Concerts

HCMF 2013: BBC Singers

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Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen & Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.

Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes & suspensions, & i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes & mannerisms of religious chant. Contemporary choral music has always had to contend with its religious legacy but, far from being a hindrance, in Haut Terrain Seither seems to have liberated that legacy for her own solemnified ends. Interestingly, the piece plays havoc with one’s attempts at long-term musical memory; attempts to connect what’s happening now with music of several minutes earlier seemed increasingly impossible, perhaps due to the continual re-focus of the music’s foundation (located more in the upper voices than the lower). It would have been nice to have known a little more of Seither’s conceptual intentions; unfortunately, her programme note had been translated into the kind of obfuscatory gobbledegook that does no composers any favours.

After two short works by Sørensen—which left me wondering yet again what it is that makes Scandinavian choral music so, well, Scandinavian—came the highlight of the concert, the world première of Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge!, an impassioned response to the plight of Pussy Riot, the girl band who fell foul of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly regressive & timid regime. Ore’s text is a compilation of bon mots from the great & the good on the subject of freedom of speech, including words by George Washington, Catherine of Siena, Lenny Bruce & Shakespeare but focussing on a trio of selections from transcriptions of the the Pussy Riot trial. Throughout is a recurring refrain by Christopher Logue:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!

There are times when the combination of the words’ implorings with Ore’s repetitive, emphatic word-setting slightly dents their impact, threatening to render them somewhat akin to the vacuous prattlements churned out by motivational speakers. Yet it’s impressive how, overall, Ore not only makes her point, but hits it home hard & deep. It’s less a political piece than a call to each of us both to assert our own right to freedom of speech & to protect others’ rights to the same with unassailable determination. As such, the words are not so much punches as hard, necessary slaps to the face: “Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear”, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”, “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government'”. By focussing on simplicity—bold, earnest, declamatory—& reminding us of our own rights, Come to the Edge! makes us reflect on how inhuman it is to deprive others of them. To ignore that inhumanity diminishes us all.

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HCMF 2013: Red Note Ensemble

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This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) & something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola & ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts & dissipates, leaving the viola alone & heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios & oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune.

Rather less of a failure was Bruno Mantovani‘s 2000 work D’un rêve parti (the title being a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a rave party). i can only assume that Mantovani & i have clearly attended very different raves, as his is a fairly fussy evocation that takes a long time to loosen up. The lengthy set up is occupied with conventional contemporary gestures; in this respect it sounds familiar (depending on your perspective, that’s either a good or a bad thing), but it gradually moves into two episodes where Mantovani clearly seeks to illustrate, even emulate, the party inspiration. It’s impossible not to recall Thomas Adès’ ‘Ecstasio’ movement from Asyla, another work that highlights the problems endemic to any kind of overt translation between musical genres. Adès drew on the anthemic qualities of trance; Mantovani’s interest lies in the nascent synth music from the ’70s (&, i presume, also the ’80s, when it more fully developed into dance music as we recognise it today). Yet herein lies a very specific difficulty; this kind of music is characterised to a very large extent by its timbral qualities, which are essentially lost in a chamber ensemble context. If one disregards the title & programme note & accepts the somewhat twee minimalism of the first episode & its more emphatically rhythmic successor, then there’s something to enjoy in D’un rêve parti; but let’s not pretend it even begins to approximate a rave.

The concert ended with the UK première of James Dillon‘s 40-minute New York Triptych. This is a difficult piece to write about, due both to its length & complex sense of narrative. That in itself brought a tremendous sense of relief following the Fennessy & Mantovani. Immediately, one became more aware than before of how utterly clear they had been, how transparently organised, how obvious their intentions, how entirely lacking they were in the kind of starting-from-scratch, destroy-your-expectations kind of structural thinking. On the one hand, the obvious result of this is that the inner workings of Dillon’s Triptych keep themselves hidden, but that doesn’t equate to a sequence of non sequiturs that one shruggingly has to accept on trust. On the contrary, absolutely nothing felt out of place or even unexpected, which in itself is a testament to the facility Dillon has of forging direct statement from decidedly (& perhaps deliberately) convoluted means of articulation. What came across most on this (for me) first listening was overwhelming lyricism, both in the sensitive restraint of Dillon’s writing (often very quiet, with much use of silence) as well as the poignant flashes of earlier music, both through subtle emulation & glimpsed in faint snatches of recordings, a sotto voce trace that nonetheless permeated the entire texture. Gorgeous & bewildering, it’s a piece that requires considerable further time & thought, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s not included in the BBC’s forthcoming broadcasts.

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Gigs, gigs, gigs

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There are some very interesting live events looming between the doorstep & the horizon. Most imminently, New Dots—an excellent initiative designed to foster collaborative composer/ensemble relationships—will be presenting the next instalment in their ongoing ‘Sounds of the New’ series at the Forge in Camden next Thursday (14th). This time it’ll be given by the London-based Octandre Ensemble, in a concert of works from a sextet of up-&-coming composers (none of whom i’ve heard of, but that no doubt says more about me than them). Details of the concert can be found here, & it’s worth highlighting they’re also running a composing competition, scoping out new works for piano &/or percussion duo &/or electronics. Details of that here; but take note the deadline is 15 November.

