Festivals

HCMF 2018: A History of the Voice, Christian Marclay + Okkyung Lee, Quatuor Bozzini

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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. Read more

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HCMF 2018: HISS@10, Kudzu, Fast Gold Butterflies

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Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Of those four words, i’d hazard to suggest that the most important is the third one, music. What exactly constitutes ‘music’ is a good question, and one of HCMF’s strengths is the way it’s prepared to challenge and probe what that word connotes and how it can be defined. This is something i’ve been thinking about a lot since yesterday afternoon’s concert at Bates Mill, featuring the UK première of Kudzu/the sixth phase by Swedish composer Malin Bång. i’m not going to outright suggest that Kudzu isn’t a piece of music; truth be told, i’m not at all sure what it is, and on the strength of conversations with various other people after the concert i don’t think i’m alone in that uncertainty.

Bång’s work Siku, for violin and electronics, was performed at last year’s HCMF, and while it was a modestly interesting piece, i noted on that occasion how it hadn’t been possible to reconcile the programme note – about the damage humanity has caused to the ecosystem – with the music. With Kudzu, Bång has seriously upped the ante, to the extent that it’s essentially a 50-minute programme note-cum-agitprop presented as a piece of performance art that’s barely possible to reconcile with the very concept of music. Six ominous hourglasses, spotlit on each side of the stage; a flipchart with assorted statistics displayed; a text running throughout, recounting various statements, news stories and anecdotes (disconcertingly undermined by one or two factual errors and a myriad spelling mistakes); a piece of sand-coloured carpet being gradually spray-painted green; numbers on ping pong balls being selected from a tombola, leading to pieces of paper with unexplained dates upon them fixed on the performers’ backs; bits of foliage being arranged around the space; scribblings on the flipchart that were subsequently ripped up. These and other activities were accompanied by sound that Bång had clearly designed to be as pitchless as possible, the members of the Curious Chamber Players either vaguely rubbing and scratching their instruments or assaulting them to produce largely undifferentiated episodes of lowercase croaking or walls of blank noise. For 50 minutes. Read more

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HCMF 2018: United Instruments of Lucilin, Harriet

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Considering the lengths to which curators and ensembles often go to create deep and meaningful connections between the works featured in a concert, yesterday’s performance by Luxembourg ensemble United Instruments of Lucilin was a refreshing break from the norm. The only thing the four pieces had in common was their complete dissimilarity from each other. It’s three years since i’ve had the chance to hear this ensemble in action (when they wowed me at HCMF 2015); hopes were high, and they absolutely didn’t disappoint.

Some of the music did though. Songs for the M8, a string quartet by Anna Meredith, proved to be a pretty humdrum exercise in basic character study. Each of its five movements adopted a particular behavioural approach or attitude, though a great deal of the material was bland and structurally somewhat arbitrary. There were a couple of nice exceptions: the fourth movement was seriously fun, a wild mess of tremolos and glissandi sending the players scrambling to the tops of the their fingerboards, squealing like crazy. The final movement opted for soft ethereality, and though a little directionless was a nice way to conclude the piece. Overall, though, it felt like yet another example of Meredith putting superficial swagger over substance. Catherine Kontz didn’t provide the ensemble with a conventional score but a 4-metre square mat laid out on the floor for her piece Snakes & Ladders, receiving its world première. Modified such that the players (in every sense of the word) progressed in a spiral towards the centre, each rolled two dice to determine how they would move along the board (e.g. 2 and 5: alternately move forward by 2 and 5 squares). Each square featured a mnemonic indicating what to do – among other things, a physical movement, playing a sound on their instrument, or imitating someone else – and also indications about pausing, as well as the inevitable snakes and ladders rapidly escorting them to far-flung parts of the board. Initially it seemed too much like a literal game – and a hilarious one at that: United Instruments of Lucilin were clearly having a whale of a time – to consider it from a musical perspective. But the board was of course just another form of score, another way of imparting instructions to players for them to interpret and execute. On top of this was its in-built indeterminacy, to some extent not knowing what the five players involved would be doing or to a greater extent how they would be interacting with each other, or indeed how long the piece would last (on this occasion, around 7 minutes, but presumably if the snakes had had their way it could have lasted a lot longer). But it was this demonstration of the relationship between composer demands and performer actions that was most engrossing; so while it was funny to the point of, at times, becoming ridiculous, witnessing how the players submitted themselves so entirely to the rules of the game – becoming something akin to automatons – was thought-provoking and just a touch unsettling.

