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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