The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, and while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration.
The first piece was Gérard Pesson‘s Cassation, composed in 2003, its title a reference to the Classical suite form, which Pesson recounts as having a somewhat contradictory etymology, such that “the word, and the ensuing genre, […] combine dedication, the notion of sending as well as the idea of [an] evening walk, a surprise offered to cronies of the moment or a solemn occasion”. There isn’t a great sense of solemnity in Pesson’s piece, projecting as it does most a light, mischievous kind of heavily gesturalised counterpoint. Timbre and behaviour dominate the textures which, although often governed by a clear underlying pulse, always come across as unrestrained and playful. Indeed, it provoked a surprisingly intense sense of jealousy towards the players—there’s no doubting it must be an absolute thrill to play in this piece, with its intricate and ever-changing interactions. Although the ensemble essentially works as a unit, the players are allowed to be extremely individual, encompassing highly florid material as well as intricate periods of introspection that become almost inaudible. From a listening perspective, though, both at the time and on repeated listenings, its music proves more resistant to engagement; it’s interesting, to be sure, but from a kind of anthropological angle, like being the spectator at some inscrutable collective act.
Next came a world première from HCMF 2012’s featured composer, Maja S K Ratkje. Her work, ‘And Sing While Thou On Pressed Flowers Dost Sleep’ (named after a line from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream) was more impenetrable than Pesson’s, and also a great deal more dogged. The premise was mildly interesting: subjecting Ratkje’s voice to extensive scrutiny, the ensemble presenting facets of that analysis in the form of imitation, closer examination (‘zooming in’ on certain sounds and parts of sounds), the teasing out of overtones and timbral fluctuations, which in turn instigated a certain level of vocal response from Ratkje herself. In practice, however, it felt like a squandered opportunity, drawing on a surprisingly limited palette and mulling over ostensibly the same material for far too long. Its twenty-minute span passed very slowly indeed.
Last in the concert was a new work from Sam Hayden, bearing one of his typically slashed titles: surface / tension. Cikada were joined by oboist Chris Redgate, in a piece that both demonstrates and explores the potential in Redgate’s recently-developed new oboe fingering system, designed to facilitate contemporary techniques with much greater ease. It’s worth saying something about that right away; on the one hand, there wasn’t a strong sense that this was a demonstrably new instrument, but i think that has almost everything to do with the fact that for many, many years Chris Redgate has been making the seemingly impossible sound astonishingly easy. Yet on the other hand there was a slickness evident in Redgate’s playing that did seem significantly enhanced; complex music for the oboe, in particular, can often sound borderline-hysterical, and there was little trace of that here. But let’s return to surface / tension; one of the things i find fascinating about Sam Hayden’s work is the challenging approach he takes to structure. surface / tension is no exception; making sense of it structurally feels difficult, it has a slippery, quicksilver quality—moving between short episodes of activity seamlessly—that makes getting aural purchase on the work feel an awkward and ungainly experience. That sounds negative, yet Hayden’s language/tone of voice/call-it-what-you-will provides a level of tacet assurance absent from much contemporary music. Admittedly, despite repeated listenings, surface / tension still feels like it’s begging more questions than it answers, but then maybe the clue is in that title; the ear does feel somewhat stuck at the surface of the music, although that in itself is more rewarding than it might sound. Certainly, the way Hayden uses the ensemble to probe the innards of the oboe’s multiphonics and resonances is striking and very effective (far more than in Ratkje’s piece). As for the tension, that’s evident both in the material and, as i’ve said, in the listening experience itself. But while the first two pieces in the concert had a tension that proved ultimately frustrating, Hayden’s is of a better kind: rigorous, provocative and questioning.
Leaving Huddersfield shortly after this concert felt disappointing (having experienced barely two days of a ten-day festival), yet the amount of music i’d heard in that time—six concerts—was almost overwhelming. What HCMF is doing under Graham McKenzie’s leadership is one the most rewarding and exciting engagements with new music going on anywhere, and despite the challenges (or maybe because of them), i hope to stay a lot longer at HCMF 2013. It’s as good as music festivals get.