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: Investigations

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It’s not unusual, considering HCMF’s openness to stepping outside the bounds of convention, for a new work at the festival to have to overcome how extraordinary it is. That was certainly the case in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where Christian Marclay‘s Investigations received its world première. It wasn’t just that the piece had been hyped up beforehand, but the more simple fact that it’s not every day you get to see twenty pianos – two grands, 12 baby grands and six uprights – used in a composition. Even before the music had started, and for some time after, one had to overcome the mere spectacle of it. This very evidently could be felt among the audience, who took some time to progress from marvelling at the number of pianos and laughing at the unusual antics of the pianists, to settling down and starting to engage more meaningfully with the music.

The piece uses 100 photos of pianists in the act of performing as its ‘score’; this set of images is given to each of the twenty pianists who then need to interpret the photos and notate below the image their rendition of what’s happening. These 100 pages of ‘score’ are played through by each pianist independently; obviously, this allows for considerable variation in the work’s duration, and on this occasion it lasted around 50 minutes.

Marclay could hardly have titled the work better. From the outset it was clear that this was a lot more than just the sum of each individual pianists’ investigations (though it was that), being a much broader experiment investigating, among other things, the fundamental music-making progression from interpretation (of the score) to reproduction (performing it) to accumulation (combining with others). This last aspect was the most unexpected; while each pianist articulated their material independently, they nonetheless were intimately involved in each others’ performances, since a great many of the interpretations required two or more pianists in order to execute them. Regardless whether one focused on individual players or widened the scope to listen to assorted sub-groups or everyone, Investigations exposed the way that any creative act can be regarded as an agglomeration of small details, combining and coalescing to form larger shapes and structures. The primary way the piece did this was by being both an atomisation, constructed from a total of 2,000 individually perceptible musical moments (20 players x 100 images), and a distillation, each pianist seeking to present the essence of what is captured in each image – resulting in an overall emphasis on gesture as the fundamental musical building-block. (If a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, perhaps a composition of 2,000 ideas starts with a single gesture.) That’s not especially new or revelatory, of course, but the particular way it was teased out and manifested in Investigations was fascinating, reinforced further by the way the material petered out as each pianist finished, throwing yet more emphasis on the importance of each and every gesture. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Duo Gelland, Ensemble Mosaik

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Yesterday’s late evening concert at HCMF, given by Ensemble Mosaik in Bates Mill, presented the first UK performance of Enno Poppe‘s Rundfunk. There are ways in which the piece is remarkable, and ways in which it isn’t. What certainly is remarkable – and the more i’ve thought about this the more remarkable it seems – is that it took Poppe three years to compose. With a duration of 60 minutes, composed for nine performers not so much playing their keyboards as triggering events from them, Poppe’s inspiration was to take the sounds from a collection of vintage synthesisers and use these as the basis – or, to use Poppe’s word, the “atoms” – for the piece. Importantly, Poppe hasn’t chosen to use the original instruments, instead harnessing their sounds with modern technology to obviate the limitations of their dated technology (such as monophony) and to open up possibilities with different tuning systems. The considerable length of time it took Poppe to compose the work was apparently due to the enormous range of options now available to him, having brought these sounds into the 21st century. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: To be continued

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On the opening night of last year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, i remember pondering about the shift in tactic regarding the festival’s opening gambit. In 2017, there was a move away from the full-throttle shock and awe that has often typified HCMF’s opening nights, but the first concert of the 2018 festival, yesterday evening, saw a return to the more ambitious scale of previous years, yet in a totally transfigured way. In the Town Hall, in the company of Ensemble Musikfabrik and soprano Juliet Fraser, HCMF 2018 began with the UK première of Rebecca Saunders‘ 80-minute epic Yes.

