Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reflections on HCMF 2014

The programme book with beautiful monochromatic painting by Jacqueline Humphries.

It’s odd what one comes to remember. With a situation as inundating as Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival one expects certain listening experiences to sail away into the distance, whilst others have a greater effect; but the level of this disparity in this case is surprisingly large, at least considering my own tired grey-matter. As always there was much to see, and I saw an awful lot—and even that was by no means everything, even half of what was on offer.
Before I say anything else about this festival, one thing ought to be cleared up right away: ticket prices. From those whom I’ve spoken to, insiders, listeners etc., the feeling was on the whole that prices were too high and perhaps have been for some time—too high given the quantity and intensity of available performances; and sometimes too high given the quality of certain performances. It seems likely that the ticket prices reflect a general lowering in the level of funding apportioned to the festival. But noticeable this year was the quantity of foreign funds—Norwegian money in particular this year did quite a fair bit of talking. The Norwegians appear to have more in the way of neuen Musik infrastructure than, say, England—this isn’t really an exaggeration—such that one wonders just how much of an adjunct to physical-resource money (er, fossil-fuel money) contemporary classical-land is. Redirect the flow of funding, or have a change of policy, as the Dutch have recently, and things can dry up overnight.
All of that said, the number of attendees was very considerable. Empty seats were difficult to come by—such that one wonders that concert price architecture may well have been designed to draw a particular demographic in. Additionally, being as I am endowed with relative youth, I could utilise the under-25s ‘cheapskates’ scheme—and I would suggest people who pass for this age give it a go as I was never required to display ID. Suggest but not endorse.


Elsa flanked by spectral violinists. Photo: Brian Slater

But, the music. I want to focus on two dramatic commissions, plus one re-performance. There were other important things I feel I need to mention—perhaps I will get to them in due course.
First, though, this ad hoc trilogy of ‘operas’. Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires and Tim Parkinson’s Time With People. There was an odd continuity, in some ways, between these items—despite great differences of style and approach. All three of these pieces are, or were, eschatological, or post-apocalyptic. They emerged in a space beyond history, or after a moment of great forgetting. They all implied a certain fundamental reconstruction, from first principles. They all included some aspect of, perhaps forcible, restriction. They all depicted individuals who were itinerant, homeless, lost; lost whilst not even realising the full extent of their lostness.
Lohengrin, like so much Sciarrino, is an attempt at one level to build a kind of language, and a failure to say anything at all. Sciarrino speaks in tongues even when he means to speak with neologisms. And not only that, but Sciarrino’s tongues are flat—they waft with great sophistication, they create great (to use Jacques Rivière’s choice descriptor) ‘sauce’—and as Bryn Harrison said to me ‘it’s a world I simply enjoy entering into’.
‘But is there anything there?’ I said.
Bryn paused; but then said, ‘no’.
It is of course unfair to frame it in this nationalistic a way, but Sciarrino’s music is, however one looks at it, deeply Italian. The abundant slow-sustain-to-fast-downward-cascade gesture in his music, present in the opening of Vanitas, and cropping up in nearly everything since then, is a kind of tic. It could even be a self-portrait: Saaaal-vatore… Sciiiii-arino (you get the picture).
This nevertheless is the flaw with Sciarrino’s work; why his least ‘dramatic’ pieces (like, say, his music for television Sui Poemi Concentrici, his efforts for the ‘flattest’, most time-extended medium) are his most successful; that for all his efforts to be dramatically otherwordly, he never escapes gesturing towards his own palette. Elsa in Lohengrin is a schizophrenic not because she is necessarily determined to be so, or because dramaturgically it is impossible for her not to be; but because Sciarrino wants an excuse to continue with his idiomatic stylisms, and to have a schizophrenic at the centre of the drama is terribly useful in this regard. She whispers not because she can’t speak loudly, but because Sciarrino likes the sound of whispers.

