As i’ve indicated previously, the non-partisan diversity of HCMF is impressively broad these days, and one of the concerts that best exemplified this took place in Bates Mill Photographic Studio on Saturday morning, in the company of Laura Cannell. To describe her as a composer and performer of folk music would be to over-simplify greatly what Cannell did in the six short movements of FEATHERS UNFURLED, receiving its world première. Switching between a fiddle and a pair of recorders (the latter being played simultaneously), each piece took tropes from both folk music as well as earlier musical idioms as the starting point for broader and more personal explorations. All of the works employed drones to underpin them, and in the various fiddle pieces this accentuated the primacy of open strings, which were continually heard as reference points, grounding the music, from which more (care)free ideas could spring and rise. In one of these pieces, Outstretched, this primacy was particularly striking as, due to detuning the instrument, the quality of the drone at first came to resemble an intoning male voice, later lending an unsettling air to the music due to its unexpected gravitas. The final fiddle piece, In The Room Not Passing Through – one of two using a bow with hair going both over and under the strings – moved farthest from its allusive conventions, combining obsessive bowing with extremes of bow pressure (both too much and too little). The sound emanating from the instrument, in conjunction with Cannell’s stylised mode of delivery – involving small, careful movements within a confined performance space – hinted at something magical being invoked beneath the music. In the recorder pieces Untethered and Hollowed, Cannell took on an even more shamanic demeanour, her movements now the ritualised actions of spell-casting, resulting in heavily motivic material in the latter piece, and a strange tonality betwixt minor and major in the former. This concert was a genuinely unexpected treat, proving how alive and adventurous new manifestations of ancient traditions of music-making continue to be.
As evening fell, the music of Pauline Oliveros – who died during last year’s festival – filled the Town Hall. The UK première of her wonderfully-titled solo percussion piece All Fours for the Drum Bum wasn’t so much performed by Fritz Hauser as tickled into existence. Its collection of short, isolated impacts – a mixture of dry, resonant and granular sounds – had a distinct air of privacy to it, as if Hauser were conducting it alone, perhaps even secretly. In a manner not unlike that of Laura Cannell earlier, it resembled an exercise in some kind of clandestine magic. Then came Hauser’s own ensemble work Rundum, a work i’ve written about when reviewing its CD release last year. In many respects, it continued the atmosphere of the Oliveros, now expanded into a full-blown arcane folk rite, as if – due to the lighting within the Town Hall – being enacted beneath a bright blue-silver moon. In contrast to the recording, where everything blended seamlessly together, as a live performance – involving the players moving around the space, their performances occasionally involving small vocalisations – while the overall behaviour was unified yet there was also the sense – even more a continuation of the Oliveros – that each player could have been conducting their own personal act according to a shared rubric. There was a useful pause to collect our thoughts and prepare ourselves before the main event of the concert, the first UK performance of Oliveros’ 75-minute 1998 behemoth Primordial/Lift. The piece is organised around the slow rise in pitch of a sine tone oscillator, from 7.8 to 13Hz, serving as an analogue for the predicted increase in one of the Earth’s Schumann resonances over the 50-year period 1960-2010. This almost infeasibly low pitch was only sparingly heard amid the quasi-random, quasi-independent actions being carried out by the players, but when it was, without fail it galvanised everyone and provided a much more potent and tangible sense of unity. When this transient fundamental disappeared, though, the effect of its presence remained for a long while after, establishing invisible connections that, over the course of the work, became increasingly apparent. A work such as this, in terms of both its scale and character, is likely to result in an even more subjective response than more regularly-proportioned and -presented works; for myself, while it wasn’t the awe-inducing spectacle i suspect some found it to be, it made an impression that, several days later, has hardly faded.
The festival’s penultimate evening annual Bates Mill live broadcast concert was, as its title ‘Mix Tape’ suggests, a cross between a smorgasbord and a curate’s egg. Perhaps the most delicious item was Mini Savior Opt., a new semi-improvised electronic piece by Scottish composer Lauren Sarah Hayes. It was heartening that an occasion like this devoted no fewer than 25 minutes to a performance of this kind, all the more so as Hayes’ control over both her technology and her material – which was shaped and energised in part by her physical movements – was superb, channelled with care, patience and deftness into a slowly-evolving soundscape exploring texture and timbre with hints of beats regularly exploding through. Exciting throughout, it was enhanced further by occasional subtle additions of Hayes’ voice, used as a wordless (or, at least, inaudible) source of noise that permeated and churned up the music. Enno Poppe‘s Fleisch, given its UK première by the four-person ensemble Nikel, was just as energetic, though obliquely so. Its three movements (fast-slow-fast) sounded as though Poppe had fed a load of rock, jazz and shoegaze mannerisms, tropes and clichés into a computer which, having analysed them, then proceeded to do its best to create plausibly coherent compositions out of them. By turns angular and uncomfortable, akin to a piss-take (or the product of a piss-up) and laugh out loud hilarious, it was impossible not to adore its truly bizarre language of spasticity, always familiar yet rendered strange through its endless contortions and irregular halting delivery. Just brilliant, and Nikel’s performance of it couldn’t have been more perfect, like a bunch of automatons learning to understand and articulate music on the fly. But it fell to Pauline Oliveros again to grasp the passage of time within Bates Mill and bring it to a virtual standstill, in her string quartet The Wheel of Time, performed by members of The Riot Ensemble (The Riot Quartet, perhaps?). Where Primordial/Lift had had a clear – albeit enormous – sense of long-term structural direction, here the music could have continued forever, the quartet responding with improvised soft streaks of bleached colour in response to narrow bands of electronic pitch (all taken from the same harmonic series), like slow shimmering breaths in and out.