Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Ryoko Akama excelled herself twice, first in her short new work for two pianos and sine waves an dt wo; although not billed as a concerto, the piece threw up many issues associated with that idiom, its central deific sine tone, omnipresent and unchanging, declaring a challenging interaction with the pianos (played by Kate Halsall and Fumiko Miyachi), a struggle conducted with overwhelming gentleness. Akama later oversaw the presentation of Éliane Radigue‘s hypnotic new electronic piece OCCAM XX, in which a fragile relationship with triadic harmonies and overtones is explored in a tense kind of near-equilibrium.
This morning began with the coming together of pianists Philip Thomas, Mark Knoop, Catherine Laws and John Tilbury in a recital of music by Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff. Any discussion of Feldman needs to disentangle itself from the rather prevalent blind enthusiasm that regards everything he composed, wrote, said or thought to be etched in gold leaf on pristine tablets of marble. That myth was emphatically dispatched in the hollow arbitrariness of the Two Pieces for Three Pianos and Vertical Thoughts 1. That being said, Piano Four Hands was fascinating and provocative, questioning the definitiveness of the acts of both composition and performance. It also challenged the affiliation of the two players, who initially resembled a single entity but gradually seemed less connected. Neither of the Wolff pieces held even the faintest candle to any of these (Duo for Pianists I is a particularly wretched bit of garbage), instantly forgettable beside the solemn, oblique coherence of Feldman’s Piece for Four Pianos, which brought the concert to a sublime close. But the extreme contrast with Wolff prompted questions; do these pieces of Feldman’s appear to succeed more readily due to their consistently low, unthreatening dynamic level? After all, soft dynamics reduce the effects of dissonance so that could play a part in minimising perceptual issues with Feldman’s compositional approach (of which Wolff’s, as heard in these two pieces, is not massively far removed). And beyond this, listening to Feldman’s music is like having a discussion with a monk: an aloof, unflappable, disinterested interlocutor whose unassailable demeanour can (and usually does) inspire both irritation and awe simultaneously. In Feldman’s case, how much of all this is mystical and how much egotistical is a question the concert left me pondering.
Ego had pretty much no place at all in the afternoon concert given by the somewhat oddball Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa. One problem that emerged from their approach to performance was that the guitarist, Anders Førisdal, appeared so relaxed that it gave the impression (i hope, mistakenly) that he had only just seen the music and was sight-reading through it. i can’t help feeling this made the performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Renvoi/Shards, for quartertone guitar and quartertone vibraphone, even more impossible to penetrate than it already is. If there’s a way into this piece, i didn’t find it; Ferneyhough speaks of formal simplicity in his programme note, but the facade it presents is all gesture, flighty and rapid but somehow relentlessly serious, like someone reciting jokes they don’t understand. There were occasions when the quartertone possibilities yielded lovely results, but these were momentary and only on the vibraphone. James Saunders‘ new work positions in the sequence correctly recalled received a double world première, being performed in two instrumental incarnations; the first, for clarinet and cello, was hobbled by its unremittingly bleak timbres, but the second, for clarinet, cello, sampler keyboard and guitar was very much more successful, revealing clearly Saunders’ interest in the construction and learning of sequences. Whether it was ultimately a triumph of concept over content is debatable; it would be good to hear more incarnations with other groupings to understand better its potential. Most of the concert was devoted to the work of Bjørn Fongaard, focusing on works for quartertone guitar. It’s fair to say they encompassed extremes; some (the Reflections Op. 33) sounded almost laughably inept, whereas Galaxe, composed back in 1966, demonstrated an openness to more radical idiomaticity that was rather impressive. Best of all, though, were the 3 Novasjoner of 1967, the quartertone guitar used as source for three exhilarating electronic works, sounding so fresh and vital they could have been composed last week.