Evan Johnson

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 2016: Shorts

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, HCMF, Premières | 4 Comments

Monday at HCMF is each year given over to a day of free concerts, invariably coming up with a huge variety of musical experiences that makes for an exhausting but (at its best) exhilarating experience. One obviously has to pan for sonic gold on days like this but, as always, it was to be found in abundance.

Zubin Kanga‘s electroacoustic piano recital included _derivations by Australian composer Ben Carey, a piece that, unlike so many in the bloated player-does-something-and-computer-does-something-back category, demarcated the nature, roles and utility of its acoustic/electronic elements perfectly, producing a simple but engrossing study in texture. In the Town Hall, five members of Explore Ensemble gave a marvellously dramatic account of Gérard Grisey‘s 1986 work Talea. The music is very much more spontaneous than Grisey’s programme note would have us believe, and its considerable shifts in energy were navigated with real brilliance; violinist David Lopez deserves a special shout-out for his fantastic playing in the work’s dazzlingly virtuosic conclusion.

Susanne Peters and Sarah Saviet weren’t done any favours by having their piccolo and violin recital located in St Thomas’ Church, a building that is as attractive inside as it is an effective amplifier for every bit of wind outside. Considering by this time of the day Storm Angus was lashing Huddersfield in a way unlike anything i’d hitherto experienced during the festival, the duo were seriously up against it. Evan Johnson‘s L’art de toucher le clavecin unfortunately didn’t stand a chance; the beautiful way Johnson seemingly fashions the music from wisps of smoke was barely audible (and i should point out i was sat barely a couple of metres away). Bruno Maderna‘s miniature Dialodia fared better, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it morsel of light lyricism, the players exercising a modicum of freedom while remaining in each other’s orbit. Rising above the elements best, though, was Timothy McCormack‘s Glass Stratum, an exhilaratingly involving piece that first compartmentalises the players with discrete behavioural characteristics—the piccolo pensive, the violin more demonstrative—before causing them to permeate, penetrate, blend and merge, ultimately becoming dual aspects of a single musical entity. There was an intense air of intimacy throughout, as though the duo were playing to/with each other in private. Read more

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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

Posted on by 5:4 in Concerts, Premières | 2 Comments

A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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