In many respects, it’s a work that takes us back into familiar Saunders territory. i’ve remarked previously on the qualities of similarity – even, in the best sense, tautology – running through Saunders’ work, and in Yes we’re once again in a land whose contours and landmarks are shaped by a semi-tangible, emotionally-laden engagement with the words of James Joyce. This connects it to any number of Saunders’ other works, but being a piece for soprano and ensemble there’s an obvious connection to be made to Skin (heard at HCMF two years ago). This connection was reinforced by certain articulations – for example, words uttered from behind a hand – and interactions, such as those between the soprano and a muted trumpet, a particularly memorable relationship exhibited throughout Skin. Read more

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Proms 2018: the premières – how you voted

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Many thanks to all of you for the comments you made and votes you cast during my coverage of the premières at the 2018 Proms season. A total of 1,467 votes were cast this year, an increase of 34% on last year’s ‘turnout’.

Once again, there was something of an imbalance in the extent to which certain pieces attracted more votes than others. For the last few years, whichever new work is played first in the season – often in the first night of the Proms – has usually attracted the largest number of votes, which isn’t necessarily surprising, both in terms of the amount of time people have to express a view about this piece being longer than any other, as well as it generally tending to attract more attention as it gets the Proms ball rolling. That was again the case this year, with Anna Meredith’s opening night première Five Telegrams receiving the most votes (97). Aside from this, the ‘turnout’ figure for most of the pieces was broadly consistent, though as ever there were one or two that stood out due to apparent voter apathy, the worst affected this year being Iain Bell’s Aurora, curiously attracting a mere 17 votes.

It’s perhaps worth mentioning in passing that, in addition to establishing what you’ve deemed to be the best and worst new works, my number-crunching also looks at the most divisive and most uninteresting (i.e. ‘meh’) pieces as well. This year, Ēriks Ešenvalds‘ choral work Shadow proved the most divisive, with the positives and negatives exactly matched, and the piece that left the majority of you shrugging with indifference was Luca Francesconi‘s weird WWI commemoration We Wept. But let’s turn our attention to the real winners and losers this year. Read more

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Proms 2018: Roxanna Panufnik – Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light (World Première)

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And so to the annual conveyor belt of over-cranked fripperies and falderals that is the last night of the Proms. Nestling among them – not, for a change, getting the concert party started – was the last première of this year’s season, Songs of Darkness, Dreams of Light by British composer Roxanna Panufnik. Like several other 2018 Proms premières, the piece was commissioned as a commemoration of the end of World War I. For her text, Panufnik draws on two sources: a poem by Isaac Rosenberg titled ‘In the Underworld’ and words from the conclusion of the final section of Kahlil Gibran‘s poem ‘The Prophet’. The combination of these two texts is interesting; Rosenberg’s (expressing a personal heartbreak) speaks not merely of separation but of a more severe, experiential disconnect, while Gibran’s articulates a more benign separation, one that holds open the prospect of a (real or imagined) future meeting. These two texts are assigned to the two choruses used in the work, which in this first performance were the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Chorus, alongside the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Andrew Davis.

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Proms 2018: Iain Bell – Aurora; Nina Šenk – Baca (World Premières)

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The interplay of performing relationships has been at the centre of the last two Proms premières. Iain Bell’s Aurora, a concerto for coloratura soprano and orchestra, given its first performance on 29 August by Adela Zaharia and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko, seeks to pit the soloist as a figure of light against an orchestra associated with nocturnal darkness and varying quantities of concomitant danger. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Nina Šenk

