Here we go again (deep breath)…
The opening concert of the 40th edition of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival immediately gave one pause for thought. What it wasn’t was a conventional wallop, a smack around the ears to wake us up out of our complacency, such as the one given by Jennifer Walshe and the Ardittis twelve months ago (from which i’m still not sure i’ve fully recovered). What it was though, at least in part, was a demonstration of the importance, potential and power of lyricism. If this sounds a bit slight in comparison, it isn’t, for in itself it’s another example of how open-minded HCMF has become under Graham McKenzie’s leadership. i have to confess that, prior to McKenzie taking over, my interest in HCMF had dwindled to nothing, due to how narrow and entirely predictable it had become. Somewhere along the way, the capacity for music to breathe and to provide scope for extended lyrical contemplation got essentially squeezed out. At last night’s opening concert in St Paul’s Hall given by Red Note Ensemble, there was almost a sense of defiance in the way one piece after another contributed to an atmosphere that, by its close, had become almost opulent.
We got there initially via a pair of works by Swiss composer Stephanie Haensler. Despite (or even because of) its microtonal inflections and bouts of croaking and scraping, Haensler’s duo ganz nah – performed beautifully by Romaine Bolinger (violin) and Lora-Evelin Vakova-Tarara (piano) – projected an intense melodic yearning. Both players seemed joined at the hip, moving together as part of a single act of expression, and this was especially lovely in the work’s closing moments, uniting around a slithery, withdrawn melody. A similar urge was evident in her ensemble piece Im begriffe, emerging from fast staccati and an outbreak of thunder as an assertive communal line, each note of which was articulated as a small clustered splat, strange but disarmingly lovely. Coming in the middle of the concert, Wiek Hijmans’ performance of Morton Feldman‘s reconstructed Possibility of a New Work for Electric Guitar and Christian Wolff‘s Another Possibility served as a form of palate cleanser reset, Feldman’s typically sweet and focused, Wolff’s typically arbitrary and ugly, though concluding with a nicely sinuous coda. The world première of James Dillon‘s 40-minute Tanz/haus : triptych 2017 occupied the remainder of the concert. This is definitely a piece to be explored a lot more at a later date – as soon as it had finished i immediately wanted to hear it again – but on the strength of this first contact, it bears a resemblance to The Louth Work: Orphic Fragments (premièred in Drogheda earlier this year). Once again, a small group of players go on an extended, contemplative journey into a fantastical soundscape, although in this respect Tanz/haus : triptych 2017 goes further, conveying less a sense of austere ritual than of sumptuous delights. You can boil down Dillon’s po-faced programme note into four words: ‘Tanz = tremble; haus = hide’ (due to their respective etymologies), and the trembling was certainly evident through the work, manifesting in trills and tremolandi that formed a shivering and fluttering undercurrent throughout. The specifics of Dillon’s soundworld were ravishing: sortilege bursts of chiming glitter, coloured with florid counterpoint and suspended chords and drones. It would be overstating it to call it ‘other worldly’; this was a kind of ‘in between music’, as if emerging through Lewis Carroll’s looking glass, rarefied yet almost tangible. More than once it brought Angelo Badalamenti’s music for the works of David Lynch to mind; the second movement in particular, with a hanging synth chord and languid electric guitar arpeggios, dripping with vibrato. One could almost imagine the ghost of Laura Palmer nearby. i’ve not really heard anything like it in the concert hall, proof that Dillon’s unique and bold approach to lyricism continues to offer up surprises and ever new quantities of beauty.
A combination of hype and hope certainly contributed in part to the late evening concert by Ensemble 2e2m and zeitkratzer turning out to be one of the most dismal performances i’ve ever witnessed at HCMF. Surprisingly, Kasper Toeplitz‘s Agitation/Stagnation lived up more to the latter part of that title; its opening minutes were arresting: like hearing layers of heavily compressed strata all moving individually, leading to a registral polarisation of deep rumbling growls and high squealing calls. But the promise of these opening ideas was barely borne out in what followed; the climax was striking, the whole ensemble squashed into a narrow bass bandwidth, but the over-indulgent duration (37 minutes) and flabby formal design made for a frustrating listen. But this was as nothing beside the monumental misconception that was the subsequent supposed rendition of Lou Reed‘s Metal Machine Music. A lot’s been said about this album, little of it of any meaningful value; the verdict seems to be to presume that Reed was taking the piss due to awkward contractual obligations, and then use this as an excuse not to approach the music with any seriousness. Heard on its own terms, though, Metal Machine Music is a genuine oddity, unlike anything else, and still ranks among the most punishing aural experiences ever created. Any consideration of this album doesn’t take very long to use the word ‘noise’. It’s easy to position noise as a pole, but at the opposite end of what: silence? pitch? beauty? clarity? organisation? In the case of Reed’s album, it’s pretty much all of these things; it’s not remotely defined by loudness but by saturation, confining itself to a higher register bandwidth and then cramming it completely. It’s not unlike having a circular saw held next to each ear for 64 minutes. Or like dunking your head in acid. What was served up in Bates Mill Blending Shed last night i can only liken to an exercise in complex ambient music, with a tremolando drone running pretty much throughout (providing a huge focal point!), overlaid with swells of activity, some rumbles and crashes, plinky-plonky white note piano noodlings, and some earnest attempts to be shrill. It was like the final chord of an overblown neo-romantic piece of music extended for an hour—and, i have to say, it was perfectly pleasant to listen to, at times even pretty. Therefore, as an attempt to ‘recreate’ Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music it could hardly have been a more complete and utter failure. Hands down one of the most stupid, ineptly-conceived things i’ve ever had the misfortune to hear.
Thank goodness, Maja S K Ratkje and Kathy Hinde were on hand to salvage the evening, bringing the day to an end in Bates Mill Photographic Studio with Red Note Ensemble’s performance of their installation piece Aeolian. Initially, i sat at the side of the space and just listened, content not to be simply and superficially drawn to its visual aspects. But it worked magic: never have i seen and heard such a kaleidoscopic panoply of bizarre and exotic musical instruments used in a way that cancels out completely the idea of novelty. This was so true that i found myself looking at the ‘regular’ instruments – accordion, flute, cello and so on – and wondering what the fundamental difference was between these and the home-made gadgets and gizmos surrounding them. In Aeolian, there really is no difference between them, all united in the most beautiful, exquisitely-designed and executed ballet of action and sound, like a tender exquisite lullaby, perfect before heading off to bed.