Last night’s and this morning’s concerts all featured soloists performing and interacting with electronics and/or visual elements within large-scale compositional forms. Monty Adkins‘ new 40-minute work Spiral Paths to some extent brings together the twin lines of enquiry that led to Four Shibusa (electronics with live performers) and Rift Patterns (electronics with video projection). Spiral Paths comprises five distinct movements, with a prominent solo part for hardanger fiddle—performed by Britt Pernille Frøholm, who also commissioned the work—and projected visuals created by Jason Payne. Anyone familiar with Adkins’ work over the last few years may reasonably know what to expect, but Spiral Paths goes deeper, or at least, pulls out a lot more stops. The electronic soundscapes both immerse the fiddle as well as acting, in Adkins’ words, as “a hall of mirrors, reflecting the fiddle back on itself” with the result that it is “both submerged and floats on the surface”. Three of the movements veer more towards the latter, and are characteristically beautiful, the fiddle contemplating things against gentle, genteel textures. The first and fourth movements, though, aspire to something more, something extraordinary, and they attain it too. Adkins’ embeds more ‘grit’, harder-edged timbres here, a fluid admixture of pitch and noise, greatly intensifying its power. There’s the sense of a space being densely filled to capacity, in the process ‘clipping’ at the boundaries but with no sense of distortion. The vast climaxes reached in these movements are overwhelming, the fiddle sometimes only glimpsed amidst their searing, coruscating textures as a piercing overtone soaring high above. Some of the most ecstatic music I’ve ever heard, and easily among Adkins’ finest work.
Afterwards, cellist Arne Deforce teamed up with Pan Sonic’s Mika Vainio for a live rendition of their new 50-minute cycle Hephaestus (released on CD earlier this year on Editions Mego). It’s a work that breathes very much more fire live than in the recording. The duo occupied different worlds; in the acoustic realm, Deforce passionately exploring his cello, his material and his demeanour ablaze; in the opposite realm, Vainio emotionless, expressionless even, stoicly fixed on his battery of devices. Together, the result was breathtakingly emotive, emerging from a blank sine tone into a world of unflinching ferocity, Deforce hardly leaving a square inch of his cello unexplored with bow or hands. An especially effective episode began in (well, strictly beyond) the instrument’s most stratospheric register, slowly descending through a mass of turbulence to the bottom string, which was then tuned down until it became little more than a flapping piece of material, before tuning up and returning to normal. This was just one of many ways that Hephaestus—the six movements of which segue together without breaks—takes the listener on a series of journeys, inherently logical yet with the omnipresent sense that anything could happen. During its most fiery onslaughts, one felt very small indeed.
This morning, clarinettist Gareth Davis presented the world première of the contrabass clarinet version of Elliott Sharp‘s Sylva Sylvarum. A continuation of the idea that led to his earlier work Foliage (performed by Davis at Bristol New Music in February), Sylva Sylvarum features an ever-changing sequence of images—based on progressive manipulated excerpts of music from Sharp’s previous scores, overlaid on heavily treated satellite video of regions of earth—which forms the basis for Davis’ improvisations. Where Foliage came across as ritualistic, this piece felt very much more impulsive. There was an uncanny sense that Davis and the contrabass clarinet had been joined at the mouthpiece, forming a chimera compelled to find ways to convey itself. And what ways they were! Perhaps the most defining aspect of Davis’ approach to performance is the way no note ever sounds ordinary; multifaceted, always in flux, usually beginning before you’ve realised any sound is present (and ending similarly), and often disguising whether they’re a fundamental or overtone, the result is a constantly shifting, highly organic sense of line that’s entirely determined by the physicalities of the instrument itself. Davis’ use of register is always striking; hearing such a deep instrument regularly soaring to incredible heights—and singing, not squeaking—is as disorienting as it is impressive. Breath and percussive sounds are also fundamental to his palette, which in this context only added to the organic nature of the language uttered by the Davis-clarinet hybrid creature. Flapping keys and ululating pitches eventually coalesced toward the end into a strange analogue of an ondes martenot, quavering back into the silence and blackness from which it emerged. Having sought to communicate for 40 minutes, one could only empathise with the chimera’s final gasp of exhaustion. Incredible music-making.