Wednesday, December 02, 2015
Some thoughts on this past weekend at the 2015 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, seven concerts and two talks from memory, no notes taken).
Arriving in Manchester early Friday morning we were quickly and almost efficiently whisked Huddesfield-ward by the indomitable Richard Pinnell, admiring the Pennines on our way. We made it in plenty of time for the noon concert: Ensemble Grizzana playing four pieces by Jürg Frey, from his album, "Grizzana" on Another Timbre. The performers were Frey (clarinet), Mira Benjamin (violin), Richard Craig (flute), Emma Richards (viola), Philip Thomas (piano) and Anton Lukoszevieze (cello). I can't locate any etymological information on the name, but when I hear "Grizzana" I think of "grisaille", helped along by the sublimely beautiful grayness of Frey's music. The first two, "Fragile Balance" and "Grizzana" were with the complete sextet, very quiet and delicate, grainy. This was the first time I'd actually seen Frey perform (or, I think, heard any live music of his?) and, apart from the airy beauty of his conceptions, his clarinet playing was extraordinary; such control combined with calm emotion. As lovely as those pieces were, when only the piano, cello and clarinet remained for "Area of Three", a 30-minute work, something immediately clarified and the atmosphere became more crisp as the instruments entered in that order, creating great tension and concentrated precision. Even so, my favorite was "Ferne Farben", the full sextet augmented by a super-subtle tape of field recordings, the instrumentalists adding "simple" tones within certain time parameters but leaving much to their discretion (I think). In any case, a stunning work.
I'd had less than two hours of sleep in the previous 48, so I reluctantly begged off attending a set of three films by Huw Whal revolving around AMM performances and one done by Philippe Regniez in 1986 about Cardew which subsequently received good word of mouth. I did rouse myself, however, to see an interview of Eddie Prévost by Philip Clark. As an interview, it was rather disappointing, either dwelling on anecdotes that most AMM aficionados are likely to have already known or beginning to delve into interesting questions but never quite getting there. However, I was pleased to see Prévost in apparent good humor, an impression solidified over coffee and dinner prior to the next show. He was nothing but warm, funny and generous all weekend, quelling any fears I may have had about the upcoming "reunion" set. Dinner also precluded the possibility of hearing George Lewis' collaboration with the Berlin Splitter Orchestra though reports were middling, sounding like something along conduction lines.
That night, the wonderfully sensitive Philip Thomas presented three more compositions by Frey (all of which appear on the new Another Timbre release, "Circles and Landscapes"), his final showing of the festival, where he'd been composer-in-residence all week. The relatively brief (about five minutes long) "Extended Circular Music No. 2" (2014) was up first, a darkish work with troubling chords that makes me think of a slow-motion, downward stumble--absolutely fantastic. This was followed by two longer, far more "difficult" pieces, "Pianist, Alone (2)" (2010/2012) and "Extended Circular Music No. 9" (2014/2015). My immediate frame of reference was Satie's music from the Rosicrucian period, things like the "Ogives" with their impressive steady sparseness. Speaking with Frey afterward, he said that while many of his compositions tended to "stay in one place", he had become interested in works that progressed, went from here to there and there's certainly a kind of processional feeling at play, exceedingly serene in forward motion if delightfully unsteady in tonal content. Their length (about 30 and 22 minutes respectively) makes it difficult, for me at least, to really grasp as a whole, but I found them quite mesmerizing and listening right now to the above-mentioned CD--well, it's pretty incredible music. A special joy over the course of the festival was hearing Thomas for the first time--quite a wonderful and sensitive player.
Saturday brought three events. First up was the string quartet, Quatuor Diotima. My memory for specifics isn't good enough to give any real assessment, but each of the four works had at least a few charms: Thomas Simaku's "String Quartet No. 5" (2015) and Dieter Ammann's "String Quartet No. 2 'Distanzequartett'" (2009) I recall as being enjoyable enough (sleep deprivation beginning to assert itself once again). Heinz Holliger's "String Quartet No 2" (2007) was also fascinating, resolutely "old school" in some respects but entirely solid and imaginative, ending with an extremely effective last seven or eight minutes worth of the players humming along with their strings, really strong. Here's a version by the Zehetmair Quartet.
In the early evening, Apartment House (Gordon Mackay, violin; Hilary Stuart, violin; Bridget Carey, viola; Lukoszevieze, cello; Thomas, electric keyboard; Simon Limbrick, percussion) put together an imaginative program of seven pieces, beginning with a wry one from George Brecht, "String Quartet", which consisted of the four string players shaking hands politely. :-) This led to an enjoyable string quartet by Toshi Ichiyanagi followed by a hazy sextet work form Jon Gibson, "Melody IV Part I" (1977). More to my interest was Peter Garland's "Where Beautiful Feathers Abound", a delightful collage of seeming (Native) Americana, very much an outlier and a fine one. An ok Christopher Fox work, "BLANK" was followed by an intriguing one credited to Louise Bourgeois, "Insomnia Drawing". Now I know that drawings within that category exist but I have no source listing her as a composer, so my guess is one of her drawings served as the score, but I'm not certain. In any event, it was a nicely shaky set of lines, indeterminate and blurry, something I'd like to hear again. Finally, the sextet performed Cage's "Hymnkus" (1986), a piece I don't believe I've heard before and a very fascinating one. Having since read a description, I get more of an idea about its structure, but its odd, blocky sense of repetition, never quite regular at all but having some overall sense of semi-transparent self-similarity, remains enticingly obscure.
