The Start of an Era: Bristol New Music 2014

by 5:4

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.

Bristol began its trek into a brave new musical world on Friday, at the University’s Victoria Rooms, in the company of clarinettist Gareth Davis. i’m a big fan of Davis’ recorded work (he’s twice featured on my best of the year lists), but to see him perform live brings a new appreciation for his breadth of expression, from the most distant of whispers to full force effluvial torrents. Both extremes are to be found in the single work Davis played, the UK première of Elliott Sharp’s large-scale work Foliage. For just over three quarters of an hour, Davis improvisationally responds to an ever-changing sequence of images formed from processed and treated excerpts from Sharp’s earlier compositions. Early on, Davis seemed simultaneously to assume the role of both snake charmer and the snake; a later episode brought a chorale of sorts (executed via brilliantly-controlled multiphonics), which in turn yielded to a blizzard of trills and tremolos, comprising both pitched and key-slap sounds. The images were projected large behind Davis, and established an interesting, conflicted relationship with him. On the one hand, its silent austerity—acting perhaps as inspiration, contextualisation or merely a reredos—set itself apart from Davis’ wild ululations; yet its essential nature, an ongoing distortion of extant material, mirrored closely the clarinet’s continual abstraction of melodic lines, shapes and forms. The combined effect was ritualistic, like an extended outburst of glossolalia. It was a riveting experience, and Davis followed it up with a superb lengthy workshop centred on the connections between notated and improvised musics. Bristol New Music could hardly have got off to a better start.

It was followed by an equally dazzling performance from saxophonist John Butcher and percussionist Mark Sanders, in Butcher’s new work Tarab Cuts. The piece takes its point of origin from a vast collection of 78rpm recordings of pre-1930s Arabic classical music (owned by Lebanese musician Tarek Atoui). Excerpts from these records are used initially as springboards for the duo’s lengthy improvisations, but gradually the live and pre-recorded elements became ever more integrated, united in a furiously passionate celebration of tarab. That word, hard to define succinctly in English, connotes among other things a kind of ‘musical ecstasy’, and that quality was certainly evident in the duo’s material; indeed, there were times when the level of virtuosity almost became a hindrance, so jaw-dropping were Sanders’ unstoppable gymnastics in and around his array of drums, bowls and gongs, and Butcher’s breathtaking (literally—i’ve never seen such flawless circular breathing) seemingly endless cascades of melody.

Not everything on day one was so uplifting; over on Spike Island, Emptyset—whose recent releases, particularly last year’s EP Material, have sometimes proved very effective—unfortunately lived up entirely to their name, presenting an hour’s worth of bland, monotonous and embarrassingly derivative earfuck-thuggery. It had all the subtlety of a 14-inch dildo. The rest of the evening, up in the Colston Hall’s Lantern, suffered a different problem due to rather too zealous sound engineering in the bass department, turning everything into the aural equivalent of a vindaloo. Under the moniker Klavikon, Leon Michener’s music is extremely imaginative and always entertaining, but his series of beat-spattered mechanically-enhanced piano etudes became dulled in the excesses of the subwoofers. Roly Porter suffered even more in this respect—those already acquainted with his work could probably detect the music’s grandeur, but noobs would surely have been left bewildered. Don’t get me wrong, i adore bass, but anything beyond madras levels destroys all semblance of subtlety—which isn’t always a problem, of course, but here it definitely was, and it brought the day to a frustrating end. Adding injury to insult, on a purely practical note, if the organisers had had their way everything from the Emptyset gig onwards would have involved the audience standing up—over four hours of standing. Due to a mixture of weariness and common sense, we all sat down for Klavikon—whereupon a brace of bouncers paced around insisting everyone get up before Roly Porter took to the stage, in order to allow more people in. Reluctantly, we acquiesced, but they’d have been infinitely wiser to supply chairs.

i couldn’t be there for day two, but Sunday began back at the Victoria Rooms for a concert bringing together Quatuor Bozzini and the University of Bristol New Music Ensemble (who seem to want to be called the NME, but for obvious reasons i’m going to call them the UBNME); the latter performed first. There was some predictably dull Nico Muhly to tolerate—during which one spent time revisiting the ancient art of gritting teeth—but the ensemble impressed in Henze’s splendidly dramatic Sonata for 6 players, a work that encapsulates numerous shades of emotion and mood. They also performed a short work by University student Benedict Todd titled Out of the Machine, a piece that too often sounded like incidental music from a TV soundtrack, its gestures overworked as though outlined in thick black marker (and the programme notes of which made no sense, its description blatantly conflicting with what we were hearing). Quatuor Bozzini, in a similar enterprise to that in HCMF, had been engaged in a week long ‘Composers Kitchen’ with four University students, performing extracts from each of the four resultant pieces. A couple were conservative and forgettable; Kostis Tsioulakis ventured into more interesting territory in a movement from his Second String Quartet, but it was Yung-Shen Hsiao’s music that really shone. Clearly the product of a deep and mature compositional mind, his Winter Fantasy was both evocative and wistful, an observational winterscape viewed through the interpretive filter of memory and reflection. The concert ended with the Quartet and Ensemble combined in a performance of Martin Arnold’s The Coo-Coo Bird, an utterly exquisite reimagining of an Appalachian folksong. Feldman-like, with crystalline textures formed from pointillistic glints and motes from bowed and plucked strings, as well as whistles, it was a gorgeous performance.

