HCMF 2017: The Otheroom, Ensemble Modern + Arditti Quartet, zeitkratzer perform Kraftwerk

Yesterday at HCMF was unusual, personally speaking, as for the most part it involved hearing music not for the first time. In the evening at St Paul’s Hall, Ensemble Modern and the Arditti Quartet gave the first UK performances of Carola Bauckholt‘s Laufwerk, Christopher Trapani‘s PolychROME and Brian Ferneyhough‘s 45-minute collection of ‘encounters’ with the music of Christopher Tye, Umbrations. Bauckholt’s work was new to me, and it worked well as a concert-opener, moving through a sequence of motoric episodes, each one an imitation then an elaboration of a collection of prerecorded sounds made by Bauckholt “when I was alone”. Though not particularly memorable, it was energising and fun. i’ve written at some length about the Trapani and Ferneyhough works following their premières in Witten earlier this year. Hearing PolychROME again was a real treat, and on the strength of this second hearing i came away feeling that the piece works rather like a trap. Behaviourally, it quite quickly feels settled, inasmuch as its ants-in-the-pants jerks and spasms, qualified by brief chord swells, becomes almost too familiar. The turning point – and in hindsight, it’s hard not to hear this as Trapani heralding the start of what’s discreetly about to happen – comes with a prominent horn passage, almost fanfaric. As the music continues, dryer and sharper than ever, one becomes aware that everything is becoming more and more shrill, like a blurred scream coming more and more into the sharpest of focus. And before you even know how you got there, the entire ensemble is shrieking at you, each one louder and more relentlessly cranium-drilling than the last, triggering in the hall a welter of hands being rushed to lightweight ears. Absolutely wonderful. As for the Ferneyhough, hearing it again surprisingly made it sound less rich and ‘romantic’ than it had seemed a few months ago. That being said, once you accept the fact that this is most definitely not a ‘cycle’ – it simply doesn’t work if you try to hear it like that, as had been apparent in Witten – but a collection of individual engagements with Christopher Tye’s music, each movement has an integrity and rigorous sense of purpose and direction that’s impossible to deny and hard to quibble with. i still haven’t been able to penetrate some of it properly (particularly the second and fifth movements), but from the epicentre of the collection onwards the presence of Tye is more and more apparent, as an influence, as a model, as a simple source of raw pitch information, as a ghost. Certainly by the time Umbrations arrives at its astonishing final movement In Nomine a 12, the resonance of Tye has grown so strong and prevalent that it becomes rather moving, focused in one of Ferneyhough’s most exquisitely effective and affecting decisions, on a melodic line on steel drums (percussionist Rainer Römer once again doing something marvellous here). Does it go without saying that the performances were staggering? It does, but they absolutely were.

In the essay Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective that i wrote in 2009, examining the remastered versions of their output as The Catalogue, i commented on the decision of Ralf Hütter not to include the group’s first three albums: “As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming.” But of course, not only is this history of Hütter’s not true, it’s a somewhat arbitrary distinction considering that the stylistic and compositional overlaps through Kraftwerk 1 (1970) and 2 (1971), Ralf and Florian (1973) and Autobahn are considerable, and Kraftwerk can only really be described as having become locked into their trademark soundworld from 1977’s Trans Europe Express onwards. Kraftwerk’s development is much more organic and interesting than Hütter’s preferred surgically-altered oeuvre suggests, and it’s impossible to disagree with zeitkratzer‘s artistic director and pianist Reinhold Friedl who, during their concert in Bates Mill last night, described it as a “falsifying of history”. To counter this, the members of zeitkratzer have reconstructed the pieces from those first two albums, and earlier this year released a selection of them. It’s a fascinating and highly successful project, one that reinforces the seminal aspects of these pieces, breathes new life into them, and in some cases – ‘Spule 4’ and ‘Strom’ especially – sounding better than the originals, heightening their respective atmospheres and making them more vivid and emotionally-charged (emotion, despite appearances, has never been absent or incongruous in Kraftwerk’s music). The live performance went much further than the recording, in ways i hadn’t anticipated. First, i can only describe the way the material was handled by the players as ‘loving’: this was music caressed into existence, patiently and with infinite care. Second, hearing these familiar pieces in a live context was genuinely transformative; they weren’t simply being revivified but reborn, and one was transported back to those dingy spaces in the late ’60s and early ’70s when they would have first been heard (the spinning psychedelic imagery projected within Bates Mill was a lovely touch). Hearing the opening notes of ‘Ruckzuck’ – one of the best of these early pieces – emerge into the space was especially spine-tingling, but it was all mesmerising, from start to end. What zeitkratzer have achieved here goes beyond the preserving of an important musical artefact, they’ve reminded everyone of just how experimental Kraftwerk were in the beginning, and of how many of the seeds of Autobahn and all that would come after are already present in these early pieces. Perhaps the group’s journey really did begin with the sound of a car door slamming, but the preparations for the journey are just as interesting and innovative and illuminating. You’d think Ralf Hütter would regard them as something of which to be proud.

What connects musicians, and musical materials? Similarity? Proximity? Simultaneity? This was one of the main questions posed in the most memorable event yesterday: The Otheroom, a large-scale musical choreography by that took place in the open seatless space of Huddersfield’s Town Hall. A collaborative effort by Rolf Wallin, Heine Avdal and Yukiko Shinozaki, it comprised four performers – saxophone, trumpet, trombone and tuba – sitting on illuminated plinths at the four corners of the space, within which we all mingled freely. On stage, what appeared to be a large black cloud, which proceeded to move closer to the edge before spilling down into the space, while the performers making blank, pitchless noises. The cloud soon unravelled to become a large curtain, held up by large balloons, initially forming a kind of mantle around each performer before starting to divide up the hall into compartments and rooms, challenging the integrity of both the space and the already tenuous connectivity between the players. Soon – manipulated by four remarkably expert handlers – the players were themselves moving around the space on their plinths, randomly at first, later into recognisable combinations and formations, their music becoming similarly affected. The response from the audience when the four plinths were pushed together, forming a compact ‘stage’, was interesting: where before we had moved where we wished, now everyone briefly held back as if in reverence before a more conventional performance paradigm. The playing became more frenetic, a kind of internalised ‘jam’ made yet more inward-looking by becoming completely enclosed by the curtain. The performance narrative touched on moments that were surprisingly touching: at one point, the trumpeter found himself alone, separated at some distance from the others (who were all silent) resulting in strikingly plaintive music. Whereupon, from the ceiling descended a large white balloon (as if Rover had been transposed here from the beach in The Prisoner), coming down to meet the trumpet in an act that could only be described as compassionate and comforting (more balloons, one for each player, arrived soon after). It was just one of a great many instances during The Otheroom when the piece caused one to reflect on numerous aspects of human, physical and musical engagement, and the way connections and interactions are formed, fashioned and even fabricated. Yet in addition to being thought-provoking and immersive, it was also enormous fun, never spilling into a farrago of absurdist-imbued novelty but simply revelling in the sheer joy of pulling physical and sonic shapes. Breathtaking and beautiful, its final masterstroke was genius, the players and curtain processing together outside and continuing to cavort in the street, bringing the people of Huddersfield to a halt no less stunned and mesmerised than we had been inside the Town Hall. It was all really quite incredible.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières
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