HCMF 2014 revisited: Hèctor Parra – L’absència (UK Première)

by 5:4

HCMF’s 2013 Spanish composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra was represented at last year’s festival in an orchestral work, L’absència, receiving its first UK performance. At only 7½ minutes long, and eschewing heavy brass, it’s tempting to describe L’absència as small-scale, yet it’s a piece that sounds convincingly bigger than it really is. That’s just one of many ambiguities and paradoxes fundamental to the work’s character, consistently flirting and teasing in such a way as to render moot most definitive statements one might make about it.

It is, in a nutshell, hard to pin down. Initially—unsurprising considering its modest duration—Parra seems to get cracking with his material briskly, a gruff beginning suddenly hinting at a lyrical underbelly, instead becoming tense before a cluster of heavy swells erupt practically from nowhere. All in under 90 seconds. If anything, though, this complex opening actually indicates the fundamentally deceptive nature of L’absència, which for the most part makes its case slowly, despite appearances. That hint of something softer beneath becomes a (if not the) major line of enquiry, Parra positioning multiple tendrils of melodic thought deep within the orchestral texture, always audible but almost never foregrounded—a persistent oboe line being the solitary exception. This realisation leads to another, that essentially nothing is foregrounded in L’absència; its focus is kept diffuse, and events that transpire in one part of the orchestra (hefty accents in the brass, for example) make little or no impact on gentler gestures being expressed elsewhere. This undermines another apparent trait; while L’absència sounds otherwise rather warm, ostensibly assertive and forthcoming, the music’s inherent reticence—notwithstanding occasional outbursts—indicates the precise opposite, true coherence and definition kept just out reach. It’s a fascinating environment, the orchestra simultaneously a single organic mass yet compartmentalised with interdependent elements. Perhaps some of this ties in with Parra’s detailed programme note, concerning the “sombre and socially excluded” characters of French author Marie NDiaye, who “without being aware of it, struggle in exasperation against the futility of existence” resulting in “a labyrinthine sound landscape where the memory of musical gestures is blurred by the shifting emotions that derive from them”. Or perhaps it doesn’t; the music’s fragility is certainly apparent, but its emotional weight is ambiguous, as is the role (and, indeed, reality) of tension and release throughout. But a work hardly stands or falls based on its relationship to a programme note (if it did, i suspect few would stand), and L’absència makes a pointed impact precisely by, refreshingly, not particularly striving for one. The work’s closing gesture arguably sums up its entire ethos: a wavering, high, poised pause which, upon being struck, vanishes in a puff of harmonics.

The UK première of L’absència was given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick.

Programme Note

L’absència is an orchestral composition inspired by the literary works of the French writer Marie NDiaye. Her characters are sombre and socially excluded and, without being aware of it, struggle in exasperation against the futility of existence. Marie NDiaye, however, explores there inner lives, revealing astonishing ritches that make us vibrate and merge with them while highlighting the extreme fragility of their condition.

By taking the orchestral texture of L’absència through various phases, I wanted to present the listener with a labyrinthine sound landscape where the memory of musical gestures is blurred by the shifting emotions that derive from them. Thus, the vacuum of absence (the absence of someone close, of an inner life, of hope?) may take the form of a web of motifs of great contrapuntal tenderness in the woodwind, or serpentine solo on the oboe over a dry and icy chord on the strings, in the limits of the audible. At one point in the piece, the tension becomes unsustainable and the orchestral mass leads to a presto finale which, even while taking the instrumental energies to the limit, does not release the accumulated tension, letting us glimpse the cyclical and infinite nature of the contradictions that to give life to our existence.

L’absència was commissioned by the CNDM as a work to be performed obligatorily at the 2013 International Cadaqués Orchestra Conducting Competition. It is dedicated to Llorenç Cabalerro and all the staff at Editorial Tritó as well as the musicians of the Cadaqués Orchestra.

—Hèctor Parra

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