This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) and something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola and ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts and dissipates, leaving the viola alone and heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios and oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune.
Rather less of a failure was Bruno Mantovani‘s 2000 work D’un rêve parti (the title being a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a rave party). i can only assume that Mantovani and i have clearly attended very different raves, as his is a fairly fussy evocation that takes a long time to loosen up. The lengthy set up is occupied with conventional contemporary gestures; in this respect it sounds familiar (depending on your perspective, that’s either a good or a bad thing), but it gradually moves into two episodes where Mantovani clearly seeks to illustrate, even emulate, the party inspiration. It’s impossible not to recall Thomas Adès’ ‘Ecstasio’ movement from Asyla, another work that highlights the problems endemic to any kind of overt translation between musical genres. Adès drew on the anthemic qualities of trance; Mantovani’s interest lies in the nascent synth music from the ’70s (and, i presume, also the ’80s, when it more fully developed into dance music as we recognise it today). Yet herein lies a very specific difficulty; this kind of music is characterised to a very large extent by its timbral qualities, which are essentially lost in a chamber ensemble context. If one disregards the title and programme note and accepts the somewhat twee minimalism of the first episode and its more emphatically rhythmic successor, then there’s something to enjoy in D’un rêve parti; but let’s not pretend it even begins to approximate a rave.
The concert ended with the UK première of James Dillon‘s 40-minute New York Triptych. This is a difficult piece to write about, due both to its length and complex sense of narrative. That in itself brought a tremendous sense of relief following the Fennessy and Mantovani. Immediately, one became more aware than before of how utterly clear they had been, how transparently organised, how obvious their intentions, how entirely lacking they were in the kind of starting-from-scratch, destroy-your-expectations kind of structural thinking. On the one hand, the obvious result of this is that the inner workings of Dillon’s Triptych keep themselves hidden, but that doesn’t equate to a sequence of non sequiturs that one shruggingly has to accept on trust. On the contrary, absolutely nothing felt out of place or even unexpected, which in itself is a testament to the facility Dillon has of forging direct statement from decidedly (and perhaps deliberately) convoluted means of articulation. What came across most on this (for me) first listening was overwhelming lyricism, both in the sensitive restraint of Dillon’s writing (often very quiet, with much use of silence) as well as the poignant flashes of earlier music, both through subtle emulation and glimpsed in faint snatches of recordings, a sotto voce trace that nonetheless permeated the entire texture. Gorgeous and bewildering, it’s a piece that requires considerable further time and thought, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s not included in the BBC’s forthcoming broadcasts.