HCMF 2018: Sciarrino: Carnaval, hcmf// mixtape

by 5:4

The last couple of years have been good for one of the UK’s most impressive new music groups, Explore Ensemble. Two years ago, i first heard them at HCMF on ‘Shorts’ day, giving a gripping account of Gérard Grisey‘s Talea, and they returned to the festival last year to give a full-scale concert including ambitious music by Enno Poppe and Patricia Alessandrini. Last night, Explore returned to HCMF for the third time, teaming up with EXAUDI vocal ensemble and conductor James Weeks for a performance of Salvatore Sciarrino‘s vocal cycle Carnaval. At this rate goodness only knows what they’ll end up doing next year.

When i’ve written previously about Sciarrino’s vocal works, such as the 12 Madrigali at the 2017 Louth Contemporary Music Festival and (much more briefly) the Responsorio delle Tenebre in my 2012 Lent series, it’s been impossible not to address his very particular approach to writing for voices. Specifically, his unique kind of halting delivery, articulating the text as brisk, tiny utterances that seem to be dragged down by their own weight the moment they emerge from the singers’ mouths, somewhere between a moan and a sigh. It’s an approach that, on first hearing, can seem extremely mannered or even stylised, but the more one spends time with it, acclimatising to it, the more one realises that this is not an affectation but the basic vernacular or dialect of Sciarrino’s vocal language in these pieces.

In Carnaval, Sciarrino sets a sequence of pithy lines of verse, in Italian but drawing on Chinese texts, that convey their meaning much in the same way as a haiku: “Like water that springs from the rocks. And here is the cry from the rocks. And here is our hero bird.” These form the basis for a 12-part work comprising 11 short ‘songs’ and an instrumental interlude lasting around an hour. However, that clear structural description is complicated by the fact that the words and phrases from each song are repeated, overlap and reflect each other. There’s the sense that they’re the product of meditation on a limited number of thoughts and concepts that are being (re)iterated in different permutations. This finds a parallel in the music Sciarrino clothes them in: that same, familiar vocal technique accompanied by instrumental material that’s utmost gestural, ephemeral and tremulous, indicating a world shivering or bristling.

Much of the time, in keeping with the quality of the text, Sciarrino makes each successive song sound like either a variation or even a continuation of the preceding song. The accumulative effect is like a sequence of dream fragments, inhabiting a fragile, fertile imaginary world of poetry and passion, articulated not via a narrative but through a refracted sense of time and reality. The work’s lengthy instrumental interlude was especially fascinating. Only here was the ensemble allowed to wax more lyrically, progressing beyond halting gestures to tremulous chatter until they reformed as a strange carnival procession. Sciarrino persists with this interlude at such length that it becomes weirdly unsettling, threatening to break Carnaval‘s spell – but perhaps because its very weirdness could be interpreted as a symptom of the same time-warped reality, its integrity held, closing with a sung epilogue that didn’t so much bring the dream to an end as usher it into a yet deeper sleep. It was all quite incredible.

Yesterday ended back in Bates Mill Blending Shed for the annual ‘mixtape’ event, a smorgasbord of items broadcast live on BBC Radio 3. In some respects it seemed a more toned-down affair from previous years, though the highlights were as spectacular as ever. In particular, pianist Alexander Hawkins’ performance of Anthony Braxton‘s Composition 69M was beautiful, perfectly matching its light, upper register delicacy with the (unexpected) prepared mid-range ‘gamelan’, together rendered as a whimsical two-part invention. Yet more impressive was a 15-minute improvisation by cellist Okkyung Lee and saxophonist John Butcher. It was one of two occasions during the concert when i didn’t jot down any notes, compelled into inactivity by the irresistible force of the music. The two followed each other so closely that there were numerous times where their instruments melded into a single sonic entity. Likewise, textural and melodic impulses and ideas were similarly blended, and while I’ve often found such close-knit consensus in improvisation to be problematic, here it was literally mesmerising, so much so that its quarter-hour duration, though elating, also felt surprisingly exhausting.

But the highlight – and then some – for me came from the combined forces of three string quartets: the Ardittis, Quatuor Bozzini and the Ligeti Quartet. They were brought together for the world première of Thomas Opalka’s reworking of Julius Eastman‘s 1979 work Evil Nigger. I’ll admit to having been bemused by the hype and bluster that’s accompanied pretty much all performances of and discussion about Eastman’s rediscovered music, largely because I’ve found it to be stunningly boring. But last night’s experience was utterly different. I hesitate to think of this as a Damascene moment as at this stage I don’t know about Thomas Opalka’s involvement in the realisation of the piece. That being said, Evil Nigger ranks among the most immersive and exhilarating music I’ve ever heard at HCMF. Built upon a couple of ideas – a falling motif and a recurring unison refrain – from the outset the music established a disquieting mixture of elegance (even politeness) and anger, eschewing minimalistic tedium in favour of a much more complex, unpredictable and emotionally-engaged process in which the three quartets continually shifted between independence and unity, and between clarity and dense obfuscation. The resulting music, sounding not unlike a kind of concerto grosso, and enhanced by positioning the quartets on three sides of the space, was completely unbelievable: a frantic fog of tremolos where harmony and hue were constantly changing and interpenetrating, where tangibility was abruptly arrived at (usually via the refrain) only to be instantly lost in the ongoing malestrom that made it seem as if Bates Mill contained three separate wildfires, threatening to merge into one almighty conflagration that would consume us all. Except, at the last, Evil Nigger improbably withdrew and shrank to almost nothing, a stunning end that hinted at considerable fragility lurking beneath its seemingly robust, muscular exterior. Amazing.

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Chris L

The running order we were all handed on Saturday night showed clear signs of having been cobbled together in haste. For one thing, the order in which the individual performers chose to play some of the shorter pieces was often strikingly different. For another, the Braxton piece was actually announced as “Composition 69J” (although, admittedly, this may have been a case of Worby himself getting the title wrong). And finally, Evil Nigger would indeed have been a truly jaw-dropping achievement coming from the pen of a nine-year-old in the immediate postwar years…

As regards the instrumentation of the last of these, the Baroque-era analogy is a good one, in that the indeterminacy is both liberating and problematical. Given the drastic downturn Eastman’s fortunes took towards the end of his life, his own four-piano recording may well have fallen short of his original intentions (he’d surely have wanted to edit out those panicked-sound yells of “One, two, three, FOUR!”, ushering in each of the early recurrences of the refrain, if nothing else!). Perhaps Opalka’s conception of the piece is closer to the sounds Eastman heard in his head, perhaps it isn’t; however, one clear difference is the greater dynamic contrast in the three-quartets version, but also arguably a certain loss of aggression and drive because we’re not getting that characteristic piano attack. Also, Eastman’s ending is totally different, and even more of a surprise (indeed, I’ve sometimes wondered whether it really fits with the rest of the piece at all).

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