HCMF2016

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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HCMF revisited: Michael Cutting – I AM A STRANGE LOOP V (World Première)

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In just five days’ time, this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival gets going. That’s a big deal anyway, but this is its 40th edition, so there’s even more cause than usual for celebration. As a warm-up, i’m going to spend this week revisiting a few of the more memorable pieces from the last few festivals. The recitals given by pianist Richard Uttley have been for me some of the most exciting HCMF concerts in recent years, always presenting a thoroughly unpredictable collection of works embracing both the lyrical and experimental aspects of the instrument (and of Uttley himself). At HCMF 2016, he gave the first performance of Michael Cutting‘s I AM A STRANGE LOOP V.

It’s the second piece Cutting has written for Uttley that involves the use of a Fender Rhodes piano. The first, This is Not a Faux Wood Keyboard (premièred by Uttley at HCMF 2015), captured and harnessed the piano’s actions through use of a loop pedal. For I AM A STRANGE LOOP V, this premise has been expanded by utilising a pair of reel-to-reel tape machines. In each of the work’s four movements, Uttley is required to record portions of his performance, which are then played back while additional material is played. In practice, the two tape machines become second and third instruments in their own right, leading to interesting and unpredictable passages of 2- and 3-part semi-recycled counterpoint. Read more

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HCMF 2016: afterthoughts and reflections

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I intended this to be part of yesterday’s final report, but as I’m still grappling with a virus at present I decided to tackle it separately. Looking back on HCMF 2016, it’s been another thoroughly enjoyable festival, not that I suspected it would be otherwise. The choice of Georg Friedrich Haas was a good one, in my view, perhaps even an unexpectedly beneficial one considering the world’s ongoing pained reaction to recent political outcomes. Haas proved himself not only a charismatic composer with an ear for fascinating sonorities and a keen sense of how to deploy theatricality, but also a deeply sensitive individual whose poignant ‘Meet the Composer’ conversation on Saturday morning will remain for many people, I’m sure, an important, cherished memory. It’s simplistic and trivial to dismiss his work, as one or two commentators have, as mere hype and hullabaloo; the reasons why he does what he does come from a place of utter humanity. It’s all the more frustrating then, as I mentioned a couple of days ago, that despite being ‘Composer in Residence’, Haas’ music was only showcased during the opening weekend, after which he quickly felt entirely peripheral; surprisingly different from how the featured composers have been represented at HCMF in recent years.

Beyond this, a year ago I noted in passing that the representation of women composers at the festival was poor, responsible for only 16% of pieces performed throughout the festival. This year the figure has improved somewhat: looking at both the number of pieces as well as the durations of those pieces, the result was 25% of the music at HCMF 2016 composed by women. A step in the right direction, to be sure, but it’s still somewhat sobering to note that at no fewer than 65% of the concerts women composers were entirely absent (male composers were absent from 13%). It’s not all about the numbers, of course, but these numbers are hardly irrelevant.

Back to the actual sounds, and the way non- or semi-improvised music continued to feature prominently at the festival was fruitful and thought-provoking. I’m still somewhat agog at the concert given by John Butcher with Trio Kimmig-Studer-Zimmerlin, entirely improvised but which could have been presented as a sequence of fully-composed pieces and I would have believed it. All of which only made the experience more fascinatingly discombobulating when, the following day, at The Stone Orchestra‘s gig (which included the trio) the improvisations now sounded loose, disconnected, arbitrary and ultimately implausible. With improvisation, it seems, you really never can tell. Following last year’s push in the direction of Wandelweiser, it was nice that that wasn’t entirely forgotten this year, and Marianne Schuppe‘s recital was a hugely refreshing and welcome contrast to—well, to almost everything else that had been going on.

Overall, while it’s not necessarily HCMF’s primary purpose to act either as a barometer of contemporary music-making or as a testament to its most radical exponents, I think this year’s festival hit a very high standard in both respects. All of us involved in new music trot out the word ‘experimental’ so often it tends to lose all meaning; at HCMF, we get a rare chance to witness genuine musical experimentation going on every day. Experiments don’t have guaranteed outcomes, they’re not safe and secure, and they certainly won’t always succeed. Yet regardless of how they transpire, I for one get an immense thrill at the opportunity to be able to witness it happening and reflect on the aftermath. Conservatism may rule this land ever more aggressively, but in Huddersfield, almost anything remains possible.

