Friday at HCMF began with a recital by rising star cellist Seth Parker Woods. I’ve had the opportunity to see Woods play once before (at HCMF 2014) and the experience was a highly impressive one, so I was very much looking forward to seeing him in action again. He did not disappoint, performing four challenging works, two of which involved live electronics. The acoustic pieces occupied soundworlds of an intimate, ephemeral nature. Alvin Singleton‘s Argoru II was sufficiently gestural that it took on a pervasive arbitrariness that frustrated engagement on anything but the most superficial level. Gray Neon Life by Edward Hamel was similar but explored much more interesting alternations between gesture and pitch with occasional fragments of a barely audible spoken text. Nonetheless it, too, conveyed an aloofness that made its transient filigree feel somewhat skin-deep. Despite these compositional concerns, Wood’s performance of both pieces was seriously involving, exploiting the intimacy to give the impression he was playing to every member of the audience personally, and even at times as though he were playing entirely to himself. George Lewis‘ Not Alone utilised electronics to echo, distort, resonate, flitter and skitter around and follow hot on the heels of the cello’s material. Structured as a clear sequence of contrasting episodes, there was a delirious playfulness in Lewis’ conveyor belt of wildly diverse musical offerings. As with all but the very best works in the bloated performer-does-something-and-computer-responds genre, there were times when the hierarchical relationship felt simplistic, obvious and even a trifle tired, but this was a minor shortcoming in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and convincing piece. The unquestionable highlight of the concert, though, was Pierre Alexandre Tremblay‘s asinglewordisnotenough3 (invariant), which provided both a composition masterclass in its seamless, aurally non-hierarchical interaction between acoustic and electronic, as well as a performance masterclass in its bravura display of frantic virtuosity from Woods. The work’s narrative was excellent, progressing through a series of evolving episodes each fuelled by the cello, many of them rhythmically taut (though never sounding metrically fixed) with a tendency later to expand out into more sustained soundscapes where the cello’s material was more buoyant. Utterly thrilling, and Woods unstoppable performance was outstanding.
The evening brought a return to Huddersfield of a pair of composers also featured two years ago, with more ambitious music than last time. At HCMF 2014, PlusMinus performed Alexander Schubert‘s Sensate Focus, a work involving intense physical coordination in conjunction with fixed electronic media and lighting. On this occasion, Ensemble Resonanz gave the UK première of Scanners, a 20-minute piece comprising a similarly audiovisual choreographic narrative. Schubert’s works are great entertainment; there’s not a lot going on beneath the intricately worked-out surface, but it’s superbly composed and controlled, and the five members of the ensemble called upon to be possessed by its messed-up machinations executed the piece with stunning accuracy. Meticulous, mindless fun. It was followed by the music of Elliott Sharp—the world première of whose Sylva Sylvarum was given by bass clarinet marvel Gareth Davis in 2014—and for the first time the composer himself was in the house. And, indeed, giving it large, once again with Davis (about whom i’ve written numerous times in the past) and Ensemble Resonanz, for the first UK performance of Sharp’s Oceanus Procellarum. The piece is semi-improvised, constructed from a large number of dramatically demarcated episodes. Although there was a certain unpredictability to the structure, a recurring idea involved the setting up of a gradual textural process in the strings, passing through several types of material—col legno tappings, clustered murmurings around a common pitch centre, rapid repeated downbows, soft ethereal clouds of pitches and so on, occasionally sounding like a microtonal incarnation of a viol consort—culminating in sudden harsh bass clarinet and electric guitar duets, Sharp and Davis carving violently abrasive shapes in the air; at times these sounded like huge, traumatic exhalations. Every now and again the fiery musical temperature cooled into warm ambience, coaxing exquisite high lyrical wails and multiphonics from Davis over Sharp’s ever-so-slightly edgy drones. Taken as a whole, the piece evoked the raw elementalism of Xenakis, shot through with an exciting level of spontaneity that continually meant anything could have happened next.