5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Shorts

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

There’s a curious phenomenon that seems to strike people the longer they spend at HCMF: a cross between regret & guilt at the events they’re not attending. i periodically suffer from it myself, & never more so than on their annual ‘Shorts’ day, which took place yesterday. Fifteen small- & mid-scale concerts, containing 38 pieces, in total lasting around 13 hours—it would take a certain kind of person to go to everything, & i have to confess i’m not that kind, so i experienced what we might call “the HCMF qualm”, my conscience nagging me at the music i didn’t hear & which may well have turned out to be brilliant.

However, i did get to nine concerts, & a thoroughly mixed bag they were. The first thing to say is that it’s an incredible treat to be able to hear such a diverse selection of music as this, & the performance standard throughout the day ranged from highly competent to downright dazzling. The compositional standard was rather more variable, & almost every concert had its share of flops (the worst that i experienced being Jonathan Cole’s butt-clenchingly tedious saxophone quartet Menhir, which the otherwise talented Fukio Ensemble could do nothing to save). There were plenty of moments of magic, however: the wonderfully delicious conclusion to Kerry Andrew‘s anthem O lux beata Trinitas, the disorienting division between fragrance & grind in Rose Dodd‘s electroacoustic Aandacht, some sensitively-judged interaction between organ & electronics in Huw Morgan‘s The Unseeing Eye at the Lung’s Heart & a fascinating sonic network of relationships between clarinet & string trio in Dai Fujikura‘s Halcyon.

All of these made the day worthwhile, offering real insights into their disparate media. Yet the biggest triumphs made even these highlights seem pale by contrast. Percussionist Simone Beneventi ended his recital with the UK première of Francesca Verunelli‘s #3987 Magic Mauve, an 11-minute extravaganza featuring some of the most original & effective percussion writing i’ve ever heard. The work is expanded somewhat through electronics, but they never sound like an ‘outside’ entity; indeed, the kinds of sounds Verunelli obtains from her relatively small palette of instruments often sounded decidedly unfamiliar, so the melding between acoustic & electronic was total. Much of the work exists in the outer fringes of register—deep rumbles & glinting metallics—but the textural interplay is gripping, in many ways simple yet so, so avant-garde. Verunelli tells me that Beneventi has recorded the piece a couple of days ago, so hopefully it won’t be too much longer before more people can discover its wonders.

There was yet more wonder—& no little humour—to be found at my highlight of the day, Jennifer Walshe‘s evening performance at Bates Mill. To see Walshe perform live is to be drawn into something fiercely alive, littered with—indeed, to a large extent fashioned from—the digital scree of contemporary culture, shot through with (mis-)appropriations from a discombobulating array of seemingly incongruous materials. Here’s Walshe’s own summary of her sources for one of last night’s pieces, the first movement of All the Many Peopls:

Lojban, a language constructed entirely according to the rules of predicate logic; the cast of Lohengrin; certain sections from Watt by Samuel Beckett constituting the first examples of process composition; The Public Enemy (1931) starring James Cagney; KRS-One; US & British soldiers making cell-phone videos of themselves blowing things up & uploading the videos to YouTube; Even Dwarfs Started Small; Amazon.com message boards about vampire physiology; sferics; conspiracy theorist Francis E. Dec; detritus from video game voice-overs; August Strindberg; a re-working of ‘The Signifying Monkey’ as an inner city Dublin insult practice; rap video choreographies; The Typing of the Dead; cult Irish martial arts film Fatal Deviation; the collective unconcsious as evidenced by Google Autocomplete; Courage Wolf; 4Chan.

i know, right? The result, filtered through Walshe’s impeccable ear, is an utterly absorbing absurdist compote, a theatrical fucked-up farrago of words, whispers, hollers, squeals, blurts & even, occasionally, song. As tales go, Walshe is the definitive unreliable narrator; but is there anything, anymore, reliable to narrate?