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HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

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My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focusing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Richard Uttley, Quatuor Diotima

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Having packed out Phipps Hall at HCMF last year, pianist Richard Uttley‘s Saturday morning recital found him in the considerably more fitting space of St Paul’s Hall. Taking place on a stunningly cold day—local temperatures hovering around -1°C—the audience was healthy in size but not in general well-being, peppering the concert with (in one case, worrying close proximity) blasts of coughage. Quite apart from anything else, Uttley deserves considerable kudos for the way he tenaciously maintained concentration. Similar to Seth Parker Woods’ recital the previous day, Uttley performed four works, two of which involved technology. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Seth Parker Woods, Ensemble Resonanz + Elliott Sharp + Gareth Davis

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Friday at HCMF began with a recital by rising star cellist Seth Parker Woods. I’ve had the opportunity to see Woods play once before (at HCMF 2014) and the experience was a highly impressive one, so I was very much looking forward to seeing him in action again. He did not disappoint, performing four challenging works, two of which involved live electronics. The acoustic pieces occupied soundworlds of an intimate, ephemeral nature. Alvin Singleton‘s Argoru II was sufficiently gestural that it took on a pervasive arbitrariness that frustrated engagement on anything but the most superficial level. Gray Neon Life by Edward Hamel was similar but explored much more interesting alternations between gesture and pitch with occasional fragments of a barely audible spoken text. Nonetheless it, too, conveyed an aloofness that made its transient filigree feel somewhat skin-deep. Despite these compositional concerns, Wood’s performance of both pieces was seriously involving, exploiting the intimacy to give the impression he was playing to every member of the audience personally, and even at times as though he were playing entirely to himself. George LewisNot Alone utilised electronics to echo, distort, resonate, flitter and skitter around and follow hot on the heels of the cello’s material. Structured as a clear sequence of contrasting episodes, there was a delirious playfulness in Lewis’ conveyor belt of wildly diverse musical offerings. As with all but the very best works in the bloated performer-does-something-and-computer-responds genre, there were times when the hierarchical relationship felt simplistic, obvious and even a trifle tired, but this was a minor shortcoming in an otherwise thoroughly enjoyable and convincing piece. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Marianne Schuppe

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Twenty-four hours after Aaron Cassidy’s attempt at recreating the Battle of Jericho, St Paul’s Hall was today filled with its polar opposite: Marianne Schuppe performing her 40-minute cycle slow songs. Her approach in each of the eleven songs is to focus almost entirely on a simple, idiosyncratic melodic line, the vehicle for Schuppe’s equally quirky texts, usually in conjunction with one or more pure, floating pitches that permeate and punctuate the melodies. If one didn’t know better, these pitches would appear to be coming from a sine tone generator but are in fact created using a lute and two of what Schuppe calls ‘uber-bows’, large sturdy makeshift versions of ebows positioned over the lute’s strings and controlled with voltmeters. To look at, it’s all very crude (Schuppe told me that it’s a ‘prototype’) but what it produces is clear and pristine, the perfect complement to her unwavering voice. It’s not insignificant that she has chosen to produce these pitches via a lute, as slow songs essentially has its roots in folk music; one could think of it as an austere, stripped down version of the rich folk luxury of Fovea Hex (and, as i mentioned when reviewing the CD of this piece, Schuppe’s voice bears a striking resemblance to Clodagh Simonds‘). Read more

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HCMF 2016: ELISION

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Yesterday at HCMF was really only about one event: the concert given by Australia’s ELISION ensemble, who are this year celebrating their 30th anniversary. ELISION’s relationship with the festival is long-established—their first appearance coincided with my own first ever visit to the festival, almost exactly twenty years ago, to hear them give the UK première of Richard Barrett’s negatives—and is usually associated with performances of larger-scale works: on this occasion the first UK performances of Aaron Cassidy‘s The wreck of former boundaries (in its complete ensemble version) and Liza Lim‘s How Forests Think. Both of them required a bit of mental adjustment to engage properly with their respective approaches.

