Electric Spring 2018

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Huddersfield is supremely talented at providing distractions (and shelter) from the vicissitudes of winter: HCMF does the honours at the start of the season, in late November, whereas at the other end, in late February, it falls to the university’s annual five-day festival of “electronic sonic exploration”, Electric Spring.

There are various reasons why over the last few years i’ve grown to love Electric Spring. First, it’s the mix of familiar and – most often – unfamiliar names: at most festivals one encounters the same composers again and again, and it’s exciting to have minimal use for one’s expectations. Second, it’s a festival that’s prepared to take big risks: of course, they don’t always work, but its preparedness to go places and try things fearlessly is so admirable, and whichever way the results go, they’re often spectacular. Third, i’ve rarely encountered such inordinate attention to detail in concert giving: everything from the sound system – based around HISS, the ultimate wet dream for surround sound enthusiasts – to the lighting to the stage presentation and everything else is always carefully considered and clearly matters enormously to everyone involved in putting the festival on. And fourth, which only makes my third reason more remarkable, all of the concerts are free, making Electric Spring, besides all else, an amazing act of generosity. Read more

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Electric Spring/Ambient@40

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A quick, last-minute heads-up about Huddersfield University’s annual blow-out celebrating all things electronic, Electric Spring, which starts this evening and runs until Sunday. This year’s programme is typically diverse: Philip Thomas and Colin Frank will be performing works for piano, percussion and electronics, Freida Abtan will present a 21-minute audiovisual work “inspired by the logic of dream narrative”, while Rodrigo Costanzo, Brian Crabtree and Angela Guyton will explore improvised pieces, some of which involve dynamic lighting and video. The concerts are once again supplemented with opening acts, from Aaron Cassidy, Sam Gillies, Katy Gray and Owen Green, plus a couple of late-evening shindigs from the BaconJam collective and Sebastien Lavoie. As usual, it’s a mix of names i know and plenty i don’t, so it promises to be an exciting and unpredictable adventure. All concerts are free, and start at 7:30pm in Phipps Hall, in the Creative Arts Building. Full details on the Electric Spring website.

The Saturday evening concert ties in with the Ambient@40 conference, which runs from Friday to Saturday. The conference promises to be a fascinating investigation, with a multifaceted collection of papers and performances exploring ambient from aesthetic, strategic, influential and many other angles, topped off with a keynote from none other than Ocean of Sound author and Brian Eno collaborator David Toop. The Saturday evening concert features a variety of music connected in different ways to ambient, by Robert Mackay, Rupert Till, Kristina Wolfe, Szafranski duo, Tim Howle and myself. i’ll be presenting new live versions of two of my indeterminate works, February 12, 2013, which has not been heard before, and February 24, 2013, originally created for the Imperfect Forms Kenneth Kirschner ebook project. The full programme for the conference, including abstracts for all the papers and presentations, can be viewed on the Ambient@40 website,



Town Hall, Birmingham: Celebrating Carter

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i really like concerts devoted to a single composer. Regardless of how much pre-existing knowledge one may have, the opportunity always goes a long way toward, if not defining that composer’s music, then at least clarifying certain truths about it. This was definitely the case with the latest concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group last Sunday in the city’s Town Hall, celebrating the music of US composer and longevity show-off, Elliott Carter. For myself, i would have to describe my contact with Carter’s work over the years as ‘light to intermittent’, and i admit that that’s partly of my own making. The reason is a simple one: pretty much every time i’ve listened to something of Carter’s i’ve felt kept at a distance, for reasons i’ve never been able adequately to fathom. So last Sunday’s concert was as good a time as any to grow a pair and indulge in a large-form encounter with his music. It worked: up to a point, everything became clear.

