Returning to the (more recent) archives, here are some interesting works taking a look back at the 2008 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.
Markus Trunk‘s Parhelion is most striking for its extreme delicacy; after a while, the prominent celesta actually starts to sound loud. The material appears as though formed from gas, its opening textures swiftly dissipating into soft whisps of chord that engage and beguile the ear. This sort of ostensible simplicity requires its own kind of virtuosity—a single note played out of place, or too loudly, would irrevocably rupture its surface—and Apartment House deliver Trunk’s vision with flawless clarity. There really isn’t enough music like this around at the moment. Trunk’s music also featured in the hands of plus-minus ensemble, who performed Raw Rows. At first, it seems to bears no resemblance to the other work, being a highly rhythmic working out of scalic patterns. In its own way, though, it ploughs an equally ascetic, single-minded furrow, the scales gradually being stretched out to the point where every note becomes a minutely significant event. This is material that, again, requires the players to demonstrate virtuosity of time and coordination in order for these sparse, staccato notes to be perfectly synchronised—it’s exciting that music of this kind should be simultaneously so simple and so complex.
One of Richard Barrett‘s recent works, Nacht und traume, is the last in his “Resistance and Vision” series, and another work evincing his interest in the work of Schubert. To some extent, my fascination with Barrett’s music began to wane many years ago—i’ve grown weary of music forever saying ‘no’ to things; it would be nice to hear some firm affirmation of Barrett’s beliefs rather than a continual railing against that which he clearly abhors (the ‘resistance’ is abundantly clear; the ‘vision’ less so). But despite that criticism, Barrett’s ear for fascinating timbres—and, even more so, the fascinating juxtaposition of fascinating timbres—continues to be a wonder to behold. The lowercase flutterings that open the work soon start to be absorbed into hovering electronic tones, worrying the cello and piano into shivers and abrupt outbursts. The electronics gradually assume greater significance, before everything yields to a ghostly recording of Schubert. Barrett has in the past worked the fundamental disjunct of instruments and electronics into the fabric of his compositions—most notably in Khasma, part of his DARK MATTER cycle—and this gulf becomes meaningful here too, being yet another work of Barrett’s with division at its heart (waking vs. dreaming).
HCMF 2008 included a recreation of the notorious concert that saw the première of John Cage‘s Concert for piano and orchestra, 50 years ago. It’s a deliriously fun idea of Cage’s, bringing together disparate musical material (there isn’t a score, but all the parts are meticulously written out), with even the option of further works, including Fontana Mix, being played simultaneously (further information about the piece can be read here). The work provoked differing degrees of outrage in its audience, a reaction that one can hardly imagine today (although, whether this says more about contemporary music or contemporary audiences is debatable); in Cage’s case, in particular, it can be difficult to sidestep his widely-perceived reputation as, at best, a provocateur, at worst, a prankster. i confess to being somewhat neutral in regard to Cage’s work—i find it tends neither to repulse or attract me very greatly—but i accept gratefully his liberated and innovative outlook. Sadly, the sedate chaos of this lengthy work wasn’t able to rouse me beyond neutrality; i cling to the belief that one probably had to “be there” to appreciate it properly. It’s interesting to note, though, how modern Cage’s textures continue to sound; 50 years ago this must have seemed highly provocative. Not so now, it seems: as the chaos subsides, the audience’s reaction (unsurprisingly?) is an overwhelmingly positive one.