Today’s afternoon concerts occupied opposite ends of a number of musical continua, the most obvious being dynamic. At the quiet end, in St Paul’s Hall, were the Bozzini Quartet with music by HCMF resident composer Jürg Frey; at the loud end, fighting the prevailing chill in Bates Mill Blending Shed, were Ensemble Phoenix Basel performing works by Robert Piotrowicz and Alex Buess. Let’s start with the loud.
It was very strange. Buess and Piotrowicz were represented by two works each, and with both composers it was if they destroyed their reputation with the first piece, only to re-establish it again with the second. In the case of Alex Buess‘ 2003 work KHAT, for bass flute and percussion with live electronics, it was a messy, unkempt affair, the pair of performers seemingly occupied with completely different compositions simultaneously, while with the electronics, one can only hope (but at the same time wonder why) the intention was to sound clunky and awkward; as it was, it sounded like someone arbitrarily testing a load of presets. In all these respects it was immensely dull, but once you factored in the very high volume levels (causing numerous people to move further to the back), it became a major irritation. But then came VORTEX_V1.01, composed in 2009 for bass flute, piano, percussion and electronics, a work that was extremely tautly-managed to exhilarating effect. Almost all of the sounds in the piece are either entirely pitchless or sufficiently modulated by different articulations that their pitch content becomes obscured, meaning that in essence Buess is playing with noise-based materials. These are arranged, in highly dramatic fashion, into tight formulations of imitation, complement, riposte, antagonism and the like, both between the players on stage and between them all and the live electronic elements. Clarity emerges gradually from a more amorphous genesis, but structurally VORTEX_V1.01 ultimately proves itself to be very strong, loud and overpowering (never excessively, but still practically abrading the audience from all sides) with some genuinely dazzling climaxes, concluding in a wonderful stop-start finale, blasts of sound alternating with softer detailing.
Robert Piotrowicz‘s walk of shame came courtesy of recent work Grund, for large ensemble, receiving its first UK performance. And possibly its last; Piotrowicz speaks of it being “constructed around a few ideas that organise the piece”—but simply filling time isn’t the same as organising it. The ensemble continually formed and re-formed into intense but barely differentiated slabs of accumulation that anyone with synaesthesia might well claim to have the colour of mud (or something even less palatable). If one looked, intricacies did appear theoretically to be present, but with eyes closed they were lost in the viscous miasma that constitutes the work’s general(ised) texture. Someone nearby exclaimed “phew!” when it ended; hard to argue with that. It was followed by another recent work, also a UK première, Apendic, which saw Piotrowicz himself join Ensemble Phoenix Basel on stage. Performed from a graphic score, its liberation from notation seemed to be mirrored by an enhanced lightness of touch, without in any way diminishing the fierce intensity that had permeated Grund. It opened with high-pitched shards, like hearing a chorus of umpteenth partials of some impossibly low fundamental; this was the opening gambit in a slow, steady textural development, gradually integrating lower registers while at the same time extending durations and forming the instruments from a band of individuals into the components of a formidable fabric; its ultimate end was overwhelming and everywhere, seemingly all frequencies present and correct, curtly but effectively dismissed with a final flick of the wrist from Piotrowicz.
And so to the quiet. The Bozzinis presented Jürg Frey‘s second and third string quartets, the latter receiving its first UK performance. i’ve written about String Quartet No. 3 in the last few days in connection with its CD release on the Wandelweiser label, and it was interesting to hear how similarly it came across in the concert hall. i’m not sure whether i was expecting (or hoping) it to sound different, but i wonder whether an integral aspect of its hermetically sealed micro-universe is that looking for significant differences, either interpretative or subjective, is beside the point. As it happens, it did come across differently, but this was entirely due to coming in the wake of String Quartet No. 2, which was utterly remarkable as well as, i have to say, by far the superior composition. i’ve remarked before how Frey is especially interesting when pitch content is rendered vague, and throughout the Second Quartet its endless sequence of chords are sufficiently soft that fully grasping their triadic qualities is often a challenge, enabling them to function as very much more than just chords. On an initial reading, there seems to be something almost wilfully over-optimistic about Frey’s programme note aspiration that the piece “explores a space … between the fragility of individual details and an almost monumental appearance”. Monumental? seriously?—yet it really is, and in two important respects. The first is its demonstration of power, not in the moment or even the short-term, but wielded over longer periods with infinite patience. Each tiny chord comes to resemble a small puff of wind, the kind that might glance against a vast and seemingly impenetrable chunk of rock and, over a few aeons, erode and shape that rock into something wholly new, one infinitessimal piece at a time. The second is its demonstration of indefatigability, in the unceasing manner of its behaviour. Some years ago i trekked the Inca Trail in Peru, of which the second day is the most daunting, every step uphill. While many of us moved unevenly, bursts of brisk forward motion qualified very soon after with entirely stationary periods of oxygen-deprived panting and gasping, one member of the group continued at the same slow pace, unchanging, for the entire day. She never tired, never flagged—and she beat almost all of us to the top. And this is what we witness in the Second Quartet, the players moving as one, slowly but completely unstoppably. i’d call that monumental. As, indeed, would i describe the performance of both quartets by the Bozzinis, in what was a profoundly virtuosic display of still, quiet concentration (despite the periodic bronchial explosions from the more laryngitically-afflicted members of the audience); i’ve rarely seen a group of musicians look at each other with as much determined, unflappable focus. Everything about it was simply breathtaking.