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Tomorrow afternoon’s Prom concert from Cadogan Hall is being given by soloists from the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and it promises to be quite a lustrous affair, featuring music by Debussy, Ravel and the great Lili Boulanger. It also includes the world première of Baca, a new chamber work by Slovenian composer Nina Šenk, so in preparation for that, here are her answers to my pre-première questions, together with the programme note for the piece. Many thanks to Nina for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Per Nørgård – Symphony No. 3 (UK Première); Rolf Wallin – WHIRLD; Bushra El-Turk – Crème Brûlée on a Tree (World Premières)

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Quite apart from anything else they may embody, this year’s Proms premières have occupied pretty much the entire span of the profound—trivial continuum. At its most extreme, this has been exemplified by the most recent new works, which have ranged from a compositional exploration of infinity culminating in a state of enraptured transcendence invoking mysticism, Rilke and Rückert, to a recipe for making custard.

The source for British-born, Lebanese composer Bushra El-Turk‘s short, culinary song Crème Brûlée on a Tree is a Thai cookbook by chef Andy Ricker that includes a recipe for custard using the smelly, so-called “king of fruits”, durian (the title possibly comes from this NPR article about the fruit). Read more

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Proms 2018: Philip Venables – Venables Plays Bartók; Laura Mvula – Love Like A Lion (World Premières); Agata Zubel – Fireworks (UK Première)

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The last few Proms premières have been, to put it mildly, an extremely mixed bag. By far the most excruciating of them was Venables Plays Bartók, a violin concerto of sorts by Philip Venables, given its first performance last Friday by Pekka Kuusisto with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sakari Oramo. As its title suggests, the piece incorporates music by Bartók, inspired by an episode in Venables’ life when, as a teenage violinist, he had a lesson with Rudolf Botta, playing to him a piece by Bartók. The lesson was recorded, and Venables’ rediscovery of the tape evidently led to a enormous burst of Proustian nostalgia. Read more

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Proms 2018: Simon Holt – Quadriga; Suzanne Farrin – Hypersea (World Premières)

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Last Monday at Cadogan Hall, percussionist Colin Currie and the JACK Quartet combined forces to perform two works from the ’80s by Xenakis and two world premières, by Simon Holt and Suzanne Farrin. The points of inspirational origin of these pieces were somewhat different from what one usually encounters in new music, Farrin turning to an interpretation of humankind’s emergence from the oceans (and what we may have brought with us – see her answers to my pre-première questions for more details), while Holt’s is the only piece i’ve ever encountered to draw on the movements of classical dressage. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Agata Zubel

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Tomorrow morning’s Prom concert, given by the European Union Youth Orchestra, includes the first UK performance of Fireworks, a recent work by Polish composer Agata Zubel. In anticipation of that, here are her answers to some of my pre-première questions (i’ve provided some information in lieu of answers for the final three questions), together with her programme note for the piece. Thanks to Agata for her responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Mark-Anthony Turnage – Farewell; Lisa Illean – Sleeplessness … Sails (World Premières)

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Two of the smallest of this year’s new works were given their first performances in a recital at Cadogan Hall on 6 August by mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly and pianist Joseph Middleton. The concert had themes of sleep (and the lack of it), dreams and lullabies running through it, explored primarily in 20th century music by the likes of Howells, Britten, Stanford, Holst and their ilk (all of whom had associations with the Royal College of Music), with the new works by Australian composer Lisa Illean and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Read more

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Proms 2018: The Brandenburg Project

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The Proms wouldn’t be the Proms if it didn’t feature one of its favourite obsessions: contemporary music commissioned with the specific aim that it ‘responds’ to existing works in the repertoire. The most recent example of this is The Brandenburg Project, an idea dreamt up by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in which six composers were asked to write a work for solo instrument(s) and orchestra in response to one of J. S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, utilising as far as possible the same instrumentation. The project began in December 2015 with Stephen Mackey (No. 2) and Uri Caine (No. 5), followed by Mark-Anthony Turnage (No. 1) in 2016, Anders Hillborg (No. 3) in 2017, concluding in February this year with Olga Neuwirth (No. 4) and Brett Dean (No. 6). All six pieces received their first UK performances (though it was the world première of the complete cycle), together with their associated Brandenburg Concerto, by the Swedish Chamber Orchestra conducted by Thomas Dausgaard at two Prom concerts on 5 August.

