As far as new music was concerned, last Saturday at the Cheltenham Music Festival was characterised chiefly by exotica and sensuality. To a lesser extent the latter was to be found in the late evening gig at Parabola Arts Centre given by Emulsion Sinfonietta, although only three (out of seven) pieces were prepared to eschew being episodically amorphous and/or locked in primitive, rather hackneyed loop chatter. Emulsion founder Trish Clowes‘ Apple Boy appeared at first to be quite simple, but turned out to be extravagantly rich—opulent even—attaining some very impressive tutti textures that were highly individualistic, only held in check by the music’s underlying harmony. The quality of its lyricism was only exceeded by its ravishing beauty. In a change to the programme, a work by Iain Ballamy (that may have been called Chantreys) tapped into similarly lush harmonies in a piece that unfolded like a slow chorale, stately and sumptuous. But highlight of the evening was Luke Styles‘ highly atmospheric Chasing the Nose, doleful despite a persistent funked-up tribal groove; focused on a wonderfully lyrical bass clarinet line, it expanded into a feisty duet with saxophone at its conclusion; exhilarating and immersive stuff.
At the Town Hall in the afternoon, a concert titled ‘From Java to the Himalaya’ brought Cheltenham Community Gamelan Players together with percussionist Joby Burgess and pianists Zubin Kanga and Richard Uttley. The main work on the programme was the world première of Rolf Hind‘s Tiger’s Nest, but before this some sonic context was provided in four gamelan pieces. Its music, to western ears, inhabits a quizzical amalgam of heightened dramatic potential and unintrusive, incense-like pervasiveness. Its sense of drama is especially keenly felt in abrupt shifts in tempo that magically occur as if the product of a single musical mind. This inherent elasticity, coupled to its unique approach to structure and repetition, makes for a heady combination, one regularly imbued with a hard-to-articulate melancholy—but i’m entirely conscious of how occidental a response that is. Tōru Takemitsu‘s Seasons for solo percussion, which followed, was a revelation; recordings of this piece (which are very few, and rather ancient) do not do justice to the intensely riveting experience it becomes in the concert hall. Joby Burgess navigated the panoply of instruments as though the music were occurring to him on the spur of the moment, yet always making every sound-event critical both in its employment and placement. The result was that the work’s multiple trajectories and interplays with timbral contrast, register, levels of density, melody and noise, made its 16-minute duration utterly spell-binding. One would have liked to have heard it immediately again as soon as it finished.
i’m not sure if that’s also the case with Rolf Hind’s new work; time and some repeated listenings (it was broadcast last Saturday) will tell. Like Takemitsu, Hind never felt as though he was using sounds for their superficial novelty, but due to the subject matter of the work—inspired by travels in Bhutan—he was to an extent appropriating their cultural associations. It never appeared artificial, though, and one’s abiding memory of Tiger’s Nest is of an authentic, ambitious attempt both to capture and render in allegory the intrepid sense of trek to somewhere remote and even somewhat alien. Again like Takemitsu, placement of sounds seemed paramount, often stripped back to impressively sparse levels, with just one or two notes being worried into vibration, evocative almost by inference rather than direct statement. The twin pianos were treated differently, one with respect to tuning, the other to timbre (involving, alongside the usual prepared piano paraphernalia, a cluster of ping pong balls), and they became de facto members of the central gamelan, which in turn acted to resonate and expand the actions of the solo percussion. Some of the sounds were so slight as to be almost inaudible, but i for one appreciated the way this invited even more rapt attention. At times Tiger’s Nest felt perhaps a little too diffuse for its own good, but it certainly gelled and was oftentimes captivating.