One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more
i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more
This year’s new carol commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge for the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols was written by Swiss composer Carl Rütti. There’s not really a great deal one can say about it; Rütti was always going to deliver something cosy and comfortable, which for that reason alone perhaps makes him a fitting choice for what is inevitably a cosy and comfortable occasion. His piece, In this season of the year, sets a Latin text celebrating the virtues of Christ while simultaneously giving regular shout-outs to the Virgin Mary. Rütti uses a lilting melody with a simple rhythmic idea as the basis for a series of variations that gradually get more elated as the verses progress. Not exactly adventurous, but hardly offensive, its most charming moment comes right at the very end, when Rütti discreetly places the sound of a bird in the organ, a “short tribute” to a soprano in the choir Cambridge Voices who died at the same time Rütti completed the piece.
The only other contemporary offerings were homages to the two grand old dukes of new music, Peter Maxwell Davies and Harrison Birtwistle, both of whom turned 80 this year. Read more
Earlier this week it was announced that the recipient of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award for music composition is Wolfgang Rihm, for his 16-minute orchestral work IN-SCHRIFT-II. Whatever people may say about Rihm (and, in more recent times, who hasn’t?), it was a superb decision, as this particular piece has considerable ambition in terms of both sound itself as well as the way it speaks within the performance space. Rihm is hardly the only contemporary composer to have these concerns, of course, but IN-SCHRIFT-II, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, makes an overwhelmingly immediate and deep impression that genuinely sets it apart from what one usually encounters in new music. And yet, to dance on the head of a paradox for a moment, you could easily argue that there’s not that much new about it—it certainly doesn’t break new ground, but at the same time it doesn’t really sound like anyone else, and in fact pretty much nothing about it at all sounds familiar. Rihm’s soundworld is remarkably immersive and attractive, non-threatening but nonetheless thrilling and in no small part that’s down to the very specific choices of instrumentation he has made, with heavy stress placed on lower instruments.
The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether. Read more
Last night’s and this morning’s concerts all featured soloists performing and interacting with electronics and/or visual elements within large-scale compositional forms. Monty Adkins‘ new 40-minute work Spiral Paths to some extent brings together the twin lines of enquiry that led to Four Shibusa (electronics with live performers) and Rift Patterns (electronics with video projection). Spiral Paths comprises five distinct movements, with a prominent solo part for hardanger fiddle—performed by Britt Pernille Frøholm, who also commissioned the work—and projected visuals created by Jason Payne. Anyone familiar with Adkins’ work over the last few years may reasonably know what to expect, but Spiral Paths goes deeper, or at least, pulls out a lot more stops. Read more
Most of today’s concerts were part of an initiative run by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings called Next Wave, showcasing the work of composers in higher education. The performances involved members of the London Sinfonietta, Sounds of the Engine House and ACM Ensemble, in an assortment of small size groupings. Highlights among the twelve pieces included Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP III, composed for cassette recorder (in the act of recording itself), piano and percussion. Both the soundworld and the form of the work are striking and very effective indeed, clear in its sense of direction yet with a pervasive air of spontaneity. The conclusion, entering a dark, hauntological space, was wonderful; the only danger with the piece was being distracted by the exploits of the players, especially the percussionist’s use of a bicycle. Weiwei Jin‘s Sterna Paradiaea, Returning… was arguably the most ambitious work of the day; the second act of a transm Read more