Johanna is tried. Photo: Brian Slater

But for everything that was stylish about Lohengrin, the antithesis was to be found in Simon Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires. The piece didn’t necessarily begin well—one senses that Steen-Anderson doesn’t much like song; certainly not opera, so the commission might on first glance seem a poor idea. The main character of Johanna, who is a kind of audience-cypher, is drafted into a dreamlike recording session—laden with heavy discussions about the nature of operatic expression as such. One can feel Steen-Andersen’s mind-cogs clanking—but it’s a dummy, a feint. Shortly, Johanna is transported to a dystopian parallel existence, where, apparently, all this damn singing is justified. The piece exists to reconfirm Steen-Andersen’s fascination with reconfigured action; with confined-ness and chambered-ness. But here it is Johanna as a dramatic character, a person, rather than just a body on legs, who is chambered. Her voice-box removed, her body transplanted to an accidental post-apocalypse, it is her character which suffers, with apparently no explanation.
As it goes on Buenos Aires gets better and better. Steen-Andersen’s now apparently ubiquitous use of small cameras as extensions of the performers bodies doesn’t feel forced. Indeed the piece transcends the feeling of gimmick present in much of his earlier work; there is a great impenetrable darkness here, and the piece in the end has little to do with what is actually asked of the players or performers.
The Argentinian city, where Steen-Anderson lived for some years and studied, in the end comes to represent for him the origin of the world—in the sense of Courbet perhaps. But it is also the place where the world goes to find out if it’s still alive at all—one thinks here of Huxley. As a place defined by its having been ‘confined’, succumbing to censorship by the regime, it represents the Latin American origin of what might have been assumed to be a post-Protestant tendency in Steen-Andersen’s work. The transformation of the malicious studio producer character, into tyrannical judge, into the pro-censorship academic (read: Richard Taruskin) is a marvellous piece of dramatic chicanery.
The piece in the end felt like a very sophisticated fringe-theatre event—not an opera or musical in any conventional sense. And stylistically there was plenty to be a bit irritated by (the piece continues Steen-Andersen’s studenty love affair with the imagery of the computer age—though here, possibly unintentionally, it has a kind of ‘90s revivalist tinge so modish presently). On the other hand, I found it welcome, and hilarious, to ask members of the elite Stuttgart Vokalensemble to sing Rossini through shop-bought voice modifiers and high-pressure air hoses. But these gimmicks, such as they are, were transcended in the end towards the service of a much more substantial thematic world; they weren’t the point of the piece. It certainly seems to me to be the best thing he’s yet achieved.

Beavan Flanagan and David Pocknee answer questions. Photo h/t Mira Benjamin.

However it was really Tim Parkinson’s ‘opera’ Time With People that was why I was excited for this year’s festival. I had seen Act 1—where two people answer questions to an incongruous soundtrack of astringent beeps and Rossini—performed a few times, not least by Parkinson Saunders (i.e. the duo Tim has with James Saunders), but the rest of the ‘opera’ remained a mystery; to everyone else as well no doubt. Oddly though, even though James wasn’t involved in this performance, it is really as an extension of Parkinson Saunders that this piece lives. The idea of ‘any sound-producing means’, and by extension, object detritus, is central both to Time With People and Parkinson Saunders.
Here however, there is a much darker turn—as least, as far as I could see. While performances with James have in the past been frivolous, nonchalant, quietly critical, even cynical at times, they remain fundamentally fairly bright. While there is a whole topic to be broached of darkness in James Saunders’ own late ‘instruction’ pieces (think of the Milgram experiments), Tim’s work has always been more difficult to pin down. Indeed his instrumental music remains so. But it isn’t so with his ‘opera’. Time With People might be the blackest thing Huddersfield has ever programmed—certainly in the way Philip Thomas arranged the performance, but I’d argue even beyond this. After the initial entrée of questions-answered (deadpan, but here the thought arises: to whom is one addressing these answers?) an itinerant band of onlookers slowly makes its way across a landscape strewn with years of accumulated debris. They drift like ghosts or victims of some epidemic. What follows is a foray into Tim’s rhythmic colloquy writing, and prosaic language, akin to Stein (along the lines of ‘I like to be with you and you like to be with me and both of us like to be together’… drumhit). But there are onlookers. We all like to be together, watched.
From here the scene collapses. Objects are hit rhythmically; until after some fizzling out and rearrangement, this band ends up singing what they hear over headphones. There is an incessant drumkit pattern. They bark descriptions of the sounds they hear (again, who for?); guitars are played; there is revelling, a dance. Occasionally a sound will ring across the floor causing them to lie down, only shortly to get back up again. And finally what emerges is the detritus-objects themselves taking over. These people must assemble them in boxes and drop them rhythmically onto the floor, to a soundtrack of Handel (and occasional barked words ‘we all together/alone’ etc.). The objects getting smaller and smaller until, all the music over, tiny things of, as Parkinson puts it ‘1g or less’ fall to the floor. Fade to black abruptly.
This is a world in which music is a kind of memory—something that must be reconstructed from the ground up, and afterwards returned to the same ground. Only three LPs (the analogue record-grain-noise remains on the recordings used) are left. Music is reduced to complete first principles—in the end, the downbeat alone. This was music that brought to my imagination A Canticle for Leibowitz, or perhaps more extremely, Mick Jackson’s Threads. And, not surprisingly, Time With People does somewhat colour what Tim and James have been doing all along. Their songs (see below) one imagines might have been dug up out of the ground like the copper tablets in Will Self’s The Book of Dave.
And certainly Time With People should be done in London some time soon, at least so we can all come and stare again at the abyss of nihil that Tim has so dextrously created.


