Yesterday at HCMF was decidedly mixed. Contemporary music-making aiming to be radical, at the cutting edge, obviously involves risk. That risk in turn requires a considerable amount of trust: from commissioners and investors, stumping up the cash; from performers, committing to learn and perfect the material; from concert organisers, providing a platform and technical support; and from audiences, sacrificing money and time to engage with it. That trust was sorely tested in the afternoon concert in Phipps Hall given by Swiss ensemble We Spoke. Not too terribly in H and B by Simon Løffler, works that put so much emphasis on their visual and physical aspects – the former involving tuning forks and a machine with four rotating blades, the latter a system of pedals illuminating three lights in different combinations – that their aural content felt impoverished and vapid by comparison; all very unfortunate, but not particularly uncommon in new music concerts. Fritz Hauser‘s Schraffur was less convincing and musically rich than in its recorded version, which i reviewed early last year; i wonder whether it was seeing the gong-based rhythmic scrapings going on that rendered the effect less impressive and diminished its uncanny long-term potential (the recording, let me stress, is very striking indeed). Yet while these works merely taxed our trust – and this was absolutely no fault of We Spoke, who executed each piece superbly – it was well and truly squandered by Hanna Hartman‘s Shadow Box. Its twelve minutes of cracking open eggs and nuts and punching bags filled with air (i came to empathise with how each bag felt) was less a performance – still less music – than a crime scene in which the Emperor had his entire wardrobe nicked. i don’t think i’ve ever witnessed that trust i spoke of being not merely wasted, but egregiously exploited; if Hartman has any talent at all, precisely none of it was demonstrated in this shamefully vacuous crap. Miraculously, despite all this it was worth attending the concert to experience Cathy van Eck‘s Wings, receiving its UK première. Her work involving performers interacting with loudspeakers is always fascinating, and Wings didn’t disappoint. A ballet involving three large panels slowly being re-positioned around the space, altering the nature, effect and accumulation of feedback generated from microphones around the stage facing a single loudspeaker at the back, was wonderful, effortlessly achieving what every other work in this concert singularly failed to do, creating a perfect, seamless, mesmeric marriage of sight and sound.
In hindsight, i think being sat in the front row in St Paul’s Hall for the evening concert given by the London Sinfonietta inadvertently turned out to have greatly improved the listening experience. It was apparent from the very start that not only were the instruments not particularly well-tuned, but the ensemble’s rhythmic coordination was, to put it mildly, slapdash. It hardly mattered in Colin Matthews‘ Contraflow, a typically Faberian dollop of yesteryawn, all telegraphed structures and ideas outlined in the aural equivalent of black marker pen. But it could well have been the undoing of two of the finest works in the twentieth century canon, Iannis Xenakis‘ Thalleïn and Harrison Birtwistle‘s Silbury Air. From my position at the front, i became completely immersed in their distinct worlds, for the most part oblivious to the issues plaguing the performance and finding them both to be stunningly fresh and new despite being 33 and 40 years old respectively. Thalleïn sounded like a next generation Sacre du Printemps, starting out like a fleshy, flapping organism that organises itself into an huge ritualistic dance, seemingly with the ultimate aim of violently breaking open the earth’s crust. Even its lyrical asides were rudely punctuated with tutti accents sounding here akin to dropping drawers full of cutlery, and the delightfully weird, unbalanced string glissandi at the end – so queasy!, and distantly redolent of Varèse – set the seal on a work that remains so stunningly vital as to be legendary. Though it packs a not dissimilar punch, Silbury Air emphasises primordiality, which the London Sinfonietta (marshalled by Martyn Brabbins) made intimidatingly powerful. From my vantage point, the issues of tuning and timing – though admittedly inexcusable, and rarely witnessed at HCMF – here became assimilated into and sublimated by the work’s pseudo-ancient brutalism, which Birtwistle exacerbates through brief moments of repose that only make the work’s subsequent violence all the more terrifyingly bloodthirsty. The UK première of Hilda Paredes‘ violin concerto Señales concluded the concert, with husband Irvine Arditti as soloist. The landscape it traversed early on was pock-marked and unstable, but what typified the piece was the fantasy world in which it spent most of its time (replete with shimmering harp glissandi, which managed to avoiding sounding like a cliché). However, Paredes kept the work grounded such that this world appeared to be obtruding into our own frame of existence; only in the extended solo cadenza – articulated as a quicksilver blur – did one feel as if Arditti was now truly in, or being heard from, another realm. A remarkable work that encapsulated stunning beauty even when being halted and broken up by rhythmic jolts that threatened to derail it.
Having thus far been an ambivalent experience, the day’s final concert was an unqualified triumph. Swedish noise ensemble GGR Betong took up residence at Bates Mill, exploring a collection of arrangements and recreations. Directed with entertaining but serious panache by Fredric Bergström (whose unique repertoire of pulled shapes I’m never likely to forget), they transformed Pauline Oliveros‘ Bottoms Up into a cascade of molten metal, and even navigated a rondo – yes, a rondo – by Zbigniew Karkowski (Doing By Not Doing); it was remarkable to hear distinct types and shades of noise very clearly demarcating such a familiar structural model. The performance went from good to great to amazing. In response to the graphic score of Ruta Vitkauskaite‘s Kragraga, the ensemble sounded as though they were crudely but playfully moulding enormous chunks of clay, whereas Lasse Marhaug‘s The Great Silence, described beforehand as “the happiest noise piece ever written”, easily ranks among the most euphoric music I’ve ever experienced. Its shifting limitless walls of clamour, overlaid with a quartet of vuvuzelas, were enormously, outrageously beautiful; its effect was like being caught in the pummelling waves of a supernova blast, bathed and irradiated and shredded and destroyed before being pulled into the infinitesimal everything of its subsequent singularity. What an unbelievably joyous way to go.