HCMF 2017: TAPE, The Riot Ensemble, Ensemble PHACE + Laura Bowler

Having heard Thomas Lehn’s live rendition of Bogusław Schaeffer’s 1964 Symphony last thing on Thursday night, it couldn’t have been more perfect to have started Friday in the company of four more Polish electronic works, dating from around a decade later. Eugeniusz Rudnik‘s Ready Made (1977) took a collage approach to found sounds, and was primarily interesting in the naively effective way Rudnik used the juxtaposition of these sounds to articulate a sense of internal energy, most obviously in a transition from a floating drone into a burst of Berlioz’s Radetzky March. Krzysztof Knittel‘s 1976 The Worm Conqueror was strikingly different from the grey industriality of Norcet II, heard on Tuesday. His soundworld was like being in vast oceanic depths, where quiet, delicate, tiny sounds floating in silence became the brief bursts of flamboyant colour from bioluminescent fish. This wasn’t only where we began, it also established a broader context of quietude where subsequent outbursts – some of which were enormous (the only time echoes of Norcet II could be heard): muscular, brutalist torrents of stuff sizzling in the space like hot soup being poured into ice water – sounded like aberrations from a path that eventually led back down into the depths. Here, at the last, something allusive could be glimpsed, as if just beyond our reach, before vanishing. Wow. In Daisy Story (1979) by Bohdan Mazurek, the most light-hearted piece in the concert, varying forms of momentum are explored, formed from squelchy analogue mush converted into a rude rhythmic bassline. However, as overtures go it was something of a red herring, followed by free-wheeling quasi-psychedelic ideas and gestures and melodic fragments (made of sine tones) that brought to mind the early work of Kraftwerk that zeitkrazer had revisited during the festival’s opening weekend. Further rhythmic underpinnings emerged, but it was those unfettered improvisational shapes that ultimately dominated and typified the piece. When discussing Bogusław Schaeffer’s Symphony yesterday i spoke of the ‘threatening silence’ endemic to so much early electronic music, which retrospectively acts as an analogue to composers’ grappling to harness new technology. An interesting counterpoint to this could be heard in Tomasz Sikorski‘s Solitude of Sounds (1975), where (again retrospectively; it would hardly have been the composer’s intention) the tape hiss worked both as a ‘shield’ against this silence as well as the means by which the material was animated, like a soft source of ambient electricity. There was something reassuring about its presence, and the way it was shaped around and behind everything else. Speaking of which: slow-moving objects caught between pitch (just) and noise (barely) like dark grey rectangles in a sea of ash. Somehow it ended up as a polarised high/low drone, each pole slowly changing in ways that were impossible to identify. One could almost imagine it as the music of the spheres, underpinning the entirety of the universe.

It’s worth briefly mentioning alongside these pieces the fabulous accompanying exhibition in Huddersfield Art Gallery, providing a 60th anniversary retrospective of the Polish Radio Experimental Studio. Alongside the usual photos and diagrams illustrating points in its history was a pair of films demonstrating the studio’s novel approach to sound design (contemporaneous with, and often bearing strong similarities to, the work being done by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop). Most impressive of all, though, was the opportunity to hear the entirety of ​Włodzimierz Kotoński‘s 1970 electronic work AELA, and also to follow along with the complete graphic score, fixed to the wall. It’s a gorgeous work, moving through episodes of contrasting pitch agglomerations – often hinting at harmonic series relationships – and along with the many other PRES@60 events at the festival, convincingly made the case both for the importance of Polish electronic music and the need to rediscover and assimilate it properly into the history and heritage of western electronic music. This is something i’ll be returning to on 5:4 in due course.

