Considering the lengths to which curators and ensembles often go to create deep and meaningful connections between the works featured in a concert, yesterday’s performance by Luxembourg ensemble United Instruments of Lucilin was a refreshing break from the norm. The only thing the four pieces had in common was their complete dissimilarity from each other. It’s three years since i’ve had the chance to hear this ensemble in action (when they wowed me at HCMF 2015); hopes were high, and they absolutely didn’t disappoint.
Some of the music did though. Songs for the M8, a string quartet by Anna Meredith, proved to be a pretty humdrum exercise in basic character study. Each of its five movements adopted a particular behavioural approach or attitude, though a great deal of the material was bland and structurally somewhat arbitrary. There were a couple of nice exceptions: the fourth movement was seriously fun, a wild mess of tremolos and glissandi sending the players scrambling to the tops of the their fingerboards, squealing like crazy. The final movement opted for soft ethereality, and though a little directionless was a nice way to conclude the piece. Overall, though, it felt like yet another example of Meredith putting superficial swagger over substance. Catherine Kontz didn’t provide the ensemble with a conventional score but a 4-metre square mat laid out on the floor for her piece Snakes & Ladders, receiving its world première. Modified such that the players (in every sense of the word) progressed in a spiral towards the centre, each rolled two dice to determine how they would move along the board (e.g. 2 and 5: alternately move forward by 2 and 5 squares). Each square featured a mnemonic indicating what to do – among other things, a physical movement, playing a sound on their instrument, or imitating someone else – and also indications about pausing, as well as the inevitable snakes and ladders rapidly escorting them to far-flung parts of the board. Initially it seemed too much like a literal game – and a hilarious one at that: United Instruments of Lucilin were clearly having a whale of a time – to consider it from a musical perspective. But the board was of course just another form of score, another way of imparting instructions to players for them to interpret and execute. On top of this was its in-built indeterminacy, to some extent not knowing what the five players involved would be doing or to a greater extent how they would be interacting with each other, or indeed how long the piece would last (on this occasion, around 7 minutes, but presumably if the snakes had had their way it could have lasted a lot longer). But it was this demonstration of the relationship between composer demands and performer actions that was most engrossing; so while it was funny to the point of, at times, becoming ridiculous, witnessing how the players submitted themselves so entirely to the rules of the game – becoming something akin to automatons – was thought-provoking and just a touch unsettling.
In Pierre Alexandre Tremblay‘s electroacoustic un fil rouge the electronics were for the most part uncannily present – which is to say that they felt like a tangible yet invisible additional performer on stage. They manifested most prominently in a recurring motif, extending the ensemble’s tutti accents into an accelerating (and occasionally decelerating) sequence of impacts. This motif recurred so often, in fact, that it became in essence a refrain, between which were a number of episodes providing a contrast to its impetus and momentum. Though they exhibited far less energy, these episodes were the most striking moments of the piece, Tremblay more prepared to let the material drift and linger, resulting in beautiful, dreamy sequences. Even when they were pushed along, though, the episodes remained distinct in the way they seemed more ragged, the result of playful spontaneity driven by an exciting bubbling sense of abandon. Occupying a world entirely of its own, Nick Morrish Rarity‘s life of lines II completely transformed Phipps Hall into a microcosmos, a place of tiny sounds and washed-out colours. Beginning from hypnotic interactions between prepared piano (the preparations focusing on harmonic rather than timbral effects) and percussion, Rarity overlaid these with gentle clarinet and string chords, the combination of elements hanging in the air like a mobile. A stop, a pause, and then a new idea in the form of a soundworld so perilously fragile that at this point i found myself no longer focusing on what was happening than simply relishing the way its sounds delicately impinged against each other as if part of a gossamer clockwork mechanism. There was something warm about its bleached whimsy, preventing life of lines II from ever sounding austere or alien, making it instead feel intimately familiar and, in the best sense, precious.
The evening, in the Lawrence Batley Theatre, brought the first UK performance of Hilda Paredes‘ ambitious music-theatre piece Harriet. Produced by Muziektheater Transparent, and featuring the modest forces of just violin, guitar and percussion (HERMESensemble) in addition to two voices (Claron Mcfadden and Naomi Beeldens) and electronics, the work portrays part of the life of African-American former slave and subsequent abolitionist Harriet Tubman, who died in 1913. Despite its small-scale, the production makes extensive use of projection – both above the stage and also onto a string curtain running across the stage – to stunning effect, providing context for the action (in the form of ‘scenery’) as well as dramatic effects that stylise additional episodes of narrative and tap into Tubman’s psychology. If there’s a main criticism to be made, it’s the fact that Paredes often resorts to the kind of gestural ‘treading water’ that litters so much contemporary music-theatre. Largely bereft of the sense of a distinctive compositional voice, generic material of this sort seems intent merely on giving the players something to do rather than actively seeking to bolster or progress the drama. That being said, in the context of Harriet this material did at least have the bonus of introducing an air of itchy restlessness that complemented the unpleasant early parts of the narrative but which felt increasingly unsuitable as the work progressed.
In the title role, soprano Claron Mcfadden was an electrifying presence, and when given the opportunity the way her voice soared was genuinely spine-tingling. In particular, during the account of her escape Paredes has her singing to the North Star that’s guiding her on, and the contrast to all that had gone before – the music, like Tubman herself, for the first time truly free, Mcfadden’s voice rising to seemingly impossible stratospheric heights – was wonderful, and very deeply affecting. At the opposite end of register and dynamic, Paredes includes various spirituals that Mcfadden sang as if to herself, exercises in comforting familiarity rather than loud exclamations of grievance to the world, which were excruciatingly tender.
Harriet was let down by various passages where the narrative would have benefited from being moved along with a lot more alacrity, resulting in numerous occasions when the piece practically ground to a ponderous halt. Quite apart from making the work’s duration an unnecessary 90 minutes, more importantly it significantly reduced the emotional impact of some of the work’s more tense episodes, peppering them with longueurs that dissipated the pent-up dramatic energy. As an overall consequence, Harriet was touching more than it was moving, a stylish if somewhat simplistic telling of a clearly important story. It was well served by an epilogue of projected headlines that brought the piece up to the present day (in a similar way to the epilogue of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman), highlighting how far society has come, yet how much progress remains to be made.