HCMF 2015: Erik Drescher, Jonty Harrison, Biliana Voutchkova

In a refreshing break from the large number of groups and ensembles that have dominated HCMF so far, yesterday was given over to three individuals. The first was Berlin-based flautist Erik Drescher, in a recital of works, all receiving their UK premières, specifically composed for the glissando flute (fitted with a variable-length headjoint). It’s an alteration that immediately suggests obvious glissando possibilities, which formed the entire content of Alvin Lucier‘s Double Himalaya. Lucier provides a slowly undulating contour which the flautist plays against a recording of the same thing made previously, resulting in endless tiny clashes and beats. It didn’t take long for the effect to exhaust its interest; three or four minutes of this would have been okay, but 12 was just self-indulgent. Its one saving grace was the clarity of its motives; the same couldn’t be said for Michael Maierhof‘s splitting 51, which involved placing the headjoint such that it is both amplified and resonated/coloured by a plastic cup. What resulted was simply shapeless and arbitrary, uninteresting sounds emanating from a gimmicky environment. Il pomeriggio di un allarme al parcheggio by Salvatore Sciarrino was a risky endeavour, as though it had been created from different colours of smoke, which were then placed within a snowglobe and shaken vigorously. The resultant vaporous forms, tumbling and transient, were attractive, and sufficiently ornamental that Drescher came to resemble a bird of paradise undertaking a particularly elaborate display, replete with some car alarm-type imitation acting as a kind of punctuation mark. Sciarrino then effectively went through all these motions two more times, undermining what would otherwise have been a more concise and more riveting composition. Dror Feiler‘s Questions and Stones 3 was never less than riveting from start to finish. Pieces are soundworlds, and this one is drenched in a torrent of abrasive, acidic effluvia, encapsulated in an immense tape part against which the flautist is pitted. It was rather moving, watching Drescher’s unstoppable performance in the midst of such impossible odds, a Job-like figure, continuing to play although everything that emerged from the instrument was, at best, almost inaudible. Yet even if we couldn’t hear, we could see the flute leaping and soaring, full of spirit and energy and even panache, indefatigably compelled to continue, bringing to mind W. H. Auden’s line from his poem Atlantis, adjuring the subject to “stagger onwards rejoicing”. Totally stunning.

The afternoon was spent in the company of one of British electronic music’s most significant figures, Jonty Harrison, for the world première of his 60-minute Going / Places. The piece is created from a very large collection of field recordings Harrison has made around the world, in order to produce a work “based broadly on the theme of travel (and the accompanying confusion, disorientation and even alienation)”. Describing it as a ‘project’ rather than a piece, Harrison remarked that this version of Going / Places is not necessarily to be regarded as definitive, yet nothing throughout its duration indicated anything remotely provisional. On the contrary, the masterstrokes were everywhere: the counterpoint of Ohio railroad horns building into a complex polyphony; the flattening out of resonance—via a washroom sink on a train—moving seamlessly into prayer vocalisations from Marrakech; an airport ‘bing-bong’ leading to a babel of simultaneous announcements in a multiplicity of languages; the merging of an insect chorus with pedestrian intersection signals (this was especially impressive); the ostensibly irrational but effective insertion between two very similar sources, featuring creaking boats, of an entirely unrelated French street demonstration. The list of memorable moments could go on and on, but equally outstanding was the quality and overwhelming vividness of Harrison’s materials, employed such that the audience kept changing size: one minute we’re walking along a street, the next reduced to the size of barnacle, then plunged into the blubulations of a geothermal pool. A particularly fascinating aspect of Going / Places is its nature: it certainly isn’t ‘electronic’, and one even hesitates to call it ‘acousmatic’, as the extent to which Harrison has processed the sounds—or, at least, obviously processed them—felt decidedly minimal. The transparency of Harrison’s methods of collage and juxtaposition makes the piece more akin to those found in Chris Watson’s body of work, drawing on elements of documentary and reportage but working towards the means and ends of sonic art. Definitive or not, Going / Places is unequivocally an astounding achievement.

