HCMF 2018: Ensemble Musikfabrik, Christian Marclay: Investigations

by 5:4

It’s not unusual, considering HCMF’s openness to stepping outside the bounds of convention, for a new work at the festival to have to overcome how extraordinary it is. That was certainly the case in Huddersfield Town Hall yesterday afternoon, where Christian Marclay‘s Investigations received its world première. It wasn’t just that the piece had been hyped up beforehand, but the more simple fact that it’s not every day you get to see twenty pianos – two grands, 12 baby grands and six uprights – used in a composition. Even before the music had started, and for some time after, one had to overcome the mere spectacle of it. This very evidently could be felt among the audience, who took some time to progress from marvelling at the number of pianos and laughing at the unusual antics of the pianists, to settling down and starting to engage more meaningfully with the music.

The piece uses 100 photos of pianists in the act of performing as its ‘score’; this set of images is given to each of the twenty pianists who then need to interpret the photos and notate below the image their rendition of what’s happening. These 100 pages of ‘score’ are played through by each pianist independently; obviously, this allows for considerable variation in the work’s duration, and on this occasion it lasted around 50 minutes.

Marclay could hardly have titled the work better. From the outset it was clear that this was a lot more than just the sum of each individual pianists’ investigations (though it was that), being a much broader experiment investigating, among other things, the fundamental music-making progression from interpretation (of the score) to reproduction (performing it) to accumulation (combining with others). This last aspect was the most unexpected; while each pianist articulated their material independently, they nonetheless were intimately involved in each others’ performances, since a great many of the interpretations required two or more pianists in order to execute them. Regardless whether one focused on individual players or widened the scope to listen to assorted sub-groups or everyone, Investigations exposed the way that any creative act can be regarded as an agglomeration of small details, combining and coalescing to form larger shapes and structures. The primary way the piece did this was by being both an atomisation, constructed from a total of 2,000 individually perceptible musical moments (20 players x 100 images), and a distillation, each pianist seeking to present the essence of what is captured in each image – resulting in an overall emphasis on gesture as the fundamental musical building-block. (If a journey of a 1,000 miles begins with a single step, perhaps a composition of 2,000 ideas starts with a single gesture.) That’s not especially new or revelatory, of course, but the particular way it was teased out and manifested in Investigations was fascinating, reinforced further by the way the material petered out as each pianist finished, throwing yet more emphasis on the importance of each and every gesture.

Yesterday began in St Paul’s Hall with a second concert by Ensemble Musikfabrik, once again exploring the music of Rebecca Saunders. One of the two pieces played was her 2016 work for two bass clarinets aether, performed by Richard Haynes and Carl Rosman. As usual with Saunders’ music the title (and its numerous connotations) tells us everything we need to know. A quality of ethereality permeates much of the music, moving freely between poles of pitch and noise but most often residing somewhere in between. There are echoes of James Dillon’s Traumwerk (reviewed yesterday) in the way the two clarinets are so fundamentally connected and aligned. Rather fascinatingly, here they gave the impression of becoming a kind of twin barometer for something that was already present and happening (in the aether?). As such, they acted as vessels through which it could be channelled rather than being the direct source themselves. Whatever it was that emerged through them exhibited a palpable tightness, rendering the softer, gentler material (which dominates the piece) as wonderfully delicate, tremulous filigree, semi-obscured by noise and shadow. But even during aether‘s bursts of ferocity, Haynes and Rosman never truly let rip, that same tightness keeping a limit on the extent of their dynamic range. The cumulative effect of the music’s ebb and flow – like the slow breathing of the universe – was dreamy, even soporific; it’s perhaps not too fanciful to say there was a lullaby-like quality to its long stretches of aspirated emergent pitches, the two players gently jarring and impinging against each other producing beats so gentle they came to resemble purrs. In the most understated way imaginable, aether felt connected to the infinite.

And then there was dust. There are times when words dare not approach music. Percussionist Dirk Rothbrust’s performance of this piece was one of the most overwhelming musical experiences of my life. To call it magical is more than just hyperbole: Rothbrust’s percussion setup was like a small-scale temple or sacred space containing the accoutrements needed for his spellcasting. In a similar way to Takemitsu’s Seasons (a work to which dust perhaps owes a debt), Rothbrust was slow, methodical, meticulous, beginning with an introductory incantation performed on a singing bowl with snare drum sympathetic resonance before eliciting sparks from a collection of bells, chimes, coils and metal sheets. Everything became heightened, uncanny, numinous; the air inside the hall tensed, seemingly pulled taut. As Rothbrust’s actions grew in complexity, Saunders’ music expanded into a large-scale ritual where high and low, short and long sounds collided, a lengthy bass drum solo (rubbed, stroked and struck, a series of wooden balls dancing across its surface) answered by a clangorous metallic uproar, given an almost literal voice from a quartet of long, thin suspended shards that loudly sang out over the intense bursts of clatter going around them. It ended as it began, Rothbrust exiting the place of his magic-making with a wild flourish on two large triangles (leaving them spinning wildly) to return to the singing bowls, ending dust with soft drones coated in more sympathetic snare glitter.

These words hint at but ultimately don’t even come close to capturing the reality of the atmosphere, the feelings and the entire experience generated by Rothbrust’s incredible rendition of Saunders’ incredible music. There really are no words.

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Sparky P.

And BBC3 will be having some highlights on Hear ‘n’ Now, including at least James Dillon’s 9th String Quartet on 12/8 (maybe they’ll also broadcast no.8 (as there are only two works scheduled on that date)).

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