A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate.

Not so much though in Cassidy’s electronics-only version of The wreck of former boundaries, one of a suite of works bearing this name that take past recordings of Cassidy’s work as ‘found material’, extensively re-worked into an electronic fabric used in conjunction with various electroacoustic groupings (ELISION are presenting the UK première of the ensemble version at HCMF 2016). The omnipresent clarity that these were existing sounds that had been heavily processed palled after a while. On the one hand, i valued highly the work’s preparedness to embrace the torrential qualities of noise in its density of materials (though to call it an ‘onslaught’ would be an exaggeration), and the overall drama of the piece pretty much works, with some very nice unexpected moments here and there. But as a whole it felt somehow insufficient; it’ll be illuminating to hear how Cassidy integrates aspects of this material into its electroacoustic permutations. The highlight of the concert for me was Richard Barrett‘s Transmission, a piece i’ve not had the pleasure of hearing for many years. In some respects, the particulars of the electronics today sound over-familiar and even somewhat dated, but it’s more than mitigated by the guitar part. Wow! Transmission has always been to my mind one of the greatest bursts of avant-garde lyricism, and the way Magas wielded his electric guitar was genuinely lovely and often rather moving. The relationship with the electronics is deliberately problematic, yet the friction that results is breathlessly exciting, Barrett finding an entirely new way to make the instrument sing. St Giles’ Cathedral became an immense sympathetic reverb unit, reinforcing both the melody, crackling with real and metaphorical electricity, as well as the extremes of the electronics, particularly its deep bass rumbles and poundings. An exhilarating performance.

Somewhat out on a limb from the other events was the Saturday afternoon concert given by Edinburgh Experimental Musicians. It was the sole event involving multiple performers, and the only one taking place during the day, while members of the the public were walking around the building. Although not problematic in and of itself, it was impossible not to hear each piece without the vibrancy of its context as a significant additional presence. Some simply got lost in the gentle hubbub, Pauline Oliveros‘ vocal work Old Sound, New Sound, Borrowed Sound Blue, clearly an unusual piece in the manner of its vocalisms, was barely audible for almost its entire duration, and the restrained, sustained pitches of John Cage‘s Five were similarly affected, albeit to a lesser degree. Organism II by John Hails, pretty much audible throughout, was a serious taxer of patience, aimless individuated actions occasionally shot through with a united three-note motif for no very good reason. Definitely music from the more self-indulgent end of the experimental spectrum. The problems in audibility became a positive boon for the other work of John Cage’s in the program, Litany of the Whale. Comprising a large collection of sung fragments varying a vaguely cadential phrase, they too were swallowed up by the space—but heard within a cathedral they became distant, ghostly echoes of chant, as though memories from the building’s 900-year life were bleeding from its columns. Robert Ashley‘s In memoriam… ESTEBAN GOMES was also very striking, in part due to its overt simplicity, establishing a somewhat free movement between periods of tonal focus and defocus, in the process moving from peaceful drones to more lively and forceful counterpoint, and it also established a strong balance between the individual and the group. Simple, but very effective.

