A couple of days ago, amidst the predictable bucketload of Rutter, Willcocks, Ord, Goldschmidt, Ledger, Darke and so on, the Festival of Nine Lessons & Carols from King’s College, Cambridge produced something singular, rather marvellous and downright challenging, in the form of the newly-commissioned carol from Richard Causton (who is also Fellow in Music and Reader in Composition at the University). Causton’s typically thoughtful response reached far out beyond the narrow, preserved-in-aspic confines of the rest of the service, striking a contextually as well as musically dissonant chord by being informed at its core by the upheavals facing contemporary society:
Earlier this year I spent a great deal of time in libraries looking for a suitable text for my new carol and although I unearthed many old and very beautiful poems about the Nativity, I struggled to find one that I really wanted to set to music. I had a growing sense that at this precise moment it is perverse to be writing a piece about a child born in poverty, away from home and forced to flee with his parents, without in any way paying reference to the appalling refugee crisis that is unfolding.
I phoned my friend, the poet George Szirtes to ask if he might be prepared to write me a poem which could encompass some of these ideas. By complete coincidence, the very day I phoned he was in Hungary, at Budapest railway station talking to the refugees who were stuck there while trying to leave the country. Within days, George sent me a poem that is at once beautiful, eloquent and hard-hitting.
The CBSO Centre, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group‘s home, found itself seriously packed on Friday evening, for a concert in which the ensemble was joined by baritone Roderick Williams. Just two works were on the programme, Dominic Muldowney‘s An English Song Book, a BCMG commission from 2011 comprising five cabaret songs, two Shakespeare settings plus a new song unveiled on this occasion, and—no doubt the chief reason for the impressive turnout—Howard Skempton‘s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, also receiving its world première. It was a wise pairing; stylistically speaking the two composers’ works were worlds apart, yet various fundamental connections revealed themselves throughout the evening. Read more
Saturday afternoon at HCMF brought ‘Eastern Waves’, a double-bill of experimental electronics courtesy of Tomek Mirt and Maja S K Ratkje, each re-working compositions from each other’s country. Mirt took Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim’s Solitaire as his basis, creating—via extensive knob-twiddling on a complex vertical stack of devices festooned with patch cables—a gentle, slowly- and freely-moving soundworld, its essentially ambient foundation occasionally placed on a soft beat grid or flecked with blunt metallic shards. While Mirt’s music unfolded as if along a clear, straight line, Maja Ratkje’s interpretation of various recordings by Polish composer Eugeniusz Rudnik—fittingly titled In Dialogue with Eugeniusz Rudnik—was decidedly non-linear. An audible descent took us into a dream-like place where sounds and ideas float, swirl, coalesce, swoop, soar and plummet. Bells, vocal sounds, electronic blurps and a thundersheet were transformed way beyond their origins, often coming out of nowhere yet instantly making perfect sense as they were woven in and around Rudnik’s materials. Read more
Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. Read more
In a refreshing break from the large number of groups and ensembles that have dominated HCMF so far, yesterday was given over to three individuals. The first was Berlin-based flautist Erik Drescher, in a recital of works, all receiving their UK premières, specifically composed for the glissando flute (fitted with a variable-length headjoint). It’s an alteration that immediately suggests obvious glissando possibilities, which formed the entire content of Alvin Lucier‘s Double Himalaya. Lucier provides a slowly undulating contour which the flautist plays against a recording of the same thing made previously, resulting in endless tiny clashes and beats. It didn’t take long for the effect to exhaust its interest; three or four minutes of this would have been okay, but 12 was just self-indulgent. Its one saving grace was the clarity of its motives; the same couldn’t be said for Michael Maierhof‘s splitting 51, which involved placing the headjoint such that it is both amplified and resonated/coloured by a plastic cup. What resulted was simply shapeless and arbitrary, uninteresting sounds emanating from a gimmicky environment. Il pomeriggio di un allarme al parcheggio by Salvatore Sciarrino was a risky endeavour, as though it had been created from different colours of smoke, which were then placed within a snowglobe and shaken vigorously. Read more
A feature of many of this year’s HCMF concerts has been a blurring of the distinction between pitch and noise, but the midday recital given by Swiss saxophone group Konus Quartett tilted the focus firmly back on pitch. Both works, Jürg Frey‘s Mémoire, horizon and Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ During a Lifetime (each being heard in the UK for the first time) sought to examine pitch as a constant, prevalent thing in its own right as well as an element with wider harmonic implications. Read more
Being a Cotswolds lad, born and raised, i’d have to liken HCMF’s ‘Shorts’ day of free miniature concerts yesterday to a long walk over the hills, with spectacular vistas yet passing through numerous fields randomly distributed with large cowpats. In each field, you pick a direction and stick to it, with obvious consequences. In short, we all ended the day a little muckier than we’d started. Read more