Both in terms of technique & imagination, Walshe is easily one of the finest contemporary vocalists around, a kind of kinked (kinky?) reincarnation of Cathy Berberian, & this all-too-brief performance of hers last night will linger in the mind’s ear for a long time to come. Walshe is back in action on Sunday to present the world première of DORDÁN. i can’t be there, so my experience of “the HCMF qualm” has now become very much more intense…

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Quatuor Diotima

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 3 Comments

This morning saw Brian Ferneyhough back at St Paul’s Hall, his music this time being performed by the outstanding Quatuor Diotima, alongside works by Gérard Pesson, Miroslav Smka & György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1968 String Quartet No. 2 came last in the concert, but i mention it first because—as Ligeti’s music always tends to do—it forced a complete reappraisal of the three pieces heard before it. One very basic issue it highlighted was of the current predilection for larger-scale forms—or, conversely, composers’ (perhaps passive) reluctance to articulate works through relatively short movements. Sections & episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation & don’t induce the same sort of ‘soft reset’ brought about by the separation of movements. Let me just clarify that i don’t think one approach is better than the other; it’s just interesting to reflect that—with the obvious exception of James Dillon’s New York Triptych—everything i’ve heard both in this concert & the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans.

Returning to Diotima, they began with the first UK performance of Pesson’s Farrago. Pesson’s lengthy programme note makes the piece sound more complicated than it actually is. Structurally, Farrago is very formalised, episodic & highly rhythmic. Its rhythmic language is the work’s driving force in more than just the obvious way; the material’s underlying regularity goes a long way to reinforcing its dual tone of ephemerality & ethereality. Much of the music is very quiet, & almost all of it is extremely delicate, like suspended pieces of glass turning in the wind, sunlight glinting off their edges. That suggests cool placidity, but it’s not without an order of violence too, although the instruments’ fiercely sharp gestures are checked by soft dynamics & muting articulations (sul tasto; beyond the bridge) that render them more visually than sonically startling, like being flagellated with feathers. Farrago feels long, but the extent of its fantasy is such that it remains an engrossing listen.

Miroslav Smka’s Engrams, also receiving its UK première, didn’t prove anywhere near so convincing. Like Pesson, Smka opted for very quiet dynamics, but his highly gestural material, somewhat inventive but not greatly differentiated, became increasingly frustrating. The glistening surface offered little by way of purchase; ideas were passed around, imitated, collaborated upon, but there was an abiding sense of arbitrariness that wasn’t helped by the lack of anything concrete. At nearly half an hour it was also seriously overlong; being teased & tickled like this quickly becomes annoying.

The oboe’s master of masters Christopher Redgate joined Diotima for the world première of Ferneyhough’s Schatten aus Wasser und Stein (“shadows made of water & stone”—the composer’s preferred translation), turning the group into a very convincing quintet, so well did he match the strings in terms of timbre & register. Both the work itself & wider compositional concerns had been broached in the pre-concert talk, & one detected an implied (Ferneyhough didn’t directly confirm this) ongoing interest in things ephemeral: the blast-wake of destructive energies (in earlier work), the instantaneous sparks of yesterday’s Liber Scintillarum, & now shadows—which Ferneyhough characterised as being both diffuse & sharp-edged. This perhaps goes some way to account for the intensely mercurial nature of Ferneyhough’s music, ever shifting between layers of focus & concomitant material implication. In Redgate & Diotima’s performance, there was an interesting tension between effort—the music is clearly as technically challenging as ever—& relaxation, communicated strongly by the players’ shifting body language. The former of those has been discussed ad nauseam over the years; regarding the latter, the performance was a powerful reminder of how recordings of Ferneyhough’s music never seem adequately to capture the wit so often evident in his material, the exuberance & potency of the instrumental interactions, & the latent lyricism i spoke of yesterday, glimpsed rather than indulged, but rarely absent. This last aspect seems particularly important in Schatten aus Wasser und Stein, melody constantly breaking out, often at some length. In this world première, despite the players still coming to terms with the piece, one glimpsed the beginnings of a very telling addition to Ferneyhough’s output.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo & James Clarke.

Ferneyhough & Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability & (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. A connection between that evocative title & the resultant material was, at times, hard to grasp. Composed for six instruments—three strings, three winds—the density of material initially made it difficult to fathom anything with certainty. But gradually (& this may be as much due to ‘listener acclimation’ than development in the music), interconnections became apparent; first, the mere fact that they share a conductor, & a common tempo; next, that their general dynamic levels were more-or-less matched. Eventually, the behaviours of these two groups of three felt stylistically aligned too, & there was a potent sense of mutual cohesion. That’s not to suggest that Ferneyhough’s material miraculously at this point shed its layers of complexity—far from it, & an abrupt switch to strict tempo at one point came as a real shock. For me, what projected most through the tense out-working of the piece was its numerous splashes of lyricism. & splashes they are, never lingering long enough even to be regarded as the makings of a sentiment—they momentarily emote & move on, yet their impact lingers. Despite these soft extrusions, Liber Scintillarum is emphatically a work of absolute music, tough in some ways, but a challenge worth taking on.