The early evening brought to St Giles’ Cathedral one of new music’s most brilliant flautists, Richard Craig. The wall of music stands separating him from the audience became seemingly transparent due to the raw power of Craig’s performance. Fabrice Fitch‘s Agricola IXd and Brice Pauset‘s Eurydice were low-key affairs, the former meditating on a nice, slow-moving line with microtonal shadings, the latter elegant but glossy and as a result, somewhat unengaging—though the pianissimo conclusion was wonderful, Craig making impossibly delicate low notes speak with remarkable clarity. Ulpirra for bass flute by Michael Finnissy was surprisingly impenetrable, undeniably attractive but coming across like a highly-polished surface. One could hardly fault Craig’s performance of Brian Ferneyhough‘s Unity Capsule, yet he couldn’t overcome the work’s endemic issues which—unlike Cassandra’s Dream Song—to my mind make it come across as a kind of encyclopaedic work-out, in the process tethering the performer to the ground. It was impossible not to feel excited about Craig’s rapid-fire rendition of it (lasting a mere eleven minutes; though Aaron Cassidy tells me he’s experienced Craig perform it in just nine!), i only wish it was possible to get as excited about the music on its own terms. Excitement was everywhere, though, in Evan Johnson‘s émoi (another work for bass flute) and James Dillon‘s Sgothan. Johnson turns the performer into a creature with avian overtones, soft subdued phrases—performed by Richard Craig as if absent-mindedly to himself—embellished with tiny vocalisations, whistles, hisses, clicks, all extremely quiet, sometimes at the cusp of audibility. It was as exquisitely lovely as it was fragile, and Craig’s performance was just mesmerising. For my money, Sgothan is easily one of the finest pieces ever written for the flute. Composed in 1984, the work seems to embody the graceful manoeuvres of assorted insects—butterflies, bees, dragonflies—as though Dillon had somehow found a way to translate them directly into sound. That’s what the music resembled, whereas Richard Craig became a spellcaster, the flute his wand, each of Dillon’s unutterably gorgeous phrases seemingly spiralling out from the instrument to form elaborate reverberant shapes throughout the cathedral. Arresting, affecting, and so, so gorgeous. Definitely a performance and a concert that will stay in the memory for many years to come.

From strings to wind to voice: Alba New Music 2016 was concluded with soprano Peyee Chen, in a recital that was as much about the potential of the voice than simply about song. Erin Gee‘s Mouthpieces I and II involved rapid switches between a pair of microphones, alternating twin streams of miniature vocal tics that were behaviourally static yet strangely engrossing. The second of the two pieces gave the sense that here were ideas either too soft to be heard or (more interestingly) unable/unwilling to articulate themselves properly. Récitations 11 and 12 by George Aperghis present highly repetitive cut-up fragments of words, phrases, exclamations and the like that showed-off Chen’s dramatic skills, moving between disparate emotional states and characters in the blink of an eye. One kept feeling the impulse to be amused, however there was something powerfully unsettling about it all, as though the product of a mind damaged or unravelling. Michael Finnissy‘s Song 1 and Song 16 reverted to a more conventional soundworld, Chen’s impeccable tone unleashing melodic lines that soared all around, capturing a delightfully spontaneous lyrical flow. Electronics were added for Scott McLaughlin‘s Snowflake, a piece of beautiful simplicity. Small discrepancies between sustained sung pitches are reinforced by the electronics, creating a kind of ambient ‘cloud’ surrounding Chen; the connection between the two elements took a short while to clarify, but when it did the closeness set up a fascinating dialogue, one’s attention constantly shifting between the vocal and electronic sounds, hearing and re-hearing one in relation to the other. Bringing the concert (and the festival) to an end with music by Jennifer Walshe suggests going out with a WTF bang, though her “Three Songs” by Ukeoirn O’Connor, composed in 2007, is a relatively restrained piece. Created in the guise of one of Walshe’s multifarious Grúpat alter-egos, the songs are self-accompanied on a ukulele. The middle “song” simply comprises a lengthy exercise in strumming around a few related chords, wilfully obstinate (amusingly so). The outer songs, on the other hand, made Peyee Chen resemble a troubadour from another world. The first explores a weird mix of singing/vocalise styles and mannerisms over halting ukulele chords; the last reverses the roles, constant ukulele arpeggiations, undulating in speed, under halting bursts of melody. Both of them hypnotically beguiling as only Walshe can be.

A fitting end to the first Alba New Music Festival which, without the hype and hullabaloo that surrounds most festivals these days, proved itself a quietly dazzling triumph, a mass of miniature miracles. To be so immersed, moved, provoked and entertained in every concert is a rarity, something to be truly proud of, and one can only hope that this is the first of many years of avant-garde music-making in the heart of Edinburgh.

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