In Lim’s case, the adjustment was due to the fact that How Forests Think is in many respects strikingly different from a lot of her previous work. Above all, there’s a pervasive multifaceted looseness—heard in the way musical materials inherently behave, in the interactions between players and in the structure of the work’s four movements—that sets it apart from the intense rigour that has hitherto been a quintessential aspect of Lim’s compositional character, and which came as something of a shock. However, what remains immediately familiar is the work’s instrumental nature; Lim’s music often displays a tendency to opulence and here she uses an ensemble clearly designed to sound lush, including the wonderful Chinese sheng performed by Wu Wei, who has brought the instrument to such prominence in contemporary music in recent years. There was a recurring question concerning to what extent the sheng was able to blend with the rest of the ensemble, but in all important respects it hardly mattered as it lent the piece a certain ‘concerto’ quality at various points, and in any case Lim’s writing for the sheng is the most interesting i’ve yet encountered (she should definitely write a solo work for the instrument). There are loci of continuity to be found through the work’s four movements, particularly in the way that the music’s harmonic palette regularly moves toward greater degrees of consonance (of a somewhat complex colouration), as well as a persistent focus on counterpoint in passages that simultaneously sound like a group action as well as the combined result of a collection of self-contained individuals, a nice aural paradox. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Shorts

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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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HCMF 2016: Trombone Unit Hannover, Klangforum Wien

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The palpable buzz surrounding events at this year’s HCMF featuring music by composer-in-residence Georg Friedrich Haas (of an order considerably greater than that of the previous few years) continued before and during yesterday’s morning concert given by Trombone Unit Hannover. This was no doubt due to the UK performance of Haas’ remarkable Octet, a piece i celebrated earlier this year, but prior to this were three shorter works for solo trombones (it was surprising and very disappointing that the complete ensemble was only featured in that one piece). Another work of Haas’,  aus freier Lust…verbunden…, one of ten solo pieces also performable as a decet, began by episodically exploring different takes, approaches and attempts at melodic utterance, moving back-and-forth between being open and muted (somewhat distracting on this occasion), before passing into painstaking gradations of microtonality (a hint of what was to come later), as though we had zoomed up close to examine the minute undulations on the surface of each pitch. More engrossing was Xenakis‘ short 1986 work Keren, taking the instrument on an even more exhaustive journey by turns fanfaric, lyrical, rude, plaintive, briefly lost and then blazingly focused, prosaic and profound; having probed the extremes of the instrument, Xenakis finally plunged it into impossible depths. A piece that, thirty years on, still sounds impressively fresh. The last of these three opening ‘overtures’ was provided by Anders Hillborg, whose four-minute miniature Hautposaune is a witty cross between a duet and a squabble, the trombone grappling with a rigorously motoric tape part. Hillborg sets things up so that the one and only chance the instrument gets to break free of the tape’s constraints results in a helping of deliciously ripe cheese, before bringing about a furious, full-throttle conclusion, the piece practically crashing into its final barline like a train smashing into buffers. But, understandably, it was Haas’ Octet that emphatically stole the show, with its astonishing evolution through unisons, near-unisons, clusters, Shepard tone-like overlapping glissandi, quasi organum, harmonic series (beautifully executed with the ensemble partially muted) and ferocious buzzing growls. The way Haas imbues this overall evolution with such a seamless sense of organic inevitability is truly remarkable, and Trombone Unit Hannover’s ability to articulate each element with such ridiculous accuracy is just jaw-dropping. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Walking with Partch, Klangforum Wien + Arditti Quartet

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From queries to plings: following an opening night that raised more questions (and objections) than its respective composers perhaps intended, Saturday night at HCMF moved emphatically in the direction of the epic. Not simply in terms of duration, although that was certainly a factor: Claudia Molitor‘s 60-minute Walking with Partch, the world première of which was performed by members of Ensemble Musikfabrik, didn’t simply justify its duration but absolutely required it. Using a few of the ensemble’s fabulous recreations of Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, the piece unfolds at a pace that allows everything, both the assortment of instrumental interactions and also the sounds themselves, time to speak, to resonate and to be considered. From the start, sporadic material from various players mixed with electronic textures, there was a clear sense of timbral connectivity, elements of imitation that later became more substantially worked into fully-fledged dialogues, usually but not always in the form of duos. While a great deal of Walking with Partch sounds like the product of structured and/or partially pre-planned improvisation, there were times when a broader impetus dominated the ensemble, such as when a strange triple metre initiated a kind of grotesque dance comprising distorted and contorted lines, or a later brass and bass clarinet trio that sounded like a disintegrated chorale. Read more