Beyond this—yet still less than a week away—is contemporary music’s most happily disorienting annual splurge, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. This year i’ll be spending what i anticipate to be a frankly exhausting six full days at HCMF, & will be blogging about the proceedings as much as time & energy allow (like last year, expect coverage to spread through succeeding weeks as various parts are broadcast). It seems rather fatuous to refer to ‘highlights’ where HCMF is concerned, since almost every one of its 10 days is packed to the rafters with them; personally speaking, the prospect of world & UK premières from the likes of James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Monty Adkins, Rebecca Saunders, Simon Steen-Andersen, Michael Finnissy, Konrad Boehmer, Jakob Ullmann (one of my biggest heroes) & Natasha Barrett in addition to an entire day of John Zorn leaves one more than a little giddy with anticipation. HCMF Artistic Director Graham McKenzie deserves a lot more than mere kudos for bringing together such a wondrous cavalcade of new music. McKenzie’s regular tweets suggest that many, if not most, of the concerts have nearly sold out; ticket info is available here.

Next month, back at the Forge, composer Piers Tattersall & pianist Christopher Guild are going to be presenting an evening of piano music with & without electronics, including works by Jonathan Harvey, Olivier Messiaen & Pascal Dusapin alongside music by Tattersall himself & a couple of other composers. Piers tells me he’s been working with Guild for several years, so it’ll be very interesting to hear the fruits of that collaboration, & it’s always a real treat to hear Harvey’s leftfield but dreamy Tombeau de Messiaen (if you don’t know it, get on with it). Full details here.

On top of all this avant goodness, i’m especially interested & excited at the prospect of Joe Bates’ Filthy Lucre project. Founded in 2010, the purpose of the project is to present what Joe describes as “mixed-genre, mixed-medium immersive music nights”—kind of like a Robert Rich throwback but with a far more active, thought-provoking raison d’être. Their next night is planned for Saturday 11 January at the Bussey Building in Peckham; running from 9pm to 5am, the night will feature new works as well as eclectica from the delightful likes of Scott Walker, Frank Ocean, Scelsi, Radiohead, Claude Vivier, Dirty Projectors & many, many more. There are so many reasons to enjoy & support occasions like these, so let me encourage you to visit the Filthy Lucre 3 Kickstarter page, read the extensive information about what’s going to take place (the prospect of soprano Juliet Fraser performing Vivier’s Bouchara ought to be enough to ignite anyone’s enthusiasm), & then make a generous donation to help it become a reality. They’re over halfway to their target of £2,500 & there’s just 11 days to go. i, for one, would love to see this happen.

Ny lydkunst i Bergen

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My recent travels in Norway—focussed in & around the environs of second city Bergen—yielded plenty of jaw-droppingly splendorous landscape, but nothing in the way of contemporary music. Neither of the city’s CD stores betray any knowledge of the existence of Arne Nordheim, Maja Ratke & the like, while the concert repertoire essentially revolves around the (not unsurprising) omnipresence of Edvard Grieg. However, disappointment was turned on its head during my final morning in the city last Friday, when wandering through the network of backstreets i came upon Østre. An otherwise anonymous building, the billboard outside proclaims it to be a ‘Hus for Lydkunst og Elektronisk Musikk’ (House for Sound Art & Electronic Music); inside, the custodian explained that Østre (formerly the Lydgalleriet) is the only space dedicated to sound art in all of Scandinavia. The collection of books & CDs for sale certainly backed up its avant-garde credentials, & anyone in the Bergen area would do well to check it out, especially within the next couple of weeks.

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Unsuk Chin – Six Piano Études

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It’s been quite a while since my articles on the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion Day devoted to Unsuk Chin, but here’s an omission from that account, which was only broadcast recently. The day began with a piano recital given by Clare Hammond, featuring Chin’s Six Piano Études. It’s perhaps not surprising, considering Chin studied for several years with György Ligeti, that she should be drawn to the étude form, yet hers are very different both stylistically & collectively from those of her former teacher.

There’s a strong sense of unity running through the six pieces, even of continuity. Chin is drawn to filigree piano writing, which is present right from the start of ‘In C’; the diatonic progressions in the bass guide the étude rather than grounding it, the right hand sounding like streams of water magically cascading upwards. ‘Sequenzen’ begins at the other end of the keyboard, in a lugubrious preamble that swiftly gains momentum, a single pitch lingering within. Hectic passagework breaks out—the upper part filled with embellishment—only hesitating briefly in a moment of repose before launching into a torrential climax. One realises how closely-related these two études seem when the third begins; the tempo of ‘Scherzo ad libitum’ is all over the place, charging off unpredictably only to slow down again immediately afterwards, a juddering sense of motion that brings to mind the inscrutable mannerisms of Nancarrow’s player-piano studies. The étude ends in similar fashion, but its centre is a lengthy episode of unstoppable material, like a burning juggernaut, notes flying everywhere like sparks & flares. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Cikada Ensemble

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The last concert i attended in my weekend at HCMF 2012 took place back in Bates Mill, in the company of Norway’s remarkable Cikada Ensemble, whom i’ve been fortunate to hear on a number of occasions. More than most, Cikada tend to give off an air of almost aggressive fearlessness, & while that quality permeated this concert in abundance, the three exceptionally diverse works they explored nonetheless each delivered varying amounts of frustration. Read more

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HCMF 2012: Arditti Quartet

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Two months may have passed, but memories of the all-too-brief weekend i spent at HCMF 2012 are alive & well; so let’s pick up where i left off.

The second day of my HCMF experience began once again in St Paul’s Hall, confronted by the understated marvel that is the Arditti Quartet. Despite the palpable excitement that pervaded the previous day’s concerts, the atmosphere in the hall on this occasion was that unique kind of highly-charged tension that only a few performers & ensembles can engender. The quartet had brought with them four works that initially seemed strikingly different from each other, but three of them ultimately proved to be united by a common line of enquiry, making the most of out of, materially speaking, very little. Read more

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