposed by the piano; everything taking place in an ultra-high register of clean, clear mountain air – definition at altitude. The volatility of instrumental behaviour in this mountain climate gradually finds a counterweight in slower, more lyrical passages, until at the centre of the piece all five instruments suddenly land on a single pitch in middle register, sustained for over a minute and coloured by a variety of whisperings and rattlings as pitch gradually cedes importance to timbre (a percussionist also now joining the ensemble). The music emerges from this still centre into altered terrain. The hushed middle D gives way to a piercing high E flat. Pitch variety is restored in a passage of chords and gentle sighs. Eventually the fast tempo of the opening is recovered, but not its forceful dynamic levels or its sustained momentum, and a solo piccolo trails off into the clear air.


[also see note here on Webern, Concerto for Nine Instruments]




for more information, to reproduce any material from this website, or to commission new articles or programme notes, please contact jfallas @ worldisnow . co . uk (no spaces)
























Composer index




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Book review - C20th Polish music


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