James Clarke’s 2013-V, receiving its world première, was almost as long but felt very much shorter. There’s a clarity to Clarke’s writing, a conciseness & economy of material that makes the music very approachable. Irvine Arditti joined Ensemble Linea & proceeded to become their leader, beginning with a bold presentation of his idée fixe, comprising fast downward glissandi & sharp pizzicato notes. i call Arditti the ‘leader’, yet the relationship both between him & the ensemble, & the members of the ensemble among themselves, was nicely ambiguous. Certainly, the brass & woodwind were an incorrigible influence at the back, setting themselves apart through surly growls & thrusting low notes. Sometimes these seemed to extend into lengthy deep basslines, weird fauxbourdons, & at other times the rest of the ensemble assembled on top of these, combining to sound like blurred chorales from the mouth of Hades. The occasions when the ensemble coalesced into a single sonic entity were exhilarating, twice establishing sequences of queasy roiling surges, coming in waves. All told it was a rather delirious experience that in no way suffered for want of a title.

Raphaël Cendo is a composer new to me, but on the strength of Rokh I, also receiving its first UK performance last night, i want to hear a lot more. Proving overwhelmingly how less can be more, Cendo takes the seemingly limited forces of bass flute, violin, cello & prepared piano & enables them to create one of the most extreme, ferocious soundscapes i’ve heard in ages. Cendo deviates from Ferneyhough & Clarke in having a demonstrative poetic inspiration, the title referencing the mythological bird of prey featured in the One Thousand and One Nights. The sense of a vast, feathered form was abundantly apparent in the work’s material, which was genuinely astonishing to witness. In this context, conventions of performance felt like a half-forgotten memory; extended techniques were the norm, with no sense of being avant-garde. On the contrary, Cendo has managed somehow to make his panoply of hectic textures riddled with as many onomatopoetic noises as you can imagine sound both normal & necessary. It’s an achievement as impressive as the incredible skills required of its performers—none more than Anna D’Errico, whose rendition of her gymnastic piano part was nothing short of heroic.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – London Sinfonietta

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

Truth be told, it isn’t often i find myself lost for words. About 40 minutes ago, the London Sinfonietta finished their performance of the UK première of Georg Friedrich Haasin vain, & i’m still trying to force some coherence about the experience. A few weeks back, i procured a recording of the piece, but ultimately decided not to listen in advance, & approach the work cold. What i haven’t been able to avoid, & retrospectively i think it’s unfortunate, is some of the discussions that have been circulating in recent times about this performance. It certainly seems to have put the hype in hyperbole.

For those unfamiliar with the piece, & until tonight i was just such a person, in vain was written in response to a resurgence in the far right in Haas’ homeland of Austria. In that respect, it’s interesting to be confronted by it after having heard Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge a few hours before. Like Ore’s piece, i don’t think in vain can be described as a political work, rather an attempt to frame the reality of Haas’ perception of the situation. Unlike Ore’s piece, there is an overwhelming engagement with futility in in vain; there’s encouragement to be found, but of a different kind & arrived at from very different means.

Cast as a single, 70-minute slab, in vain is largely constructed from material that is in flux, constantly transitioning from one state to another. What makes these transitions so special, & so disorienting—&, in time, so unsettling—&, in more time, so uplifting—is that they seem endless. Lines rise or fall in the manner of Shepard tones, climbing to impossible heights & depths. Rhythms speed up or decelerate, becoming silences filled with new pulses or tremolandi that become part of a new accelerating texture. It’s like moving into a fractal, ever deeper & ever deeper, new shapes & details revealing themselves at each new level, yet with an infinitude of scope left to continue.

Twice in the piece, the lights go out, leaving the audience in absolute darkness (& it really was absolute; they’d even switched off the Fire Escape lights). This blatant act of theatre has a profound impact on the way one engages with the music; without being able to see players & instruments, it attains a kind of purity, as though happening unbidden; put another way, it seems to throw emphasis away from the mechanics of music-making & composition, bestowing on it a more direct, emotionally-charged quality. The first darkness brought a kind of placidity to the piece, of a kind not really heard at any other point. The second seemed to suggest an entity—call it a machine if you like, but it felt more organic than that—attempting to recalibrate itself, trying to reboot. These twin darknesses, despite their marked differences, came across very positively (it brought to mind closing one’s eyes in a relaxed or meditative state), throwing the lighted episodes, literally, into stark relief. It’s here that the futility & hopelessness finds its acutest expression, the music feeling endless, repetitive, mindless. This, indeed, is how Haas leaves things at the end, the piece stuck in a rut of descending scales, travelling down into infinity with any point or purpose.