Further things to mention that caught my ear this festival…

Philip Thomas. Photo: Andrew Stavely

Philip Thomas’s wonderful piano performances—of a new(ish) work by Michael Finnissy, with a devastating ending (as only his endings can be), which I deeply want to hear again. He also presented a new piece by Christian Wolff, Sailing By, which indeed did in its amiable way. The multiple pianos a few days later were also wonderful, including Wolff’s amazingly unperformed-since-the-premiere Sonata for Three Pianos and Feldman’s beautiful Piece for Four Pianos. (He also did a sterling job herding the Edges Ensemble through a maze of dug-out Scratch Orchestra pieces in the Hepworth Wakefield—an overwhelming experience, at least for myself not least because I’d never seen any of the Hepworth’s amazing collection of visual work either.)
There was further Wolff wondrousness in the presentation of For Magnetic Tape II by Robert Worby and the Langham Research Institute. This is a totally wonderful piece that surely deserves to be heard on record. In terms of sheer quality and bravado it’s certainly there with Williams Mix; in fact I might even prefer it in its similar brevity and even greater wit and timing.
Laurence Crane’s expanded Some Rock Music for Alan Thomas and the UK Premiere of Sound of Horse were highlights of the Monday free-day. Sound of Horse we can add to Crane’s late ‘weird’ pieces—though amazingly for Crane, at points it seems long-winded(!). It left me wondering just how Laurence will tackle longer forms—[edit: I've written a long essay about this very thing, see above!]

I haven't included Christopher Fox's Widerstehen in the above discussion, but I could have done easily. There is much to say about it, and like so much of Christopher's work it is sophisticated and moving. All of that said, there were specific problems with it, on the level of dramaturgy, that I felt were unresolved. It remains a beautiful work nonetheless.

Martin Arnold with the Bozzini sisters. Photo: hcmf

The contribution of Quatour Bozzini was also a highlight for me. Not only were they featured in the continuation of their project ‘Composers’ Kitchen’, with a new, and rather pretty piece by Leo Chadburn (aka Simon Bookish), a fairly major work by Jimmie LeBlanc (new to me) and further new pieces by Stephen Chase and Luke Nickel, which I missed sadly.
Not only that, but they also performed a marvellous concert, featuring Marc Sabat’s very interesting Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, and a wonderful quartet, Contact; Vault, by Martin Arnold. Arnold, who had been mentoring the composers in the ‘Kitchen’, was, shamefully, entirely new to me. As it turns out, he is the most important living Canadian composer and uniquely talented, one should think a pretty major voice internationally. He—to my amazement, as this is perhaps a language I’d been searching for but thought impossible—is that unique composer who links the melodic world of folk music and monody with the quietism and durational extension of Wandelweiser. Antoine Beuger and Jurg Frey, for example, are admirers and the latter has performed his music with the Bozzini Quartet. I guess one finds out about people in one’s own time; and in my defense, Arnold is criminally under-recorded and under-documented (he lacks, for example, a Grove article despite many more minor and younger figures being represented). Nevertheless, catch him while he’s in the country—as Arnold is giving a talk at Brunel University on the 4th December.

(I must also say thanks to various people in Huddersfield for being accommodating hosts and putting up with my incessant mewlings on this or that: Richard Glover, Philip Thomas, Bryn Harrison, Mira Benjamin, Stephen Chase, John Fallas, Simon Reynell, and others, as well as Sam Wigglesworth, Alex Nikiporenko; and also Chloe Glover and Rita Kybaite. I look forward to joining the department next year—it was great fun to meet lots of new people…)