Yesterday’s late evening concert at HCMF, given by Ensemble Mosaik in Bates Mill, presented the first UK performance of Enno Poppe‘s Rundfunk. There are ways in which the piece is remarkable, and ways in which it isn’t. What certainly is remarkable – and the more i’ve thought about this the more remarkable it seems – is that it took Poppe three years to compose. With a duration of 60 minutes, composed for nine performers not so much playing their keyboards as triggering events from them, Poppe’s inspiration was to take the sounds from a collection of vintage synthesisers and use these as the basis – or, to use Poppe’s word, the “atoms” – for the piece. Importantly, Poppe hasn’t chosen to use the original instruments, instead harnessing their sounds with modern technology to obviate the limitations of their dated technology (such as monophony) and to open up possibilities with different tuning systems. The considerable length of time it took Poppe to compose the work was apparently due to the enormous range of options now available to him, having brought these sounds into the 21st century.
Without wishing to sound reductionist, on the strength of what the piece actually sounded like, those three years seem like an indulgence. Rundfunk was hardly dull – no piece can be that dull when being performed by nine people sporting bright orange shirts – but it was, for the most part, spectacularly ordinary. Poppe structures the work as a series of episodes with discrete behavioural, timbral or textural characteristics. Taken on their own terms, while not particularly ground-breaking or sonically original, many of these episodes were pretty engaging. The first comprised a growing collection of pointillist motes of pitch, hard to tell whether the music was hesitant – the players seemingly learning how to use their instruments – or just being a bit of a tease. Later episodes set up swathes of overlapping chords, sometimes punchy, resembling a collection of jaunty car horns, and sometimes surly, forming a dense tapestry of buzzing growls. More interesting were the episodes where noticeable transformation took place, such as one where organ chords (akin to a Hammond organ) slowly lost their pitch focus and turned into a wall of intense, vibrating noise. The piece also included an extended, slow-moving soundscape that felt significantly more substantial, and an irresistible sequence manifesting the spirit of Atari’s Space Invaders.
Considered individually like this, these episodes were to varying degrees fun, bland, amusing and arresting, but the extent to which they comprised a convincing overall structure is far less certain. It’s perhaps best not to regard Rundfunk as a single, large-scale entity but instead as a kind of overblown suite, an indulgent, experimental hodge-podge that, at its best, stumbles upon something striking and memorable.
But the most compelling thing i heard yesterday was a world away from technological tomfoolery, at the morning recital given in St Paul’s Hall by violinists Duo Gelland. They played two pieces, opening with Book 1 of James Dillon‘s Traumwerk. Here, too, was music presented as self-contained episodes, its short movements (akin to studies) bringing to mind the distinct characterisations of a Baroque suite, featuring by turns quicksilver and pensive material. The most engrossing thing about the piece is the way Dillon utilises the duo such that they appear to be performing two different attempts to articulate the same thing simultaneously, reinforced by Cecilia and Martin Gelland sharing a music stand. On the one hand, due to the fleeting, ephemeral nature of much of the material its details are neither memorable nor, for the most part, particularly beautiful (in contrast to so much of Dillon’s output). Yet its later passages were surprisingly moving, and throughout the work there was something uncannily mesmerising about it: i felt like the snake to Duo Gelland’s charmer, inexorably drawn into Traumwerk‘s soundworld, unable to resist but without knowing why.
Yet more immersive, though, was the other work in the programme, a e r i by Hans-Joachim Hespos, receiving its UK première. Now Duo Gelland faced each other from opposite sides of the hall; following the intimacy of Traumwerk, one wondered if we were about to experience something a whole lot more confrontational. Yes and no. Emerging from extremely light glimpses of possible sound, it took some time to get the measure of the piece. He on the left: anxious, jittery, demonstrative yet restrained; she on the right: measured, distant yet watchful. Some kind of duet was forming, though its music could hardly have been more taut. He began to move across the space, towards her, away from her, towards us, moving up the steps of the hall as if to obtain a better vantage point, then back towards her with more assertive purpose, and things started to become passionate. And then the penny dropped: the material was a language, the two were communicating with each other, and the duo’s subsequent strange physical contortions, spasms, postures and gesticulations made the most perfect, sublime sense as an elaborate, avant-garde mating ritual that ended with, if not consummation, then at least unity. Beautiful.