John Butcher

HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

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The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces. Read more

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HCMF 2017: Explore Ensemble, Polwechsel + John Butcher + Klaus Lang, Thomas Lehn

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One of last year’s exciting new discoveries at HCMF was the London-based Explore Ensemble, whose performance of Gérard Grisey’s Talea on ‘shorts’ day was easily among its most memorable events. Fittingly, this year Explore was invited back to give a full concert, which only reinforced that first impression from 2016. The same wasn’t true for all of the music they played: new music today has a lot of what might be called ‘eggshell music’, where there’s a pervasive sense that any moment, if one player was to articulate a note just too loudly or obtrusively, the entire piece would instantly crumble to nothing. It’s as tricky to achieve for composers as performers, and in the case of Steven Daverson‘s Elusive Tangibility II: Firelife, the results were far too ephemeral to amount to anything. In La sabbia del tempo, Fausto Romitelli injected his delicate soundworld with interesting bands of harmonic colour though, again, the long-term effect kept one at a bemused distance. The other two works in the programme were much more triumphant, and in some respects one sounded like an iteration of each other. Enno Poppe‘s Gelöschte Lieder was a whirlwind of mid-to-high register masses of details, rigorous, insistent and piercing. There were so many details, in fact, that at times it felt hard to penetrate, like trying to hack through a dense portion of jungle. 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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The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

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Ordinarily, finding yourself traipsing along cold, dark, damp streets from concert to concert of cutting edge music, you’d expect the time to be late autumn and the place to be Huddersfield. Except this time it was the streets and venues of Bristol that were the focus of attention, for the inaugural Bristol New Music festival, three days packed with an impressively diverse line-up of the great and the downright remarkable. Bigging it up last week, i opined that it looked all set to become the HCMF of the south west, and there is, as it turns out, a connection, as Huddersfield supremo Graham McKenzie has provided what he described to me as “curatorial advice” in getting BNM up and running. Yet while in some ways his fingerprints could be detected all over the weekend, Bristol had an atmosphere and a vibe quite distinct to that of Huddersfield. It’s not insignificant, i think, that the word ‘new’ has been used in favour of ‘contemporary’, the latter carrying with it stronger connotations of the concert hall. BNM did have plenty of concerts taking place in familiar concert halls—the festival is, after all, a collaboration by five of Bristol’s principal venues: Arnolfini, the Colston Hall, St George’s, Spike Island and Bristol University—but more often than not, they either weren’t presented as, or didn’t feel like, familiar concert hall events. Often this was rather refreshing; sometimes, not so much. Read more

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