In the evening, Bulgarian violinist Biliana Voutchkova presented three experimental works, opening with Plans for future violin pieces by Øyvind Torvund. Somewhere between a speculative piece and an entertainment, an assortment of descriptions with accompanying drawings were projected behind Voutchkova, depicting contexts “that would be too expensive or impractical to realise”. These ranged from performing in the sea, to playing while strolling through a forest while an orchestra—and an increasing number of tree-inhabiting guitarists—imitate your material, to the gradual transformation of a drone/noise concert into a “shamanic experience”. The musical interest was modest, but let’s not overthink it; it was sweet and fun. Peter Ablinger‘s Augmented Study for 7 Violins placed the solo violin amidst recordings of six more, all progressing up an octave at different rates, resulting in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing pitch collisions; Voutchkova’s cool performance belied how difficult it must be to perform this accurately. She ended with a work of her own, Ruins of rules, which was like watching a musician revelling in their own private, interior reverie. Notes skittered and danced across the strings, breaking into melody or breaking down into sharp fragments, or simply evaporating into whistles and gusts of the barest wind; the material extended into Voutchkova herself, manifested in a stream of tiny tics and bursts of vocalise. The performance was marred by a barrage of fireworks erupting nearby, yet the complete lack of any impact this seemed to have on Voutchkova only intensified the intimacy of her actions and their resultant music, which were both utterly enchanting.

By way of an epilogue, the late evening saw the book launch of reductive journal FOUR, with interpretations of open-form scores by Jürg Frey, Lo Wie and Manfred Werder. i’d like to write about them but i really haven’t time at the moment, as i need to dash out and deliver emergency clothing to the Emperor; following this, the poor bugger must be absolutely freezing.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières
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7 Responses to HCMF 2015: Erik Drescher, Jonty Harrison, Biliana Voutchkova

  1. Chris L

    Simon, I spotted you sitting not far away in the Drescher concert, and please do correct me if I’m wrong, but I got the impression that you’d opted to do without the complimentary headphones handed out for the Feiler – very brave!

    For me, all the pieces outstayed their welcome to a greater or lesser extent, the Maierhof most of all (obviously!), but the piece I had the greatest amount of patience with was actually the Lucier. Whereas all the other works spent the first couple of minutes stating potentially interesting ideas as regards what to do with this “new” instrument”, which they then proceeded to batter the listener over the head with for the next 10 minutes, give or take, rather than develop in any discernable way, Lucier allowed his idea room to breathe (literally!), in a very Feldmanesque fashion. I agree, though, that 12 minutes was overdoing it, and I wasn’t sure whether the long pre-applause silence at the end was more indicative of rapt appreciation or drowsiness!

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your HCMF 2015.

    • 5:4

      Chris, sorry i didn’t spot you at the Drescher gig. Yes, i didn’t need earplugs for the Feiler—nowhere near as ferocious as Karkowski!

      The issue of duration—i.e. to what degree a composition validates its running time—seems to have raised its head on numerous occasions this year, and from composers i wouldn’t have expected. Is everyone losing their self-control or artistic judgement or something?

      • Chris L

        No need to apologise: it was a pleasure to be able to chat to you on Saturday, and there’ll doubtless be scope for us to bump into each other at next year’s HCMF…

        Re: the question of whether a work’s content justifies its length, I guess one of the side effects of throwing out the bathwater of tonality a century ago was that the baby of development/narrative-as-a-prerequisite-for-writing-longer-pieces was dispensed with as well, and it’s interesting that this prerequisite hasn’t (yet) returned in earnest despite the clear rapprochement with tonality that’s gradually been taking place over recent decades. That said, even if ideas aren’t developed over longer spans they still need to be contrasted in order to sustain interest (something that, say, Messiaen – and, for that matter, Feldman – understood implicitly)…unless, that is, the composer is deliberately aiming for a meditative/hypnotic effect, which is presumably what Lucier was doing…

  2. Chris L

    “Complimentary earplugs“, even!

  3. amw

    Your description of Jonty Harrison’s “project” is intriguing, and makes it sound as though it is positioned within the musical universe of works such as Henri Pousseur’s Paysages planétaires and Annea Lockwood’s “sound maps” of various rivers… and possibly some of Luc Ferrari’s work given your descriptions of transparency. Would you say those are accurate comparisons, or am I misunderstanding?

    I’ve always liked Harrison’s work and would love to hear this piece, but guess I’ll have to wait for a version to be released on L’empreinte digitale or whatever >.>

    • 5:4

      i don’t know Annea Lockwood’s music, but there’s something of a similarity to Paysages planétaires insofar as the use of geography is integral to both the compositional framework and its sound sources. But aurally, there’s no connection, as Pousseur’s work is very heavily processed and treated, while Harrison’s, as i wrote, feels almost entirely transparent, more the product of collage and juxtaposing elements than anything else.

  4. Pingback: New releases: Morton Feldman, Jonty Harrison, Chaya Czernowin | 5:4

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