HCMF2014

HCMF revisited: James Dillon – Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’

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Scottish composer James Dillon is a regular fixture at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and the last few years have included several of his larger-scale works. Of these, the performance of his Piano Concerto ‘Andromeda’ at HCMF 2014 was one of the most striking, and has remained vividly in mind partly due to how difficult it seemed to parse, and as a consequence was a tricky piece to write about in my original review. The work isn’t performed often and no recording yet exists, so it’s one of a number of Dillon’s major works that remains in relative obscurity.

That’s unfortunate in any case, but particularly so because of the level of ambition Dillon brought to this piece. His long programme note describes the points of inspiration that led to the work’s subtitle, citing Greco-Roman mythology – Andromeda was the daughter of Celeus and Cassiopeia and personifies the dawn; like Prometheus, she was chained to a rock, eventually rescued by Perseus – and astronomy, referring both to the constellation (which was originally seen to represent Andromeda, and named ‘the chained woman’) as well as the galaxy – the nearest major galaxy to our own – that lies within it. Dillon also talks about the the legacy of the piano concerto idiom, describing the increasing emphasis on soloistic virtuosity that “remains one of its most attractive and repulsive features”, which perhaps explains why the pianist in his piece, save for a short opening cadenza, bears no resemblance to a conventional concerto soloist. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Morton Feldman – Piano Four Hands

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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

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Hèctor Parra – L’absència (UK Première)

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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

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Jan Erik Mikalsen – Too much of a good thing is wonderful (UK Première)

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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 undergoing 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. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Luis Codera Puzo – π

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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

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HCMF 2014 revisited: James Dillon – Physis (World Première)

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To conclude my revisiting of HCMF 2014 for the time being, i have to feature something by the festival’s Composer-in-Residence, James Dillon. There’s much to choose from, but the single work that made the strongest impact on me was Physis, receiving its world première. i’ve said a little about the work’s background (dating back over 10 years) as well as the way Dillon culled one part of the piece in my original review, but here’s Dillon’s statement in full:

In the process of preparing Physis I & II with the orchestra I took the radical decision to cut ‘Part I’ from the score, this was done for purely musical reasons. The two parts of Physis were always intended to work as independent scores anyway, nevertheless taking the decision to cut the work was not taken lightly. The history of Physis is an unusual one, written as it was nine years ago and never performed at the time it seems destined to maintain a strange position in my work. In taking the decision to withdraw ‘Part I’, I have also decided that this part of the score would remain withdrawn.

In a subsequent interview, though, Dillon cited insufficient rehearsal time as a factor for cutting Physis I (not exactly a “purely musical reason”), and also clarified that the piece was not so much “never performed” as not actually completed on time. The complete truth is no doubt to be found in and among these various ‘facts’. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Hans Thomalla – Lied (UK Première)

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Staying with Trio Accanto’s superb recital at HCMF last November, Lied by German-born, Chicago-based composer Hans Thomalla makes for an interesting contrast with the piece by Brice Pauset. Thomalla treats the trio like aspects of a single entity (a ‘trinity’ if you like), the three players exploring ideas with one mind. There’s little sense of perspective; each of the performers occupies the foreground, and while it’s tempting to describe one part as having a melodic line while another embellishes it, one can just as cogently argue it the other way around, the former having a simplified version of the latter. Either way, it’s clear throughout that the material is intimately interconnected, to the point that a potent sense of klangfarbenmelodie is projected.

In essence, then, the drama encapsulated in Thomalla’s music—expressed most through implication and delicate dynamic contours—emerges out of what is effectively a single, composite thread of ideas; as time goes on the music feels increasingly repressed—sporadic accents amidst such tentativity lending an air of dazed hysteria—yet it leads to the work’s most beautiful music of all, ending in several wonderful minutes softly transfixed in shadow. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Brice Pauset – Adagio Dialettico (UK Première)

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One of my personal highlights of HCMF 2014 was the evening concert given by Trio Accanto, comprising saxophonist Marcus Weiss, pianist Nicolas Hodges (a relative newcomer to the group in 2013) and percussionist Christian Dierstein. Although lasting only a quarter of an hour, Brice Pauset‘s Adagio Dialettico, composed 15 years ago, seems to last considerably longer than that, due to the scope of both the material and the interplay between the players. And, to an extent, due to the tempo, its very slow pace affording Pauset considerable time for the presentation and reflection upon his ideas. This is obvious within the opening couple of minutes, an extended piano solo that’s thoughtful and spacious, patient and pensive. When the saxophone joins in, it’s in a similar vein, occupying itself with quiet trills to such an extent that it sounds downright reticent beside the piano, following its motion with the greatest of caution, perhaps even reverence. This relationship persists as the percussion, initially offering dry reinforcement, moves into the foreground on the vibraphone, and only very gradually do all three parts together become more busily integrated. This leads to highly complex, microtonally-inflected counterpoint—almost three entirely independent lines—yet the trio coalesces at high points and ultimately coincides on a unison a little over halfway through.  Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Howard Skempton – Oculus (World Première)

