If there’s one thing guaranteed to generate a load of pre-festival buzz, it’s a major new work by Jennifer Walshe. In recent years, while i’ve admired the invention and audacity of Walshe’s large-scale compositions – 2014’s The Total Mountain and EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT, performed at HCMF two years ago – penetrating their hysterical (in every sense) exteriors has proved difficult. So i’ll admit to feeling a little trepidation before her latest epic, A History of the Voice, given its UK première by HYOID Contemporary Voices in St Paul’s Hall yesterday evening.
In comparison to those earlier works, this new piece was a much more coherent experience. This was due in part to the fact that Walshe has narrowed the scope of the work’s subject matter, and in tandem with this it has a clear episodic structure. As the title states, the piece is a personal exploration of the voice, personal inasmuch as the history it presents is a subjective one – a history, not the history – reflecting Walshe’s particular outlook and interests. Composed for four singers, the piece again incorporates video, though its primary role in A History of the Voice is contextual, providing introductions and additional commentary on each of the work’s episodes.
As one would expect from Walshe, these episodes were wildly theatrical, including a rendition of Gwyneth Paltrow’s famously emotional Oscars speech (answered by a refrain of “please kill me now”); a chorus of ‘Danny Boy’ continually adjusting its tonal centre; a saccharine evocation of a self-help tape – replete with breathing exercises for the audience – while the rest of the singers performed workout exercises; Renaissance music sung according to an AI-reconstruction of performance practice derived from paintings, to ludicrous effect; group imitations of animal sounds alongside an apparent attempt to teach one particular creature to speak – which, despite seeming ridiculous, tantalisingly ended just as the animal apparently started to get the hang of it; unsettling gender distinctions in the way speech is expressed and interpreted, clarified through interactions with robots and voice assistants; and a lengthy scene attempting to recreate a Tom Cruise video extolling the specious virtues of Scientology (which, though amusing, was considerably overlong). All of this mayhem was framed by more subdued opening and closing episodes focusing on the start and end of life, calling on maternal vocal imprinting and the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
A History of the Voice was a lot more contemplative and thought-provoking than appearances (and that brief summary) might suggest, delivering a satirical, blunt and hilarious critique on humanity’s relationship with and ongoing development of our most intimately personal instrument and the ways it can be wielded. It’s impossible to praise HYOID Contemporary Voices highly enough; their performance was simply astonishing, and will surely go down in HCMF history as one of the festival’s most legendary concerts.
HCMF’s featured composer Christian Marclay returned to Bates Mill in the late evening with another film-based work, Screen Play, performed by saxophonist John Butcher, percussionist Mark Sanders and pianist Steve Beresford. It made for an interest comparison to To be continued, heard on the opening night. Marclay’s film was again totally fascinating, revelling in unpredictable jump cuts and forging connections between similar imagery from wildly different sources, overlaid with colour lines and dots. As i had on Friday, i found myself wanting to experience the film on its own, though this time, far from being won over by the seamlessness of the improvised musical interpretation, the connection between sight and sound was frustratingly ineffectual, sometimes way too obviously literal, but much more often seeming completely arbitrary.
Far more engrossing was the pair of improvisations that began the concert by cellist Okkyung Lee. The first was an essay in skitter and grind, establishing a quietly unstoppable energy that throughout kept accumulating to the point that Lee was practically convulsing on her instrument, sending clouds of rosin dust into the air. These zeniths were countered by periods of near inactivity, Lee shifting her instrument on the floor to produce shuddering bass groans, and culminating in a sequence of queasy undulating pitches. Particularly striking was Lee’s almost Zen-like calm exterior even during the most furiously frenetic passages. Her second improvisation was much shorter, taking the form of an insane moto perpetuo. Like the unstoppable singing of the world’s last skylark, this was some of the fastest playing i’ve ever witnessed, always elaborate and articulate, never out of control. Lee looked typically cool afterwards, but i’m sure i wasn’t the only person that she left feeling breathless. A simply amazing performance.
The day ended in Bates Mill Photographic Studio with a late-night performance by Quatuor Bozzini. The two works they presented, both UK premières, were like inversions of each other. Phill Niblock‘s Disseminate as Five String Quartets combined the Bozzinis with four pre-recorded quartets to explore overtones and beats arising from pitch collisions. That description in no way does justice to the sound of this piece: in no time at all, all trace of the live quartet – and, more importantly, of any of the quartets – was completely lost in infinite waves of juddering, shimmering harmony. There were tiny but tangible obtrusions into this dense field, chords that pushed into it, their presence causing ripples and undulations in the field’s homogeneity. Yet ‘homogeneity’ is entirely the wrong word for sound that was always moving, changing, shifting and transforming. It felt like staring directly into the sun, transcendent and mindblowing.
For Élaine Radigue‘s Occam Delta XV, the Bozzinis abandoned their music stands and played from memory, heightening the mood in a way that (as in many of her Occam works) felt almost sanctified, turning the studio into something akin to a place of worship. A chord emerged, simultaneously final yet provisional, becoming the basis for the most gradual evolution, the music’s nature and its harmonic connotations, as well as the relationship between the four players, continually being reshaped, always in a state of becoming. 35 minutes have never passed so quickly, and i almost felt wretched when it stopped; music like this should never, ever end.