Last night’s concert given by Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, conducted on this occasion by Oliver Knussen, was a typically tightly-packed affair, featuring seven works (plus an encore) that, despite their respective brevity, added up to a concert that was surprisingly lengthy and filling. Calling it an embarrassment of riches wouldn’t be exactly right, although both of those epithets made their presence felt. Of the former, there was the usual helping of forgettable Faberian froth, represented this time by Julian Anderson‘s The Comedy of Change and, to a lesser extent, Polly Roe by BCMG’s new Composer-in-Residence Patrick Brennan. Anderson’s overlong, seven-movement work—the title of which bore no relation to what one actually heard—was another iteration of his endless recycling of the same small pool of ideas, spiky staccatos firing away upon distorted unison melodic blather, not so much animated as made to twitch like electrified frog’s legs with large doses of velocity and rhythmic rigour. Read more
Not everything performed at HCMF is brand new, yet there are occasions when it feels as though one’s hearing a familiar piece for the first time. This happened last year with Morton Feldman‘s Piano Four Hands, a work that dates back over half a century, composed in 1958. One of a series of works experimenting with notation and interaction that Feldman composed during this period, it’s a piece that had hitherto left me entirely cold, a response that, having heard it in a variety of interpretations, i’d assumed must be something to do with Piano Four Hands itself. That belief was overturned on 25 November 2014, when Philip Thomas and John Tilbury began their afternoon concert with the piece, and finally everything coalesced. Read more
HCMF’s 2013 Spanish composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra was represented at last year’s festival in an orchestral work, L’absència, receiving its first UK performance. At only 7½ minutes long, and eschewing heavy brass, it’s tempting to describe L’absència as small-scale, yet it’s a piece that sounds convincingly bigger than it really is. That’s just one of many ambiguities and paradoxes fundamental to the work’s character, consistently flirting and teasing in such a way as to render moot most definitive statements one might make about it.
It is, in a nutshell, hard to pin down. Initially—unsurprising considering its modest duration—Parra seems to get cracking with his material briskly, a gruff beginning suddenly hinting at a lyrical underbelly, instead becoming tense before a cluster of heavy swells erupt practically from nowhere. All in under 90 seconds. If anything, though, this complex opening actually indicates the fundamentally deceptive nature of L’absència, which for the most part makes its case slowly, despite appearances. Read more
One of the strongest impressions that Norwegian composer Jan Erik Mikalsen‘s Too much of a good thing is wonderful made on me last year was grandiosity, emanating from allusions to Liberace, of whom the piece is something of an affectionate (if somewhat wry) homage. Returning to the piece since, that impression has become more nuanced and amorphous, in its own way underdoing precisely the same kind of absorption into the work’s depths as Liberace’s own material does. Mikalsen sets up a mise-en-scène that sounds wholly aquatic, initially positioned at a vantage point, coolly observing surges like small tumbling waves at the shore. The qualities exhibited here, though, persist throughout, a distant kind of hesitance, pitches defracted through a quarter-tonal prism.
One of the most unusual concerts at HCMF 2014 was given by Spanish ensemble CrossingLines. When i say ‘unusual’, perhaps i mean ‘impenetrable’; most of the works in the concert, by composers from Spain and Chile, were challenging to the point of wilful oddity. There was, however, one glorious exception: π by CrossingLines artistic director Luis Codera Puzo, a work for trombone, electric guitar, double bass, glockenspiel and electronics. The title is a simple metaphor, Puzo embracing π’s twin nature, being a defined, constant quantity yet irrational and therefore impossible fully to describe. For Puzo, this becomes a sonic duality, “something with a clear and unequivocal presence, which is real and concrete, and at the same time is something which cannot be pinned down, which resists any kind of complete codification”.
This becomes manifested in various ways. It’s perhaps unusual to ascribe dynamics as a primary compositional element, but Puzo has deliberately created the majority of his material such that it sounds achingly fragile, strange little soft sounds that tremulously fit together into a texture that coheres yet which often sounds barely more substantial than a piece of graphene. Read more
It’s November, which of course means that the annual pilgrimage to the UK’s new music mecca is only a few weeks’ away. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has this year opted for a demonstrably reflective tone, building on the remarkable performances of music by, in particular, Jakob Ullmann and Antoine Beuger a couple of years ago, which to my mind at least constituted an interesting departure from HCMF’s more conventional fare. Jakob Ullmann is this year represented by a pair of substantial new works—a half-hour solo double bass piece premièred by Dominic Lash and the 90-minute la segunda canción del ángel desaparecido—and while Beuger is absent, the festival’s composer-in-residence is Jürg Frey, who has long been associated with Beuger’s Wandelweiser Group. Five concerts provide an extensive opportunity to become immersed in Frey’s music, with major explorations being presented by Quatuor Bozzini, Ensemble Grizzana and Philip Thomas.
i want to flag up a few more new releases that have recently been tickling my jukeboxical fancy. To begin with, music that’s not remotely contemporary, but which in its own way marks an important contribution to the development of a particular musical strand that began early in the 20th century. Gottfried Huppertz was the composer for two of Fritz Lang’s most impressive films; his 1927 score for Metropolis can be heard as a progenitor of the style and approach that is at the heart of composers like John Williams. But it’s his score for Lang’s massive 4½-hour two-part epic Die Nibelungen, composed three years earlier, that can be heard to contain the quintessence of the movie soundtrack in a startlingly nascent form. In contrast to Metropolis, where mechanistic machinations dominate its narrative, Die Nibelungen is a score rooted deeply in lyrical melodic action. Huppertz’s musical language is sumptuous, echoing the shifting harmonic sensibilities of Richard Strauss, but above all strikingly redolent of the impassioned melodies (and instrumentation) of Scriabin’s symphonies. His approach is essentially leitmotivic, establishing a variety of principal ideas that are continually repositioned and recast in different lights and flavours in response to the events on-screen.