In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.
It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint.
Cutting explores two types of environment, calm and abrasive, the latter of which applies to the inner movements. The second movement seems playful at first, laying down a foundation of lively syncopated chords, but these soon become coated in varying quantities of glitch and hum, over the top of which chiming chords are projected. There’s a strong sense of clipping, as though the available bandwidth and/or resolution had become filled, and this is even more the case in the third movement, where all traces of pitch are essentially erased due to seemingly having pushed way beyond the narrow confines of its headroom, creating a beguiling lattice of vestigial noise. One suspects Cutting didn’t want to labour this too long, as it’s the shortest of the four movements, but while it lasts it’s very exciting.
Aesthetically speaking, the first and last movements superficially have a lot in common with the kind of third-rate ambient music for which a suitable epithet would be ‘flaccile’. It shares the languorous, low-cost pretty demeanour of that music, but is infinitely more compelling, Uttley using the Fender Rhodes as a percussion instrument, hitting its pickups with a mallet. Riven with mechanical clicks, blips and clunks, the combined effect of the live and recorded materials is delicate and fragile, where the loops (in a not dissimilar way to that of Leyland Kirby) become the basis for a wistful, even nostalgic kind of inner reverie. It’s interesting how the experience changes away from the concert hall, losing the visual presence of Uttley himself. Now rendered as pure sound, in both cases the live element here is seamlessly integrated with everything else, becoming a homogeneous artefact that’s akin to an old and faded photograph, which we are allowed to contemplate for a time before it abruptly disappears from view. As such, these movements are not only exquisitely beautiful but surprisingly moving.
The world première of I AM A STRANGE LOOP V was given by Richard Uttley in St Paul’s Hall at the start of the closing weekend of HCMF 2016.