Written by: John Fallas
St Paul’s Hall, Friday 25 November
A slice through translucence [World premiere]
Straight lines in broken times
Everything you need to know [UK premiere]
Loré Lixenberg (soprano)
Studio 2, Saturday 26 November
Songs for the M8
String Quartet No. 2 (The Cranning’)
Roger Heaton (clarinet)
David Shepherd (sound)
St Paul’s Hall, Saturday 26 November
Salut für Caudwell
Canti per tredici
St Thomas’s Church, Saturday 26 November
Sogno 10 lunedi/in una casa/molte gente/musiche son tornato a casa [UK premiere]
Immagini da Escher
Linda Hirst (soprano)
St Paul’s Hall, Sunday 27 November
A tombeau ouvert [UK premiere]
Perduto in una città d’acque
Nicolas Hodges (piano)
Town Hall, Sunday 27 November
Nicolaus A. Huber
Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung)
Concertini [UK premiere]
This was the 28th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, although not, I think, the 28th to go under the by-line “music / voice / film / multi-media / electro-acoustic / installations”. It’s hard to believe such concessions to trendiness are necessary to attract the Festival’s loyal and internationally-based following: almost alone in Britain, hcmf consistently eschews the mainstays of the publisher-led London concert-scene in favour of an array of Central European visitors and British composers neglected on home soil (such as James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough and Rebecca Saunders).
Perhaps the catchwords help attract the large-scale funding which the Festival undoubtedly needs in order to keep running, and especially in order to include not only the sort of events and styles which they might suggest but also the major performances of living composers which it was founded to feature and for which it is rightly renowned and treasured. Here is something for everyone, which is probably about the best that can be hoped for in a cultural world more incorrigibly plural than ever.
Of course, one of the paradoxes always generated by such ecumenicism is the question of including the non-inclusive, or tolerating the intolerant. (The converse interpretation, that ecumenicism tout court is a dressing forced upon a committed modernist project by the need for commercial sponsorship, is a view equally pertinent when the realities of creative activity today confront the legacy of Adorno and company, if perhaps less plausible under the Festival’s more recent administration than it might have seemed a few years ago.) One young composer suggested, in a panel discussion on new-music audiences, that her primary aim was for her listeners to have fun, to enjoy themselves – a position that would have been startling not so many years ago, when the belief that contemporary classical music served an instructive or even a quasi-ethical redemptive function and was a more familiar staple both of such discussions and, implicitly, of the thinking behind festivals such as this.
I suppose what I’m saying is that those of us who still see a glimpse of truth in the latter view must be aware that we’re unlikely, today, to hear the music we value so highly except in contexts where it may have been programmed with entirely different intentions. The irony of being able to hear top-rank performances of German high modernism because someone thinks it’s ‘cool’ or ‘different’ is to be lived with. Still, it made the Smith Quartet’s über-eclectic programme – of works by Steve Reich, Anna Meredith, David Flynn and Christopher Fox, all excellently played as if there were no contradiction – a bewildering experience.
Christopher Fox is one of those British composers heard more overseas than here. In his case, productive working relationships with a number of Dutch performers have stood as cornerstones along the path of his working life, and it was the Ives Ensemble that gave an all-Fox programme on in celebration of the composer’s fiftieth birthday. (That the English choir EXAUDI had the day earlier presented a concert launching its new NMC disc may be hope for the future.) Fox has suggested that “unlike desert climates my seasonal change is alarming but my diurnal change relatively small” – and he took up this apparently favourite theme of musical chameleonism in a pre-concert discussion with the Festival’s Guest Artistic Director Tom Service. The comment could equally encapsulate the diversity of musical activity across the festival’s various concerts and events, but as for Fox’s own output, it may be protesting too much.
One clear binding thread is the metaphorical load which means that just the title of an abstract instrumental piece like Straight lines in broken times already implies a thoughtful engagement with issues of contemporaneity – a world outside the music which can only make the inside stronger. It runs, too, through the choral pieces performed by EXAUDI, where attached texts make subject matter inevitably more explicit – seventeenth-century English religious thought in A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory, the Israeli-Palestinian struggle in Rendered Account.
At the same time, a single-minded focus on processing delineates mood and keeps pieces like Straight lines and clarinet quintet taut and alive. Problems were more evident in Everything you need to know, an attempted summa: on an evening-filling scale (performances designated ‘complete’ can last between around 45 and 90 minutes, while the various component parts can also be detached to make shorter individual pieces), the process-based approach takes on a trying aspect of ‘one thing after another’, and although Fox is too musical and intelligent for the result to be without striking and beautiful moments – a solo horn placed centre-stage, or a troupe of instrumentalists appearing from the wings like a caravan of wandering minstrels – the end result was unsatisfying as form and too baggily capacious for metaphor and symbol to take proper hold. One suspected it was ‘about’ something, especially in the sections where Loré Lixenberg got up and vocalised from the back of the stage, but one never felt quite involved enough to know what that something might be.
One of the effects of good music should be to alter the experience of time for a listener. Fast or slow, exhilarating or hypnotic: involving, alienating even, but never boring. Filling an hour of real time, Fox’s Everything you need to know failed to make that hour special. To experience the piece was, often, simply to sit in a hall, time passing normally, as if the composer had decided to fill a length of time with sounds but attempt nothing more than that.
