Harrison Birtwistle – Double Hocket

by 5:4

Brevity may well be the soul of wit, but the challenges it raises from the perspective of the listener can be considerable. Everything becomes ultra-compact: no sooner has an idea been presented then we’re on to another – or, more usually in this context, a different facet of the existing one – with little or no time to join the dots and reflect. Regardless of the music’s actual momentum, it can sound like a sprint, the work’s double barline already in view as the piece begins, and we can feel forced to race to keep up. That’s particularly true, i think, of the next work in my Lent Series focusing on miniatures, Harrison Birtwistle’s Double Hocket for piano trio, composed ten years ago in 2007. One can only imagine that hearing this in a concert – or, more specifically, hearing it just once (not that there’s any excuse for that, considering its length) – might well prove somewhat unrewarding, an aural equivalent of being vigorously prodded with knitting needles for two minutes. However, there’s an interesting little drama taking place within the Double Hocket, though if you’re not careful it might take your eye out. 

The work’s basic modus operandi is a context of razor-sharp staccato notes fired back and forth between the players, not unlike a devilish game of tennis played with a piece of burning brimstone. But among these painfully brusque points of sound – so short they’re almost robbed of meaningful pitch content – Birtwistle places almost laughably tenuous suggestions of, well let’s not call it melody exactly, at this stage the most one can say about them is that they’re merely ‘non-staccato’: in the strings, scurrying ideas, snippets of line; in the piano, sustained pitches. Yet throughout the work’s two minutes these seeds of something other have an effect. Not really until the halfway point, admittedly, when the violin comes into the foreground with a brief flash of melody that’s followed by an almost angry (triumphant?) tremolando. But now things are subtly different: a softer playfulness in the strings becomes evident, sitting alongside the piano’s ongoing determined gruffness. Even this, though, finally alters: like a grumpy curmudgeon reluctantly deciding to relent just a smidge, the piano switches to sustained, albeit sharply dissonant, chords, at the end discovering there’s more to life than fortissimo. The violin’s closing glimmer of melody is more exhausted than elated, but things aren’t what they were. Perhaps they’ve changed more than we realise.

It’s pieces like this that make me love the miniature form so much. A tightly-packed sliver of simple narrative that, with each listening, yields a little more about its machinations and character. This performance took place at the CBSO Centre in March 2012, given by members of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group. (It was, unfortunately, played just once.)

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