Being a Cotswolds lad, born and raised, i’d have to liken HCMF’s ‘Shorts’ day of free miniature concerts yesterday to a long walk over the hills, with spectacular vistas yet passing through numerous fields randomly distributed with large cowpats. In each field, you pick a direction and stick to it, with obvious consequences. In short, we all ended the day a little muckier than we’d started. There was some stiff (or should that be gooey) competition, but the most voluminous clod-dollop was undoubtedly Joe Hamlen‘s Shipping, designed to be played in real-time to accompany the live broadcast of the shipping forecast. The concept is an interesting one (although similar to Peter Ablinger’s Renate Fuczik) but its execution—with all due respect to pianist Richard Uttley, who’d been sent into battle (no fewer than four times, two of them at extremely late and early hours of the day) without a scrap of armour—was entirely inept, resulting in a dull, essentially undifferentiated sequence of chords (different chords are used, according to geographical location, but an examination of the score revealed how similar they all are) with some occasional octave displacement and dynamic swells. Rubbish.
Pausing only to shake the clods from our boots, the much more positive rest of the day brought into focus the fact that HCMF 2015 is above all exploring extremes. And yesterday we really got them. Some came in new forms of idiomaticism, as in the UK première of Mauricio Pauly‘s The Threshing Floor, which completely reinvented duo Scapegoat‘s sax and percussion, and here once again were found the twin poles of pitch and noise, emanating from both players. Pauly’s use of structure and materials was similarly inventive, with fiery counterpoint, some lovely extended periods of resonance and carefully-controlled feedback as well as full-on industrial regularity, all within what was a thoroughly thoughtful and thought-provoking work. One wanted to hear it all over again as soon as it had finished. Mexican composer Julio Estrada‘s yuunohui incorporated extremes of performer interaction, where—and considering the piece exists also as a collection of solo works, brought together for the ensemble version, this is not surprising—it sounded not at all as though Ensemble CEPROMUSIC were functioning as a united group but as a disparate bunch of independent soloists, all playing simultaneously. In the first few movements, despite obvious interest in certain parts, it just didn’t gel or connect or cohere. (Plus, there was the nagging sense that yuunohui‘s soundworld and gestures all felt a bit dated.) But when the numbers were reduced, things got really interesting, a fantastical viola solo and subsequent string trio both being highly impressive. Birmingham choir Via Nova‘s rendition of Karin Rehnqvist‘s I Himmelen was seriously exciting, vividly negotiating her complex amalgam of intoning, chanting and folk singing elements, with special praise going to the sopranos who articulated some staggeringly high notes with spot-on intonation. It’s a real shame we don’t hear substantially more choral and vocal music at HCMF.
But for the most, erm, extreme extremes of the day, we’ve got to turn to two composers who, in hindsight—and to my considerable surprise—one realised were actually working in not dissimilar ways, at opposite ends of the spectrum. Jakob Ullmann‘s solo IV for solo double bass, being given its world première by Dominic Lash, starts from a fundamental state of almost nothing and then makes the most microscopic, delicate inroads, with all of the sonic impact of a snowflake landing on a feather. Lash caressed the instrument—its body as much as its strings—with the lightest of touches, in a sensual display that elicited the tiniest of whispers, moans and whistles, practically never expanding into something we might call a discernible pitch. Of course, when your soundworld has an upper dynamic bound of pianississimo, you’re asking for trouble, and a plague would be entirely deserved on the house of whichever witless fool it was who merrily allowed their phone to vibrate constantly throughout the final five minutes of the piece, which in this context wasn’t just extremely audible, but introduced a regular rhythmic aspect into an environment that was otherwise entirely devoid of it. Ullmann clearly either didn’t hear it (ironic?) or didn’t care, as his happiness at the end of Lash’s exhausting performance could hardly have been more exuberant. Composed in 2010, Polish composer Zbigniew Karkowski‘s Fluster, receiving its UK première, is also for a solo bass instrument, in this case electric bass, extensively electronically treated. In complete contrast to Ullmann, the piece starts from a fundamental state of overload, from which it begins its own delicate intrusions. Brilliantly executed by Karkowski’s performing partner for many years Kasper Toeplitz, Fluster passes through three phases, the first acting in the lowest frequency bands, our bodies being pummelled as smooth, small shapes began to trace discrete paths through the massive onslaught of booming spasms and convulsions, as though they were swimming across the surface of the sun. With the introduction of higher frequencies, Toeplitz began to resemble the operator of a blast furnace, using a variety of implements (including steel wool, metal slides and an e-bow) across the strings of his instrument to elicit more sharply-defined grooves and contours in the texture, shifting, sliding and evolving at slow speeds. The culmination was a modest withdrawal of intensity, passing through a number of mid to high registers, pitches focussed into sharp laser points that burned right through the space. Both as a composition and as a performance, Fluster was utterly amazing.