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One of the smallest works receiving their first performance at HCMF 2014 was Howard Skempton‘s two-minute Oculus, for solo piano. Despite such brevity, it’s a beguiling curiosity of a piece; indeed, ‘Skemptonian’ might be a good adjective for music that is weird, amusing and a bit baffling all in equal measure, as Oculus is. Which is not to say it’s incomprehensible; although Skempton speaks of using two major and minor chords (thereby employing all 12 notes of the chromatic scale – an oblique reference to the work’s dedicatee, Christian Wolff, a fan of Webern’s music), that seems from a listening perspective a bit of a red herring—or perhaps a MacGuffin. Read more

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HCMF 2014 revisited: Anna Þorvaldsdóttir – æquilibria (UK Première)

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i went to Huddersfield last November not knowing anything about Icelandic composer Anna Þorvaldsdóttir‘s music; two months on, following an HCMF première and a CD release (review coming), that’s happily no longer the case. In many ways æquilibria, the work of Þorvaldsdóttir’s receiving its first UK performance at HCMF, serves as something of a paradigm for her work as a whole. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a composer from a country characterised and constantly being altered by shifting geological activity, her music often avoids concrete statements, preferring the establishment of firmaments, the stability and permanence of which are forever being undermined and questioned. In æquilibria (the title being an archaic plural of equilibrium) this is captured via a series of fundamental pitches—’tonics’ in a post-tonal sense, reinforced by being heard in multiple octaves—over and upon which intricate lines of filigree extend and rival harmonic emphases are brought to bear. As octaves become untenable, other intervals—4ths and 5ths—start to operate as indicators of permanence, Þorvaldsdóttir flirting with conflicting major/minor connotations above them, before threatening these too, roiling low winds at the work’s epicentre leading to a huge surge and ebb, leaving the piece in an entirely unclear state. Read more

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HCMF 2014: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, Arditti Quartet

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The closing weekend of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was dominated by the music of composer-in-residence, James Dillon. Saturday found him represented by two major works performed by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Steven Schick, the piano concerto Andromeda and the first performance of Physis, a work originally commissioned over 10 years ago by the Orchestre de Paris for the bi-centennial of Berlioz’s birth but, following various organisational machinations, not ultimately performed. Before them both came L’abscencia, a short orchestral work by the 2013 HCMF composer-in-residence Hèctor Parra. If last year established anything, it was that Parra enjoys creating highly intricate textures, and these were to be found in abundance. Particularly interesting was the work’s inherently conflicted nature, where unstable surface elements acted out upon a series of shifting but otherwise stable firmaments. Parra’s approach to orchestration pays attention to the lightest and most ephemeral of sounds, which quite apart from anything else makes his music highly attractive. The work’s closing gesture was pure beauty: a tense pause followed by a kind of accented sigh, faint harmonics ascending into the ether. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Monty Adkins + Britt Pernille Frøholm, Arne Deforce + Mika Vainio, Gareth Davis

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts all featured soloists performing and interacting with electronics and/or visual elements within large-scale compositional forms. Monty Adkins‘ new 40-minute work Spiral Paths to some extent brings together the twin lines of enquiry that led to Four Shibusa (electronics with live performers) and Rift Patterns (electronics with video projection). Spiral Paths comprises five distinct movements, with a prominent solo part for hardanger fiddle—performed by Britt Pernille Frøholm, who also commissioned the work—and projected visuals created by Jason Payne. Anyone familiar with Adkins’ work over the last few years may reasonably know what to expect, but Spiral Paths goes deeper, or at least, pulls out a lot more stops. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Next Wave, Trio Accanto

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Most of today’s concerts were part of an initiative run by Sound and Music and NMC Recordings called Next Wave, showcasing the work of composers in higher education. The performances involved members of the London Sinfonietta, Sounds of the Engine House and ACM Ensemble, in an assortment of small size groupings. Highlights among the twelve pieces included Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP III, composed for cassette recorder (in the act of recording itself), piano and percussion. Both the soundworld and the form of the work are striking and very effective indeed, clear in its sense of direction yet with a pervasive air of spontaneity. The conclusion, entering a dark, hauntological space, was wonderful; the only danger with the piece was being distracted by the exploits of the players, especially the percussionist’s use of a bicycle. Weiwei Jin‘s Sterna Paradiaea, Returning… was arguably the most ambitious work of the day; the second act of a transm Read more

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HCMF 2014: Quatuor Bozzini, Electric Spring @ 20

