wed 21/03/2018

theartsdesk at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

theartsdesk at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Modernism triumphant at Britain's foremost new-music festival

Performance of GF Haas's In Vain at Huddersfield Town Hall

If Pizza Huts could speak, the Huddersfield branch would have quite some tale to tell. It was here in the late 1980s, over a deep pan, that one of 20th century music’s great feuds was put to bed, John Cage patching things up with Pierre Boulez, in the presence of Olivier Messiaen. Art has Venice. Film has Cannes. New music has Huddersfield. And every sticky floor of the town’s many restaurants has become hallowed ground.

The main draw this year was the UK premiere of what Simon Rattle has called the first masterpiece of the 21st century, Georg Friedrich Haas’s vast symphonic landscape, In Vain (2000). It was a strangely tonal work to be a climax for this bastion of Modernism. And I’m not sure the piece's simple spiritual journey, from literal darkness to light, survived the multivalent story-telling from the composers of the New Complexity set.

The more modest, faltering quality of Haas’s String Quartet No 7 (2007) (performed by the Arditti Quartet - see image overleaf) held its own much better against the narrative knots of the likes of Hector Parra, Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon. Not that all the knottiness was sufficiently natty. Parra’s two works for string quartet, Leaves of Reality (2007) and Fragments on Fragility (2009), were merely knotty: dense, heavy, indigestible, like congealed spaghetti.

The only truth I got from 'In Vain' was the eternal truth of the dimmer switch. You twist right, the light goes on; you twist left, the light goes off.

Much more interesting were the spun webs of Clara Maida’s …dass spinnt … (2013), which fizzed to a much more tasty end, its centrifugal lines glissandoing like dolphins. In this company Haas’s seventh quartet - shifting a stylistically diverse bag of material (including a pretty cello melody) towards possible epiphany in a mysterious, hesitant, blindfolded kind of way - was refreshingly upfront.

The real problem for Haas came the next day, the morning of In Vain, when we witnessed the UK premiere of a major new James Dillon work, which turned out to be a stunner. It offered a magisterial rebuke to those who see no point in composing with such intellectual density. If anyone can show me another way of delivering music of such narrative richness, put up your hands. To deny the necessity of New Complexity is to deny the necessity of the novel.

Dillon’s New York Triptych (2011-12), part of an even larger triptych, explores the idea of the palimpsest. In each work layer upon layer of musical graffiti accrues, shapes itself and drifts around, into and out of earshot. These densities periodically thin out to remarkable passages of quiet luminescence. Sonic apparitions hinting at the city of the title wash into the work through delicate electronic interjections. A more engaging or sensitive performance from the Scottish Red Note Ensemble, conducted by Gary Walker, could not have been wished for.

Next to this Bruno Mantovani’s glib bit of French neo-Romanticism, D'un reve parti (2000), did not cut it. And though I admire him enormously, neither did the new work by David Fennessy. Despite his lovely, brazen textures - a noisy, folksy, electronic storm of timbres - his viola concerto Hauptstimme (2013) progressed in an all too legible fashion.

The other work that showed off the vitality of New Complexity was the James Clarke world premiere from Ensemble Linea. The vividness of this chamber concerto for violin, 2013-V (2013), which, like other Clarke, sees wriggly, explosive material dragged along reluctantly by a formal pattern, was overwhelming. From a richly dark orchestral texture, a bass clarinet emerges and goes rogue; low strings snarl. Keeping his head just above this bubbling mud was Irvine Arditti, his hands leaping about like a madman’s. No composer navigates the border between order and chaos as compellingly as Clarke.

Review of Haas's In Vain on the next page


Few of the other works on display that weekend got the balance between head and stomach quite right. Raphael Cendo’s chamber work Rokh I (2011-12), played by the Linea Ensemble, delivered an enormous, free-improv-like racket with the aid of extended techniques and a hairbrush. It was exciting to see the piano being beaten to within an inch of its life, but, like a pub brawl, seemed a little shabby.

The godfather of complexity, Brian Ferneyhough, offered us two new works of bloodless introversion. In-jokes hampered Liber Scintillarum (2012), while his oboe quintet Schatten aus Wasser und Stein (2013) suffered from uncharacteristrically weak technique. His attempt to deploy Christopher Redgate’s microtonal oboe to penumbral polyphonic affect did not come across. The sound just appeared jumpy. The rest of the Quatuor Diotima programme was polished but glib.

There were two multi-disciplinary works in the opening weekend. Neither charmed. Cecilie Ore’s A. – a shadow opera (2013) involved a lot of migrane-inducing gong playback and gnomic texts projected onto the four surrounding screens. At least with Francois Sarhan’s Enough Already (2013) at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, we had the advantage of being in the presence of a great physical actor, Claudio Stellato. Sarhan’s Frank Zappa-like multimedia collage, centring on lovable fool Bobok (Stellato), could have made a hilarious 15 minute short, with its Buster Keaton-like high farce. But as we moved closer and closer to a second hour, it became clear that neither the schizophrenic score nor the whimsical film could sustain the length.

One got the feeling that Haas believed he was mining some profound, spiritual truths in In Vain. The only truth I got from it was the eternal truth of the dimmer switch. You twist right, the light goes on; you twist left, the light goes off. The one in Huddersfield Town Hall turned on and off virtuosically, echoing each and every glissando in the score in the most prosaic fashion imaginable. The point was the light shenanigans weren't saying anything that the music wasn’t already telling us. It was art by numbers. The dark moments ushered in an empty Feldman-like exploration. The lit-up passages explored the radiant and spectral. Of all the work to chose to represent our musical future, it seems an error for The Rest is Noise to go for this derivative and flatulent bit of spiritual primitivism to end the year-long festival.

What they should have had an eye on instead is what HCMF did on Monday. Throughout the day, HCMF had programmed a sequence of miniature recitals across Huddersfield. There were works for chorus, piano, saxophone quartet, sequencers, Chinese violin – anything with a sonic pulse, essentially. There was a lovely recital from Lauren Redhead of some lightly trippy new organ works, a neat new work by Aaron Einbond, Silent Screen (2012), for prepared guitar and an inspiringly batshit-crazy noise set from the pot-smoking trio (don’t deny it, fellas, we could all smell it), rotaplane amigos, who played their assortment of amplified instruments knelt on the ground like three sociopathic, drugged-up monkeys.

The day also threw up the most satisfying recital of the whole trip, a modest little site-specific number titled "two pianos in an Atrium dialogue". Despatched unassumingly by Philip Thomas and Lisa Ullen in the main foyer of Huddersfield University, Ryoko Akama’s ka/ga/ku (2013), Monty Adkins’s Jumelle (2013) and Rose Dodd’s Aandacht (2013) weren't big statements, nor did they push an agenda, but, in each one, there was an economy of expression, a clarity of thought, an ingenuity of structure, and freshness of style that marked them out as minor masterpieces.

There was an inspiringly batshit-crazy noise set from rotaplane amigos, who played on the ground like three sociopathic, drugged-up monkeys


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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