Cheltenham Music Festival 2016: Ritual in Transfigured Time, Ukes and Moogs

by 5:4
7 minutes read

For new music at the Cheltenham Music Festival, the key phrase yesterday was “transfigured time”. Time in the sense of history, as two of the concerts directly explored, confronted, embraced and challenged contemporary music’s relationship with instruments, images and idioms from the past. The afternoon event at Parabola Arts Centre featured the Goldfield Ensemble and Langham Research Centre in a concert that unfolded as a long-form electroacoustic audiovisual meditation on these ideas. The conjunction of sound and sight often proved problematic; Arlene Sierra‘s music, receiving its first performance, written to accompany Russian avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren‘s 1946 silent Ritual in Transfigured Time (from which the concert took its title) rather optimistically opted for a bald, minimalistic collection of recurring gestures and motifs that established an aural unity jarringly at odds with the film’s bold tilt-shifts and narrative evasiveness. Deren’s visual language is admittedly gestural in this work to some extent, but its palette of actions and contexts, combined with their allusive distance–not to mention her insistence that form should be ritualistic—is broader and more demonstrative than the rooted and increasingly monotonous music Sierra provided for it. Even more problematic was the presentation of Edgard Varèse‘s 1958 masterpiece Poème électronique which recreated the work’s original presentation at the Brussels World Fair (within a pavilion designed principally by Xenakis), where it was accompanied by a film of fleeting images created by Le Corbusier. Despite being, one assumes, as the composer originally intended, it nonetheless works against the music in two respects. First, the visuals simply diminish the prevailing modernity of Varèse’s music, bringing to mind similar audiovisual works involving composers such as Roberto Gerhard and Bernard Parmegiani, where the film element fails to live up to the scope of the music. That was the case here, and secondly, rather than coming across as a ‘period piece’, Poème électronique instead seemed to acquire an unwarranted hauntological quality, as though it had been executed by Demdike Stare or Ghost Box, curiously militating against the music’s authenticity.

Somewhere in between these difficulties came Langham Research Centre’s Muffled Cyphers. On the one hand, they pushed the envelope on ersatz hauntology to breaking point, with accompanying visuals depicting archaic grayscale generalisations of carparks, corridors and concrete, which could have been lifted from any vintage textbook or government report. Largely devoid of human presence, while these images lacked an obvious or interesting object, they all depicted signs of human construction, which in turn fed back into the actions of the pair of musicians, striking a delicately-balanced emotional temperature. They couldn’t always overcome the aesthetic issues they had deliberately raised for themselves (and on several occasions one couldn’t help feeling that Matmos have done this better and to perhaps a more aesthetically honest effect), but the work’s penultimate episode, where slowed down bells and gongs were found within a gooey sonic syrup while a photo of a road-bend blurred into oblivion, was exquisitely beautiful. Tristan Murail‘s short duet for clarinet and violin Les Ruines Circulaire set up an environment where focus and a united sense of purpose only gradually materialise, the players initially taking turns to ignore each other, until eventually falling over themselves in a joint cascade of overlapping arpeggios, before collapsing into a wretched sequence of ruins yet always retaining a lyrical heart (brilliantly nuanced by Nicola Goldscheider and Kate Romano). Ricercare una Melodia by Jonathan Harvey, composed in 1985, above all reminded one how long it’s been that composers have been using electronics to respond to acoustic instruments, and how challenging it is to come up with genuinely successful results, as Harvey does. Here, Romano’s clarinet seemed to be releasing more and more tendrils of melody around her, communing a language of electroacoustic interaction that was complex in nature but simple in syntax.

Leaps and bounds beyond all of these, though, was the world première of Singularity by Kathy Hinde. The marriage of music and film here attained perfection in terms of both aesthetic continuity and elegance. Norwegian artist Solveig Settemsdal‘s visuals were utterly mesmerising and impossible to resolve, featuring a large globular agglomeration of some kind of matter–liquid or fabric or feathers or something–that pulsed, shivered, hovered, struggled, and evolved, like a glutinous, biological and altogether more placid version of Alex Rutterford’s Gantz Graf. Hinde’s music was similarly amorphous and behaviourally limited, forming a vaporous texture of shifting densities (including delightful intrusions from the bowed and tickled innards of toy pianos), ethereal, ephemeral, excruciatingly wonderful, like a cross between high ambient and a tantric orgasm. Those wanting a taste can experience it in various locations in the coming months.

The evening, in Cheltenham Town Hall, brought together the unlikely combination of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain with the Will Gregory Moog Ensemble. i’m not sure i’m particularly qualified to discuss at length the Ukes, although the quality of their playing, their humour and their arrangements (drawing on Prince, Bowie, Kraftwerk and Morricone among many others) was jaw-droppingly brilliant throughout. As for the Moogs, they consolidated their appearance at Cheltenham two years ago with a 75-minute set that explored some similar themes to the afternoon concert. Their primary aim, of course, is to celebrate the work of synth pioneer Wendy Carlos, and pieces from her two Switched-On Bach albums have become staples of the ensemble’s repertoire, particularly the Third Brandenburg Concerto, which they once again played in its entirety. This throws up interesting considerations: the ensemble interpret and reinvent Carlos, who in turn interpreted and reinvented Bach; is it Bach being performed? or Carlos? or both? The question became moot in the second movement, which Bach left completely blank save for a pair of chords providing the basis for a cadenza; Carlos responded in 1968 with a three-minute leftfield firework display, while the Moog Ensemble dived deep into Radiophonic territory, joyfully arriving at a kind of soundworld where Bach and Delia Derbyshire might well have been one and the same person. Their rendition of Carlos’ A Clockwork Orange score was similarly imaginative, weaving a recording of Antony Burgess reading the opening chapter of his book through the Purcell and Beethoven movements. John Carpenter‘s music from Escape from New York was reprised again, as was (not, if i recall correctly, the entirety of) The Service of Tim Henman, a piece that entertained two years ago but now feels a bit like a gag drawn out for far too long, its music all momentum but no meaningful material. Despite this, the latter was something of a welcome exception in a concert the majority of which was essentially a nostalgic looking-back at the past through somewhat rose-tinted oscillators. Even more welcome–and very much more successful–was Graham Fitkin‘s Swell, channelling irregular metres and an electric piano vibe through a dreamy, surging nocturne that could accompany any number of ’80s gratuitous movie sex scenes. Time here was not so much transfigured as transcended.

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