Wandelweiser

Beguiling/bemusing, pretentious/profound: the continuing challenge of Wandelweiser

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There’s a lot of music that i don’t write about. That’s kind of an obvious, even stupid thing to say: what i mean is that there’s a lot of music that i listen to that i don’t then write about. Invariably it’s due to some fundamentally problematic aspect that makes recommending it to others less of a necessity than a slightly cruel prank. Before i continue (and momentarily to digress), i must stress that i generally avoid thinking of composers in terms of trends, ‘schools’, ‘isms’ and other group terms that bundle them together due to some spurious connection, but considering the particular composers i’m writing about today have deliberately grouped themselves together, it seems appropriate to regard them in that way. To continue then: Wandelweiser. There’s a lot of Wandelweiser that i’ve listened to that i haven’t written about. A lot. And this fact has strangely been gnawing away at me recently as i’ve been pondering the latest batch of CD releases to have come from the Wandelweiser stable. To be fair to myself, i haven’t avoided them entirely: before HCMF 2015—at which Jürg Frey was composer-in-residence—i examined some of the then recent output from both him and a couple of other Wandelweiser composers, and there’s been a sprinkling of subsequent encounters, all i now realise also in conjunction with events going on at Huddersfield. This belies the fact that i have actually listened to an immense amount of their output, and it struck me recently that, instead of avoiding writing about it due to the conflicted reactions it so often engenders, perhaps that’s a worthwhile, even an important subject worthy of discussion in and of itself. 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: 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 2015: Ensemble Grizzana, Philip Thomas

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Two concerts yesterday, on what had punningly come to be known as “Frey-day”, afforded the opportunity to spend considerably more time with the music of Jürg Frey. i’ve been wrangling with how the word ‘ascetic’ sits with respect to Frey’s music. It’s not, i believe, music wearing a hairshirt, but the more i’ve heard of it this week, the more i’ve felt as though i am—which in turn has to make one question seriously what is happening and to what end. This feeling was particularly acute at the midday concert of four of Frey’s compositions, given by Ensemble Grizzana—a new group comprising soloists Mira Benjamin, Richard Craig, Emma Richards, Philip Thomas and Anton Lukoszevieze along with Frey himself. Returning to my String Quartet No. 2 trekking metaphor—forever progressing at a consistent, unstoppable speed—their performance of Fragile Balance resembled a group of walkers taking it in turns to suggest where their communal next step should be taken, followed by everybody taking it. And so on. Guided by a score consisting of “lists of single sounds and little motifs”, aurally this was not a work where a sense of journey was important—after all, if a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, this particular journey would likely take a thousand years—but rather the act of travelling. Read more

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HCMF 2015: Quatuor Bozzini, Ensemble Phoenix Basel

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Today’s afternoon concerts occupied opposite ends of a number of musical continua, the most obvious being dynamic. At the quiet end, in St Paul’s Hall, were the Bozzini Quartet with music by HCMF resident composer Jürg Frey; at the loud end, fighting the prevailing chill in Bates Mill Blending Shed, were Ensemble Phoenix Basel performing works by Robert Piotrowicz and Alex Buess. Let’s start with the loud.

It was very strange. Buess and Piotrowicz were represented by two works each, and with both composers it was if they destroyed their reputation with the first piece, only to re-establish it again with the second. In the case of Alex Buess‘ 2003 work KHAT, for bass flute and percussion with live electronics, it was a messy, unkempt affair, the pair of performers seemingly occupied with completely different compositions simultaneously, while with the electronics, one can only hope (but at the same time wonder why) the intention was to sound clunky and awkward; as it was, it sounded like someone arbitrarily testing a load of presets. In all these respects it was immensely dull, but once you factored in the very high volume levels (causing numerous people to move further to the back), it became a major irritation. But then came VORTEX_V1.01, composed in 2009 for bass flute, piano, percussion and electronics, a work that was extremely tautly-managed to exhilarating effect. Almost all of the sounds in the piece are either entirely pitchless or sufficiently modulated by different articulations that their pitch content becomes obscured, meaning that in essence Buess is playing with noise-based materials. These are arranged, in highly dramatic fashion, into tight formulations of imitation, complement, riposte, antagonism and the like, both between the players on stage and between them all and the live electronic elements. Clarity emerges gradually from a more amorphous genesis, but structurally VORTEX_V1.01 ultimately proves itself to be very strong, loud and overpowering (never excessively, but still practically abrading the audience from all sides) with some genuinely dazzling climaxes, concluding in a wonderful stop-start finale, blasts of sound alternating with softer detailing.

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New releases: Jürg Frey / Wandelweiser

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With the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival poised to kick off tomorrow, i’m focussing this new releases roundup on Jürg Frey, composer-in-residence at HCMF 2015, and composers associated with the Wandelweiser—would ‘group’ be the right word? ‘collective’? ‘concept’? ‘conceit’? Just the other day, an esteemed colleague described Wandelweiser to me as a ‘cult’; whatever it is, it seems to have a polarising effect on listeners. My own opinion has, hitherto, been insufficiently thought-through even to qualify as an opinion; i enjoyed Antoine Beuger’s four-hour en una noche oscura, performed at HCMF 2013, very much indeed, but until recently it’s been a lone deep impact among many slight, glancing impressions. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima / edges ensemble

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St Paul’s Hall saw the UK première of no less than two major works last night: one, a large-scale cycle, the other, a full-blown epic. i want to discuss them together, not because they are in any way connected, but because hearing them one after the other brought about interesting contradictions & correlations, which fed into one’s appreciation of both works.

