i’ve been starting to wonder in recent years whether HCMF’s annual ‘Shorts’ day – on Monday, filled with free concerts lasting either 20 or 40 minutes – is actually one of the festival’s main highlights, rivalling the flagship events on the two weekends. It’s certainly an opportunity for musical experiences unlike anything you’re likely to find elsewhere, and this year’s was no exception.
What struck me most was the way entire concerts – rather than individual pieces within them – cohered so entirely as to become akin to a single composition. In the case of Dominic Murcott‘s Harmonic Canon (a world première), this was an especially impressive achievement as the two parts of the work were separated by a gap of over six hours. The work is structured around the imposing form of a large double-bell, which becomes both the visual and musical epicentre of its two 21-minute movements for percussion duo. Two bells, two fundamental pitches (the bells are tuned a semitone apart), two movements, two players, two separate groups of instruments – and in other ways too duality is at the heart of Harmonic Canon. It explores two distinct soundworlds, the first full of play and fun, typified by restlessness and abandon, emphasising variety and change, focusing on physical impacts. It fancifully made me think of the sorcerer’s apprentice, only here, instead of brooms, it was the overtones and harmonics emanating from the bell that were dancing around and running amok. It also created the interesting sensation of zooming in or extending the bell strikes, enabling us to scrutinise their inner details. By contrast, part two was all solemnity and calm, even feeling somewhat ritualistic, emphasising stasis and similarity, focusing on resonance. Taken together, as well as being highly entertaining, the very distinct nature of the two parts made for a very satisfying overall experience – best heard live, of course, but there’ll be a recording coming out next year, and in the meantime there’s a short YouTube video that features some clips and interviews with Murcott and arx duo, who brought the work to life with real brilliance.
The most homogeneous concert of all, though, was by trombonist Kevin Fairbairn who, in theory at least, presented three short solo works: Richard Barrett‘s basalt, Timothy McCormack‘s HEAVY MATTER and Sehyung Kim‘s Sijo_241015, the latter two UK premières. In practice, the three pieces bled into each other to form a single 20-minute act of expression, and even performer and instrument seemed melded, Fairbairn becoming a humanoid figure speaking via an anatomical trombone appendage (as such, it strongly resembled Gareth Davis’ astonishing performance of Elliott Sharp’s Sylva Sylvarum from three years ago). Far from the catalogue or conveyor belt of instrumental techniques that contemporary solo pieces too often become, what we heard was the most remarkable monologue – or, rather, an extended, earnest attempt to communicate something. In solo recitals, i often don’t look at the performer, but here i found myself staring at Fairbairn, as if – i know it sounds crazy – to kind of ‘lip read’ what he was doing, in order to understand better what he was trying to say. This reaction, i think, says a great deal about the humanity and depth contained in all three works, from Barrett’s rapid-fire shifts in mode of articulation, to McCormack’s heavily muted and modulated quasi-speech, to Kim’s continual changes of mouthpiece (including those from a clarinet and oboe), suggesting by this late stage the humanoid before us was opting to fundamentally alter its anatomy in order to communicate. It was the final act in an intense and captivating performance that demonstrated powerfully how presenting a concert can become so much more than just a disjunct list of separate pieces.
French pianist Gilles Grimaître gave himself just a single piece to perform in his morning recital, and by the looks of things it pretty much killed him. Flagellation du Christ (d’après Le Caravage) by Moroccan composer Raphaël Languillat easily ranks among the most distressing, violent solo piano works i’ve ever heard. Making Galina Ustvolskaya’s sonatas look like relatively mild warm-up exercises, Languillat puts the pianist through a punishingly and relentlessly fast sequence of note repetitions, often at staggeringly loud volumes. This belied the amount of nuance going on in the material, including gradual tilts from low to high register (Grimaître’s hands were usually at opposite ends of the keyboard), and blooming harmonic developments in the midst of angry, throbbing clusters. The ferocious unstoppability of the piece made Grimaître look as though a constant stream of electricity were being poured through him, resulting in him not so playing the piano as convulsing at it. At its zenith (or, equally likely, at its nadir), one lost track of the repeating notes and instead become swamped by an enormous juddering black cloud of sound that enveloped St Paul’s Hall so completely one might have believed the sun had suddenly failed. The most overwhelmingly emotive works of art – music, painting, film, whatever – make a unique impact on the audience: you stop becoming a viewer or a listener, and start becoming an onlooker, a bystander, even a participant – with associated connotations of voyeuristic prurience and/or powerless impotence – that turns the experience into something altogether more discomfiting. Flagellation du Christ (d’après Le Caravage) is just such a work of art; i walked out of the hall feeling destroyed in its wake.
Of the concerts i attended yesterday, the most extraordinary was given in Huddersfield Art Gallery by Małe Instrumenty, as part of HCMF’s celebration and focus on the work of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. The group’s name simply translates as ‘little instruments’, and the tables in front of each player contained a fantastic array of doohickeys and thingamabobs, only some of which would ordinarily have been described as ‘instruments’. In precisely the same way as in Maja S K Ratkje and Kathy Hinde’s piece Aeolian last Friday, the sense of novelty – unusual objects being used for the sake of it, and/or to be amusing – was entirely absent; everything had been chosen for the unique properties of its sound and for what it could contribute to a larger musical entity. All but one of the pieces were by the group’s founding member Paweł Romańczuk, and they alternated between exercises in contrast – Casio Concerto and 5-4-5 were small-scale ternary explorations of wild rapidity interspersed with softer textures – self-contained miniature oddities – such as Kartacz, built upon an absurd percussive bassline overlaid with gestural bursts and loud whistles – and, most impressive of all, larger-form studies in balance. In Inops Ventilex this was achieved through long extended organ chords – occasionally and briefly treated to embellishment – establishing a critical tension between consonance and dissonance, tension and release, while Trójwarstwy (at 14 minutes the longest work in the concert) opted for a broad empty space populated by star-like suspended bell strikes, with Romańczuk subtly introducing vague electronic textures (possibly treated resonances) that half-hovered in the space like so much dark matter. It was heartening to see the Art Gallery struggling to fit into the space the hoards of people – clearly many, many more than anticipated – who had turned up to see Małe Instrumenty in action. No-one can have left disappointed: this was superbly-controlled and -conceived music-making from the most unlikely of sources, the brightest highlight in an already dazzling day of new music.