Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.
In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox.
The main concern, returning to the ways it differs from her previous output, is whether the looser approach to musical management demonstrated here prevents its highly varied components from gelling properly. There are certainly numerous occasions where the piece felt confused—both about what was going on and how it sat in relation to what had gone before—and there were one or two moments that seemed to push the range of included ideas beyond what it could satisfactorily assimilate. The rain stick at the start was a little too on the nose (plus i can never shake off the memory of how prevalent these things were in Britain in the 1980s, when seemingly every self-respecting house—including, i admit, my own—wanted to possess one presumably to demonstrate their inherent worldliness via an ersatz ‘exotic’ artefact); the moments when Wu Wei briefly spoke and, later, introduced throat singing tugged hard at the work’s integrity to an extent that it could barely withstand; and the way the un-conducted conclusion encroached so closely on a kind of new age improvisation (all that was missing was a fire and some sandalwood) came across as an unconvincing experiment, though what Lim was reaching for here was obvious enough. So for once i found myself coming away from a work of Liza Lim’s full of uncertainty and no little bewilderment, but then maybe in some respects this is exactly the kind of reaction the piece was going to evoke: to my mind (and i really hope i haven’t completely missed the point), she clearly seems to be aiming at something else here, different ways of composing, of using and developing material, of enabling players to interact. Perhaps it just takes some getting used to; time, and further listenings, will tell: the piece is due to be released on Huddersfield’s HCR label in 2017.
Continuing the approach taken in his 2009 And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion), Aaron Cassidy’s The wreck of former boundaries is not simply a work for ensemble but a work comprising various smaller components – a brass trio, and individual solos for clarinet, double bass and electronics, all bearing this same title – composed such that they fit together (along with additional material) into a larger complete whole, using relatively modest forces: two trumpet soloists, clarinet, alto sax, trombone, electric lap steel guitar, double bass and electronics. This is, however, where the work’s modesty ends. i can only imagine that, as a child, nobody was particularly minded to ask Cassidy to shut up—or if they did, he clearly had other ideas. Cassidy doesn’t really do silence: his music usually consists of an intense, thoroughgoing, intricately detailed stream of sounds that at almost no point appears stable or sure, an outward manifestation of the composer’s intimate concern with exploring the possibilities of organising performers’ physical actions (as such, his scores are all about what happens, but provide only clues to the casual observer as to what the music will actually sound like). In some respects, The wreck of former boundaries is a double trumpet concerto—it was written as a showcase for Peter Evans and Tristram Williams—but also, not surprisingly considering its lineage, it works as a more generalised concerto for ensemble, with a roaming spotlight that alights on different individuals and configurations. Put another way, the instruments are used in a manner akin to organ stops, used alone and in combination to specific ends and effects.
This was extremely clear in the work’s opening minutes, beginning with a gymnastic double bass solo, full of huge glissandi and heavily marked percussive accents, to which one of the trumpets was added, only gradually finding its voice. This was all just an overture, though, as Cassidy then abruptly unleashed the first of the work’s almighty tuttis (save for the double bass, wisely not trying to compete!), saturating the bandwidth of our hearing with a torrent of individuated filigree, but quickly thinning to reveal more clearly the electronics and clarinet, leading to a hugely dramatic duet with the saxophone, the material of which felt so densely compacted it could have been made out of fragments from a neutron star. Subsequent manoeuvres involved similar thinnings around more intense episodes, including a stupendous trio of piccolo trumpet, quartertone flugelhorn and trombone, music so uncannily alien it was like a first encounter with some hitherto undiscovered indigenous community, and a later trumpet duet that fundamentally makes one reconsider what the instrument is and what it’s capable of: it’s certainly the first time i’ve heard it become genuinely percussive, Peter Evans twiddling a valve like a gas tap in a remarkable noise-based solo. Two aspects of the electronics (previously discussed here) provoked a little consternation: first was due to its soundworld which, unlike pretty much all of the instrumental material, had a certain familiarity—even over-familiarity, at times being not a million miles removed from that of FURT—which to my ear at times created an aesthetic dissonance that felt hard to resolve. And also one wondered as to whether the work as a whole was too dependent on the inclusion of the electronics, which now and then seemed to be ‘coasting’ in a way entirely dissimilar from every other aspect of the piece. But these were minor considerations, forgiven and forgotten in the immense level of excitement whipped up by the electronics, and especially in the work’s truly tremendous final tutti, an onslaught of Old Testament proportions calling on all members of the ensemble to new (in every sense) energetic extremes of orgiastic virtuosity. How on earth St Paul’s Hall remained standing is anyone’s guess.