I was not familiar with Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos Plango until I heard it online a couple of days ago. From the opening moments its debt to Stockhausen’s seminal Gesang der Junglinge was clear: however Harvey’s conception is strong enough to give his work (created 25 years after the Stockhausen) an identity of it’s own. Whereas the German piece uses “pure” electronic sounds and the voice of the youthful Simon Stockhausen, Harvey used the voice of his son Dominic and sounds derived from the 8 lower partials of the great tenor bell of Winchester Cathedral- a sound I must have heard often in my own youth…there is something familiar despite the processed nature of the sound- played through 8 speakers. The venue, the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum was not ideal, despite being a very fine museum staffed by helpful volunteers. It is cramped to the extent that some speakers are only a couple of feet apart- surely far too close: it was not really possible to hear 8 distinct sources of sound- and too low – the audience is expected to sit hunched over a table. Stockhausen would have been livid. Also desirable would have been dimmed light, darkened windows and a curtain over the entrance to the room to diminish the numerous distractions, though even that would not have stopped the significant sound leakage from downstairs. Added to this the (most charming) ticking of grandfather clocks and the synpathetic vibrations ¬†of wooden furniture at crucial moments in the music, not to mention the puzzled and awkward attitudes of tourists in the museum, it was not easy to concentrate on the music: a world away from the excellent performance of “Hymnen” in Edinburgh University 18 months ago. I am puzzled by this eccentric choice of venue in a town with numerous church buildings; indeed the capacious Holy Trinity Church even shares the dedication of Winchester Cathedral (itself the largest, or at least longest cathedral in Europe). The piece was also repeated every few minutes: I a formal programme opening with Gesang, followed by Mortuos and finishing with Stockhausen’s Oktophonie- all in a large venue- might have been the most fitting presentation, if perhaps rather too imaginative for Scotland.

That said, I have got to know this piece better; the two other IRCAM pieces by Harvey known to me were Le Tombeau de Messiaen and Wagner Dream. Mortuos Plango is certainly of comparable interest.

Afterwards, the upright piano at the bus station afforded me the opportunity to play Stockhausen’s LEO melody from “Tierkreis” before I hopped on the bus back to Dundee.

After the demise of Mars in Aquarius earlier in the year, I felt the need to find a new direction for ensemble playing and group improvisation, so when I saw the CoMA Summer School advertised I was immediately interested; the additional involvement of Michael Finnissy in his 70th anniversary year and the reconvening of Ixion whose performances I used to attend in the Purcell Room in the late 80s/early 90s made it look like the right path to follow. It was a busy week: in addition to the ensemble classes where I mostly played melodica, I took a couple of piano classes with Mary Dullea; a lot to take on and at times I had a degree of mental indigestion, perhaps exacerbated by the warm southern climate of Yorkshire- at least an afternoon off might have helped-but the experience has given me much to think about and certainly the change in perspective needed after the MiA episode. I’d be open to the idea of attending another CoMA event.

The evenings consisted of concerts by the tutors (I even made a brief appearance in a piano duet in the Ixion event!) and the final day comprised performances by the various classes of their week’s work, culminating in a Cagean “Music World” where various folk inspired musics celebrated Finnissy’s anniversary.

I’ve not maintained this blog this year, something I hope to correct soon: there are gaps to fill in. However, I’m starting with recent events: last Friday I played a short lunchtime recital at Dundee University on the Bosendorfer Piano which has moved to the new lunchtime venue, the Ustinov Room in the Bonar Hall which has a very different acoustic to the accustomed chaplaincy centre. My programme consisted of pieces by Kurtag, Judith Weir, Michael Finnissy, Cardew, Dutilleux, Satie and Peter Maxwell Davies. Cardew’s “Red Flag Prelude” from his Piano Album 1973 seemed to go down particularly well.

RSNO/Macelaru     Caird Hall, Dundee 13/10/2016

This is only the second RSNO concert I’ve attended in some years: I grew tired of the apparent tendency of the Dundee events to look like a cynical warm up for the “more important” Central Belt events.

Paul Lewis’ Beethoven was however a genuine and substantial performance. He may not be as original as the likes of John Ogdon, but Lewis is a worthy pupil of Brendel and delivered the goods in a situation where leadership was needed. The situation being the aftermath of the Scottish Premiere of Jorg Widmann’s “Con Brio”, a title which conjures images of smalltown choirs comprised of ladies who lunch- not that the amateur scene is necessarily lacking in seriousness, a quality not much in evidence in Herr Widmann’s piece. No doubt the orchestra struggled to make sense of this work -which started off sounding like a Proms Commission (no offense intended)  and ended up like eviscerated Ives- and the conductor’s cringeing spoken introduction didn’t help, but programming this piece was gormless even by Scottish standards. In this year of numerous musical anniversaries and deaths, something by 90 year old Kurtag or the late Sir Peter Maxwell Davies would have been more fitting than this 2008 period piece which failed to answer the question: what is the point of German composers after Stockhausen?

It was in the second half that the orchestra showed that it could still make something reminiscent of the sounds of the better days of the 80s/90s. Dvorak’s 7th Symphony shares the D minor tonality of Shostakovich’s 12th which I twice heard here conducted by Lazarev. Both works deal with a nation in political adversity: relevant stuff. Indeed, leaving the hall, this music from the healthy, natural 19th century continued to resonate with Dundee’s considerable inheritance of Victorian architecture.


On Saturday February 20th, Mars in Aquarius played what turned out to be our final concert in Dundee’s Wighton Heritage Centre. This was slightly more than a year after our first rehearsal, and was perhaps a fitting conclusion to the project. Although only one Tierkreis melody was played, the ensemble pieces were mostly Intuitive Music we had played before,with the exception of “Japan” and an excerpt from Cardew’s “Treatise”.

Some good music making occurred during the year; unfortunately, hopes that we could move onto another project proved vain. If the Mars in Aquarius project is revived, it will likely be in a very different form.

Photo by Wighton Musician, Simon Chadwick

Following on from our November performance at Montrose Museum, Mars in Aquarius were kindly invited back to the Royal Burgh to play at a special opening of the William Lamb Sculpture Studio, one of the most remarkable cultural sites in Angus. The studio normally opens during July and August, but the Friends of William Lamb Studio committee, of which I am a member, have decided a year round programme of events is a desirable development, so we were honoured to initiate the studio’s role as a performance venue. The experiment was successful: the venue has excellent acoustics and affords more space than I had feared for an ensemble of musicians to set up and play. The event was experimental for Mars in Aquarius too, as we tried new repertoire from our post Stockhausen phase, interspersed with solo items and poetry from the four members: again the result was successful.

It is anticipated that a programme of musical and poetry events will now follow at the Lamb Studio, aswell as art classes of various sorts.

Photos by MiA member Mandy MacDonald.

The sun was in Scorpio when Mars in Aquarius played two concerts on Thursday 12th November 2015 in the Angus coastal burghs of Arbroath and Montrose at the Library of the first and Museum of the second; indeed, the “Adoration of the Magi” by Breughel II in Arbroath Library was an early inspiration in the Tierkreis40 project and it heard its second tierkreis of the year played on the reduced forces of solo melodica and small gongs(the first public outing for this combination) – the Montrose Tierkreis being played on Casio keyboards.
It was Stockhausen’s Intuitive Music however that saw Mars in Aquarius at its best so far, and happily most of this was recorded.
The temptestuous weather possibly disuaded some from attending, however the small audiences were genuinely enthusiastic and we were offered a further engagement in Montrose, of which more anon.