HCMF 2018: Divertimento Ensemble, Stockhausen: Oktophonie

by 5:4

When writing about United Instruments of Lucilin’s concert last Tuesday i noted how the only thing the four works they played had in common was their complete dissimilarity to each other. Yesterday evening, in St Paul’s Hall, we experienced the opposite: four pieces of Italian music performed by Divertimento Ensemble that, while obviously unique in most important respects, seemed very much to inhabit similar environments, or perhaps even disparate regions of the same soundworld.

A great deal of the material in the concert could be characterised as either timorous or, at the very least, hesitant. In Francesco Filidei‘s Finito ogni gesto, a work commemorating author Edoardo Sanguineti, it was merely a starting point. Soft clicks, breathy pitches, distant resonances, rumbles from somewhere beneath (or beyond) – all of this was enticing enough, but then Filidei introduced something really marvellous: a cello in the guise of a musical saw, articulated (by Martina Rudic) as a terminally unstable melodic entity. It was one of the most lovely openings of anything i’ve heard all week. It was just a starting point, though, a melancholic overture to what became much more aggressive. Filidei set up large, forceful rolling waves of tumult, a sequence of climaxes crowned by popping balloons and a wild growling horn solo. An intense manifestation of grief, perhaps, one that became achingly poignant in the work’s closing moments, reduced to quietude and whistles, solemn drum thuds, and the accented turning of pages. For Francesca Verunelli (whose percussion piece #3987 Magic Mauve had wowed me at HCMF five years ago), gentle hesitancy was the default position for the mechanistic machine that is Cinemaolio. Light and jumpy, never entirely consistent, Verunelli’s machine moved through episodes of varying regularity. At times its fibrillating pulse governed everything, but these were balanced by, if anything, more periods when the pulse didn’t merely weaken but essentially vanished, veering the music into genuinely vague, even nervous territory. Periodic klaxon calls from a bass clarinet acted like a union rep to get everything moving again partway through, and also provided the signal for everything finally to stop.

The latter half of the concert was given over to two works by Salvatore Sciarrino. Archeologia del telefono took hesitation to an extreme, occupied with gestures so brief and halting that they barely seemed able to form anything larger. One could only describe this as potential music, a chorus of morsels, chirps, rude blurts and delicate sighs, sometimes falling into short repetitions. i’m not sure quite why, but there was something resigned about it, as if for the duration of the piece, this was all music could be. Hesitancy became aloofness, even reluctance, in Sciarrino’s Il sogno di Stradella, as though conductor Sandro Gorli deliberately wanted Divertimento Ensemble to play to themselves rather than the audience. Then something weird happened: allusive piano music, emerging like a ghostly presence from the past, seemingly striking the rest of the players dumb, reducing them to wan, drawn-out pitches sounding like the laboured turning of a lathe. When this oblique music passed away, the ensemble retreated even further than they had at the start, turned inward and tremulous. Strange but enchanting.

In the late evening, Karlheinz Stockhausen‘s electronic work Oktophonie was given full-on audiovisual treatment in Bates Mill Blending Shed, with the addition of trombonist Thomas R Moore simultaneously performing Signale zur Invasion – the two pieces both modules from Stockhausen’s Deinstag aus Licht – and an expansive video by Klaas Verpoest stretching across three walls. It was many, many years ago that i first fell in love with Oktophonie, which struck me then and remains for me one of the most beautiful pieces of electronic music ever created. So i’ll admit to feeling anxious about the effect these additional components would have on the piece.

It could hardly have been more effective. Moore, moving briskly around the space like a man on a particularly important mission (surely the only way to play Stockhausen) was assimilated entirely within Oktophonie‘s all-encompassing sonic reach. Verpoest’s visuals were an arresting counterpart, swirling monochrome organic forms, often based on or coalescing around circular shapes, their movements closely matched to the dramatic shape and contours of the sound. Oktophonie is more about overwhelming transfixion than activity. While never truly static, there are long passages where the piece simply radiates (founded upon a number of drones, one can hear in it many of the qualities associated with ambient music, particularly dark ambient), and these were enhanced by the patience exhibited by Verpoest in the movement of his forms, and the long pauses left by Moore between the different episodes of Signale zur Invasion. When Oktophonie activates, the effect is hugely dramatic, Stockhausen injecting enormous quantities of energy into the mix causing the stasis and drift to spin and punch against the walls. It’s hard to put into words just how exhilarating and mesmerising this was in this performance, Verpoest’s video by turns propelling us into the infinity of deep space or shrinking us down to something infinitesimal floating in liquid. It was like hearing Oktophonie again for the first time, heartstoppingly wonderful.

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Chris L

It’s too easy an analogy to draw, of course, but I can’t have been the only person whom that particular combination of sound and image made feel like Dave Bowman tumbling through the stargate at the end of 2001, albeit with a different Darmstadt alumnus at the musical helm. And wasn’t it all so deliciously paced? Several times during its course we were taken to the very outer reaches of monotony (sometimes literally), only to be dealt yet another audiovisual sucker-punch.

Chris S

I saw Filidei less than two weeks ago at a Los Angeles Philharmonic Green Umbrella concert, performing a solo organ work, Lamento, with unpitched air sounds I have never heard from an organ before, and Scelsian massings of sustained tones; it was one of the most interesting things I have heard at a Green Umbrella. (Oddly, I see now that I would have previously heard his Toccata for piano, though I remember it faintly at best.)

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