On the opening night of last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, i remember pondering about the shift in tactic regarding the festival’s opening gambit. In 2017, there was a move away from the full-throttle shock and awe that has often typified HCMF’s opening nights, but the first concert of the 2018 festival, yesterday evening, saw a return to the more ambitious scale of previous years, yet in a totally transfigured way. In the Town Hall, in the company of Ensemble Musikfabrik and soprano Juliet Fraser, HCMF 2018 began with the UK première of Rebecca Saunders‘ 80-minute epic Yes.
In many respects, it’s a work that takes us back into familiar Saunders territory. i’ve remarked previously on the qualities of similarity – even, in the best sense, tautology – running through Saunders’ work, and in Yes we’re once again in a land whose contours and landmarks are shaped by a semi-tangible, emotionally-laden engagement with the words of James Joyce. This connects it to any number of Saunders’ other works, but being a piece for soprano and ensemble there’s an obvious connection to be made to Skin (heard at HCMF two years ago). This connection was reinforced by certain articulations – for example, words uttered from behind a hand – and interactions, such as those between the soprano and a muted trumpet, a particularly memorable relationship exhibited throughout Skin.
But Yes is especially interesting for the way it takes the two discrete approaches used throughout Saunders’ output, in which players are either united together or act semi-independently in spacialised modular contexts, and combines them within a single composition. Beginning with a figurative and actual spotlight on the soprano and a double bass companion (the rest of the hall in complete darkness), the music expands via a network of disparate – and, in some cases, very distant – modules, the players dispersed throughout the nooks and crannies of the space. What’s actually happening, though, is a gradual coalescence, each player being drawn to the stage as if under the pull of an invisible force, until Yes enters its next phase, the ensemble united on stage and now being conducted (by Enno Poppe).
Something else i’ve remarked on previously when discussing Saunders’ work is the way watching the music being played can be a fatal distraction to grasping properly what’s actually going on, and of the concomitant need not to look. Hitherto in Yes it had been less of an issue: when the players were all over the place, looking at them wasn’t really a convenient option, but now all assembled at the front, i was conscious how instinctive it felt to watch them – and yet how immediately off-putting it was.
In contrast to Skin, it’s interesting for how much of Yes the soprano is absent, the ensemble clearly taking their lead from her but then continuing at length under their own steam. In terms of material details, again we were in familiar territory, the music displaying the same interest in exquisite small-scale ideas manifesting as fleeting shapes and gestures, many of them practically gone before we’d had a chance to register them. On the one hand, to return to my remark about tautology, there was occasionally the sense that we’d heard all this before, and that Yes was offering not so much variations on a theme as an arbitrary, random-access rendition of well-worn ideas. To an extent, that might be true, yet what consistently makes Saunders’ music transcend any familiarity is its necessity, its urgency: the sense that it’s simultaneously provisional, improvisational, yet definite, even definitive. This is entirely down to the implacable, unstoppable power generated by its emotionally-charged core.
Yes was a lot to take in. There were periods that felt like longueurs, and episodes that seemed somewhat rambling, though it was and it remains hard to know whether they really were like that, and if so whether it mattered or whether they simply fed into the organic, large-scale utterance being made. Either way, their significance pales beside the remarkable fact that, at its most complex, with people, instruments and ideas everywhere – deliberately overwhelming – Yes remained absolutely cohesive. This was shock and awe of an altogether more inscrutable, restrained and moving kind, and I’ll admit to feeling exhausted at its end, but also elated.
This year’s featured composer is Christian Marclay, and HCMF’s opening night included a concert of his work in Bates Mill, courtesy of ensemBle Babel. Two of the three pieces – Fade to Slide and The Bell and the Glass – were audiovisual, in which the film acts as a kind of graphic score for the ensemble. Initially, during Fade to Slide, i was so caught up in the film’s engrossing jump cuts from a myriad sources, and the unexpected connections between them (both visually and sonically – the sound on the film is retained), that i was itching for the ensemble to be quiet and just focus on the film. This was reinforced by the fact that the ensemble’s musical actions were so clearly intended to align and mirror the visuals. Yet i was equally aware that there was something irresistible about the music, and surprisingly quickly the distinction between audio and visual fell away to form a single audiovisual entity.
To be continued was the odd piece out in the concert, the ensemble responding to a literal graphic score (made from comic books) rather than a film. It proved nowhere near as compelling or concentrated, coming across as flaccid and somewhat aimless in direction and intent, though there were some very nice episodes along the way, including an electrifying duet for recorder and saxophone. Thankfully, The Bell and the Glass spent 20+ minutes expanding what Fade to Slide had intimated in just eight. Again, the behavioural connection between the film and the players was so close and tight as to become seamless and inextricable. Marclay’s film draws on imagery associated with two cracked objects, the Liberty Bell and Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), the latter represented by the artist discussing his response to the damage done to the work. Duchamp’s speech contours were transcribed into weird forms of melody, punctuating the work’s otherwise freely-flowing narrative. For me, the complex homogeneity of sight and sound in this piece was utterly convincing and marvellous to witness. It so easily could have become an exercise in tongue-in-cheek quirk and novelty, yet in both this piece and Fade to Slide Marclay avoided those pitfalls entirely. Even when ensemBle Babel launched into a rendition of the famous Liberty Bell tune – filling Bates Mill with connotations of Monty Python – the work somehow managed to get away with it.