At the other extreme is Helmut Lachenmann’s solo piano work Serynade, with which Nicolas Hodges concluded a recital of sustained intelligence and unselfishness. The piano is a paradigm of sound’s inevitable trajectory back into silence – attack and decay, the unalterable history of each struck note. Serynade is a story of what might have been: of the instrument caressed, manhandled, abused and transformed in the attempt to make sounds grow, the attempt to reverse time. This it does through an intense concern with effects of resonance and with the peripheral mechanics of piano performance – pedalling, silent notes, clusters, and the like. It is an extended encounter with strangeness, but a strangeness made believable and desirable as music, and in this it parallels the guitar duet Salut für Caudwell (composed twenty years earlier and heard here the evening before Serynade), in which the players bang the instruments, take them apart, make sounds not heard before or not granted validity as musical performance, but never entirely forget the history they hold in their hands – in Lachenmann’s words, “the aura which attaches to the guitar as folk and art instrument.”
The festival’s final weekend, coinciding with Helmut Lachenmann’s 70th-birthday (Sunday 27 November), featured nine works by the composer, from the early String Trio (1965) through to Concertini, premiered in August in Cologne and here receiving its first British performance in the astonishingly capable hands of long-time Lachenmann collaborators Ensemble Modern. What is striking about a little-known piece like Trio fluido (1966) – especially as programmed in the context of Stockhausen’s Kontra-Punkte and Nono’s mighty Canti per tredici, key works of the 1950s’ Central European avant-garde – is how a perfectly solid piece on which many a composer of this generation might have built the beginnings of a reputation was rapidly left behind by Lachenmann. From a later standpoint, it’s almost juvenilia for him: the ‘real’ beginning, and certainly the first truly gripping musical experience of this festival weekend, was temA, from 1968, here performed by the marvellous Linda Hirst and two “ensemble recherche” instrumentalists on flute and cello. It is one of the first works in which he made a point of using the side-effects of the ways instruments work – sounds that were previously considered extraneous ‘noise’, to be minimised or ignored as far as possible – in an extended conception of valid sonic material for musical composition (note the almost ‘concertante’ part for the piano pedals in the later Serynade). temA, according to Lachenmann, goes beyond a piece like Ligeti’s Aventures by integrating its strange vocal gestures into a rigorous musical context so that “the music [must] be taken seriously instead of in a humoristic way.”
It’s the ability to translate such practices on to a larger scale – to create long works (often half-an-hour or more) and to find original sound-material for a large ensemble – that really makes Lachenmann a fascinating and important composer, and it is to the credit of the Festival’s caretaker team that they decided this final weekend should climax in Ensemble Modern’s authoritative performance of two major Lachenmann scores, at least one of them a masterpiece. Coming as it did at the end of three or four days of Lachenmann performances, many by German ensembles, it gave a final impression of coherence from a Festival which had been not so much an eclectic mix as a jumble of cross-currents in what goes under the name of ‘contemporary music’.
It also, briefly, displayed the down-side of German ensembles’ continuing commitment to modernism of the white-male variety, in Nicolaus Huber’s at times frankly baffling Bagatelles, a relic from 1981 that it might have been kinder to leave buried. But aesthetic displeasure faded rapidly as the ensemble launched into Mouvement (– vor der Erstarrung), which sounds more and more like an enduring masterpiece, especially in a blistering performance such as this, in which Brad Lubman conducted the group that premiered the piece twenty years ago and sealed its composer’s reputation in Germany. This music defies description: the seemingly endless inventiveness with which Lachenmann makes music from strange and unfamiliar sounds demands, but would still not be ‘explained’ by, a matching verbal inventiveness in describing it. For instance, the fact that through much of its course the music operates at a high frequency level, a sort of ‘moto perpetuo’ of string harmonics, high woodwinds and prominent xylophones, must account in no small part for its effect on the listener’s perceptual faculties; nonetheless, to describe it as glistening and glinting would be to group it with a good deal of lesser work by composers who would be traumatised to realise the full force of Lachenmann’s intervention.
And yet the piece’s impact is visceral and physical. With its soundworld clearly defined from the very first bars, and yet open always to the unfamiliar, it is continuously and exhilaratingly fast, sustaining both interest and momentum for 24 minutes. Its shape seems to be without an obvious or traditional progress towards a climax, and yet from around two-thirds of the way through there is an extended passage of clearly climactic function – suddenly upon one as if conjured out of the air, a weightless riot of rhythmic pulsation, with echoes of the Western musical tradition only adding to the work’s occasionally disturbing beauty.
The new piece, Concertini, was scarcely less impressive. Forty-five minutes of sustained excitement – the concertante element extending to distribution of instruments around the hall, with timpani, guitar and other soloists playing from the balcony – and which suggested that Lachenmann at 70 has lost none of his originality and none of his ability to surprise and enchant. Hope, maybe, for the Huddersfield Festival that could hardly have done worse, at a time of uncertainty and change, than to align itself with this figure of protean creative renewal, of sonic beauty conjured from the unaccustomed, the refractory, the new.