All good noise reduction filters have an option to invert their output, effectively delivering only the removed audio information, mainly hiss and microscopic blurps, along with thin slivers of the primary audio material, little more than the most anaemic of glimpses, hinting at what lies on the other side. These kind of residua bear a strong resemblance to the music of Jakob Ullmann, whose Son Imaginaire III received its world première in St Paul’s Hall last night. The concert wasn’t just a highlight of my HCMF 2013, it was a highlight of my entire concert-going life. However, my enthusiasm for Ullmann’s work (previously manifested here and here) clearly continues to put me in a minority. The pre-concert talk, which i had fully expected to see packed to the point of standing room only, found half of the seats empty, and the concert itself, although better attended, had many seats to spare. Even in Huddersfield, it seems, audiences still have a thing or two to learn.
Having said that, perhaps even Ullmann would consider disinterest a step in the right direction from the outright hostility that has dogged his work in the past. Son Imaginaire III is a case in point; last night’s performance was the third attempt to give the piece a successful première, the previous two being mocked and laughed to the point of being abandoned. The bone of contention in Ullmann’s work is its challenging modus operandi, utilising extremely quiet sounds as the basis for large-scale forms. In some ways, this can be heard as a continuation (or elaboration) of the paradigm shift initiated by John Cage in 4’33”. In that piece, no sound was capable of being extraneous; in Ullmann’s music, any quiet peripheral sounds can be inferred as part of the deliberate musical act taking place: a chair squeak, a muffled cough, a phone vibration, a gust of wind against the windows, they all become plausible components of Ullmann’s loose-weave texture. They, too, are incapable of being extraneous.
But i don’t want to push that connection too far; there is, after all, a world of difference between silence and near silence. The title is instructive—suggesting both “imagined sound” and “his imagination”—as it describes very literally the effect of listening in such a rarefied context as this. The strain of having to listen out for exceptionally quiet sounds makes it all too easy for the imagination to overclock itself, so to speak, to the point where, in such a liminal state, it’s possible to imagine things that aren’t there. It reminds me of the film Paranormal Activity, where lengthy scenes take place in which, essentially, nothing happens, but there are omnipresent omens suggesting that, at some point soon, something very odd indeed will take place. Our eyes scour the frame—the door, the bed, the floor, the corridor, the sleeping couple—fuelled by a heightened mix of excitement and expectation; and here, too, one can all too easily imagine things that are not there. Did the blanket move? Is that a shadow? Did something rustle? Transpose that to the concert hall: Did the cello play a harmonic? Is that the sound of wind through the instrument? Was that a twang on the piano? Often, they’re questions impossible to answer; Ullmann’s music is so perfectly poised at the cusp of sensibility that the space becomes positively electrified with sonic potentialities, real and imagined.
It’s a considerable challenge as much for the performers as the audience; French group n s m b l (10 points if you can say that out loud) handled it with admirable coolness, and can now bask in the renown of being the first ensemble in almost a quarter of a century to have been able to bring this remarkable piece to fruition. Those of you who weren’t there, you have no idea what you missed.