New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin

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It’s been good to get back to the plethora of new releases that have have found their way to my door in recent weeks and months. While i don’t like to make spurious connections between disparate pieces of music, i’ve been fascinated at the way various composers explore the interplay between what we might call the ‘virtual’ and the ‘actual’. In Morton Feldman‘s 1976 ‘Beckett trilogy’—comprising Orchestra for orchestra, Elemental Procedures for soprano, mixed choir and orchestra and Routine Investigations for six players, released together on a CD from Wergo titled Beckett Material—this interplay manifests itself, as it so often does in his work, in the implications of a tension between the aurally deliberate and coincidental. In Orchestra, for example, we hear a collection of seemingly disjointed bursts of material, brief slivers of ideas, as though Feldman had extracted a load of ‘salient points’ from a host of sources and strung them together. The result is music that constantly seems significant yet what it signifies is moot, continually reconfigured by context. In tandem with this is one’s perception of what constitutes a ‘connection’ between ideas, prompting a continual reappraisal of whether imitation and continuity are actually taking place or are imagined by-products of Feldman’s placement of materials. This extends even to something as simple as a melody; a recurring idea in all three pieces involves the irregular cycling of a small group of pitches that at first appear melodic but soon seem either arbitrary or subject to a more unpredictable type of permutation. Read more

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HCMF 2016: afterthoughts and reflections

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I intended this to be part of yesterday’s final report, but as I’m still grappling with a virus at present I decided to tackle it separately. Looking back on HCMF 2016, it’s been another thoroughly enjoyable festival, not that I suspected it would be otherwise. The choice of Georg Friedrich Haas was a good one, in my view, perhaps even an unexpectedly beneficial one considering the world’s ongoing pained reaction to recent political outcomes. Haas proved himself not only a charismatic composer with an ear for fascinating sonorities and a keen sense of how to deploy theatricality, but also a deeply sensitive individual whose poignant ‘Meet the Composer’ conversation on Saturday morning will remain for many people, I’m sure, an important, cherished memory. It’s simplistic and trivial to dismiss his work, as one or two commentators have, as mere hype and hullabaloo; the reasons why he does what he does come from a place of utter humanity. It’s all the more frustrating then, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, that despite being ‘Composer in Residence’, Haas’ music was only showcased during the opening weekend, after which he quickly felt entirely peripheral; surprisingly different from how the featured composers have been represented at HCMF in recent years.

Beyond this, a year ago I noted in passing that the representation of women composers at the festival was poor, responsible for only 16% of pieces performed throughout the festival. This year the figure has improved somewhat: looking at both the number of pieces as well as the durations of those pieces, the result was 25% of the music at HCMF 2016 composed by women. A step in the right direction, to be sure, but it’s still somewhat sobering to note that at no fewer than 65% of the concerts women composers were entirely absent (male composers were absent from 13%). It’s not all about the numbers, of course, but these numbers are hardly irrelevant.

Back to the actual sounds, and the way non- or semi-improvised music continued to feature prominently at the festival was fruitful and thought-provoking. I’m still somewhat agog at the concert given by John Butcher with Trio Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin, entirely improvised but which could have been presented as a sequence of fully-composed pieces and I would have believed it. All of which only made the experience more fascinatingly discombobulating when, the following day, at The Stone Orchestra‘s gig (which included the trio) the improvisations now sounded loose, disconnected, arbitrary and ultimately implausible. With improvisation, it seems, you really never can tell. Following last year’s push in the direction of Wandelweiser, it was nice that that wasn’t entirely forgotten this year, and Marianne Schuppe‘s recital was a hugely refreshing and welcome contrast to—well, to almost everything else that had been going on.

