HCMF 2018: HISS@10, Kudzu, Fast Gold Butterflies

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.

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières
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8 Responses to HCMF 2018: HISS@10, Kudzu, Fast Gold Butterflies

  1. Tim Rutherford-Johnson

    I haven’t seen Bång’s piece, but speaking more generally this – “disconcertingly undermined by one or two factual errors and a myriad spelling mistakes” – is becoming a major irritation in new music. If you’re going to project text to an audience you absolutely *must* get it proofread by a third party. Ideally professionally, but at the very least a native speaker. I’ve seen far too many howlers recently, and it’s a massive distraction.

    • 5:4

      Thanks for this Tim, i’m relieved i’m not the only one who finds this annoying. To elaborate a little about the Bång piece, it wasn’t helped by the fact that the ensemble was required to type out the text manually in real-time. Challenging enough for a native English speaker but on this occasion i don’t think that applied to any members of the Curious Chamber Players. Most egregious was the first appearance of the actual title of the piece, rendered as “Kuszu”!

      In terms of factual errors, that’s more debatable i guess. A reference was made to humanity’s culpability in the extinction of a certain percentage of the planet’s animal population, both the nature and the extent of which have been questioned by many prominent experts in that field, and later Bång made a comparison between plants and humans, referring to our “five senses”, when of course it’s widely understood we have many more than that. Indeed, some of the senses she ascribed specifically to plants (such as temperature) we share with them.

      So all in all these issues just made an already woeful piece all the more excruciating to sit through.

  2. Kubin Banga

    I understand criticism is just a projection of your taste, but the fact that you fail to even comment on the third instalment of the HISS concerts while revering the trite Grisey pastiche at Magic Rock Tap – to use the vernacular – leaves a poo in my earl grey.

    I’d be curious why you decline to even provide a brief synopsis of it?

    Also, if listening at around 100dB inside a 32 speaker array isn’t loud enough for you then you certainly aren’t compensating for your perceived lack of excitation at home! Poppycock to your methodology!

    • 5:4

      What a strange comment. Regarding the third HISS concert, i simply exercised my prerogative not to bother writing about it due to the fact that so much of it was miserably poor. i don’t write about everything i attend; one other concert i attended also (for the most part) singularly failed to impress, so i didn’t write about that one either.

      And regarding the loudness issue, it just so happens the composer of that particular piece told me yesterday that he agrees with me. Enjoy your earl grey.

      • Kubin Banga

        Simply saying _nothing_ as a form of derision and criticism is pretty weak. I understand if you felt it was poor but you’ve explained why in other reviews and seemingly being unable to in this particular instance either misrepresents the music or your own abilities.

        In fact, I think this review is quite poor but I won’t tell you why! Although you might be able to infer.

        Unfortunately, just because someone (who is subject to your review) agrees with you does not make you right. Although, I can see how that particular piece might sound better louder it is quite hard to argue with science.

        May I point you to this gem?

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Argument_from_authority

        • 5:4

          Well, considering these messages are being sent from the University of Huddersfield’s IP i’m not surprised your feelings are quite strong about this. (It’s a shame you’ve decided to hide behind a pseudonym.) But we’ll just have to agree to differ. When i write, what i write, and how much i write are all simply judgement calls on my part, bearing in mind both the music itself as well as (and this isn’t unimportant, particularly during HCMF) how much time i have available.

          The question of whether i’m “right” or not is so moot as to be silly. i have my opinion and that’s it; i simply find it interesting that the composer on this occasion happens to agree. That doesn’t make me “right” any more than if they disagreed it would make me “wrong”. It’s just my subjective opinion, as is every single word on this blog.

  3. Kubin Banga

    I agree that these are opinions (and I very much agree with your assessment of Pierre’s piece). The Green improvisatory piece failed in many regards musically, but was interesting nonetheless to view as a spectacle. The last piece was terrible I’ll concede but you completely missed the opportunity to expose the second of the work’s.

    Also regarding the IP address – anyone borrowing into the university network (educational address, using someone’s access or the guest network as is the configuration at my home institute) will show up as the University. It would behoove you to not throw around privileged information (that is in fact GDPR protected) in an attempt to smear someone else’s reputation. I’m simply someone who values online anonymity.

    I will also concede your job is harder than mine, in that your real name remains on the work.

    Thanks for your review.

    • 5:4

      i only mentioned the IP thing as it indicated you were also here at the festival, and as you’ll know feelings and opinions about the music being played tend to be very strong during HCMF.

      Thanks for saying thanks; appreciate it.

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