Walking away from in vain, sitting here (now) about an hour later, i’m still grappling with it. That’ll continue for some time, no doubt, but i can’t help feeling both better for having heard it, & that i glimpsed something in Haas’ flailing textures that seemed unequivocally hopeful.

It’s impossible not to comment on the performance by the London Sinfonietta. Directed with great subtlety (& stamina) by Emilio Pomàrico, the Sinfonietta demonstrated what a tour de force of skill they’re capable of, not just in the memorised portions of music played out in the darkness, but in the intricacies of the polyphony, the convoluted harmonic kinks & the ever-shifting states that must require large amounts of concentration & accuracy. i’ve no doubt it’ll be one of those concerts remembered & talked about for a long, long time to come.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – BBC Singers

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 2 Comments

Today’s second concert was back in St Paul’s Hall, featuring the BBC Singers conducted by Nicholas Kok, performing works by Charlotte Seither, Bent Sørensen & Cecilie Ore. Surprisingly, it’s an entire decade since the BBC Singers last appeared at HCMF; on the strength of this concert, one hopes they’ll be back more regularly from now on.

Seither’s Haut Terrain, receiving its UK première today, at first gave me misgivings. The piece is occupied throughout by drawn out drones, clashes & suspensions, & i suspect (confession time) it was impatience on my part that made it seem to bode poorly. But as it continued, shifting more than was initially obvious, one became aware of a music that seemed to have made portable the tropes & mannerisms of religious chant. Contemporary choral music has always had to contend with its religious legacy but, far from being a hindrance, in Haut Terrain Seither seems to have liberated that legacy for her own solemnified ends. Interestingly, the piece plays havoc with one’s attempts at long-term musical memory; attempts to connect what’s happening now with music of several minutes earlier seemed increasingly impossible, perhaps due to the continual re-focus of the music’s foundation (located more in the upper voices than the lower). It would have been nice to have known a little more of Seither’s conceptual intentions; unfortunately, her programme note had been translated into the kind of obfuscatory gobbledegook that does no composers any favours.

After two short works by Sørensen—which left me wondering yet again what it is that makes Scandinavian choral music so, well, Scandinavian—came the highlight of the concert, the world première of Cecilie Ore’s Come to the Edge!, an impassioned response to the plight of Pussy Riot, the girl band who fell foul of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly regressive & timid regime. Ore’s text is a compilation of bon mots from the great & the good on the subject of freedom of speech, including words by George Washington, Catherine of Siena, Lenny Bruce & Shakespeare but focussing on a trio of selections from transcriptions of the the Pussy Riot trial. Throughout is a recurring refrain by Christopher Logue:

Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It’s too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!

There are times when the combination of the words’ implorings with Ore’s repetitive, emphatic word-setting slightly dents their impact, threatening to render them somewhat akin to the vacuous prattlements churned out by motivational speakers. Yet it’s impressive how, overall, Ore not only makes her point, but hits it home hard & deep. It’s less a political piece than a call to each of us both to assert our own right to freedom of speech & to protect others’ rights to the same with unassailable determination. As such, the words are not so much punches as hard, necessary slaps to the face: “Proclaim the truth and do not be silent through fear”, “Feel the fear and do it anyway!”, “Take away the right to say ‘fuck’ and you take away the right to say ‘fuck the government'”. By focussing on simplicity—bold, earnest, declamatory—& reminding us of our own rights, Come to the Edge! makes us reflect on how inhuman it is to deprive others of them. To ignore that inhumanity diminishes us all.

