From queries to plings: following an opening night that raised more questions (and objections) than its respective composers perhaps intended, Saturday night at HCMF moved emphatically in the direction of the epic. Not simply in terms of duration, although that was certainly a factor: Claudia Molitor‘s 60-minute Walking with Partch, the world première of which was performed by members of Ensemble Musikfabrik, didn’t simply justify its duration but absolutely required it. Using a few of the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, the piece unfolds at a pace that allows everything, both the assortment of instrumental interactions and also the sounds themselves, time to speak, to resonate and to be considered. From the start, sporadic material from various players mixed with electronic textures, there was a clear sense of timbral connectivity, elements of imitation that later became more substantially worked into fully-fledged dialogues, usually but not always in the form of duos. While a great deal of Walking with Partch sounds like the product of structured and/or partially pre-planned improvisation, there were times when a broader impetus dominated the ensemble, such as when a strange triple metre initiated a kind of grotesque dance comprising distorted and contorted lines, or a later brass and bass clarinet trio that sounded like a disintegrated chorale. Probably wisely, Molitor avoided evoking Partch in anything but the most indirect way: the highly sectional nature of the piece was a clear connection to Partch, but the most overwhelming evocation was the sheer love of sound the piece demonstrated, surely Harry Partch’s most fundamental passion. This was given vivid expression in a sequence that i can only describe as a sonic ‘love-in’, where the players moved around the space freely teasing and toying with the assortment of percussion instruments in a protracted episode of gentle aural and tactile revelry. Molitor’s piece also faced a similar dilemma to that of Partch’s music: the temptation was to watch throughout, fascinated by its physical machinations (even more so due to being seated in the round, which heightened the sense of theatricality), but it was only after shutting my eyes that the vivid clarity of the music became complete: suddenly the work’s shifting textures and points of coincidence attained a new level of wonder and beauty. Too many works of this kind could essentially go on forever, but Walking with Partch had a supremely convincing conclusion, arriving at a place of still calm and reverberation. An outstanding, unforgettable experience.
The concert also featured a quartet of solo works. Liza Lim‘s The Green Lion Eats the Sun fought valiantly against the unwieldy timbral qualities of the double-bell euphonium, featuring marvellous moments when a tiny voice seemed to be struggling to emerge from behind its mute, whereas John Zorn‘s Merlin for Marco Blaauw’s double-bell trumpet fired notes in all directions at breakneck speed, sparks emanating from material exploring variations of clarity in terms of muting, embouchure and breathing; it was hugely effective, particularly the rapid-fire alternations between the bells (one open, one muted) to punctuate its melodies. In Rebecca Saunders‘ brand new work for bass flute, Bite, the signature sound on this occasion was a rapid, very breathy crescendo, pursued so relentlessly that, more than is usually the case in her work, it became borderline obsessive. Though obviously inhabiting an entirely different soundworld, the work brings to mind something of the slithering quality of Debussy’s Syrinx, Helen Bledsoe regularly navigating her instrument into the deepest recesses of Saunders’ very particular kind of blackness, where figments of constricted syllables fought to speak and one could glimpse (only just) the most exquisitely infinitesimal whispers and whistles. Enno Poppe utilised a modest drum kit, enlivened with various non-standard instruments, for his 2014 work Fell. The simplicity of this piece, essentially a 10-minute expression of the composer’s love of percussive sounds, was its greatest asset; in the hands of the irrepressible Dirk Rothbrust, its gradually increasing levels of intricacy and complexity could hardly have been more exhilarating. (i was fortunate enough to be sat literally just a few feet behind Rothbrust—an ear-splittingly marvellous place to be!)
As evening came, and darkness fell, the time was right for a return to the epic, courtesy of this year’s composer-in-residence, Georg Friedrich Haas. St Paul’s Hall was first set aflame in Haas’ astonishing Hyena, a work created in collaboration with his wife, Mollena Lee Williams-Haas, which the composer describes as a ‘concerto for storyteller and ensemble’. The text, performed by Mollena herself, graphically recounts her experiences grappling with alcoholism, rehab and recovery, written and delivered in a way that falls nicely in between prose and poetry (surely the place where true storytelling should be). Haas’ music, performed here by Klangforum Wien, uses a very simple musical conceit: consonance, typified by the clarity of the harmonic series, is associated with the all too human urge to take the simplest path of least resistance, a path that leads, at best, to cheap non-solutions and, at worst, to demonic, self-destructive drives that threaten to subsume and consume us. Dissonance therefore takes on connotations directly associated with the realities of life and of living: our struggles, determinations and above all our inherent restlessness that is perhaps the quintessence of life itself. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” goes the saying. Furthermore, Haas’ music is utterly relentless, never stopping, a sea of anxiety-riven tremolandi that continually threaten to rise up and engulf everything. The combination of words and music in Hyena is utterly triumphant; while one expects the outcome to be positive one, that takes away nothing from the grim drama that forms the work’s very firmament. There were moments of laughter along the way (Williams-Haas performance was enchantingly intimate), but of the blackest kind, incited by an awareness that nothing less than death was being stared in the face at close proximity. The appearances of the hyena, personifying the temptation to drink, were among the work’s most striking moments of musical drama, Haas making consonance sound like the most seductively dangerous and repellant thing you’ve ever heard. But ultimately, everything in Hyena began and ended in the person of Mollena, whose frank narrative was devastating in its immediate emotional honesty. The work’s conclusion, as both recounted character and live performer, found her positively radiant, like a personification of kintsugi, broken but restored, and shining. During the applause, the lengthy solemn embrace between storyteller and composer, husband and wife, was deeply poignant; i haven’t been so moved by a piece of contemporary music for as long as i can remember.
Whereupon we were plunged into a different kind of darkness for the Arditti Quartet’s world première performance of Haas’ String Quartet No. 10, somewhat hastily composed for them when Haas realised his Ninth Quartet (composed earlier this year for the JACK Quartet) just didn’t ‘fit’ the Ardittis. Building on its periodic use in his most famous work in vain, the entire 40-minute piece is performed in complete darkness, the players (obviously without music) sitting in a tight square facing each other. Just as in in vain, it’s impossible to regard the darkness as neutral; we’re used to seeing things and the fact that we were now confronted by an altogether transformed concert environment, the music has to be heard in relation to that darkness, perhaps because of it, maybe even (thinking of Hyena) in spite of it. My impression, not unlike the situation in Hyena, was of a music that could not – dared not – stop, lest the darkness permeate everything like a dense, viscous fluid. In such an implacable context as this, the Ardittis didn’t so much seem to be playing their material as living it, united in attitude as well as direction, constantly moving from one place to another, characterised by gradual shifts in register, articulation, dynamic and so on. Its duration passed astonishingly quickly, and somehow when the seemingly endless flux finally ceased, there was no sense of exhaustion or defeat; just as in Hyena, one came away convinced that the Arditti Quartet had taken on the darkness and, against all odds, had won.