There’s not a lot left to say about HCMF 2021. In previous instalments i mentioned how continuity, often in tandem with lyricism, played a major role in the music that made the deepest and most long-lasting impression. But from a listening perspective, every piece in every concert at this year’s festival was also informed by the context in which it was being heard. The world is still very much coming to terms and continuing to grapple with the (literally) mutating ramifications and effects of Covid-19, and as a consequence HCMF was shortened from ten days to just five, attendance was reduced with social distancing applied to seating, and masks were worn by audiences. Nonetheless, both for myself and for many of those i talked with during the festival, there was a huge sense of delighted relief at finally being able to return to an admittedly slimmed-down semblance of normality.
One work in particular didn’t merely tap into this emotionally-charged social context but emerged as a direct consequence of it. i haven’t saved writing about this piece until last just because of that; it was far and away the absolute best thing i heard at HCMF 2021 – one of the most brilliant pieces i’ve ever heard, in fact – which would be reason enough to give it some extra attention. But to hear music composed during, fuelled by, permeated with, and speaking to (and beyond) the immense difficulties and emotional lows and highs triggered by the pandemic made it a singular, uniquely powerful experience.
On Friday evening, Ensemble Musikfabrik gave the UK première of Enno Poppe‘s Prozession, conducted by the composer. It’s a piece that Poppe began, and abandoned, several years ago, returning to it during lockdown and subsequently finding it expanding far beyond what he had originally envisaged. Its final form is a 50-minute extravaganza for large ensemble, driven along by four separate percussionists whose role is central to hearing the piece, as its title suggests, as a procession.
i’m going to resist temptation and restrain myself from writing about the piece at great length. Partly because i’m not sure at this stage that words (my words, anyway) will do it justice, partly because i need more time to absorb and digest the experience of the piece, and partly because it really needs to be heard more than read about (which you can do here).
If the heart of the piece is a procession, at the core of that heart is melody. It does a lot of things, but what Prozession does most – practically all the way through – is sing. It begins in the most miniscule way: tiny strands of potential lyricism, like crazy plants spiralling out tendrils in response to light raindrop-like percussion taps. Even now, in such a nascent state, it’s stunningly lovely, hearing this mere idea of line inexorably pushing outward and upward. It finds confidence, swagger, then fragments and is passed around from player to player, all the time becoming stronger and more demonstrative. Eventually the percussion, hitherto heard as a separate entity, becomes integrated into the song, which then subdivides to form parallel strands. Whereupon the music appears to be restarting, in a slightly different guise, but pushing forward with more energy and heft than before. These opening minutes illustrate not only the work’s unstoppable instinct and necessity for song, but the flexibility of its firmament, built upon notions of momentum and continuity that don’t simply withstand but thrive upon, even depend upon, the stretching and releasing, agitating and easing of tension at a fundamental level.
As i indicated above, to me the procession at the heart of the piece communicated directly to the times through which we’ve lived and are continuing to live through. From one perspective, it’s a cortege: like an avant-jazz funeral or a Day of the Dead ceremonial, an immense, abject, flamboyant keening in utter extremis. Yet also, equally, it projects the opposite: an elastic, infinite, unfathomable joy, soaring to impassioned heights, articulated with ever more absurdly overblown levels of ardour, almost as if the sheer effort, the aspiration to elation, will make it happen.
Or perhaps it’s not two perspectives but one, and the reason why these opposites mingled so effortlessly, resulting not in an oscillating emotional state but a synthesis of both states, is that they’re part of a single, complex sonic coping mechanism, balancing, challenging and responding to each other in an organic, all too relatable push-pull bespeaking dual honesties: one channelling fragility, agony and despair, the other courage, determination and hope.
To hear these opposite yet complementary emotional responses ringing out, flooding every iota of space in St Paul’s Hall (with the exception of Zbigniew Karkowski‘s Encumbrance, surely the loudest music i’ve ever heard there), was hugely moving. It brought to mind one of my favourite poems, by E. E. Cummings, that begins “now does our world descend / the path to nothingness”, and proceeds to describe a desperate litany of downfall and doom. The closing two stanzas, in particular, seem to be encapsulated in Poppe’s music:
where climbing was and bright
is darkness and to fall
(now wrong’s the only right
since brave are cowards all)
therefore despair,my heart
and die into the dirt
but from this endless end
of briefer each our bliss—
where seeing eyes go blind
(where lips forget to kiss)
where everything’s nothing
—arise,my soul;and sing
Prozession encompasses not just extremes but excesses. It screams, it whispers – never posturing, never showboating, never doing anything for the sake of it, never afraid to blaze and saturate or collapse and turn blank – but above all, it sings. i’ve never heard anything like it; i’m not honestly sure that’s even possible.
Ensemble Musikfabrik performed the piece as if this was the last music they would ever play, sometimes looking lost in its sombre darkness, other times incredulous that they were actually making the sounds coming out of their instruments. This was the very definition of contemporary music: completely and utterly of our time – and yet like all the greatest music, its song has just as much meaning for all time, past and future.