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5:4 at HCMF 2013 – Red Note Ensemble

Posted on by Simon Cummings in Concerts, HCMF | 3 Comments

This year’s pilgrimage to HCMF began, as it always seems to, at St Paul’s Hall, for a concert given this afternoon by Scotland’s Red Note Ensemble, directed by Garry Walker. They performed three works, something old(-ish), something new(-ish) & something entirely new. It was the entirely new piece, David Fennessy‘s Hauptstimme for viola & ensemble, that proved itself the weakest. Britons have long ascribed drab efficiency to being a key attribute of German engineering, yet it seems to be increasingly the preserve of Irish contemporary music. In Fennessy’s case, the music was dynamically neutered, harmonically static, texturally bland—a deliberate conspiracy on behalf of the ensemble in order to present to the solo viola a wall of sound with which it could contend. i’m guessing Fennessy’s intention was to obtain aggression in such an unyielding onslaught, but in practice, it didn’t so much bare fangs as dentures, becoming monotonous, even blank, in its blunt consistency. Ultimately the texture parts & dissipates, leaving the viola alone & heralding the work’s final gambit—now that the viola can be heard, “what to say?”. The answer was endless arpeggios & oscillations, perpetuated to the point that soloist Garth Knox began to resemble a folk fiddler who had entirely forgotten the tune.

Rather less of a failure was Bruno Mantovani‘s 2000 work D’un rêve parti (the title being a tongue-in-cheek allusion to a rave party). i can only assume that Mantovani & i have clearly attended very different raves, as his is a fairly fussy evocation that takes a long time to loosen up. The lengthy set up is occupied with conventional contemporary gestures; in this respect it sounds familiar (depending on your perspective, that’s either a good or a bad thing), but it gradually moves into two episodes where Mantovani clearly seeks to illustrate, even emulate, the party inspiration. It’s impossible not to recall Thomas Adès’ ‘Ecstasio’ movement from Asyla, another work that highlights the problems endemic to any kind of overt translation between musical genres. Adès drew on the anthemic qualities of trance; Mantovani’s interest lies in the nascent synth music from the ’70s (&, i presume, also the ’80s, when it more fully developed into dance music as we recognise it today). Yet herein lies a very specific difficulty; this kind of music is characterised to a very large extent by its timbral qualities, which are essentially lost in a chamber ensemble context. If one disregards the title & programme note & accepts the somewhat twee minimalism of the first episode & its more emphatically rhythmic successor, then there’s something to enjoy in D’un rêve parti; but let’s not pretend it even begins to approximate a rave.

The concert ended with the UK première of James Dillon‘s 40-minute New York Triptych. This is a difficult piece to write about, due both to its length & complex sense of narrative. That in itself brought a tremendous sense of relief following the Fennessy & Mantovani. Immediately, one became more aware than before of how utterly clear they had been, how transparently organised, how obvious their intentions, how entirely lacking they were in the kind of starting-from-scratch, destroy-your-expectations kind of structural thinking. On the one hand, the obvious result of this is that the inner workings of Dillon’s Triptych keep themselves hidden, but that doesn’t equate to a sequence of non sequiturs that one shruggingly has to accept on trust. On the contrary, absolutely nothing felt out of place or even unexpected, which in itself is a testament to the facility Dillon has of forging direct statement from decidedly (& perhaps deliberately) convoluted means of articulation. What came across most on this (for me) first listening was overwhelming lyricism, both in the sensitive restraint of Dillon’s writing (often very quiet, with much use of silence) as well as the poignant flashes of earlier music, both through subtle emulation & glimpsed in faint snatches of recordings, a sotto voce trace that nonetheless permeated the entire texture. Gorgeous & bewildering, it’s a piece that requires considerable further time & thought, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it’s not included in the BBC’s forthcoming broadcasts.

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An inner conflict of cosmic proportions: Man Without Country

Posted on by Simon Cummings in CD reviews, Digital reviews, Featured Artists | 1 Comment

Many’s the time i decide to write about a composer, group or artist & find it almost unconscionable that i haven’t done so already. That’s overwhelmingly the case with Man Without Country, a duo from south Wales whose unique brand of dreamy electronic pop has been doing the rounds for a little over two years. Indeed, it’s tempting to begin with an apology for not featuring them sooner. Still, definitely better late than never.

If you were to combine the heartfelt melancholy of Keane, the aloof, breathy detachment of Pet Shop Boys, the late-night wistfulness of Go West & the viscous, transcendent haze of M83, you’d begin to approximate the essence of Man Without Country’s music. Choosing their name, they say, as it “carries an instant intrigue […] it derives from ‘a sense of not belonging’ “, Tomas Greenhalf & Ryan James hit the ground running two summers ago with their first EP, King Complex. Both in its entirety & in just the title track (which remains one of their best) can be heard the duo’s predilection for a mode of expression that employs both the gentlest of soft edges as well as timbres & textures that cut like razor wire. It’s a dichotomy that works because it must, being the means to what is ultimately a very emotional end, declared with unflinching honesty in their lyrics. Read more

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