My 2018 HCMF experience came to an end yesterday in what is now the traditional way, at 1pm in St Paul’s Hall in the company of the Arditti Quartet. Four years ago, they tackled the first seven quartets by James Dillon; on this occasion their concert included the next two instalments, receiving their UK and world premières respectively.
i can remember well how the experience of hearing Dillon’s quartets 1 to 7 at HCMF 2014 (in chronological order) sounded like an exercise in diminishing returns. The earlier quartets were striking and impressive, but became gradually more impenetrable to the point that they simply felt weak and listless. Based on this first encounter with the Eighth and Ninth Quartets, that trajectory isn’t showing significant signs up an upturn. There was some interest to be found in the Eighth, Dillon dividing the Ardittis in two pairs that took it in turns to slither around each other, eventually unifying as a group whereupon their material began to halt and fragment. All of this had something nascent about it, beginning with a soupy miasma and arriving at building blocks, though this was the limit of the work’s scope, ending with the prospect of forming into a tangible idea, its closing moments vaguely cadential. In some respects the Ninth was similar – perhaps even a continuation of sorts – as if extant musical ideas were trying to emerge into its anonymous soundworld: there was the sense of a chord progression poised to break out, though to what extent this was real or just a manifestation of pareidolia is hard to say. Subsequently falling into patterns of simplicity and/or solemnity, broken up rapid passagework either en masse or individually, it was hard not to conclude that, as in much of Dillon’s last few quartets, this was a kind of ‘theoretical’ or even ‘scientific’ music, experimenting with materials, quantities, weights and distributions to see what happens. Considering how much emotional energy and passion is found in most of Dillon’s music, it was strange and disappointing to feel kept at such a distance in these pieces.
It was interesting to be confronted by another experiment, Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Quartetto No. 7, the day after hearing his Carnaval, since it involves the composer taking the development of his particular approach to writing for voices and applying it to instruments, as a means to “avoid virtuosity”. i guess that makes this quartet something akin to a song without words, yet while Sciarrino keeps the piece brief, it was extremely weird to be hearing the same halting, repetitive, sighing demeanour in this instrumental context, without being the vehicle for vocal articulation. It was as if the piece were an arrangement, but despite being wordless there was still a ‘lost in translation’ quality to it, which in complete contrast to his vocal music, frustratingly didn’t seem to amount to very much beyond its basic shapes and contours. Sciarrino’s Cosa Resta – countertenor Jake Arditti joining the quartet – was much more engaging, the vocal line expanding on the familiar technical premise with lovely bursts of gabbled text (which sounds so delicious in Italian). i’ll admit to a sense that hearing this particular technique of Sciarrino’s multiple times in just a couple of days is possibly less than ideal, making it sound tired and limited, though the latter half of Cosa Resta, where the relationship between voice and instruments became more imitative and bullish, was arresting.
The indisputable highlight of this concert – and also one of the most lovely and intriguing pieces i heard during all of HCMF 2018 – was the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta‘s dead wasps in a jam-jar (iii). In a concert that was largely characterised by its quantity of very quiet music, Iannotta’s went so much further. At first it seemed merely microscopic, but i’d go so far as to suggest that it’s best thought of as quantum music, existing in an infinitesimal world where reality is different and where we need to rethink from scratch what music is, how it’s formed and what it does. Every action, every sound was as fragile as tissue paper, adding up to a combined weight as light and vaporous as air. Yet paradoxically this was the only piece in the concert to be significantly more than the sum of its parts: even as the electronics (easily the most restrained and subtle use of electronics during this year’s festival) added the merest whiff of ethereal glimmer to its gossamer threads, even as it sounded at every instant as though it would simple evaporate or pop out of existence, even as it finally died away still further into something scratchy and indistinct, Iannotta’s music was somehow everywhere and everything, a microcosm rendered impossibly macro, a new and as yet unknowable kind of sonic stuff being brought into being. This marvellous piece is an example of what the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, at its best, does so well, facilitating a complete reappraisal of the conventions and even the unconventions we’ve become used to in contemporary music, in the process redefining music for the future.