The first of Friday’s evening concerts took place in St Paul’s Hall, by The Riot Ensemble directed by Aaron Holloway-Nahum. Stephanie Haensler‘s music had been impressive at the start of the festival, and daan und waan, though less striking, displayed an equally coherent sense of character. It started out as another instance of what i’ve been calling ‘eggshell music’: distant, somewhat mysterious and evocative, and above all fragile. All very pretty, though i found myself wondering if it was all surface. But then it seemed to clarify its position: slow, sluggish, shuffling, shrugging almost – this was now a kind of avant-emo, in some respects frustrating (you kind of wanted to give it a shake and tell it to buck its ideas up) but exploring some very nice combinations of sounds. Throughout Katherine Young‘s Where the Moss Glows it was hard to tell whether there was something quite earnest going on or if she was just having a laugh. Though initially its behaviour was highly gestural – drones, rhythmic ‘sh’s, the sounds of someone walking, loud low croaks and raspings, short bursts of melody, and so on – there was still something ‘eggshelly’ about it, as though Young couldn’t quite bring herself to actually do something definitive. The deployment of small, hand-held electric fans, often raised aloft by the players, was striking to look at but musically entirely redundant, being completely inaudible even from my position in the front row. Eventually it arrived at a quite satisfyingly askew high point – not so much a climax as a weird squeal followed by an ugly squawking melody – though whether this payoff was worth all the mucking around getting there is hard to say. One couldn’t help thinking of the way someone like Clara Iannotta wields sounds like this to so much more engrossing effect; the meagre applause for this piece sent out a pretty clear signal. Ombak by Polish composer Nikolet Burzyńska, receiving its world première, was exquisitely lovely, conveyed with a lyrical melodic language made pungent through slightly out-of-tune unisons. Saxophonist Amy Green and flautist Kate Walter deserve shout-outs for the beauty of their respective solos, yet even more memorable was the way the whole ensemble united for the intense conclusion of the piece, built upon an incessantly repeated motif. This was music desperate to sing (or to be sung), and was in many respects the most compelling music of the whole concert. Laurence Osborn‘s Ctrl – another world première – is a short three-movement song cycle confronting male violence via a female singer whose voice is forced into the uncannily creepy grid-like contortions of autotune (which Osborn describes as an analogue for masculinity “because it gives the human voice the illusion of invulnerability by masking the imperfections that make it human”). On the one hand, it was hard – impossible, in fact – to avoid hearing this piece as a trio of outtakes or offcuts from Thomas Adès’ opera Powder Her Face: in terms of both orchestration and, to only a slightly lesser extent, subject matter, the similarities were considerable. On the other hand, considering that that opera remains one of Adès’ masterpieces, it says something that Osborn’s music was able to tap into precisely the same quality of swagger, melancholy and violence. Despite its brevity (just 20 minutes), it was a lot to take in, though i’m sure i can’t have been the only person in the hall to feel as though Osborn had personally punched me in the chest (no offence taken). The inclusion of an upturned bicycle was an ostentatious misstep – the effect its wheel produced could have been achieved through far simpler means – and the choice of the festival not to provide the audience with the sung text was an infuriating oversight; but regardless, Ctrl was clearly something special and possibly – time will tell – important. A piece i want and need to spend more time with.

If all this hadn’t been exhausting enough, the day ended in flamboyant fashion in Bates Mill with Ensemble PHACE. Bernhard Lang‘s DW24 – Loops for Al Jourgensen and Jorge Sanchez-Chiong‘s USED REDUX both whipped past so quickly they almost blurred into two halves of the same piece. The former was an exercise in steroidally-supercharged motoric loops, stylistically resembling a Frankenstein-like reincarnation of polystylism, while the latter was equally relentless – almost like a single riff played out for ten minutes – though directed to less celebratory ends, accompanying a complex relationship drama projected onto a large screen above the stage. We then entered an entirely different world, one that merged music and theatre into the large-scale performance art piece that is Laura Bowler‘s FFF, featuring the composer herself at centre stage. To call her a soloist in this piece isn’t even remotely accurate. A work exploring the political motivations and implications of society’s flight, fight and freeze mechanisms, the first of the work’s three sections found her as a victim, a person not so much inhabiting society as having it inflicted on her, reinforced through aggressive material in the ensemble and a machine gun-edited video of stock footage. At last year’s HCMF, i likened the video component of Jennifer Walshe’s EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT to an Adam Curtis documentary, and the same effect could be felt here, though instead of Curtis’ calm but assertive narration, we had Bowler’s increasingly distressed manifestation of a world pressing down ever more impossibly onto her shoulders and around her neck. Her response was to become like a prophet (characters who historically have also tended to be victims, shunned by and suffering at the hands of their society), obsessively repeating a refrain as though not just her own life but the lives of everyone in the world depended on it: “We are, but we exist in an arc of tension towards which we are not, or are not yet…”. As the work went on her outfit increasingly came to look as if it had been stitched together from nothing but emojis, taking aim at the superficiality and futility of acts of online protest and petition – cast in the guise of a flight attendant with a horrible rictus grin. From flight to fight, and the work correspondingly ramped up its aggression, seemingly aimed in all directions: at Bowler, at us, at everything everywhere, charges of “Capitalist! … Socialist!” being hurled throughout the space. It’s virtually impossible to comment on an aspect of social dysfunction without being a part of that same society – and, potentially, a contributing factor (even unwittingly) in that self same dysfunction – and is if to puncture any accusations of blamelessness, Bowler ended the work in a hilariously meta video commentary, detailing all of the wondrous things that her fabulous commission fee had supposedly enabled her to obtain (i was tempted at this point to stand up myself and shout “Capitalist!” at the screen). A challenging piece with a lot to say, Bowler wielded just enough humour to reinforce the points she was trying to make, but if FFF is going to be appreciated properly, it needs to be seen, heard and taken very seriously indeed.

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