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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HCMF 2012: Ensemble Resonanz

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The first day of my weekend at HCMF ended back where it had begun, in St Paul’s Hall, for a late-night concert by Ensemble Resonanz, conducted by Peter Rundel. The concert was broadcast live on Radio 3 & comprised just three pieces, all focussing on strings, two of which featured solo cello, played by Jean-Guihen Queyras.

It began with the UK première of Rolf Wallin‘s Ground, the title of which alludes to the cyclic Baroque form of divisions, whereby a repeating bassline (the ground) is gradually overlaid with layers of faster material. That description probably suggests a certain amount of mayhem, but Ground is a decidedly pensive piece—Wallin describes it as “about finding rest”—in which the solo cello is closely surrounded by the rest of the strings, together forming a close collaboration. Furthermore, while the work has no repeating bassline (seven chords are the indiscernible equivalent here), it is highly episodic, exploring an extensive cycle of moods & atmospheres. A collaboration it may be, but it’s an intrepid one, bringing to mind a gradual descent into the earth (a connotation of the title?), passing through increasingly dark & ambiguous layers of strata. What makes the piece particularly interesting is its central melodic identity; Wallin allows tension to manifest itself in diffident, unstable music, but it never comes off the rails, preserving the sense of a pre-planned mission, rather than a mystery tour. At the work’s conclusion it enters its most cryptic episode; bordering on a stasis, both soloist & strings arrange themselves into a dense web of gently wafting notes. It begs the question: is this the ‘rest’ Wallin was striving for? or is the mission not yet completed? Read more

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HCMF 2012: Oslo Sinfonietta

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Following a collection of strangers down a bleak back street to a gloomy factory & then passing through a makeshift entrance labelled ‘The Blending Shed’ might sound like the makings of a nightmare, but this was the way in which i found myself at Bates Mill, for yesterday evening’s concert given by the Oslo Sinfonietta. What constitutes a sign? What do words & gestures really signify? How do we interpret them, & when we have, how might others respond? These questions occupied both of the works featured in the concert, which were each receiving their UK première.

Ignas KrunglevičiusGradients is founded on a bizarre exchange initiated by two Cornell PhD students: a conversation between two online chatbots, their addled, artificially intelligent dialogue forming Krunglevičius’ libretto. The piece didn’t feel promising at first, comprising a series of sliding overlapping lines on & around the same pitch, dripping with dissonance, while four singers (members of the Norwegian Soloists’ Choir) uttered a related sequence of open-mouthed ululations. So far, so meh. But at the introduction of the text, this not especially inviting material fell back, everyone’s attention now focussed on the words appearing on the wall in front of us, which was divided in two, with one irrational interlocutor occupying each half. Initially, their conversation was bipped out by one singer at a time, one word at a time, but after a while loud electronic pulses took over. The content of the conversation was so fascinating, & so starkly in relief, that it made the accompanying music not so much irrelevant as unnoticed. That in itself, i think, proves it fitted what was going on—if not, it would surely have proved distracting. As it was, the half-baked discourse at the centre of Gradients was able to ring out loudly, confusing & amusing in equal measure. One can only wonder about the long-term value & power of a work like this, but last night, it certainly proved compelling.

Rather than words & syntax, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Black Box Music had the grammar of gesture in its conceptual sights. A 40-minute work in three sections, it divided the Oslo Sinfonietta into three groups, placed at the sides & rear of the space. At the front, dead centre, was the titular box, with two holes into which the ‘conductor’ put both hands. This was facing away from the audience, but the contents of the box—the conductor’s hands, plus assorted ephemera & some curtains at the front—were hugely projected onto the entire wall. The first part, ‘Ouverture’, established the ‘grammar’ i mentioned before (although ‘rules of the game’ would describe it just as well), the conductor pointing towards different groups to elicit a response, &/or making different shapes & signs with his hands to trigger specific events. It initially seemed as though this was overlong, an entertaining idea stretched too thinly, but the subtlety of Steen-Andersen’s design slowly became apparent. At one point, the relationship between the musicians & the conductor lost all synchronicity, leading one to question exactly who was leading whom, or indeed if there was a ‘leader’ at all. i couldn’t decide whether the title of the second part, ‘Disambiguation’, was intended ironically, because the sheer range & complexity of hand shapes & gestures, as well as the speed with which they progressed & the tautness of the resultant interactions between the various groups, were all dazzling; perhaps they were only able to dazzle precisely because there was no longer any ambiguity. Only the last section, ‘Finale’, seemed to come unstuck; it was definitely overlong, in part due to some technical issues within the box, which by this stage had been festooned with elastic bands, motors with strings striking suspended cups &, at the last, a balloon, & getting all this in place meant the focus became a little lost. But Black Box Music is such a joyous riot of humour & unbridled joie de vivre that it simply didn’t matter; that it also demonstrated formidable technical prowess while asking some searching questions along the way only makes Simon Steen-Andersen’s achievement all the more astonishing. A truly unforgettable performance.

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HCMF 2012: Heather Roche

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Yesterday the evening began with clarinettist Heather Roche, of whom multiple friends have spoken warmly but i had never heard play. The recital took place deep in the bowels of the University’s temple-like Creative Arts building, & comprised a selection of pieces incorporating electronics. Quite a few of them—Aaron Einbond’s Resistance, Chikako Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) & Sylvain Pohu’s l’identité—left me cold, revisiting tropes & methods that have become overused & hackneyed. i’ve written in the past about the endless parade of works where electronics pick up & play with material given off by the soloist, & while, of course, there’s scope to do genuinely interesting things with this, it’s some time since i’ve encountered any. Einbond’s Resistance felt especially moribund, assuming that the sounds of Occupy Wall Street would somehow embody his material with electrical charge, yet the result sounded merely exploitative.

