Premières

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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Estonia in focus weekend: Erkki-Sven Tüür – Prophecy (UK Première)

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Another of the works at the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Maida Vale concert of Estonian music on 4 July was Erkki-Sven Tüür‘s 2007 accordion concerto Prophecy, which received its first UK performance with Olari Elts conducting and Mika Väyrynen (for whom it was written) as soloist. Any composer who writes a concerto has to make a decision about the nature and significance of the relationship between soloist and orchestra, and in the case of Prophecy the entire structure of the piece was dictated by that relationship in this performance.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra interpreted the opening of the work – which starts with the accordion playing a single loud chord, like a huge sigh, after which it falls silent – by biding their time, with rich, sustained chords and quivering pitches, all seemingly uncertain how to proceed, as if they were watching the soloist and waiting for him to do something else. However, when the accordion finally does begin to play again, its material rapid and detailed, the orchestra’s response is contrary, continually steering the music back to their sustained chords from before, seemingly anxious about moving beyond their comfort zone. It gradually becomes clear that the accordion’s role is that of a catalyst, a firestarter acting in order to get the orchestra properly motivated and animated. Eventually it succeeds, resulting in everyone becoming caught up in that most quintessential element of pretty much all Tüür’s music: waves of rhythmic energy and momentum, all syncopations and frivolity. Read more

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Estonia in focus weekend: Helena Tulve – Extinction des choses vues (UK Première)

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In the UK, while it’s not that difficult to find performances of music from many parts of the world, opportunities to hear music from Estonia – with the obvious exception of Arvo Pärt – are extremely rare. So the decision of the BBC Symphony Orchestra to include in their season a concert devoted to Estonian music – celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the country’s independence – came as a surprise and a very real treat. The concert took place on 4 July at the BBC’s famous Maida Vale Studios, and was broadcast earlier this week. Conducted by Olari Elts, the orchestra performed works by three generations of Estonian composers, Eduard Tubin (who died in 1982), Erkki-Sven Tüür and Helena Tulve, all three of them pieces that have been around for some time, but which could do with being a lot better known. In this Estonia in focus weekend i’m going to explore two of them, starting with the piece by the most junior composer of those three generations represented at the concert, Helena Tulve’s Extinction des choses vues (Extinction of things seen), composed in 2007 but only now receiving its UK première.

The way Tulve uses the orchestra in this piece – and in all her orchestral pieces – is to transform it into a kind of giant organism, a single entity comprising innumerable interconnected elements. This is something she and i discussed in some depth during our Dialogue together earlier this year. By keeping the title deliberately abstract, Tulve has also made it interestingly misleading: the musical ‘things’ in the piece are indeed ‘seen’ (or, rather, heard), but often not clearly: we glimpse them, but we cannot necessarily grasp or understand them. 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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