A feature of many of this year’s HCMF concerts has been a blurring of the distinction between pitch and noise, but the midday recital given by Swiss saxophone group Konus Quartett tilted the focus firmly back on pitch. Both works, Jürg Frey‘s Mémoire, horizon and Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ During a Lifetime (each being heard in the UK for the first time) sought to examine pitch as a constant, prevalent thing in its own right as well as an element with wider harmonic implications. Frey’s initial approach, occupying the first third of the piece, was hypnotic: tones closely positioned, forming a shifting chord of indeterminate sonic origin—with eyes closed one could imagine four sine tone generators on stage—emphasising different pitches and thereby redefining the sense of each currently sounding tone (in this respect, it bears similarities to Frey’s installation piece Landschaft mit Wörten, exhibited earlier this week at Huddersfield Art Gallery). Individual players paused to breathe, but the music continued unabated, like an infinite exhalation. This was so fascinating that the work’s subsequent change into an extended sequence of evenly spaced chords, similar in manner to those in the second and third quartets, broke both the music and its spell. Everything now seemed defined—a sax quartet! triads!—in a way different from those other works. It remained pretty, but Frey is surely aiming a little higher than that. Chiyoko Szlavnics, though, attained real beauty. Her process is dominated by lines, often stemming from preparatory drawings, where pitches extend—static and/or sliding—over long periods of time, forming complex transient harmonies as their vertical alignments change. Here, the starting point was a collection of multiphonics, which are reproduced electronically throughout the performance, the players overlaying them with their own, inevitably not-quite-true renditions of them. From an austere opening, chords stated haltingly in isolation, like the start of an arcane rite, Szlavnics begins to weave them together into an extremely intricate, harmonically opulent pitchscape. Simultaneously static yet constantly moving, tones shimmering and juddering against each other, it created music of such ravishing beauty that it felt almost impossible to breathe. For once, and for good reason, the coughers fell completely silent.
In Bates Mill Blending Shed in the afternoon, percussionist Daniel Buess and double bassist Aleksander Gabryś took on two works of Zbigniew Karkowski. Buess’ rendition of Form & Disposition, composed in 2008, felt chaotic and structurally clunky, as though it was held together with the musical equivalent of sticky tape. Sections very emphatically began and finished, and Buess’ execution of the piece, notwithstanding his technical skill—and, indeed, his stamina—seemed to lack the finesse that would have indicated total control. Of course, all or some of these issues may have been Karkowski’s intentions, but that seems doubtful coming as it did in the aftermath of Gabryś’ performance of the 2013 work Studio Varèse. Having first established his credentials with a fiery reading of Xenakis’ Theraps, Gabryś ramped things up massively for the Karkowski, surprising everyone in the opening moments, otherwise filled with a pulsating bass wall, with wild shouts and cries. It acted as a kind of call to arms, as we were immediately plunged into an absolute maelstrom of frenzied activity, filled with a myriad transient details, filigree decoration surrounding the central double bass, which Gabryś treated simply as a large wooden box with four strings slung across it; the strings were detuned, painfully contorted and yanked, bowed, scraped and generally subjected to the most unapologetically liberated treatment that i think i’ve ever witnessed. Gabryś is simply a marvel to behold, and the way he carefully orchestrated the music’s sectional waves, never swamping the space or blurring what was going on, was an almost incredible testimony to his musicianship. A performance (and a piece) that deserves to down in HCMF’s history as one of its finest.
Mexico’s Ensemble CEPROMUSIC returned for a second concert that demonstrated even further how open-minded and technically brilliant they are. The same couldn’t be said of all the compositions; Christian Wolff‘s 30-minute Robert was predictably spurious, sufficiently disjointed and internally inconsistent that it simply sounded incompetent. Did i mention it lasted 30 minutes? Never mind, Christian, as long as you’ve had a go, that’s what counts. Pierluigi Billone didn’t have me spitting feathers the way he had on Monday, but his epic solo bassoon work Legno.Edre II.Edre, was far more dull than his accompanying notes indicated. Composers often talk about ‘re-inventing’ an instrument, but so often the product simply sounds like an instrument being forced to do things it was never made to do; whereas with some composers that can become a creative advantage, Billone’s bassoon struck a rather pathetic visage, like a terminally-ill figure ranting and wailing in the immediate moments before their death. All the same, Ventsislav Spirov’s playing was undeniably superb, richly deserving of the gales of applause he received at the end. Hilda Paredes’ Jitanjáfora was a harmless diversion—sounding for the most part surprisingly like generic British Faberian fare—whereas Matthew Sergeant‘s bet golgotha didn’t really sound like anything else at all; it was fascinating, full of constant, highly intricate activity but very restrained, as though limits had been externally imposed by an invisible force, enclosing the performers. The resultant music was a mesmeric experience, shifting one’s gaze from player to player seeming to shine a faint spotlight on their actions, ever-so-slightly subjectively drawing them out from the soft, individuated hubbub. Víctor Ibarra’s La dimensión frágil, which opened the concert, was a spectacular mixture of violence, wildly florid counterpoint and utter enchantment. Many of its moments were extremely arresting, but it was the work’s expressive range that was most impressive. A breathtaking, highly detailed piece that deserves and needs to be heard many more times.
The day ended in the Town Hall, with the world première of Jakob Ullmann‘s 90-minute la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido (‘the second song of the disappeared angel’). The work speaks through the juxtaposition of a number of discrete elements, from something as simple as a bass drum roll to a drawn-out whispering cluster in the strings to an extended ‘concertante’ section for three woodwind (flute, clarinet and bassoon). Initial impressions of an intricate ritual quickly faded into something more nebulous, and arguably something more immediate and emotionally-driven. There are times when Ullmann’s cleaving to such a miniscule dynamic range can seem fetishistic, but then, in contrast to much of his work of the last few years—and certainly in contrast to solo IV, heard on Monday—la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido could almost be described as loud. Certainly the wind passages, which are intended to protrude, were surprisingly strong, and the selection of percussion sounds, a variety of drums and bells, were all very clear indeed despite the relative gentleness of their impacts (kudos to Carlota Cáceres and Lucia Carro Veiga – it must be terrifying playing percussion in a piece by Ullmann). A work that’s undergone several extensive revisions, beginning life as a commemoration for missing persons in South America (particularly Chile and Argentina), while it doesn’t sound obviously melancholic, the wind trio’s music, as previously indicated, was demonstrative to a startling degree; perhaps this is Ullmann’s equivalent of railing against the horror of, as well as keening for, the Disappeared.