ensemble

Ensemble Musikfabrik – Stille, Label Musikfabrik

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Let’s talk about Ensemble Musikfabrik. First off, the German ensemble is responsible for some of the most memorable and fascinating concerts i’ve ever attended. Their performances during the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival remain personal favourites, both the opening weekend concert – including among other things, Georg Friedrich Haas’ I can’t breathe and Marcin Stańczyk’s marvellous Some Drops, both showcasing trumpeter Marco Blauuw – and also the concert based around the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, featuring Claudio Molitor’s hour-long act of sonic wonderment, Walking With Partch. But even more than these, the concert that remains most affectionately in my memory – one of the most exhilarating concerts of my life – was their performance at the one-off Bristol New Music festival in 2014, where the combination of Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma with a medley of works by Frank Zappa must rank as one of the finest acts of music-making that the city’s Colston Hall had ever experienced. What all of these concerts demonstrate is Musikfabrik’s generous and warm openness to all forms of experimentation, no matter how weird or ostensibly ludicrous, in conjunction with a level of determination and commitment that’s nothing less than absolute. Only an attitude like this could have led to the Partch instruments being so painstakingly and lovingly recreated, as well as to the development of new iterations of familiar instruments, such as their double-bell brass instruments.

The ensemble’s outlook is mirrored entirely on their recorded output which, more than most, goes a long way to capturing the vivid discombobulation of their concert performances. Their most recent disc, Stille, the twelfth in their ongoing series Edition Musikfabrik, is yet another case in point. It’s true to say that a Musikfabrik concert can and often does involve a certain amount of acclimatisation, and it’s also true for Die Bewegung der Augen by Evan Johnson. As with all four works on this disc, it’s a piece exploring silence, or rather the fact that silence “is never empty” (from Johnson’s programme note). Clearly the by-product of a lot more activity (in one form or another) than is audibly apparent, Johnson’s music here sounds private, not merely behind closed doors but positively internalised and miniaturised, as though we were privy to small-scale activities and actions that would otherwise be entirely oblivious to us. Its little bursts of material surrounded by silence gradually instigate a different mode of listening, one where i came to feel like the Incredible Shrinking Man, becoming smaller and smaller to the point that its tiny sounds and gestures yawned ever more impossibly above me. Beyond this, particularly in the second and third movements, a halting lyrical streak emerges that, in such a pint-sized context, sounds enormously poignant. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Aaron Cassidy – The wreck of former boundaries/Liza Lim – How Forests Think

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Later today i’ll be jumping in the car to begin my annual pilgrimage to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and it seems appropriate to conclude this week’s revisiting of previous years with mention of a recent CD featuring two larger-scale works that both received their first UK performances at last year’s festival. It’s pretty common to hear new music at HCMF and then lose all sight and sound of it for years afterward, due to a lack of further performances on these shores or a CD release. So it’s unusual and enormously welcome that within a year of hearing Australia’s foremost contemporary music ensemble ELISION perform Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think, both are available on a CD released by Huddersfield Contemporary Records. Moreover, the recording is of that very same live performance at HCMF 2016 which, considering how exciting and immersive that concert was, makes it even more of a treat.

i discussed both pieces at length in my original review of the concert, and while this isn’t a new performance, this recording offers a fresh perspective of each piece, one that at times draws significant contrasts with the experience of hearing them live in St Paul’s Hall last November. Lim’s piece in particular left me with a lot of questions and concerns, some of which have been addressed by the CD. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Laurence Crane – Movement for 10 musicians

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One of the awkward aspects of attending the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival arises from the fact that, when choosing which concerts to attend, there’s an unavoidable fear that one will inevitably miss something fantastically memorable and/or stunningly ground-breaking. The next piece in my HCMF revisitings is a case in point, from a concert i ended up kicking myself for missing in 2013. The work began life in 2002 as Movement for Ensemble, composed for Dutch ensemble Orkest de Ereprijs who presented it at that year’s Gaudeamus Music Week. The following year another Dutch group, The Ives Ensemble, commissioned a slimmed-down version of the piece for a series of performances in conjunction with Rotterdam Dance Works, whereupon it became Movement for 10 musicians.

The entire piece is made from just three very basic ideas:

  • three chords, rising up a scale, emphasising the interval of a 6th, over a sustained pitch;
  • two chords, falling a semitone, with shared pivot notes;
  • a two-octave rising diatonic scale, in octaves, over a sustained pitch.

