Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnik—was decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. And the music’s phantasmagorical nature extended to its structure; a corresponding ascent, with sounds similar to those at the start, indicated a conclusion—but instead expanded into a lengthy section that swelled until it engulfed the space, her voice becoming a vast chorus. It was a typically spectacular performance, carefully controlled and organised yet with an exciting seat-of-the-pants execution from Ratkje.
Incidentally, one should mention in passing that Ratkje’s piece was the last of only 16 works at this year’s festival composed by women, compared with 76 by men. HCMF can be proud of many things, but not, i think, that particular statistic.
On Sunday, St Paul’s Hall became an oasis from the rampaging Huddersfield weather which, having shown some restraint through the week, finally opted to relieve itself all over the city. Inside was the festival’s now usual closing day highlight, the Arditti Quartet. Last year saw them performing all seven Dillon quartets, and this year’s concert was again an ambitious one, its 2-hour-plus programme featuring four works, two relatively brief, two considerably more extensive. John Zorn has extremely good form in the string quartet medium, yet The Remedy of Fortune didn’t live up to its impressive predecessors. Zorn’s invention is never in doubt, and in fact this was the major concern with this piece, which seemed to be nothing but invention: unchecked, unmanaged, connections non-existent, a display of mere content. The detailed programme, recounting a six-fold depiction of “the changing fortunes of romantic love”, could perhaps be heard in the opening few minutes, in some nice intermingling of ideas both tender and feisty, but thereafter was very hard to reconcile with the continual stream of consciousness that, even though at times it had the means to charm or entertain (Zorn can do this in his sleep), lacked the power to persuade. Harrison Birtwistle‘s String Quartet No 3: The Silk House Sequences was less concise but more focussed, although the tumbling episodes of its argument sounded as though they’d been sketched roughly in charcoal, the music coated in a layer of black soot. ‘Argument’, in fact, is exactly the right word for music that was undeniably compelling and convincing, but relayed in the gruffest, ‘take it or leave it’ terms imaginable. It’s a piece that invites a bit of a love-hate relationship, and even though that makes the convoluted contours of its drama rather dogged, i liked its attitude. In her 30-minute work Aus Liebe, Iris ter Schiphorst took us somewhere deeper, beyond the flashes of drama into a place of increasing darkness. The upper strings began at the periphery of the space, expressing flamboyant overtures; moving back inward to rejoin the cello (which had cut them off in a rude staccato grunt), the quartet entered into music full of bleak lyricism, modulated—increasingly obviously—by a deep underlying grief and/or anger (Schiphorst’s programme note refers to the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944, due to Nazi occupation, which affected her family). Aurally, the music was simple and direct, often akin to liquidised hymn tunes, yet emotionally felt deeply complex, one involving passage ending in a protracted high note, the piece becoming temporarily afflicted with tinnitus as though it had suffered a heavy blow to the head. This underlying emotion ultimately came to dominate, filling the lengthy final episode with a desperate sense of tragedy—and hurt, captured in loud spontaneous outbursts—whereupon it too, and finally this time, was rudely silenced. A remarkable and troubling piece. Klaus Lang‘s Seven Views of White had the daftest programme note of the festival (referring to “unknowable” steps taken by cows—no, seriously), yet that turned out not to matter in the least. Its wan, washed-out tonal palette suggested something that had been blurred and sharpened, blurred and sharpened, numerous times, resulting in a hazy environment filled with wafting artifacts. The whites of the title therefore came across like heavily sun-bleached colours, that had once formed shapes comprising memories that by now had drastically faded. The quartet thereby glanced on moments that felt briefly tangible, and allusory, familiar but immediately shifting out of alignment and out of focus again, creating an ambient field with a distinct hauntological aspect. An octave unison towards its conclusion swiftly proved unstable, resolving nothing, and instead Seven Views of White ended as perhaps it only could, one instrument dissolving away at a time. In a way hard to understand or articulate, it was all strangely moving; and watching the Ardittis maintain such complete focus in a work so far removed from the usual gymnastics to which composers usually resort for them, was absolutely gripping.