First was Alberto Posadas‘ 70-minute Sombras (Shadows), completed in 2012, which comprises five works, three for ensemble plus a pair of shorter ‘Transitions’ for duos. Before getting into the music, something about the concert presentation. Since the inspiration & recurring theme of Posadas’ cycle is shadows, it would have helped considerably if the strange current policy of keeping the house lights on throughout the concert had not been adhered to; as it was, our imaginations had to work that bit harder to buy into the dark allusions of the music. Giving us the sung texts would also have been nice, but you can’t ask for everything. For this UK première, Quatuor Diotima were joined by soprano Sarah Maria Sun & clarinettist Carl Rosman. Initially, though, just the quartet was involved, performing Elogio de las sombras (Praise of the shadows). This is easily one of the very best string quartets i’ve heard in recent years, incredibly demanding on the players but packed with more than the usual amount of imaginative bandwidth. One has to feel a certain sympathy for cellist Pierre Morlet; not only did one of his strings snap just a few minutes in, but then the assortment of little wedges & mutes required later all began to cascade onto the floor; & then he began stifling a coughing fit. If anyone wanted a demonstration of maintaining focus in the face of adversity, this was it. Although Posadas’ inspiration is shadows, what he hasn’t done is compose obviously ‘dark’ music, but instead, throughout the cycle, has sought to tease out connotations of what shadows can be. His accompanying notes generously seek to dive deeply into this thought process, but what i found especially striking was how unnecessary they seemed, the music leaping off the page with absolute coherence. The quartet continually finds itself in unexpected new avenues & alleys, but there was an abiding logic guiding the decidedly non-linear path. Only once the soprano joined in (for La tentación de las sombras (The temptation of the shadows)) did the music start to become demonstrably umbral, but even then Posadas keeps his textures extremely detailed, full of activity & filigree.

Dealing with this is part of the contradiction that occupied the evening. Detail is a keyword where Sombras is concerned, but Posadas seems to have a knack for making it accessible. If anything, one found oneself sitting on the surface of the music, so to speak, which isn’t ordinarily where i would like to sit (at least, not all the time), but being carried along on it like this seemed to make that sense of logic i spoke of complete. Sense was in part kept at a distance anyway, due to not having the text, but i think we got the gist. However, this aural vantage point didn’t suit the closing work, Del reflejo de la sombra (Of the reflection of shadow), which explored far more convoluted, condensed material. Here, the music became genuinely difficult to process, but that may well have been part of Posadas’ point; certainly, the range of angles from which he approaches the notion of shadow is much greater in this piece, which perhaps accounts for the increased density of its music.

The concert that followed, a performance by edges ensemble of Antoine Beuger‘s four-hour en una noche oscura, could not have been more different. It is a complete setting of the poem with which St John of the Cross prefaces his famous book Ascent of Mount Carmel, each of the eight stanzas occupying a 30-minute block of time. The words, sung by Irene Kurka, are delivered in halting syllables, preceded & accompanied by single, sporadic, sustained pitches from other members of the ensemble (E-bowed guitar, melodica, clarinet, cello, flute, accordion & chamber organ). Here, in contrast to Posadas, the narrow behavioural & sonic palette theoretically meant one could dive more fully into the material. Yet music of this sort—static & utmost solemn—has a way of chastising any & all attempts to probe its intricacies. “What process is guiding when & what the players are doing?”, “Is the clarinet consistently a semitone away from the soprano?”, “Is there a pattern connecting the diverse pitches we’re hearing?”, “Is the structure consistently i) ensemble alone, ii) soprano & ensemble, iii) soprano alone?”, “Does the melodica player realise that nothing she’s playing can be heard by anyone?”—these are just some of the questions that emerged throughout the performance, & all of them felt batted away as soon as they appeared. It certainly wasn’t due to a lack of time & aural space to find answers, just that they instantly seemed entirely irrelevant.

The narrative, St John of the Cross’ imagery—echoing the Song of Songs—of an approaching, deeply erotic encounter, became overwhelmingly powerful delivered in this way. As with anything on this scale, there were times when one’s patience fluctuated (for me, during the third & sixth stanzas, probably due to their symmetric proximities to start & end), but overall it obtained a palpable sense of building excitement, even momentum. It’s so many years since i read St John of the Cross that i couldn’t recall the poem’s trajectory, & not reading ahead on this occasion sealed the experience. By the close of the penultimate stanza, the Lover & Beloved just beginning to become tactile, the pent-up pressure felt almost explosive. Beuger’s decision to begin the final stanza with a very long silence was a masterstroke, causing that pressure to sublimate into something even more indescribable (a kind of tantric ecstasy, perhaps); the closing quarter of an hour, consisting solely of Irene Kurka slowly intoning the syllables of the last stanza, are among the most remarkable musical experiences i’ve ever had—desperately you wanted her to hurry up, yet equally you wanted her to linger over each phoneme forever.

What these works share, although exercised in profoundly different ways, is a kind of relentlessness, an unstoppable force that in both cases seems to make penetrative listening neither feasible not desirable. That’s not just a testament to their allusive potency, but to their modes of narrative which are, in Posadas’ case, immediate, & in Beuger’s case, other-worldly. It goes without saying that they require far more than the usual level of commitment, & all involved deserve nothing but the highest praise for giving such transparent, authoritative performances.

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