CBSO Centre, Birmingham: BCMG – Murmurs

by 5:4

Since the appointment of Stephan Meier as artistic director in 2016, it’s been good to see Birmingham Contemporary Music Group starting to move beyond the relative safety that typified its mainstream-centric vision in preceding years. The group’s most recent concert, last Thursday, featured two British works alongside music by composers from Asia. However, far from being yet another example of ‘east meets west’ (a staple contemporary music cliché), on this occasion the two didn’t so much ‘meet’ as east tried to sound a bit like west, while west remained essentially indifferent to any and all notions of geography.

Not that South Korean Donghoon Shin, BCMG’s current Apprentice Composer in Residence, should in any way be deliberately aiming to make his music sound archetypally ‘eastern’, but it was interesting how much of his new work for sheng and ensemble, Anecdote, seemed actively to be avoiding it. The second of its three movements was the kind of anonymous, generic, crash-bang romp that could have been written by pretty much any average UK mainstream composer, though the presence of the sheng – performed, as ever on such occasions, by Wu Wei – did at least detract from its otherwise overfamiliar gestural palette. The piece was more engaging in its outer movements; the opening, in particular, was seriously lovely, full of delicate colours, while the final movement utilised the sheng best of all by blending it properly with the rest of the ensemble, integrating to articulate a slow, solemn music that, at its close, became beguilingly ghostly.

Chinese composer Jia Guoping‘s The Wind Sounds in the Sky dates from 2011, a chamber piece for sheng, cello and percussion. Initially caught up in a communal tumult full of exuberance, the music soon turned inward, where it essentially remained for the rest of its relatively short duration. Though tinged by occasionally rigid, commonplace ideas, much of the piece thereafter occupied a world that was altogether more drifting and unpredictable. Its primary impulse was lyrical, the sheng and Ulrich Heinen’s cello usually acting as twin facets of the same voice, embellished and decorated by the percussion. Though essentially equals in their duet, Wu Wei’s playing here was fabulous, careering and soaring his way through Guoping’s virtuosic writing, which often proved surprisingly moving.

The rest of the programme consisted of two substantial works by Rebecca Saunders. Composed in 1995, CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 is one of her earliest compositions, and one of a number that have drawn inspiration from the soliloquy delivered by Molly Bloom at the close of James Joyce’s Ulysses. When writing last year about one of these related pieces, Molly’s Song 3 – shades of crimson, i noted how it was “enormously bizarre, its collection of non-sequiturs making for a disconcerting and disorienting listen”. CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 isn’t quite as disorienting, though its capacity to unsettle is considerable. Less so in the work’s first half, polarised into violins banging away on and around the same pitch while double bass, bass clarinet and trombone growl and grumble in impossible depths. Elsewhere a cluster of metronomes chatter from the shadows, and a rattle clicks with agonising slowness. The music is somehow caught in a weird kind of stability while at the same time sounding utterly inscrutable. A rude barrage of whistles from all present acts to cancel everything out, the music beginning again in a halting manner, polarised as before but now seemingly incensed.

It’s a deeply strange opening for a work, and it wasn’t helped on this occasion by a stilted delivery from BCMG, despite the fluid motions of conductor Julien Leroy. It sounded unnatural, even existential: the impression of a group of players very obviously playing notes they had carefully learnt. Thankfully, in the latter half of the piece they were far more transparent, vividly articulating the work’s as-if-from-nowhere bursts of beauty and energy, leading to a supremely uncanny and feverish epilogue, accompanied by a collection of music boxes and culminating in an unexpected, loud tutti whisper: “Ye-e-e-e-ss!” At the time, it seemed to me that choosing to start the evening with CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 was a pretty bold move, but on reflection i wonder whether it could realistically be placed anywhere else: partway through would surely derail the entire concert, while putting it at the end might well send everyone home completely terrified.

The concert actually ended rather more calmly with Saunders’ 2009 work murmurs (see my previous article for an in-depth exploration of this piece). The decision of how to disperse the players throughout the space of the CBSO Centre was a strange one, considerably at odds with the layout specified by Saunders in the score. It was in some respects self-defeating: one of the work’s two duos, comprising viola and cello, was from my position (near the front of the stage) all but inaudible, and while distance is an important factor in the way murmurs explores how sounds can be both separate and connected, individual and part of a larger body, it nonetheless looked rather odd seeing oboist Philip Haworth all by himself on one of the upper levels. In spite of these logistic snafus, it was impossible not to be enthralled by the music’s complex inner mechanics. Its behavioural steady state continually pulls one’s focus between attention on solos, pairs and larger groupings, at the same time causing one to question whether sonic events are, in fact, connected – and, beyond that, how one even defines the meaning of ‘connection’. This was greatly enhanced by the members of BCMG often appearing totally engrossed in their music to the exclusion of all else, especially violinist Philip Brett, getting carried away in elaborate solos apparently played to himself, and percussionist Julian Warburton who, once he got started bowing on a large singing bowl, seemed to lose all contact with the rest of the world.

What’s so remarkable about murmurs is that, in a very real sense, it’s far more disorienting than what we heard in CRIMSON – Molly’s Song 1 at the start of the concert. It didn’t bear any resemblance to anything else we had heard during the evening, and so came across as a kind of ‘metamusic’, transporting us to another realm where musical definitions are entirely different. Yet for all it’s ‘otherness’ the piece is approachable, engaging and immersive, all the time reforming in a way that in the short term is ever-new, yet in the long-term is essentially the same. Though one wouldn’t have minded the performance stretching into infinity (which is what murmurs seemingly wants to do), the ending was truly mesmeric, muffled bass drum strikes resembling unfathomably deep pizzicato notes, before the music fizzled out and died on a lone violin. Stunning.

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