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HCMF 2016: Arditti Quartet + Jennifer Walshe, Ensemble Musikfabrik + Peter Brötzmann

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Music festivals understandably like to start with a bang; the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival began with a WTF. And not just one but two of them, courtesy of Jennifer Walshe with the Arditti Quartet and Ensemble Musikfabrik with Peter Brötzmann. Their respective ‘WTF-ness’ was partly superficial, partly the stark nature of the collaborations, and partly a by-product of the tenacity of the composers with regard to their ideas, in both cases perhaps best described as ‘dogged’. Read more

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HCMF 2016: looking forward some more

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Further information has been made available today about this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, following the announcement in May that Georg Friedrich Haas will be the featured Composer in Residence. Predictably, there’s a great deal to get excited about. The music of Harry Partch will be making an appearance courtesy of Ensemble Musikfabrik, who’ve done so much to promote Partch over the last few years, reconstructing his vast array of weird and wonderful microtonal instruments (their rendition of his And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma at Bristol New Music 2014 was a dazzling testament both to the ensemble’s meticulous care/preparation as well as to Partch’s discombobulating approach to—well, pretty much everything). To expand upon this, the ensemble has commissioned composers to write for these instruments, and will be premièring several of them at this year’s festival, including an hour long work by Claudia Molitor titled Walking with Partch.

Swiss composer Alfred Zimmerlin will be bringing his Stone Orchestra to Huddersfield, and the festival’s fondness for improvisation will this year be entertained by Peter Brötzmann and Gareth Davis, the latter appearing once again in conjunction with the music of American composer/guitarist Elliott Sharp (of whose solo contrabass clarinet piece Silva Silvarum Davis gave a wonderful first performance a couple of years ago). Having brought the festival to an end in recent years, the Arditti Quartet will this time be getting it up and running with an opening night concert alongside contemporary music’s most radical nightingale, Jennifer Walshe, giving the UK première of Walshe’s Everything is Important (which, coincidentally, received its world première in Darmstadt just last night). The Ardittis will also be joining with Klangforum Wien in a concert presenting two major works by Haas, The Hyena and his brand spanking new String Quartet No. 10. The Diotima Quartet will also be appearing, performing new works by Enno Poppe and Sam Hayden, and HCMF regular Richard Uttley is back with music by Haas, Eric Wubbels and Olga Neuwirth, as well as—best of all—a new piece for Fender Rhodes piano by Michael Cutting, whose This Is Not A Faux Wood Keyboard remains a particularly memorable highlight from last year.

Throw in new and recent works from the likes of Rebecca Saunders, Liza Lim, Eva Reiter, George Lewis and John Zorn and HCMF 2016 is already shaping up to be a typically kaleidoscopic and challenging festival. It runs from Friday 18 to Sunday 27 November; full details and tickets are available from the festival website.

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HCMF 2016: looking forward – Georg Friedrich Haas

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It’s been announced this morning that the Composer in Residence at this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival will be Georg Friedrich Haas. His work has been an occasional feature at HCMF in the past, nowhere more spectacularly than in the 2013 UK première of in vain, a piece concerning itself with endless states of transition, with an added air of theatricality through having all of the lights in the performance space extinguished at various points.

HCMF 2016 will include three UK premières: Klangforum Wien will present The Hyena for ensemble and narrator (featuring the composer’s wife, Mollena Williams-Haas), the Ardittis – who else? – will be performing the Ninth String Quartet, while the Hannover Trombone Unit will take on Haas’ Octet for Eight Trombones, composed last year. All three of these performances will be taking place in the opening weekend, ensuring the festival begins with a hefty wallop.

Tickets for these events will go on sale later this month. With this year’s Proms promising little more than lumbering predictability and blandness, it’s encouraging to have a much more exciting prospect on the horizon. More info about HCMF in due course.

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