In the late evening of the Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik‘s opening day, inside the town’s small but elegantly decorated Johanniskirche, the JACK Quartet gave the world premières of a pair of works of an entirely different disposition from that of Ferneyhough and Birtwistle, heard earlier that afternoon.
Italian-Swiss composer Oscar Bianchi‘s Pathos of Distance essentially re-programs the string quartet such that the cello becomes a conspicuous rogue element. Through a mixture of whirling, clicking, whirring and croaking wald teufels (a.k.a. forest devils or, most appropriately, frog callers) and more protracted, harmonic- and tremolando-laden bowed materials, the upper strings were clearly well-disposed to work together, sharing and imitating. Whereas the cello – visually enhanced by Kevin McFarland’s unique attire, jacket-less with shirt sleeves rolled up – took on the role of ‘bovver boy’, grinding, twanging, buzzing and poinging his strings, de- and re-tuning them, often situated four or five octaves below the rest. Both the exploration of this relationship – which did vary, and at times all four players were clearly united – as well as Bianchi’s intricate and imaginative textural narrative were engrossing, right up until the somewhat ritualistic final minutes, including a wave of ‘roars’, a viola and cello duet (the viola now also detuned, and played with a cello bow!) and a concluding flurry of ratcheting. Thoroughly immersive and, in the best possible sense, entertaining.
Timothy McCormack‘s Your Body is a Volume seemed at first to be harnessing texture as its modus operandi. In some respects, it was an even more extreme form of texture than Bianchi’s, taking notions of grinding and croaking to their absolute limit, the quartet’s bows moving with eerie sluggishness, as though caught between lethargy and indifference. The work’s duration is entirely occupied with this remarkable stuff to the point where it almost seemed less appropriate to think of it as music as ‘bandwidth’. But as the minutes passed and the quartet moved along their glacially slow trajectory, it came more and more to resemble – i’m not kidding – a chorale. Modulated by the very texture itself, pitches and harmonies, even chords, seemed to be materialising – both the combination of sounds from the four players as well as spontaneously emerging from within each instrument – barely substantial enough to be tangible but perceptible at least, though retaining the possibility that they could be entirely imaginary. For nearly half an hour, like a vinyl record played back at a single revolution per minute, McCormack filled the Johanniskirche with wheezing, laborious strands of this almost-maybe impossible music, which never ceased to be simultaneously baffling and marvellous.
The following evening, in the modern, spacious hall of Witten’s Blote-Vogel-Schule, a conjunction of astronomical proportions took place: the quartets Arditti and JACK joined forces for two expanded quartet works by Serbian-born, Berlin-based Milica Djordjević and US composer Rand Steiger. Both works spacially positioned the eight performers around the edges of the hall. Djordjević’s Indigo, also receiving its world première, arranged them symmetrically, one quartet on each side up in the balconies. Hers was an unstable music, moving between extremes of pressure, both too much and too little. In addition to the music, she used the physical separation to reinforce further the differences between the two quartets, which initially were slight but at times grew to a substantial gestural and lyrical divide. Ultimately, Djordjević minimised this sense of division, reuniting the players and ensuring they were essentially working towards the same ends. But boy did she make them work: for all their unity, Djordjević’s highly-wrought, frantic material conveyed an atmosphere of desperation, the quartets continuing to plough into musical buffers with an overpressurised crunch. It was this emphasis on energetic gesture and behaviour that typified what was an exhilarating piece, though its unexpected shift towards softness at the end made for an even more effective conclusion.
For the first performance of Undone, Rand Steiger distributed the players differently, placing a focal point at the front, in the form of Irvine Arditti, flanked on each side of the stage by the cellos; the rest were again distributed among the balconies. Arditti’s violin acted as a source for the work’s material – sometimes streaming, sometimes fired out – continued by the upper strings and counterpointed by the cellos with drones and varying intensities of pizzicato. There was, it must be said, rather too much of this, making its mere 15-minute duration seem considerably longer as one’s interest began to wane. However, one particular episode made Undone especially memorable, Steiger switching to more ‘ambient’ material, where pitches were passed around the space and then hovered and swelled individually, like planetary bodies glowing in the firmament, highlighting the considerable size of the expanded soundfield. This was easily one of the more magical moments heard over the course of the festival’s three days.
The last quartet of this year’s festival was Philippe Hurel‘s Entre les Lignes, premièred by the Ardittis at the start of the final day. To an extent, this felt like a return to the kind of soundworlds of the opening afternoon, particularly in the way Hurel, like Birtwistle, effortlessly presented an enormously varied and engaging musical narrative, moving through tightly-synchronised tuttis (the accuracy of the Ardittis rhythmic unisons was just amazing), homogeneous textures, elements passed around the players, alternating between highly metric and freely-floating music. A lovely early episode of calm was later developed into a mesmerising extended sequence in which more and more material gradually infiltrated it. Twice the piece migrated into the stratosphere, the second time bringing the work to a close. This was music of total mastery, full of blisteringly hot intensity yet which Hurel was able to manipulate and moderate without ever letting its pent-up energy fizzle out. My memory tells me that the range of its language was kept reasonably limited, Hurel thereby able to forge connections over both its short- and long-term structure, yet i also came away feeling convinced that Hurel had somehow showed me the entire world. A piece i urgently want and need to experience again. Just wonderful.