The more successful pieces, though, were far more exciting. The relationship set up by Alex Harker in Fluence was simple but superbly effective, drawing on a vast array of prerecorded clarinet samples. No sign here of the problem of dislocation that plagues so much electroacoustic music; Harker creates a genuine, subtle dialogue between acoustic & electronic, giving the distinct impression that Roche was engaged in a duet—no small achievement. Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s la rupture inéluctable fell into some flat moments, but the demonstrative way Roche interacted with the electronics—regularly stamping a pedal, producing hard-edged, glittering & grinding tones—again made them feel deeply integrated, an extension of the clarinet rather than separated from it. But what struck one more than even these fine works was the remarkable stamina & concentration of Heather Roche’s playing; in her hands, each & every piece became thoroughly absorbing.

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HCMF 2012: Nicolas Hodges

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My HCMF 2012 experience began at midday today in St Paul’s Hall, with Nicolas Hodges’ lunchtime recital featuring piano music by Jean Barraqué. It’s rare, but marvellous, when a concert can be genuinely eye-opening, & everything about this recital was just that. Before the concert, i knew very little of Barraqué’s music, & as Hodges progressed through the first few pieces—Intermezzo, Pièce pour piano, Thème et variations (Retour was sadly omitted from the programme)—a distinct first impression began to take shape: enigmatic, mysterious, aloof, music realised through a sequence of loosely but unmistakably inter-connected melodic intentions that, despite being diffused through wide intervallic displacement, somehow hold together. They brought a very different composer to mind: Morton Feldman, due both to the meticulous way notes were placed after each other, as well as the striking way Barraqué grabs hold of one’s perception of time; despite the brevity of these pieces, their ability to make time malleable was impressive.

But only now did one’s eyes start to become truly opened. Following a (retrospectively somewhat dramatic) moment off stage, Hodges returned to deliver the Deux morceaux pour piano, the first of which undid practically every assumption one had made through the preceding works. Here, without any warning, was absolute fire, erupting in an unstoppable, bewildering cascade of splintered thought, Hodges’ fingers flying over the entire range of the keyboard at almost ludicrous speed. What, now, to make of Barraqué? True, the second of the morceaux displays the same cool reserve heard before, but the first was a genuine & overwhelming shock, as though something quietly benign had against all expectation exploded into raw power, like a monastic act of self-immolation.

This graduated approach to the language of Barraqué felt almost pedagogical (in the best sense), presenting a primer of sorts so as to create a context for what came next, his epic 40-minute Sonata, completed in 1952. On the one hand, this meant it felt stylistically familiar, yet the experience of hearing these diverse elements rigorously explored at length entirely transformed one’s understanding of them. For one thing, the Sonata is a very much more difficult listen, inasmuch as the demands it makes feel considerable (another Feldman similarity), & i’ll happily confess to a number of occasions when i didn’t so much feel ‘lost’ as simply stupefied at the fearlessly inexplicable way Barraqué moves between the work’s discrete strands. Yet for all its inscrutability, the best aspects of the miniature works are magnified to a huge degree, especially the oscillations between fast & slow tempi. If time felt malleable before, now it becomes entirely fluid, Hodges seemingly pulling time around at will, & on occasions stopping it altogether.

Understated throughout, almost meditative, Nicolas Hodges’ performance of this beguiling music was one of the most transparent i’ve ever seen, as though channelling directly Barraqué’s musical voice. United in performance, both composer & pianist were absolutely astonishing.

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Jonathan Harvey – Weltethos (UK Première)

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Yesterday evening, in Birmingham’s Symphony Hall, Jonathan Harvey‘s large-scale new work for choir & orchestra, Weltethos, was given its first UK performance. The opening event of Birmingham’s London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, when one considers the legacy & reputation of Harvey together with the combined forces of over 300 performers—the CBSO joined by their full choral complement of Chorus, Youth Chorus & Children’s Chorus, plus two conductors (Edward Gardner & Michael Seal) & a speaker in the form of renowned actor Samuel West—in a work of 80 minutes’ duration, it’s hardly surprising that the superlatives & hyperbole had started to fly before even a note had been sounded. Expectations could hardly have been greater, nor hopes higher. To my amazement, they were all emphatically quashed.

Weltethos certainly doesn’t fail in terms of scope or ambition, setting a lengthy text by theologian Hans Küng that seeks to draw on common values from six of the world’s great faiths & philosophies, Confucianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism & Christianity. Speaking of these values, Küng says that “[they] need not be invented anew, but people need to be made aware of them again; they must be lived out and handed on.” Yet the problems with Weltethos begin right here. The six values—1) humanity, 2) the so-called ‘golden rule’, that we don’t do to others what we wouldn’t want done to us, 3) non-violence, 4) justice, 5) truth & 6) love—are all deeply significant & important aspects of our interactions one with another, but Küng frames them in such a pallid, dry way that they feel entirely theoretical, one step removed from anything approaching genuine emotion & feeling. Brief paragraphs from each religion’s sacred texts are used to allude to the six values, but in a flat, narrative fashion that seems entirely self-defeating; surely Küng was aiming at a kind of moral/ethical rally cry, but what he’s produced is as motivating as a party political broadcast.
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