The one set during the weekend that I didn't think worked well at all was the Berlin Splitter Orchestra later that evening. It was broadcast live on BBC and a pre-concert interview with Robin Hayward and Anthea Caddy indicated much discussion and planning for the event. It was inside a large older structure still in use as a mill, the seats and musicians (some 24 of the latter) spread throughout the capacious room. But apart from a staggered entrance of various groupings and perhaps some "rules" regarding iteration of sounds, I couldn't really discern much to distinguish the resultant music from what often happens when large bunches of improvisers get together, which is to say, not much. Granted, I stayed put at one end of the festivities, in close proximity to Andrea Neumann, a young trombonist and a drummer, within easy hearing distance of an electronicist, bassist Clayton Thomas and Hayward, but I could still make out much of what else was occurring in the room, notably contributions from Burkhard Beins and (I couldn't see them) either/both trumpeters Axel Dörner and Liz Albee. There were many fine musicians present--apart from the above, Kai Fagaschinski, Sabine Vogel, Ignaz Schick, Boris Baltschun and others--but for me, things never gelled. I could easily have been missing something.
Noontime Sunday allowed me to experience the Arditti Quartet for the first time, though I've little real idea how the ensemble has changed over the years, violinist and founder Irvine Arditti being its only original member. Two of the four pieces I found entirely competent but more or less forgettable, John Zorn's "The Remedy of Fortune" and festival stalwart Harrison Birtwhistle's "String Quartet No. 3: The Silk House Sequences"--more technical flash than substance to these ears, though bearing craftsmanlike elegance. A nice surprise, though, was Iris ter Schiphorst's "Aus Liebe", especially its first half which featured some astonishingly moving writing for viola. I don't think I've heard her work before and need to fix that post haste. But the real stunner was Klaus Lang's "Seven Views of White" a 40-minute study of restrained tension, minutely variable lines relayed from instrument to instrument, needing to be handled with supreme delicacy while also imparting tensile strength, like stretching filaments of grainy gauze. Outstanding work, breathtakingly performed.
In the late afternoon, I attended a talk by David Toop. Speaking with him the day before, he hadn't quite decided on his approach to the subject, AMM. I understand that, in recent years, he;s tended toward not doing "lectures", instead presenting small environments of a personal nature. Here, armed with computer and turntable, original vinyl copies of "AMMMusic" and "The Crypt" leaned against the front table legs, he recounted his early experience with AMM, whom he first heard in 1966, often doing so over portions of music from those recordings. He was visibly moved at a few points, acknowledging how important this music had been to his development (and not just of a musical nature). Some attendees expressed skepticism about the personal nature of his recollections, preferring a more distanced approach but I found it to be a very welcome and warm way of explaining to the audience, a decent portion of whom were students, the context of the times and how AMM's stance could so deeply inspire the 17-year old Toop. I enjoyed it enormously and learned a fair bit in the bargain.
Finally, the first performance of trio AMM in about twelve years. I know there was some tense going early on in the circumstances revolving around the arrangement of this event but, as said above, any fears as regards untoward tensions had evaporated in the previous two days, so I went into the concert hall quite relaxed. As an AMM set goes, it was perfectly satisfactory if hardly transcendent. FOr the vast majority of its duration, the music remained very quiet, the most notable disturbances being a violently upthrust keyboard cover on the part of Tilbury (very effective when it occurred) and a world record Longest Sustained Cough by an Audience Member (although there were a few pretenders to the throne as well over the course of the concert). As a whole, it was fairly steady-state, none of that "AMM arc". Prévost was predominantly doing bowed cymbals and metals, with great sensitivity, enough that some members who don't normally care for that avenue weren't too upset. Me, I thought fared very well, gradually honing his attack until a sublime moment when, holding a cymbal by its stand (a small sock cymbal, maybe?) over the snare, he bowed it and very lightly allowed it to touch the top of the drum, resulting in an exquisite buzz. Rowe intentionally limited his palette to three or four sounds, most of which resembled what's been heard in his recent Twombly-esque period (sans any classical samples) but also, in a historical reference to AMM, brought out his radio which had been MIA for a while. His most striking contribution occurred toward the end when he picked up a pop song, allowed it to linger around longer than usual and then let a second one appear, this bearing lyrics that referred to "yesterdays" and suchlike (I wish I could recall more specifics). Perhaps due to that, he let it remain for four or five minutes, really pushing things, drawing a quizzical glance or two from Prévost. But if I had to pick a highlight, it was Tilbury, particularly his kneading, even caressing of the piano. Kjell told me later he's been doing this lately (though he hadn't when I saw him in Paris). It takes several forms. One involves laying his hands flat on the keys, exerting extreme tension between upward and downward movement, eventually, just barely depressing a key or two, sometimes resulting in a sound, sometimes not. It was so gripping. More, we would caress the body of the instrument, rubbing his hands along the keyboard cover, underneath the keys, on the sideboards, very much as a lover. One couldn't help but think of his age (79), his relationship with the piano, his corporeal love for the instrument. So intimate, so moving.
A great three days, not only the fine music but all the warm and deep talk and camaraderie. Thanks to everyone involved.