It’s worth spending a moment to consider what it means – or what it can mean – to ‘respond’ to something. It can of course be part of a warm dialogue, but we shouldn’t automatically infer similarity or sympathy of any kind in that word: a ‘response’ doesn’t need to employ the same use or style or tone of language, exhibiting not just a perspective but also a vernacular uniquely its own. Furthermore, importantly, the nature of a response isn’t restricted to the obvious continuum between positive (yes) and negative (no): it might just as easily – particularly in music – have more in common with the Buddhist ‘mu‘, a response that rejects as flawed or incompatible the very premise of the thing being responded to, demanding that the question it supposedly poses be “un-asked”. Read more

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Proms 2018: pre-première questions with Suzanne Farrin and Simon Holt

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Tomorrow afternoon’s Prom concert at Cadogan Hall features percussionist Colin Currie with the JACK quartet. Alongside two classic works by Xenakis, they’ll be performing two world premières, Simon Holt‘s Quadriga and Suzanne Farrin‘s Hypersea. In anticipation of these first performances, here are their answers to my pre-première questions, together with the respective programme notes for their pieces. Many thanks to Suzanne and Simon for their responses. Read more

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Proms 2018: Tansy Davies – What Did We See?; Jessica Wells – Rhapsody for solo oud; Joby Talbot – Ink Dark Moon (World Premières); Georg Friedrich Haas – Concerto Grosso No. 1 (UK Première)

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Every year the nature of the works premièred at the Proms – presumably due in part to the festival’s (i.e. the BBC’s) risk-averse emphasis on popularity and familiarity over challenge and provocation – veers wildly between extremes of light- and heavyweight fare. The most recent quartet of new works, considered together, are in many respects a vivid microcosm of this qualitative inconsistency.

However, there’s a world of difference between a trifle and mere triviality. No-one would claim – least of all the composer herself – that Jessica WellsRhapsody for solo oud, given its world première at Cadogan Hall on 30 July by oud-meister Joseph Tawadros, was anything more than a simple miniature workout for the instrument. From a tentative series of arpeggios, like warm-up exercises, the music develops into its main idea: rapid, syncopated music, redolent in style of the instrument’s Middle Eastern provenance, interspersed partway through with a slower episode exploring motifs in a more improvisational way. And that’s all there was to it – but this didn’t matter in the slightest, Tawadros executing the piece with such panache that its relatively narrow scope felt not simply forgiveable but beside the point. It was what it was and nothing more: an amuse-bouche (amuse-oreille?), brief, vivacious, harmless fun. Read more

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Proms 2018: Chaines – Knockturning; Laurie Spiegel – Only Night Thoughts; Daphne Oram – Still Point (World Premières)

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For the most part, the Proms has always liked to pretend that electronics don’t really exist. The exception to this wilful ignorance are the occasions when electronics are made the focus of either a specific piece or an entire concert, as was the case with ‘Pioneers of Sound’, a late evening tribute to the legacy of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop that took place at the Royal Albert Hall on 23 July. The undisputed highlight of the evening was the world première of a recently-discovered large-scale work by Daphne Oram but, alongside music by Delia Derbyshire and Suzanne Ciani, it was preceded by two smaller new works. Read more

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Proms 2018: Ēriks Ešenvalds – Shadow; Eve Risser – Furakèla (World Premières); Andrew Norman – Spiral (UK Première)

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A piece doesn’t have to be – in fact, can hardly be – all things to all people, but in the case of Shadow, by Latvian composer Ēriks Ešenvalds‘, one has to wonder if it has much if anything to offer a mature listener. This in itself is interesting precisely because of the fact that the driving force of the piece is a meditation on the implications of parental responsibility, using the words from Longfellow’s eponymous sonnet to contemplate the future and fate of one’s children. The words, as indicated by the poem’s opening line, are literally being said to oneself, so the ‘audience’ or object of these private ruminations is adult, while their subject is children. Read more

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