HCMF

HCMF 2018: Arditti Quartet + Jake Arditti

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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. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

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The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2018: Divertimento Ensemble, Stockhausen: Oktophonie

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When writing about United Instruments of Lucilin’s concert last Tuesday i noted how the only thing the four works they played had in common was their complete dissimilarity to each other. Yesterday evening, in St Paul’s Hall, we experienced the opposite: four pieces of Italian music performed by Divertimento Ensemble that, while obviously unique in most important respects, seemed very much to inhabit similar environments, or perhaps even disparate regions of the same soundworld.

A great deal of the material in the concert could be characterised as either timorous or, at the very least, hesitant. In Francesco Filidei‘s Finito ogni gesto, a work commemorating author Edoardo Sanguineti, it was merely a starting point. Soft clicks, breathy pitches, distant resonances, rumbles from somewhere beneath (or beyond) – all of this was enticing enough, but then Filidei introduced something really marvellous: a cello in the guise of a musical saw, articulated (by Martina Rudic) as a terminally unstable melodic entity. It was one of the most lovely openings of anything i’ve heard all week. It was just a starting point, though, a melancholic overture to what became much more aggressive. Filidei set up large, forceful rolling waves of tumult, a sequence of climaxes crowned by popping balloons and a wild growling horn solo. An intense manifestation of grief, perhaps, one that became achingly poignant in the work’s closing moments, reduced to quietude and whistles, solemn drum thuds, and the accented turning of pages. Read more

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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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