Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Of those four words, i’d hazard to suggest that the most important is the third one, music. What exactly constitutes ‘music’ is a good question, and one of HCMF’s strengths is the way it’s prepared to challenge and probe what that word connotes and how it can be defined. This is something i’ve been thinking about a lot since yesterday afternoon’s concert at Bates Mill, featuring the UK première of Kudzu/the sixth phase by Swedish composer Malin Bång. i’m not going to outright suggest that Kudzu isn’t a piece of music; truth be told, i’m not at all sure what it is, and on the strength of conversations with various other people after the concert i don’t think i’m alone in that uncertainty.
Bång’s work Siku, for violin and electronics, was performed at last year’s HCMF, and while it was a modestly interesting piece, i noted on that occasion how it hadn’t been possible to reconcile the programme note – about the damage humanity has caused to the ecosystem – with the music. With Kudzu, Bång has seriously upped the ante, to the extent that it’s essentially a 50-minute programme note-cum-agitprop presented as a piece of performance art that’s barely possible to reconcile with the very concept of music. Six ominous hourglasses, spotlit on each side of the stage; a flipchart with assorted statistics displayed; a text running throughout, recounting various statements, news stories and anecdotes (disconcertingly undermined by one or two factual errors and a myriad spelling mistakes); a piece of sand-coloured carpet being gradually spray-painted green; numbers on ping pong balls being selected from a tombola, leading to pieces of paper with unexplained dates upon them fixed on the performers’ backs; bits of foliage being arranged around the space; scribblings on the flipchart that were subsequently ripped up. These and other activities were accompanied by sound that Bång had clearly designed to be as pitchless as possible, the members of the Curious Chamber Players either vaguely rubbing and scratching their instruments or assaulting them to produce largely undifferentiated episodes of lowercase croaking or walls of blank noise. For 50 minutes.
It’s clear that Bång is deeply concerned about the situation behind whatever it is that Kudzu is, yet it’s tragic that she’s opted simply to present ostensible ‘facts’ and figures at us, aligned with either over-literal or completely abstruse theatrics, as the basis of the work in lieu of a convincing musical or otherwise artistic argument. It’s not so much music as issuetainment – at its absolute least issuetaining. i didn’t walk out, and at the end i didn’t boo; i’m not sure which of those i feel more ashamed about. But ultimately, it’s not i who really should feel ashamed.
All afternoon in the Richard Steinitz Building there was an extended birthday party (though, sadly, without a cake) for HISS, the university’s 48-channel sound system. The celebrations were spread across three concerts, the first presenting Monty Adkins‘ latest work, the second a diverse collection of pieces composed for the HISS setup, and the third a trio of laptop-based compositions. The less said about the laptop concert the better, but there were some good things to be found in the other two.
Composed to accompany Andy Warhol’s 8-hour film Empire, Monty Adkins’ has created a 50-minute reduced version of his score – Music from Empire – which was presented in the Atrium (and which has recently been released on the LINE label). i’d listened to an advance copy of the piece a week or two ago, and had found it pretty innocuous, but hearing it again within the Atrium space made a significant difference. Having listened with my eyes shut for a while and then idly glancing round the space, i looked up, out through the windows at the shifting cloud formations moving past. And now everything clicked. Perhaps it served as a parallel for the fixed gaze at the Empire State Building in the Warhol, but the combined perception of the static building we were in and the slow state of flux happening in the sky clarified the way that Adkins’ music was acting not as a depiction or analogue of the building but a context for it, an environment within which it could be situated, a time-bound accompaniment to the building’s timeless presence. In addition to the place, the time of the concert was also ideal, happening in the mid-afternoon as the sky was slowly beginning to darken, which fed into this mingled sensation of stasis and flux. i’m not sure that Music from Empire is among Adkins’ best works, but this performance certainly proved that the context for effective listening is often crucial.
Among the better works in the second concert, it was good to have another opportunity to hear Aaron Cassidy‘s I, for example. i’ve written about the piece twice previously, first at its première during this year’s Electric Spring and later in the year following its CD release. This third encounter consolidated my reservations about how the piece sounds when presented via HISS, which both times has made it sound constricted, pulling its punches. For me, the full-blooded impact only comes through adequately when listening at home, when the volume can be well and truly cranked. The only other work of substance in this concert was Pierre Alexandre Tremblay‘s Bucolic & Broken. And what substance! Here, and only here, was a true demonstration of the surround capabilities of HISS. But it wasn’t just the positioning of sounds, Tremblay’s choice of sources – ranging from a scratching pencil to a boiling kettle to birdsong to a tinkling piano gesture to a woman walking her dog – were superbly imaginative, and the way these were juxtaposed into a strange structural form was unconventional but completely convincing. It wasn’t in the usual sense acousmatic, Tremblay instead presenting these sounds as found sound objects arranged into a kind of spacialised collage. But what set the piece apart from almost everything else in this concert (and, perhaps, most concerts) was its demonstration of Tremblay’s very obvious playfulness and a palpable sense of wonder at the sounds he’s working with. For electronic music to be as accomplished as this while being so much fun is a rare combination.
A new venue was added to the HCMF roster in the late evening yesterday. Ensemble Klang were to be found in the Tap Room of the Magic Rock brewery, for a concert of pieces by Matt Wright and Pete Harden. Exactly where one piece ended and another began wasn’t always obvious, but it hardly mattered. Comprising saxophones, trombone, guitar, percussion and piano, their two hour set was a phantasmagorical journey through a sequence of interconnected soundworlds. Many of them existed in states of slow evolution, comprising networks of rapid oscillations that ebbed and flowed between emphases on pitch or noise (Wright’s Fast Gold Butterflies), or sheets of tremolandi that varied in their complexity and richness, establishing a curious paradox between sound fixed to the ground via the bass while its higher register materials seemed ever more free (Harden’s Guiyu Guitars Upstream). The set was at its best when the music opened out into a vast shoegaze-like hinterland, dronal but littered with gestures, coated with crackling electronic glitter and where the saxophones, muted, called out like distant foghorns. The episode these calls triggered was rapturously gorgeous, suffused with warm radiance and strewn with sporadic staccato piano notes, saxophone smears, and guitar stings that somehow gelled into a warm, shimmering ambient soup articulating the purest inner ecstasy (Harden’s Forming a petal from a piece of metal). i’ve written a lot previously about doom jazz, but here was its polar opposite: something we might call ‘glory jazz’, quietly ablaze with something immeasurable and unfathomable yet exquisitely tangible and uplifting. It was a beautiful, brilliant highlight to an otherwise decidedly mixed day, and having discovered that Ensemble Klang released this music on two albums back in 2016 (how did i miss them?!), i’m going to be spending a lot more time with these pieces in future.