Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind Ness‘ Gimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Even more egregious was Larry Goves‘ The Devotions, being premièred by Bit20. Honestly, when listening to pieces like this it’s tempting to start an occasional 5:4 Emperor’s New Clothes award. Three groups, each given their own material, initially stated individually, then in various overlapping configurations—and all of it bland, dynamically flat, doggedly repetitive yet incessantly vague. A later switch in character brings lyricism into the frame, but feels like a dream sequence under duress, and as for its violin melody (which sounds borrowed from some 1960s Soviet bloc concerto), the less said the better. The final section, both more individualised and more united than elsewhere, introduced lighted and extinguished candles, tipping over the piece into pure pretension.
Other composers succeeded very much better with simpler conceptual aspirations. In her spacious work aequilibria, Anna Þorvaldsdóttir presented an environment with a shifting tonal firmament. This is repeatedly undermined by expansive episodes that distort, obfuscate and otherwise destabilise whichever pitch foundation is current, the violent last of which could be heard as an allusion to Iceland’s volcanic nature. The simple clarity of both her aims and means was extremely effective, Bit20 demonstrating how much noise could be made by a relatively small group of performers. In the same concert, Jan Erik Mikalsen‘s homage of sorts to Liberace, Too much of a good thing is wonderful, also received its UK première. The great man’s presence could be felt in an increasingly overt sense of grandiosity, the work’s preoccupation with tonal material repeatedly overrun with extravagant rolling surges, like crashing waves. In some ways it came to resemble an example of time-stretched audio, but with all its details largely intact, heard as half-muted glimpses of harmony caught within a glutinous fluid.
Most triumphant of all, though, were Cikada’s renditions of two works by Liza Lim (a third piece, Philtre, was sadly dropped from the concert). The Heart’s Ear is especially beguiling, its relatively small ensemble—flute, clarinet, string quartet—not so much engaging in counterpoint as together pursuing a single melodic thrust with numerous discrete tendrils spiralling and shooting off it throughout. The work’s soundworld—so often the case with Lim—is sumptuous, its fantasy rapturous (dauntingly so), every moment sounding entirely spontaneous. Winding Bodies: 3 Knots came across rather differently. Imagine music made of PVC, rolling uphill, over gravel, with a storm brewing above (in a good way), and you start to approximate the tenor of this piece. Lim’s textures in its three movements felt more highly wrought here, dense and complex yet still wonderfully immediate. The middle ‘knot’ allows more scope for individual melodic explorations while at the same time uniting the ensemble through vocal gasps and utterances from all the players. The final section fragments and dissipates the music, and while it perhaps felt a little over extended, Lim’s wealth of instrumental ingenuity—most noticeably heard here in additional lengths of string attached to the stringed instruments, slowly rubbed along their length (akin to a lion’s roar) coaxing the string to speak in a kind of faltering croak—never fails to keep interest in the material alive to the end.