Feature Review: Sligo New Music Festival

Written by: Andrew Toovey

Friday 24 March 2006


Officium breve [1989]


Superscriptio [1981]


The viola in my life III [1971]


… sofferte onde serene … [1976]

Jurgen Simpson & Sinead Morrissey

The Second Lesson of the Anatomists [2005-6 – SNMF commission: World premiere]

Saturday 25 March 2006


Hyxos [1955]


The King of Denmark [1964]


La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura [1988-9]

Late-evening performance:


Piano and String Quartet [1985]

Nicole Tibbels (soprano)

Nancy Ruffer (flutes)

Sarah Nicolls (piano)

Richard O’Donnell (percussion)

Jurgen Simpson (live electronics)

Ian Wilson

Sarah Nicolls (piano) & Callino Quartet [Ioana Petcu-Colan & Sarah Sexton (violins), Rebecca Jones (viola) & Sarah McMahon (cello)]

Model Arts and Niland Gallery, Sligo, Ireland

The SNMF (Sligo New Music Festival) was started in 2003 by composer Ian Wilson. Its focus is to present high-calibre performances of composers whose music is not well-known in Ireland. This year the spotlight was placed on Luigi Nono and Morton Feldman, two composers who are highly respected yet whose music is rarely performed.

Nancy Ruffer, easily one of the best and most exciting flautists of new music (her CD of contemporary flute music has just been released on the Metier Label), played Scelsi’s hypnotic Hyxos for alto flute and percussion. Ruffer’s velvet toned, beautifully shaped phrases shone out amidst an array of differently sized gongs coloured by the type of beater they were hit with. Percussionist Richard O’Donnell clearly has the measure of this music, and his performance of the solo piece by Morton Feldman, The King of Denmark, was the most subtle, whispered performance of a piece of music I have ever heard. With its lightly tapped and stroked gongs and tuned temple bowls, this nearly inaudible piece provided a truly magical moment. Another hushed Feldman performance was The Viola in my Life III for viola and piano played by Callino Quartet violist Rebecca Jones and Sarah Nicolls.

Another highlight was the premiere of The Second Lesson of the Anatomists by Jurgen Simpson and Sinead Morrissey, a fine marriage of acoustic and electronic sounds in four parts. Sinead Morrissey’s poem reminded me slightly of Emily Dickinson’s poetry; Simpson is clearly passionate about live electronics and took part in the other pieces that also required live electronics. His piece boasts a full range of sounds from sliding effects to distortion of the text and is, to say the least, intense. The soprano, Nicole Tibbels, grasped the piece by the throat, shook it and made its vitality shine passionately.

The most exciting aspect of the Festival was hearing Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet, an expansive eighty-minute tapestry with woven patterns as tightly knotted together as those Persian carpets of which Feldman was so fond. The Callino Quartet with Sarah Nicolls paced the piece wonderfully. I have heard Nicolls play a number of concerts, and I can only hope that she will do much more Feldman in the future as her exactness and palette of colours is so well suited to this music. The careful balance of the repeated patterns that whispered throughout the work were captivating. Afterwards some of the audience suggested that this music is better suited to home (there are over fifty CDs of Feldman’s music currently on the market), but I feel the tension to remain still and motionless during such quiet music is part of the drama. The intense act of listening so exactly as the piece unfolds is like travelling on an unknown journey. Feldman often likened listening to his longer pieces to the act of carefully looking at a Rothko painting for a very long time. Most people look at painting for an average of about one minute. Imagine if you looked for an hour or more.

In contrast to this Feldman piece Nono’s music seemed much more conventional, and certainly the 45-minute La lontananza nostalgica utopica futura for solo violin and electronic tape (the 8-track realised by the work’s first performer, Gidon Kremer) was a rambling flux of random utterances that could have left a better impression if the piece had lasted considerably less. I quickly lost interest; even though Callino Quartet violinist Ioana Petcu-Colan gave a very brave and exact reading of the solo part. The programme note, with comments like “It is projected forward on an ideal, ethical, thoroughly utopian scale”, did even less to help.

This couple of days of the Festival that I attended presented a challenging collection of music, all in excellent performances. How often do we get the chance to hear Feldman, Nono and Ferneyhough in concert halls in the UK? I wish it was different, and I hope this excellent example (thanks to Festival director Ian Wilson) can be copied elsewhere by those who realise the importance of this music and its need to be heard.

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