HCMF 2017: Explore Ensemble, Polwechsel + John Butcher + Klaus Lang, Thomas Lehn

by 5:4

One of last year’s exciting new discoveries at HCMF was the London-based Explore Ensemble, whose performance of Gérard Grisey’s Talea on ‘shorts’ day was easily among its most memorable events. Fittingly, this year Explore was invited back to give a full concert, which only reinforced that first impression from 2016. The same wasn’t true for all of the music they played: new music today has a lot of what might be called ‘eggshell music’, where there’s a pervasive sense that any moment, if one player was to articulate a note just too loudly or obtrusively, the entire piece would instantly crumble to nothing. It’s as tricky to achieve for composers as performers, and in the case of Steven Daverson‘s Elusive Tangibility II: Firelife, the results were far too ephemeral to amount to anything. In La sabbia del tempo, Fausto Romitelli injected his delicate soundworld with interesting bands of harmonic colour though, again, the long-term effect kept one at a bemused distance. The other two works in the programme were much more triumphant, and in some respects one sounded like an iteration of each other. Enno Poppe‘s Gelöschte Lieder was a whirlwind of mid-to-high register masses of details, rigorous, insistent and piercing. There were so many details, in fact, that at times it felt hard to penetrate, like trying to hack through a dense portion of jungle. Explore Ensemble’s capacity to shake the world was demonstrated in the work’s climax: massively overblown (literally and figuratively), hugely energetic, as if each successive phrase were trying to outdo the previous one. On the one hand there was something baffling about it – it didn’t seem to be a logical consequence of or a challenging contrast to what had come before – yet the conviction of the players made the question seem entirely moot. In the world première of Tracer la lune d’un doigt – a piece ‘interpreting’ existing repertoire, in this case an Adagio by J. S. Bach, though it was tempting to imagine that Poppe’s work could almost have been its source material – Patricia Alessandrini created not so much material as a diaphanous mist shrouding material contained within; or, alternatively, it was like trying to make out the details of something blindingly bright, caught in only brief, heavily filtered glimpses. Avoiding low registers, this was music as if carried on the wind from far away, a mix of events, distortions and resonance forming an evocative and allusive soup. It was ‘eggshell music’ at its liminal best: frangible and insubstantial, and in its articulation of the Bach coming across as a celebration of what remained (though precious little), rather than yet another hackneyed statement about loss, absence and decay. One of the most beautiful things i’ve heard at HCMF this year, and further proof positive that Explore Ensemble are just as indefatigably outstanding as we all suspected last year. The music didn’t always impress, but they always did.

In the evening, back in St Paul’s Hall, Austrian group Polwechsel teamed up with saxophonist John Butcher and composer/organist Klaus Lang for music-making that fell somewhere between composition and improvisation. The former was evident in the fact that five composition titles were listed in the programme, and the entire performance was to some extent being managed from a laptop at the front, like a proxy conductor to which the players continually referred. The latter was evident both in the four improvisations also listed in the programme, interpolated between the compositions, but most in the way that the entire performance unfolded, without clear divisions or obvious beginnings and endings, resulting in an hour-long concert that could conceivably have been a single, large-scale, semi-composed work falling into a somewhat indeterminate number of sections. Positioned at the start and end of the concert, Klaus Lang’s a and d (subtitled triptychon for organ) were easy to identify harmonic ‘squabbles’, the former between I, ♭II and IV, the latter between I, V and ♭VI, in both cases with the other notes sounding like collateral damage, colouring the massive full organ sound with churning inner grit and noise. As for the rest, the performance moved between clearly worked-out behaviours, timbres, colours and structures. Shutting my eyes, it was often impossible to parse the sounds and textures and work out who was doing what. One example (where, ultimately, i cheated and looked): soft bass drum rolls on the left, drum swishes on the right, slow double bass grindings and breathy sax flutterings (the organ might have been doing something, i couldn’t tell); it may seem strange when broken down like this, but heard together they formed a genuinely unearthly, unfathomable, complex integrated timbre. This was the most fundamental aspect to their performance, which was engrossing from start to end.

Having wowed us on Tuesday with Gęba Vocal Ensemble, Thomas Lehn had the stage to himself in Bates Mill Photographic Studio, performing a live version of Bogusław Schaeffer‘s 1964 Symphony. Electronic music from this period is always fascinating in the way material sounds so ephemeral, as though kept alive on a wing and a reverb prayer. If anything, early electronic music seems to emphasise most the silence (or tape hiss) from which it emerges and which constantly threatens to swallow it up again. This emphasis was evident in Lehn’s performance of the work, his energy being directed as much into keeping sounds going than into shaping and directing them. It’s a lovely piece, with a strong connection to conventional symphonic structure. Of its four movements, the first and last were more kaleidoscopic, exhibiting a Webernesque gestural coherence, each short idea leading to the next (at times, even sounding akin to klangfarbenmelodie); the last movement had a distinct ‘finale’ flavour, its shifting soundworld even more rapid. In between there was an obvious ‘slow movement’ adopting a contemplative tone, with occasional blurts here and there but overall focusing on sustained tones and ideas, while the third movement was the one where this omnipresent lurking silence felt most potent, leading to a lovely atmosphere of fragility.

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