It’s perhaps a little early, following just two concerts yesterday evening, to start describing the characteristics that typify this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. But based on these, and considering the featured composer is Jürg Frey, it would seem that ‘delicacy’ is going to be one of this year’s prevailing themes. In saying it dominated the piano recital given by local hero Richard Uttley, that’s as true of the performer as it was of the music being performed. i wouldn’t use this term of many pianists but, both from a purely aural perspective as well as watching him perform, Uttley comes across like a ballet dancer. His movements are graceful, lyrical, acrobatic; keys are sprung from, landed upon, tickled, urged, encouraged, coaxed—but rarely, it seems to me, merely struck.
The acrobatics formed a key feature of Thomas Larcher‘s Smart Dust and Francisco Coll‘s Vestiges, receiving its first performance. Both drew liberally on the relentless slip-slide mayhem typical of Nancarrow, in Larcher’s case with more emphasis on playfulness. It was a level of play (practically Zappa-like) that seemed to defy Larcher’s own programme note, which speaks of giving the piano “a sound with a sense of urgency, of desperation”, with a related desire to “hammer against … conventions”. Not with music as ordered as this—but to be honest, considering how much fun it all was, who cares? Uttley’s negotiation of the material came across like a frantic game of cat-and-mouse played by independently-minded hands, both locked into the same underlying groove but falling around all over the place nonetheless. Coll’s approach was similarly ordered structurally, book-ending Vestiges with wild episodes of virtuosic canons and counterpoint with a heavily contrasting central movement, very delicate and light. Overall, it makes a somewhat curious aesthetic statement, but again, the untamed fire of the outer sections makes the question marks hanging over the piece seem less significant. Tristian Murail‘s La Mandragore, which closed the recital, proved to be my undoing; about two-thirds of the way through the piece, i realised i had been seduced by its swirling, intoxicatingly fragrant harmonies, entirely distracted from what was actually going on. But then, i wonder whether Murail might actually be quite pleased with that reaction. Less conventional were the new works from Michael Cutting and Naomi Pinnock, both also world premières. In Cutting’s This Is Not A Faux Wood Keyboard Uttley turned percussionist, using various mallets to strike the instrument (both its tone bars as well as elsewhere), the sounds being looped into interesting textures, encompassing an ambient soundscape, pitch-based interplay and a wild noise-filled finale—but in a nice touch, the work ends by allowing this immense cluster of piled-up action to resonate for a while, eventually emphasising the regularity of the loops, order thus emerging out of apparent chaos. Pinnock’s Lines and Spaces comprises six miniatures, inspired in part by the paintings of American abstract artist Agnes Martin. Each Line was impressive in the courage of its simplicity: a sonic line extended by a rapidly repeating single pitch, coloured by a simple octave doubling, adjacent pitches, or a resonant chord, with the pedal brought in occasionally to smudge things. The Spaces occupy bigger environments, inhabited by calm, measured droplets of harmonic colour like blobs of ink falling into water; the first and last were pretty, but the second was immersive, seemingly expanding to subsume the performance space, filling it with a complex constellation of drifting celestial bodies. Beautiful.
Later that evening, in St Paul’s Hall, Luxembourg ensemble United Instruments of Lucilin presented a programme of works that also kept coming back to delicacy, but manifested in very different ways and with varying success. Dai Fujikura‘s brief scion stems was frustrating, fixated by its own surfaces which, although not unattractive, were nonetheless pretty thin. Mauro Lanza‘s new work The Kempelen Machine, receiving its world première, proved problematic in ways that were entirely in keeping with the composer’s intentions. The ensemble’s group-executed actions, once their initial novelty had worn off, are deliberately arbitrary and unreal, an intricately-calculated ersatz representation of organic, natural actions and behaviours. Maybe there was something of the ‘uncanny valley’ effect going on (which perhaps suggests Lanzo’s piece succeeds too well) but it seemed alienating and over-long. And one felt no little sympathy for soprano Donatienne Michel-Dansac, whose talents were reduced to vocalisations through a collection of tubes that made next to no impact on anything else. Edwin Hillier‘s engine oil and charcoal, on the other hand, seemed a masterclass in exquisite handling of sounds. It was often impossible to separate the three players—flute, violin and percussion—due to each of them possessing a vocabulary embracing pitch and noise. Hiller never seemed in the least bit to be actively coercing his material; aided, one suspects, by its slow general speed, the music had a lovely naturalistic spontaneity, inner timbral elements gradually revealing themselves and magically moving between the instruments. I could have listened to this forever; it was spellbinding. Manuela Meier‘s epar took a while to find its feet. The beginning one might describe as ‘klangfarbenaktion’, gestures that evolved over time and several instruments, yet retaining the sense of a single, unified sound action. These became extended, resulting in a complex, convoluted episode that was hard to disentangle; but it was followed with the most mesmerising music, extended passages with pitches in extreme close proximity moving ever so slightly. Consonance and dissonance felt both redefined and ultimately nullified, and while these sequences were a bit overstretched, they were undeniably gorgeous. Ultimately, though, it was the work that opened the concert that proved the most compelling in terms of pitch/noise interaction and compositional clarity. In Catherine Kontz‘s The Moon Moves Slowly (But It Crosses The Town), a huge tam-tam is slowly worked into activity, speaking with a remarkable range of registral bands and timbral colours. The ensemble then enters—musically and literally, processing into the space—their material teasing out and elaborating strands and quantities of pitch within the dense cloud-cluster of noise emanating from the tam-tam, as though it was being subjected to a variety of different filter effects. These are in turn swallowed up in an immense coruscating crescendo, the tam-tam reaching astonishing (and very beautiful) levels of overload. It then ever so slowly ebbs away, eventually revealing the instruments once more, which continued to pull out pitch fragments that persisted within its vanishing reverberations. Simply glorious.