Music festivals understandably like to start with a bang; the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival began with a WTF. And not just one but two of them, courtesy of Jennifer Walshe with the Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Musikfabrik with Peter Brötzmann. Their respective ‘WTF-ness’ was partly superficial, partly the stark nature of the collaborations, and partly a by-product of the tenacity of the composers with regard to their ideas, in both cases perhaps best described as ‘dogged’.
To be fair, the fact that the UK première of Jennifer Walshe’s EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT in St Paul’s Hall was a bit of a mind-fuck hardly came as a surprise. Walshe’s work in recent years has become ever more entranced with mashing-up, condensing, distilling and generally revelling in the infinite kaleidoscope of effervescence and effluent the world contains, or in the case of her amazing Historical Documents of the Irish Avant-Garde, creating things the world didn’t already contain but jolly well should have. Her 2014 work The Total Mountain (reviewed here) viewed the world as represented (if that’s the right word) through the filter of the internet; it does this with disorienting, even downright baffling gusto, and while EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT clearly has a different agenda, its modus operandi is extremely similar. And so was the disorientation; i often found Adam Curtis coming to mind, whose brilliant documentaries employ the same bold, in-your-face, sans serif messages across the screen as an integral component of its message as appear in Walshe’s work. But where Curtis binds everything together in a cogent (albeit complicated), perception-altering narrative, Walshe’s approach seems more to throw a myriad such messages at the audience in the hope that they’ll coalesce into something coherent. At least, i wonder if that’s her hope: with Jenny Walshe its often perilous to know exactly where to put one’s faith. In any case, there’s something defiant and rather delightful in its presentation of an endless stream of images all apparently full of content—yet where their juxtaposition and combination renders that inherent meaning moot, even incomprehensible. Reinforced by that shouty title, the superficial qualities of EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT are in their own way fantastically engrossing (not unlike the lengthy apparently-meaningful-but-actually-entirely-null texts with which Andrew M. McKenzie accompanied so many Hafler Trio releases), but beneath the surface of this avant-garde impressionism it’s more difficult to ascertain exactly what is Walshe’s real point. If she has one. Notice how i haven’t even mentioned the music yet? As always with Walshe, the music is compellingly vivid, and while the role of the quartet in this piece felt at times rather spurious, this was greatly outweighed by the telling interactions between Walshe and the Ardittis demonstrated elsewhere. But the integration of sound and image in Walshe’s work is complete, and one engages with the music only via and in constant respect to the visual aspects of the piece, and it’s here, again, that i found myself, ultimately, frustrated. When Adam Curtis peels back reality and makes connections between its apparently disjunct threads, he shocks, stuns, appalls, but ultimately illuminates. On this first (but I sincerely hope not last) encounter, EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT left me feeling that its title was laden with nothing but the heaviest irony, and (as in The Total Mountain) that the world, though full of content and meaning, has nonetheless become vapid and inane. It’s a piece that no doubt needs multiple encounters to appreciate more deeply, but i’m left wondering if Walshe’s undeniable brilliance and ambition is served best by such esoteric streams of memes, stock footage and slogans.
It’s difficult to know quite how to write about Michael Wertmüller’s work for Musikfabrik and Peter Brötzmann, antagonisme contrôlé, as it’s very simply one of the most disastrous acts of composition i’ve ever witnessed. Wertmüller speaks of bringing together the worlds of composed new music and uncomposed improvisation, but he does this in the most achingly immature and oversimplistic way. On one side we had Musikfabrik, characterised by a musical behaviour that channelled hard the spirits of Zappa, Stravinsky and one or two other entities with varying levels of pastichery—in short, a kind of pretentious, aesthetically indecisive bunch. On the other side we had Brötzmann, acting the role not so much of a saxophonist as someone who had just stumbled on the instrument and decided to blow the thing as though his life depended on it. The result, unsurprisingly, was various manifestations of antagonism, chiefly heard in Brötzmann riling up the ensemble to shed their conformity and let rip with imitations of his empty, pugilistic nihilism, but since both of Wertmüller’s respective musical ideas were so lacking in anything worth pursuing—not so much archetypes as stereotypes—it was hard to know who to root for more. Or, indeed, less. The musical results were flat, uninspired and so protracted (over half an hour) that it eventually became disgracefully cyclic and self-indulgent. It certainly did no favours to the talents of the performers. An example to composers everywhere of What Not To Do.
Both concerts made far deeper impressions in their smaller-scale offerings. The Ardittis’ first UK performance of Alfred Zimmerlin’s String Quartet No. 4 was magnificent in the most understated way. Its four movements explore delicately differentiated soundworlds, bringing to mind the sensitive musical aesthetic heard so much at last year’s festival. The first: faint, tentative, muted melancholy with blunt moments of fortitude, while the second was founded upon a rising cello fundamental, providing a context for the other players’ bursts of activity. Here and elsewhere Zimmerlin somehow creates an uncanny kind of ‘second hand’ energy, as though the quartet were a simulacrum or a group of automatons. The third movement introduces apparition-like glimpses of melody within the quartet’s microtonal counterpoint, injecting a new lyricism into music hitherto more textural in nature. These moments of coalescence were genuinely wondrous, momentary flashes of the beyond amidst somewhat prosaic chatter, lending the movement an increasingly ecstatic flavour. The final movement was softest and slowest of all, a pale line of melody, blasted and/or bleached, like folk fiddling carried on the wind in the place of abject desolation. Fabulous music from a composer i confess was new to me, whose work i now need to explore very much further.
Back in Bates Mill with Musikfabrik, similarly marvellous things happened. Not, it has to be said, in George Lewis‘ rather woeful trombone solo Oraculum, a piece not so much articulated as hobbled by its catalogue of extended techniques, in no way integrated within a larger timbral or behavioural palette, sounding clumsy and compartmentalised. Georg Friedrich Haas‘ I can’t breathe, on the other hand—a solo trumpet work performed by Marco Blaauw—inhabited a beautifully intimate, nocturnal soundworld, Blaauw’s instrument genuinely singing, as if to itself. Its melody was given poignancy through regular alternations between open and muted passages (crystal clear on Blauuw’s double-bell trumpet) and occasional quiet growls and purrs. The highlight of HCMF’s opening night was Musikfabrik’s UK première of Marcin Stańczyk‘s Some Drops. A fascinating exploration of complex lyricism, the piece moves through a sequence of episodes beginning with a forlorn, strained trumpet (Blaauw again) behind the audience, interacting with the ensemble who are seemingly teetering at the cusp of letting loose something warm and familiar, yet always halting. As the trumpet progresses closer to the front of the space, the piece develops into a dense network of counterpoint, impressively combining individuated abandon with an overall sense of unity. Something of the opening atmosphere slowly returns, leading to an extended section of subdued, allusive music, utterly gorgeous and defying one’s ear to untangle the gently knotted components of its texture. Subsequent instances of a drum beat felt like a misstep, at odds with the effective semi-vagueness permeating hitherto, yet this tiny flaw did nothing to reduce the work’s overall impression, which was rapturously lovely. I was grateful for these smaller-scale triumphs, which only seemed to reinforce how superficial the larger works had seemed.