The afternoon concert, by the imaginatively-named Bristol Ensemble, was a real curate’s egg, blighted as it was by two miniatures (by Michael Ellison and Richard Barnard) that were as irrelevant as they were brief, and the excruciating, wilfully vapid Avant Muzak by Matthew Schlomowitz (it’s to the work’s credit that it didn’t seem to have aspirations to irony, but that’s as far as the credit goes). However, the concert was to some extent redeemed through two pieces by Tansy Davies. Her 2005 work Salt Box has passages of powerful atmospherics, potentially quite moving, although i’ve never been able to find a coherent connection between the music’s twin attitudes—rhythmic and punchy vs. dark and brooding—and the distinct timbral worlds, ensemble vs. tape. There’s a parallel challenge in Neon, due to its lack of a strong overall sense of direction. This doesn’t in any way prevent the music from being able to strut and flirt with energetic abandon; but without a sonic money-shot, one’s left feeling more than a little frustrated. None of this was aided by the Bristol Ensemble’s performance, which in the longer works especially felt ragged and at times confused.

All was utterly forgotten, however, with the main concert of the day, featuring one of contemporary music’s most maverick groups, Ensemble musikFabrik. It was a highly anticipated concert, including the first performance outside the United States of Harry Partch’s And on the Seventh Day Petals Fell in Petaluma, in addition to works by Frank Zappa. Partch’s music has hitherto been one of the great lost causes in 20th century music, relegated to the realm of anecdote and hearsay due to being, literally, unplayable. His exploration of new tuning systems necessitated the building of entirely new instruments—with concomitant new methods of notation—and those instruments have long been too fragile to be played. Ensemble musikFabrik have therefore done the world an immeasurable service in building exact copies of those original instruments, with a view, ultimately, to performing and recording Partch’s complete works. This was no ordinary première, then, this was nothing less than the start of an altogether new voyage of discovery, into a form of musical thought and practice that has lain dormant for decades. Walking into the Colston Hall’s main auditorium and catching sight of the remarkable line-up of exotic instruments (see photo, right) felt like walking into a temple. It was a sensation that persisted throughout the performance, its theatrical nature (the piece being a study for Partch’s larger music theatre work Delusion of the Fury) lending the music a pronounced ritualistic aspect, stylised, even a bit flamboyant. Yet many of the instruments equally looked like elaborate toys, and this brought emphasis to the other side of Partch’s music, an overwhelming sense of play, a child-like fascination with sound itself and the rough and tumble of music-making. Nowhere was this more hilariously demonstrated than the occasions when violist Axel Porath solemnly strode over to the perfectly-named Blowboy—a large bellows attached to two small sets of organ pipes (see photo, left)—stood upon the footplate of the bellows, and then slowly descended to the ground while the pipes bleated out their inscrutable chord. Apropos: as with so much music that adopts unfamiliar tunings, it took almost no time at all to become accustomed to Partch’s unique harmonies; not only did they swiftly feel familiar, but in combination—especially as the opening duets and trios expanded into larger and larger groupings—they became uncommonly beautiful. The choice of Frank Zappa for the second half couldn’t have been better, Zappa pushing to even wilder limits the serious and waggish sides of both composition and performance. musikFabrik’s rendition of his music—dominated exuberantly from the front by drummer/percussionist Dirk Rothbrust—felt almost like listening to a performance of the original band. All the hallmarks came across with the most exhilaratingly vivid clarity: the complex rhythmic hiccups, over-theatrical stop-start structures, extended leftfield jazz solos, ludicrously abrupt non-sequiturs, gently sarcastic voice-overs and all-hell-breaks-loose outbursts of pure mayhem. All of it played to absolute, dizzying perfection—it was as joyous a paean to the unalloyed pleasure of music as i’ve ever heard, and Ensemble musikFabrik entirely deserved their spontaneous and extended standing ovation. Without any doubt it was one of the finest concerts i have ever attended; i think we all felt very privileged to have been there.

No-one could really have followed that, but the festival came to a conclusion in perhaps the best possible way, a couple of hours later at St George’s. The Christian Wallumrød Ensemble, a group comprising piano (Wallumrød), sax, violin, cello, trumpet and percussion, create music that’s a curious mix of folk music and avant garde experimentalism with just a whiff of jazz thrown in, all channelled via improvisation. The manner of their pieces brought to mind the structure of Steve Reich’s phase compositions; the ensemble would begin focused, then move through a period of relatively blurred materials before coming back into focus again. This approach, combined with their modest timbral palette and very deliberate style of delivery—which is above all very restrained—resulted, at its best, in a soundworld that was intense and hypnotic, leaving one with a kind of mildly inebriated buzz. A decidedly mellow way to bring Bristol New Music to an end.

The musical life of Bristol was good before this, but the coming of Bristol New Music has put it firmly on the map as a city that welcomes new music of all hues. i’ve mentioned both practical problems and questionable content, but it’s important to stress that all music festivals, including HCMF, have their fair share of dross, but they also have both more concerts and time to take up and obliviate the slack (in very sense of the word). The organisers of Bristol New Music must be unqualifyingly congratulated for putting together such an exciting new festival, one that’s prepared to take real risks in the scope and ambition of its content. Let’s hope it not only lasts more than three days in 2015, but that it lasts for many, many years to come. The start of an era!

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The musikFabrik-built Harry Partch instruments throw up an interesting conundrum. I recall when the HP originals came over to London in about 1999 (?); there was much made then of 1) their fragility (presumably true) and 2) their irreplaceability (an assertion that played into the hands of their curators, but which now appears untrue). Not for the first time, there’s a knotty story about ownership and legacy to be told, I think.

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