Consider some of the qualities we might associate with the classical notion of holiness: vulnerable but resolute; at odds with easy, quick and cheap enticements in favour of a focus on that which is intangible and transcendent; superficially boring or stupid or quaint yet holding and exhibiting an absolute, unshakeable faith in its convictions. In many ways this is a fitting description of Magnus Granberg‘s How Vain Are All Our Frail Delights?, the first of two world premières given by Ensemble Grizzana on the final day of HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. The fact that we were hearing the piece on a Sunday, and in a former church, only added to the sensation. Both works on the programme were based on a pair of pieces of Renaissance music, Déploration sur la mort de Binchois by Johannes Ockeghem and William Byrd’s Oh Lord How Vain. While the material from those pieces wasn’t directly audible in Granberg’s music, one couldn’t help feeling that what we were hearing was, in roughly equal parts, a distillation, a suspension and an explosion of them. Occupying an archetypal steady state, the music emerged (following a lengthy, centering, silence) via a quiet stream of individual sustained sounds, forming a loose-weave texture seemingly encrusted with both jewels and detritus. While it would be true to say that the work was strikingly, stunningly beautiful – easily among the most lovely things i’ve heard at this year’s festival – yet that same beauty (which, it should be stressed, was sometimes far from obvious) is arguably an incidental, happy coincidence, rather than being the thing that defines it. Though exploded in terms of the separation of the instruments and their ideas, the steady state behaviour unified these individual musical actions, making the work’s constituent sounds seem like an analogue for quantum fluctuations, ephemeral particles appearing from nothing, floating in space for a time before vanishing.
Jürg Frey‘s response to the Byrd and Ockegham, Late Silence, was no less oblique, though flatter by contrast, initially concerned more with monophonic, sequential fragments of ideas. Also in contrast to Granberg was the way Frey set up these fragments into distinct episodes, later developing from the flat opening into a warm space of chords with the additional sound of stone rubbing against stone. This had an interesting phenomenological effect, at first sounding like a background element but increasingly acting to mask and/or obfuscate the clarity of the chords. Whereupon it, too, exploded, notes widely-spaced but sounding connected, the combined effect resembling the sinews of a muscle, the physical movement of which played out in ultra slow motion. It may have lacked the numinous quality of Granberg’s piece, but nonetheless spoke with a Pärt-like simplicity that was rather touching.
It’s worth noting that both of these new works were commissioned by Another Timbre‘s Simon Reynell. It’s incredibly rare ever to see a work of new music being commissioned by an individual; more often than not they’re clearly an enterprise where numerous bodies have clubbed together for a whip-round (suggesting that either composers are fabulously well-paid, or that each body contributes a relatively stingy amount). Perhaps it’s naive, but for a long time i’ve found it downright baffling that individual people of means don’t commission works like this more often. Whatever the reasons for this reticence may be, major kudos and congratulations to Reynell for bringing these pieces to fruition: considering the impression they both made, he must be deservedly delighted.
And with that, my time at HCMF 2017 came to a somewhat blissed-out conclusion. As a fortieth year celebration, i found this year’s festival to be more varied and ultimately more enjoyable than those of recent years (and that’s some pretty stiff competition), once again embracing extremes – Ensemble Grizzana at one end, GGR Betong at the other – and presenting a range of music that can’t be even remotely matched by any other UK festival. In addition to the concerts, there were some excellent complementary talks, of which i would single out Thursday’s discussion posing “Why is gender still an issue in music?” It’s not just a good question, it’s a vital one, and while the stats for HCMF 2017 reveal that there’s still some way to go – of the music performed, approximately 35% of it was by women (30% in terms of their duration) – festival artistic director Graham McKenzie announced at the talk that by 2022 there will be gender parity at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. An example that one can only hope will be swiftly replicated throughout the rest of the world of new music.