In hindsight, Two Thoughts about the Piano, composed in 2007 and performed on this occasion by guest pianist Pierre-Laurent Aimard, seems a perfect paradigm for the impression given by the whole concert, which was a divided one. The first movement, Intermittences, could hardly have sounded more composed, the result of a carefully worked-out and -through method or process. That’s hardly a problem of course – still less a fault – though Aimard’s sublime fleet fingerwork was nonetheless hardly able to inject much breath into the material. In fact, and this is a concomitant result of this aspect of Carter’s music, Aimard often appeared like an automaton, moving with the effortless ease that had come from extensive and subtle programming. Whereas the second movement, Caténaires (‘catenary’, a mathematical term denoting the way a chain hangs between two uneven points), could hardly have been more different: almost like a literal stream of inspiration, the progression from being formed in Aimard’s neurons to spilling from his fingers apparently almost instantaneous. It was genuinely thrilling, but the disjunct nature of the two movements was the most striking facet of the work. Read more

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Wigmore Hall, London: Rebecca Saunders – Unbreathed (World Première)

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Rebecca Saunders turned 50 towards the end of last year, so 2018 effectively counts as her anniversary year, and the celebrations began last Thursday in London at the Wigmore Hall, with the world première of her new string quartet, Unbreathed, by Quatuor Diotima. The occasion was notable in no small part due to the fact that, despite being one of the UK’s most renowned composers, her work is rarely heard here. Premières are rarer still, with most of them taking place in Huddersfield; the last time London saw a Saunders world première was ten years ago with the first version of Chroma, performed at Tate Modern, and the ones before that date back to the mid-1990s.

Quatuor Diotima positioned Unbreathed betwixt two other works, Szymanowski’s 1927 Second Quartet and Schubert’s massive String Quartet No. 15 in G, composed late in his life. The Szymanowski was odd when it wasn’t being just plain meh, whereas the Schubert was a fascinating and at times excruciating tl;dr study in how far material could be pushed and worked while still holding onto its integrity (personally, i thought the integrity was emphatically broken, but in some ways that only added to the experience). While the Diotima’s performance of both these works was outstanding (and, in the case of the Schubert, herculean), it was more telling in the way it provided an interesting and useful perspective on the Saunders, particularly in terms of the nature and precision of pitch. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Ensemble Grizzana

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Consider some of the qualities we might associate with the classical notion of holiness: vulnerable but resolute; at odds with easy, quick and cheap enticements in favour of a focus on that which is intangible and transcendent; superficially boring or stupid or quaint yet holding and exhibiting an absolute, unshakeable faith in its convictions. In many ways this is a fitting description of Magnus Granberg‘s How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?, the first of two world premières given by Ensemble Grizzana on the final day of HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. The fact that we were hearing the piece on a Sunday, and in a former church, only added to the sensation. Both works on the programme were based on a pair of pieces of Renaissance music, Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Johannes Ockeghem and William Byrd’s Oh Lord How Vain. While the material from those pieces wasn’t directly audible in Granberg’s music, one couldn’t help feeling that what we were hearing was, in roughly equal parts, a distillation, a suspension and an explosion of them. Occupying an archetypal steady state, the music emerged (following a lengthy, centering, silence) via a quiet stream of individual sustained sounds, forming a loose-weave texture seemingly encrusted with both jewels and detritus. While it would be true to say that the work was strikingly, stunningly beautiful – easily among the most lovely things i’ve heard at this year’s festival – yet that same beauty (which, it should be stressed, was sometimes far from obvious) is arguably an incidental, happy coincidence, rather than being the thing that defines it. Though exploded in terms of the separation of the instruments and their ideas, the steady state behaviour unified these individual musical actions, making the work’s constituent sounds seem like an analogue for quantum fluctuations, ephemeral particles appearing from nothing, floating in space for a time before vanishing. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Laura Cannell, ICE + Distractfold + Fritz Hauser + Anne Bourne, Mix Tape

