Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Yet Steen-Andersen militates against this potential theme repeatedly through excesses of surreal and absurdist humour, to the extent that the comedy doesn’t feel black, but makes you question whether there’s actually anything serious at all being said beneath the surface. In this respect, the stream of guffaws from the audience (none of it nervous laughter) spoke with far more certainty than anything on stage. There’s no doubt that the way Steen-Andersen flexes his imagination is often rather marvellous; but ultimately, masturbatory acts are surely best carried out in private.
James Dillon‘s new ‘cantata’ (his word, not mine) Stabat mater dolorosa, performed by the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers conducted by Ilan Volkov, presented very different challenges. In the pre-concert talk, Dillon clarified that he has drawn on various sources: the original Latin text (which describes the mother of Christ standing beside the cross during the crucifixion), a feminist text on eroticism by Julia Kristeva, the ‘Weeping Woman’ series by Picasso, and texts by John Donne and Rainer Maria Rilke. However, in practice those latter sources manifest themselves, at most, at a subliminal level, reduced to ‘low level chatter’ in the voices; only the Latin text is explicitly sung, and that not very often. Being somewhat charitable, the piece, which in this world première performance lasted around 80 minutes, could be heard as a continuation of a series of works performed at HCMF in recent years that occupy long durations with a minimum of activity (I’m thinking especially of Jakob Ullmann and Antoine Beuger). But where they were mystical, ineffable, their interactions with silence approached with the unbearable necessity of proximity with the numinous, Dillon’s music felt paralysed, not so much exploring the implications of the text and its contemporary relevancies as walking on eggshells around them. It began wonderfully, drawn out phrases lasting as long as the players could keep them going, couched in long pauses. But this strikingly inventive opening promised too much, the remainder flitting between choral sections (from which little was discernible) either alternating with the ensemble or in semi-partnership with it, and episodes for the ensemble alone, often featuring assorted solos and duos. The main problem—a topic explicitly raised, but not really addressed, in the pre-concert talk—was the form; structurally, Stabat mater dolorosa seems to make precisely no sense at all. Continuity felt non-existent or nonsensical, and the relationships between the various sections could only be guessed at (three loud metallic strikes, considering the text, could refer to nails; a short fragment of Baroque music on the other hand was entirely inexplicable). As one would expect from Dillon, there were some exquisite orchestrational touches, and the inclusion of an (underused) electric guitar brought a lovely timbral quality to the ensemble. Yet overall, my reaction to the piece seemed to mirror the relationship it exhibited to its sources: bafflement.