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This evening’s (rather poorly attended) concert given by the Bozzini Quartet featured a trio of works by composers from their native Canada. Of the three, Martin Arnold‘s Vault was the most straightforward, the quartet for the most part enunciating a single melodic line as a single musical body, united by material, rhythm, dynamic and mode of articulation. It would be pushing it to call it interesting exactly, although for a time there was something quite enchanting about hearing the undulations of the line handled so very quietly. However, the decision by so many bronchitic members of the audience to cough their guts up during the piece severely undermined its hold. Marc Sabat‘s Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, receiving its UK première, explored “tuning differences between the untempered natural harmonics of the [quartet’s] 16 open strings”; using just intonation, this seemed to herald 25 minutes of microtonality, but Sabat’s emphasis is on just tuned triads, meaning that much of the piece sounded perfectly ordinary; the first movement underwent a gradual ascent to a high altitude where the unusual tunings, heard in gleaming harmonics, finally became obvious; the second movement initially answered this with a descent but its ultimate trajectory and purpose were very much harder to ascertain. Most striking of all was Nicole Lizée‘s Hitchcock Études, another UK première, where cut up sound fragments from a number of Hitchcock’s films—Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much and The Birds—form the basis for the quartet’s material. In some ways the music resembled parts of Steve Reich’s Different Trains, although Lizée was concerned more with musical phrases coming from repetitions of non-verbal sounds. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Shorts, Feldman’s Pianos, asamisimasa

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Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Read more

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HCMF 2014: James Dillon, Simon Steen-Andersen

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Walking away from a concert feeling perplexed about what you’ve just heard is an understandable and inevitable experience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Considering how many risks the festival makes, the diversity and juxtaposition of the programming, it’s pretty much unavoidable (“WTF” would make an ideal accompanying slogan should HCMF ever want one). Both of last night’s concerts resulted in precisely this kind of response, although for somewhat different reasons. Of the two, Simon Steen-Andersen‘s large-scale theatrical work Buenos Aires is the easier to qualify. Performed with admirable/abject dedication by the combined forces of asamisimasa and the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, what it demonstrated more than anything was the remarkable breadth of Steen-Andersen’s imagination. Singers and instrumentalists alike were compelled to articulate under various forms of restriction and interference, in a context bounded by three large screens projecting images from various portable cameras, usually physically attached or held by those on stage. But to say what happened is very much easier than to say why; the general undertone is a sinister one, evoking the issue of dictatorship and the way opponents can be dealt with under their regimes and ultimately ‘disappeared’. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Bit20 Ensemble, Cikada Ensemble

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Last night’s and this morning’s concerts had much in common, beginning with nationality, featuring two Norwegian ensembles, Bit20 and Cikada. But beyond this, much of the music in each concert, although stylistically diverse, had a predominant interest in texture as the primary vehicle for their respective endeavours. The results, another aspect in common, were not uniformly successful. Cikada’s account of Jon Øivind NessGimilen, receiving its UK première, could hardly have been more rigorous and purposeful, yet neither of these epithets seemed qualities of the music itself. In many ways the piece is an 18-minute tutti, with minimal instrumental differentiation, all players working toward the same communal end. Which appears to be a series of episodes, characterised by distinct patterns of behaviour, some involving steady changes in tempo, one sounding like a torrent of Shepard tones. That makes them sound more engaging than they really were; their cycles felt hollow, a literal going through the motions, and the Stravinsky-like conclusion made one realise how much the piece seemed to be ballet music. Perhaps something visual would have filled in the blanks left by the music. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Lohengrin, Philip Thomas, Aurora Orchestra

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Not that the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival needs to reinforce its cutting edge credentials, but if it did, featuring Salvatore Sciarrino‘s Lohengrin on the opening night would certainly do it. The piece is cast in a single act—but an act of what? this is the question that pervades the work and abides long after it has finished. The certainties are these: that Sciarrino’s starting point is Jules Laforgue’s story, featuring the figure of Elsa, a “virgin in distress, falsely accused of murdering her brother”, and that the music is performed by 15 players and three singers, the majority of whom are prerecorded and worked into an electroacoustic element, while five of those performers appear on stage alongside, most prominently, a solo voice. Everything else is to a large extent open to interpretation. One implication is that the soloist is Elsa, the performance physically informed by the plethora of intense emotions resulting from her fraught situation. Yet her words—always fragmentary, often expressed extremely quietly—encompass those of other characters too, in addition to portions of narrative. Putting that ambiguity on one side for a moment, the five on-stage players could be read as familiars of the soloist, and even, as the work progresses, emotional/psychological avatars, channelling aspects of her state of mind (particularly at the very end, when her voice becomes tightly constricted). Back to the ambiguity: the overall impression is that this is all taking place in the crazed, delirious mind of the woman, for whom the fragmentary, ephemeral recounting of events might be personal (i.e. she is Elsa) yet could equally be distorted/co-opted ‘memories’ from a story she perhaps once heard (i.e. she has reimagined herself as Elsa). Read more

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