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As i’ve indicated previously, the non-partisan diversity of HCMF is impressively broad these days, and one of the concerts that best exemplified this took place in Bates Mill Photographic Studio on Saturday morning, in the company of Laura Cannell. To describe her as a composer and performer of folk music would be to over-simplify greatly what Cannell did in the six short movements of FEATHERS UNFURLED, receiving its world première. Switching between a fiddle and a pair of recorders (the latter being played simultaneously), each piece took tropes from both folk music as well as earlier musical idioms as the starting point for broader and more personal explorations. All of the works employed drones to underpin them, and in the various fiddle pieces this accentuated the primacy of open strings, which were continually heard as reference points, grounding the music, from which more (care)free ideas could spring and rise. In one of these pieces, Outstretched, this primacy was particularly striking as, due to detuning the instrument, the quality of the drone at first came to resemble an intoning male voice, later lending an unsettling air to the music due to its unexpected gravitas. The final fiddle piece, In The Room Not Passing Through – one of two using a bow with hair going both over and under the strings – moved farthest from its allusive conventions, combining obsessive bowing with extremes of bow pressure (both too much and too little). The sound emanating from the instrument, in conjunction with Cannell’s stylised mode of delivery – involving small, careful movements within a confined performance space – hinted at something magical being invoked beneath the music. In the recorder pieces Untethered and Hollowed, Cannell took on an even more shamanic demeanour, her movements now the ritualised actions of spell-casting, resulting in heavily motivic material in the latter piece, and a strange tonality betwixt minor and major in the former. This concert was a genuinely unexpected treat, proving how alive and adventurous new manifestations of ancient traditions of music-making continue to be. Read more

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HCMF 2017: TAPE, The Riot Ensemble, Ensemble PHACE + Laura Bowler

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Having heard Thomas Lehn’s live rendition of Bogusław Schaeffer’s 1964 Symphony last thing on Thursday night, it couldn’t have been more perfect to have started Friday in the company of four more Polish electronic works, dating from around a decade later. Eugeniusz Rudnik‘s Ready Made (1977) took a collage approach to found sounds, and was primarily interesting in the naively effective way Rudnik used the juxtaposition of these sounds to articulate a sense of internal energy, most obviously in a transition from a floating drone into a burst of Berlioz’s Radetzky March. Krzysztof Knittel‘s 1976 The Worm Conqueror was strikingly different from the grey industriality of Norcet II, heard on Tuesday. His soundworld was like being in vast oceanic depths, where quiet, delicate, tiny sounds floating in silence became the brief bursts of flamboyant colour from bioluminescent fish. This wasn’t only where we began, it also established a broader context of quietude where subsequent outbursts – some of which were enormous (the only time echoes of Norcet II could be heard): muscular, brutalist torrents of stuff sizzling in the space like hot soup being poured into ice water – sounded like aberrations from a path that eventually led back down into the depths. Here, at the last, something allusive could be glimpsed, as if just beyond our reach, before vanishing. Wow. In Daisy Story (1979) by Bohdan Mazurek, the most light-hearted piece in the concert, varying forms of momentum are explored, formed from squelchy analogue mush converted into a rude rhythmic bassline. However, as overtures go it was something of a red herring, followed by free-wheeling quasi-psychedelic ideas and gestures and melodic fragments (made of sine tones) that brought to mind the early work of Kraftwerk that zeitkrazer had revisited during the festival’s opening weekend. Further rhythmic underpinnings emerged, but it was those unfettered improvisational shapes that ultimately dominated and typified the piece. When discussing Bogusław Schaeffer’s Symphony yesterday i spoke of the ‘threatening silence’ endemic to so much early electronic music, which retrospectively acts as an analogue to composers’ grappling to harness new technology. An interesting counterpoint to this could be heard in Tomasz Sikorski‘s Solitude of Sounds (1975), where (again retrospectively; it would hardly have been the composer’s intention) the tape hiss worked both as a ‘shield’ against this silence as well as the means by which the material was animated, like a soft source of ambient electricity. There was something reassuring about its presence, and the way it was shaped around and behind everything else. Speaking of which: slow-moving objects caught between pitch (just) and noise (barely) like dark grey rectangles in a sea of ash. Somehow it ended up as a polarised high/low drone, each pole slowly changing in ways that were impossible to identify. One could almost imagine it as the music of the spheres, underpinning the entirety of the universe. Read more

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