Overall, while it’s not necessarily HCMF’s primary purpose to act either as a barometer of contemporary music-making or as a testament to its most radical exponents, I think this year’s festival hit a very high standard in both respects. All of us involved in new music trot out the word ‘experimental’ so often it tends to lose all meaning; at HCMF, we get a rare chance to witness genuine musical experimentation going on every day. Experiments don’t have guaranteed outcomes, they’re not safe and secure, and they certainly won’t always succeed. Yet regardless of how they transpire, I for one get an immense thrill at the opportunity to be able to witness it happening and reflect on the aftermath. Conservatism may rule this land ever more aggressively, but in Huddersfield, almost anything remains possible.

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HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 6 Comments

My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focussing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Richard Uttley, Quatuor Diotima

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Having packed out Phipps Hall at HCMF last year, pianist Richard Uttley‘s Saturday morning recital found him in the considerably more fitting space of St Paul’s Hall. Taking place on a stunningly cold day—local temperatures hovering around -1°C—the audience was healthy in size but not in general well-being, peppering the concert with (in one case, worrying close proximity) blasts of coughage. Quite apart from anything else, Uttley deserves considerable kudos for the way he tenaciously maintained concentration. Similar to Seth Parker Woods’ recital the previous day, Uttley performed four works, two of which involved technology. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Seth Parker Woods, Ensemble Resonanz + Elliott Sharp + Gareth Davis

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Friday at HCMF began with a recital by rising star cellist Seth Parker Woods. I’ve had the opportunity to see Woods play once before (at HCMF 2014) and the experience was a highly impressive one, so I was very much looking forward to seeing him in action again. He did not disappoint, performing four challenging works, two of which involved live electronics. The acoustic pieces occupied soundworlds of an intimate, ephemeral nature. Alvin Singleton‘s Argoru II was sufficiently gestural that it took on a pervasive arbitrariness that frustrated engagement on anything but the most superficial level. Gray Neon Life by Edward Hamel was similar but explored much more interesting alternations between gesture and pitch with occasional fragments of a barely audible spoken text. Nonetheless it, too, conveyed an aloofness that made its transient filigree feel somewhat skin-deep. Despite these compositional concerns, Wood’s performance of both pieces was seriously involving, exploiting the intimacy to give the impression he was playing to every member of the audience personally, and even at times as though he were playing entirely to himself. George LewisNot Alone utilised electronics to echo, distort, resonate, flitter and skitter around and follow hot on the heels of the cello’s material. Structured as a clear sequence of contrasting episodes, there was a delirious playfulness in Lewis’ conveyor belt of wildly diverse musical offerings. As with all but the very best works in the bloated performer-does-something-and-computer-responds genre, there were times when the hierarchical relationship felt simplistic, obvious and even a trifle tired, but this was a minor shortcoming in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and convincing piece. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Marianne Schuppe

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Twenty-four hours after Aaron Cassidy’s attempt at recreating the Battle of Jericho, St Paul’s Hall was today filled with its polar opposite: Marianne Schuppe performing her 40-minute cycle slow songs. Her approach in each of the eleven songs is to focus almost entirely on a simple, idiosyncratic melodic line, the vehicle for Schuppe’s equally quirky texts, usually in conjunction with one or more pure, floating pitches that permeate and punctuate the melodies. If one didn’t know better, these pitches would appear to be coming from a sine tone generator but are in fact created using a lute and two of what Schuppe calls ‘uber-bows’, large sturdy makeshift versions of ebows positioned over the lute’s strings and controlled with voltmeters. To look at, it’s all very crude (Schuppe told me that it’s a ‘prototype’) but what it produces is clear and pristine, the perfect complement to her unwavering voice. It’s not insignificant that she has chosen to produce these pitches via a lute, as slow songs essentially has its roots in folk music; one could think of it as an austere, stripped down version of the rich folk luxury of Fovea Hex (and, as i mentioned when reviewing the CD of this piece, Schuppe’s voice bears a striking resemblance to Clodagh Simonds‘). Read more

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HCMF 2016: ELISION

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Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s the wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.

In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox. Read more

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