It unfolds like a cross between Ravel’s Bolero and Howard Skempton’s Lento. Crane repeats the first two of these ideas numerous times in groups of 2, 4 and 6, but despite how obvious these repetitions are, and the structural blocks they form, the piece is not first and foremost about this. Harmony is what ultimately demarcates the work’s overall structure, which falls broadly into four sections. Crane positions the music at a cadential liminal point, founded upon a tonality of E – floating between major and minor – with regular suspended fourths and sevenths that push and tilt it towards the key of A. Three of the work’s four sections do actually end with this cadence, though the way the chord of A is rendered – enriched with sevenths and ninths, but lacking a major or minor third – lends it both a harmonic conviction and neutrality that are entirely in keeping with the tonal fluidity that pervades the piece. Read more

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HCMF revisited: Marcin Stańczyk – some drops… (UK Première)

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Some make their journeys alone.
Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings.
They connect and they divide. This may seem unpredictable.
But you can guess which paths they will take.
In the end, most of them follow their forebears.
It’s gravity, apparently.

While some composers persist in providing lengthy diegetical tracts to explain their compositions, at HCMF 2016 Polish composer Marcin Stańczyk provided the above text to accompany the first UK performance of his piece some drops… for double-bell trumpet and ensemble. As i’ve got to know the work better since that first encounter, these words have made more and more sense. Stańczyk initially places the solo trumpet at the back of the space, behind the audience (“Some make their journeys alone”). But as the work progresses, the soloist slowly walks forward, eventually joining up with the rest of the ensemble, which is itself continually reforming into different groups (“Others get together, as couples or in small gatherings./They connect and they divide”).

The lines that then suggest that the apparent unpredictability can be guessed are, i think, more subtle than simply suggesting that we as listeners can work out what’s going to happen and when. That certainly isn’t the case, and to my mind this is more about the nature of the material being explored throughout the piece which, as i said in my original review, seems to be “teetering at the cusp of letting loose something warm and familiar”. This seemingly comes from nowhere, emerging in the wake of the work’s opening minutes where a strange pulse is set up, with sporadic single-note chirps from left and right. Is it sinister? vague? preparatory? Whatever it is, it’s at something of a distance until around three and a half minutes in, when the weird sense of a (neo-)romantic musical urge starts to exert itself, nothing more than a rising 3-note motif that might be the beginnings of a melody. Stańczyk ever-so-gently reinforces it with a pizzicato double bass, but it ends up becoming lost in the haze that characterises this portion of the piece.  Read more

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Proms 2017: Thomas Larcher – Nocturne – Insomnia (UK Première) & Michael Gordon – Big Space (World Première)

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Listening to two recent Proms premières back-to-back, Thomas Larcher‘s Nocturne – Insomnia and Michael Gordon‘s Big Space, turned out to be thought-provoking in ways that i’m sure are entirely unrelated to the composers’ intentions. The reason is that both pieces seem to be poles-apart approaches to creating the musical equivalent of the same thing – an extended road to nowhere – provoking the same response: a hefty shrug. i was going to say these pieces left me floundering, but in truth there’s little in either of them that’s tough to deal with, except insofar as neither provides much beyond or beneath what’s happening on their respective surfaces. Read more

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Jack Sheen – Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze (World Première)

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Today being the solstice, i’m marking the first day of summer with a small seasonal work by UK composer and conductor Jack Sheen. Sheen was one of the three winners of the BBC Proms Inspire Young Composers’ Competition in 2011, and his piece Together all musty summer air – melted in a haze was composed the following year. It utilises a relatively small ensemble – cor anglais, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, 2 percussion, 2 violins, viola, cello and double bass, led by a solo alto flute – to highly impressionistic ends, resulting in a kind of contemporary re-imagining of the soundworld of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. Sheen’s piece inhabits precisely the same kind of lush, balmy atmosphere that typifies the Debussy, and what it (understandably) lacks in post-romanticism is instead represented with an impressively heady quality that sounds as though it might just swoon at any moment. An idea accompaniment for the sweltering heatwave Britain is currently enjoying. Read more

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Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik 2017 (Part 3)

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i mentioned in Part 1 that much of the music at this year’s Wittener Tage für neue Kammermusik was either for or revolved around the string quartet. But there was also a collection of works (including three i unfortunately missed due to not being able to stay for the final concert) composed for more diverse instrumental groupings. All of them packed the most almighty wallop, though in the case of Ondřej Adámek‘s Conséquences particulèrements blanches ou noires, one was left wondering whether the Czech composer really has anything new to say beyond wheeling out more iterations of his tired air machine. There’s more to his music than this machine, of course, though the puckish, flamboyant way Adámek utilises it – often clearly intended to be humorous – is by now exasperatingly over-familiar, and in any case, in this particular piece, the machine took centre stage – both musically and literally within the hall (something of a contrast to a piece like Korper und Seele, performed at Donauschingen in 2014, where it was for the most part used more peripherally). The overall tone came across like a movie created from nothing but a string of set pieces, with no narrative to string it all together. The relationship between the machine and the ensemble was essentially an imitative one, the latter picking up the blurts and farts of the former and turning them into a kind of avant-cartoon music. Yawn. Read more

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