The palpable buzz surrounding events at this year’s HCMF featuring music by composer-in-residence Georg Friedrich Haas (of an order considerably greater than that of the previous few years) continued before and during yesterday’s morning concert given by Trombone Unit Hannover. This was no doubt due to the UK performance of Haas’ remarkable Octet, a piece i celebrated earlier this year, but prior to this were three shorter works for solo trombones (it was surprising and very disappointing that the complete ensemble was only featured in that one piece). Another work of Haas’, aus freier Lust…verbunden…, one of ten solo pieces also performable as a decet, began by episodically exploring different takes, approaches and attempts at melodic utterance, moving back-and-forth between being open and muted (somewhat distracting on this occasion), before passing into painstaking gradations of microtonality (a hint of what was to come later), as though we had zoomed up close to examine the minute undulations on the surface of each pitch. More engrossing was Xenakis‘ short 1986 work Keren, taking the instrument on an even more exhaustive journey by turns fanfaric, lyrical, rude, plaintive, briefly lost and then blazingly focussed, prosaic and profound; having probed the extremes of the instrument, Xenakis finally plunged it into impossible depths. A piece that, thirty years on, still sounds impressively fresh. The last of these three opening ‘overtures’ was provided by Anders Hillborg, whose four-minute miniature Hautposaune is a witty cross between a duet and a squabble, the trombone grappling with a rigorously motoric tape part. Hillborg sets things up so that the one and only chance the instrument gets to break free of the tape’s constraints results in a helping of deliciously ripe cheese, before bringing about a furious, full-throttle conclusion, the piece practically crashing into its final barline like a train smashing into buffers. But, understandably, it was Haas’ Octet that emphatically stole the show, with its astonishing evolution through unisons, near-unisons, clusters, Shepard tone-like overlapping glissandi, quasi organum, harmonic series (beautifully executed with the ensemble partially muted) and ferocious buzzing growls. The way Haas imbues this overall evolution with such a seamless sense of organic inevitability is truly remarkable, and Trombone Unit Hannover’s ability to articulate each element with such ridiculous accuracy is just jaw-dropping.
Klangforum Wien returned to St Paul’s Hall in the evening to present four UK premières. Two of them were problematic: Beat Furrer‘s clarinet quintet Intorno al Bianco functions rather like a game, the clarinet continually disguised, hidden and otherwise buried within the combined sounds of the strings. For a time it promised to be interesting, the ensemble’s constant busyness subject to a slow collective drift, but ultimately was left so completely undifferentiated that it soon passed from simply monotonous to infuriatingly boring. The conclusion, when the clarinet ‘outs’ itself, messing up the unity/fluidity of the strings was nicely effective—but really needed to have happened at least ten minutes earlier. Austrian composer Eva Reiter‘s Noch sind wir ein Wort… features two soloists, double bass and contrabass recorder, and a ‘choir’ of ten performers brandishing a collection of lengthy pieces of pipe, makeshift trumpets and voice-altering gizmos, plus an electronic part. Quite apart from the fact that the recorder was practically inaudible throughout, this piece also suffered from a lack of differentiation and/or development; about three-quarters through, it developed, via the electronics, real rhythmic impetus that was very much more engaging—again, if only this could have happened a little sooner. (Reiter also deserves a prize for her splendidly pretentious programme note; you don’t encounter them as often these days, but it’s always a treat when you do.) The other two works were a world apart. Reinhard Fuchs‘ MANIA, apparently taking David Lynch’s Blue Velvet as both inspiration and aspiration, immediately creates a gritty, gnarly atmosphere permeated with occasional bursts of electronic sound. Intimidating surges were answered with long dirty drones, establishing a telling sequence of alternations between ferocious intensity and softer repose, articulated most via the use of timbre. Fittingly, the overall effect was of a spasmodic, even convulsive music, made yet more unsettling by an omnipresent other-worldly quality. All very Lynchian.
The final piece in the concert came as a blast of shock and awe of a kind so brilliant, so infinitely inventive and subtle, i struggle to think of anything i’ve heard that comes close. In her new work for soprano and ensemble, Skin, Rebecca Saunders seems not only to have fashioned a synthesis of everything she’s written in the last twenty-odd years, but taken it to an altogether new level. The work’s range of invention is simply enormous, and Saunders’ frankly amazing ear for timbre is almost unbelievable here. Always a fastidious composer, one can only imagine the sheer amount of painstaking patience and laborious care that it must have taken to put together music of such nuanced intricacy yet at the same time—as with all of Saunders’ work—sounding utterly spontaneous, as though it were being conceived and expressed in real time. The vocal line, conveying a text of Saunders’ own devising (performed with restrained but seriously potent intensity by Juliet Fraser), became the basis for what amounts to a full-blooded dramatic scena. The text was only occasionally audible, but it’s only one element in an instinctual narrative that at all times speaks with wincingly lucid clarity. Although it’s hardly unknown in her previous work, the extent of the ferocity exhibited in Skin was unexpectedly immense, sometimes threatening to pulverise the voice, other times (more often) acting more obviously in sympathy with it. Inner conflict is not, i think, the point in this piece, although a sense of fundamental rawness (in all its senses) is endemic to the music throughout, remaining true to the unquenchable source of inspiration Saunders finds in the eternally discomfiting words of Samuel Beckett. For the last few years i’ve been unable to listen to Saunders’ music with my eyes open, not only because it thereby enables me to really hear without distraction every tiny sound and gesture (and, believe me, some of the most impressive moments in Skin are gone in an instant and/or at the threshold of perceptibility), but also because it personally makes manifest the darkness within which her music plays/sings/cries out, in a plethora of vivid shades of monochrome.
Discussion about music so often and so quickly resorts to superlatives and exaggerated claims of greatness, but i have to say—calmly, rationally, without any deliberate hint of hyperbole—Rebecca Saunders’ Skin is one of the finest works of music i have ever heard. It is a rare, very genuine masterpiece.