One of the big reasons that I went to the Huddersfield festival this year was to finally have the chance to see and hear the Australian ensemble, ELISION. For one thing, I’ve heard a number of compelling recordings. And then there is always this electricity that seems to attach to the idea of the group. I wanted to see and hear what they do for myself. Here’s the thing, though. That electric current is only partially explained by the skill and excitement and focus they bring to their work. And it’s not something that anyone could adequately represent in words, recordings, or videos, even if they tried. Nothing could have prepared me for the experience of seeing and hearing them live. So I’ve set myself up for failure. But it’s worth trying to relay what I can about these three concerts.
What became completely clear to me during the unremittingly intense performance of Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth was that this piece would not exist if it were not for ELISION, their players, and their focused commitment to music that is highly charged on every level. This reaction was at least partially confirmed (and not at all contradicted) by Barrett’s response to a question along the same lines, saying that he wrote the piece as a member of the ELISION ensemble who happened to be a composer. The few changes in personnel since the original production of the work did not alter that impression for me. There was an unmistakeable, fiery commitment to the work across the entire group. The playing was incredibly virtuosic and soloistic, but there was a clear awareness of the context of the piece. For me that was underlined by Carl Rosman’s change of roles. He was the clarinetist in the original production, but this time he conducted. He knows the work, inside and out. This concert will be broadcast on BBC3’s Hear and Now on January 23rd (and available for the week following). I’d suggest marking it down now–it’s not to be missed.
Tim O’Dwyer curated an event called For Braxton (described in this interview) in which a number of Braxton scores were overlapped with one another by subgroups of the ensemble, joined by John Butcher. There were some great moments, including Graeme Jennings’ awe-inspiring performance of O’Dwyer’s transcription of a Braxton solo for violin, and when Rich Haynes and Carl Rosman and Tim O’Dwyer all played contrabass clarinets in unison. Other members of the ensemble were looking on with huge smiles, obviously enjoying it every bit as much as the rest of the audience. I don’t expect to see a moment like that again, ever.
Daryl Buckley (the artistic director of ELISION) came out at the start of the Thursday concert to give a brief introduction and announce some changes to the program order. He went on to say that it was a concert of student and faculty works at the University of Huddersfield, “but we think it’s a lot more than that.” It absolutely was.
The concert opened with Liza Lim‘s Invisibility, for solo cello. I’m at a loss to describe the intensity of those eight minutes, though I remember them vividly. It would have been apparent even without reading the program note that the piece was “written for and dedicated to Séverine Ballon.” Ballon went far beyond meeting the substantial technical requirements of the piece and completely immersed herself in it. Lim describes the piece as part of an “ongoing investigation into the Australian Aboriginal ‘aesthetics of presence’ in which shimmering effects both reveal and hide the presence of the numinous.” It opens with the use of a serrated bow: the hair is wrapped diagonally around the wood of the bow. When the cello is played with the normal bowing motion, the string reacts according to the constantly changing position of the bow hair in relation to it. It’s a very clear example to me of an extended technique being used to advance a much bigger idea. Along similar lines, the four strings are each tuned to a different tension, also affecting the intensity of the meeting between bow and string, as Lim says, “to give an impression of forces flowing at different depths.” A second, regular bow was used after the serrated one, exploring more of the subtleties of the differing string tensions. And then Ballon used both bows simultaneously. I knew that sounds were shifting in ways that I could not hear (and in ways that I could), that things were happening that I could not understand, and that the entire experience–from the quality of the intensity to the sounding result–was unrepeatable. Knowing all that brought my senses further alive.
Tim McCormack‘s Disfix for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet, and trombone had a very different quality of intensity, to say the least. I think of it as multiply embedded explosions. I don’t even know if that is possible, let alone accurate, but it’s how I remember it. The performances by Rich Haynes, Tristram Williams, and Benjamin Marks were hugely energetic and truly stellar. Einar Torfi Einarsson‘s Tendencies was a set of nine short pieces. He wrote, “The division in movements depicts the appearance of difference, the faulty differentiation and fragmental tendencies of perception.” I had difficulty finding enough similarity between one piece and the next to feel a real sense of difference or fragmentation.
The program included two solo pieces by Aaron Cassidy. Ben Marks played Because they mark the zone where the force is in the process of striking (or, Second Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). The silences in this piece grew increasingly tense as they interacted with the sounds around them. Just looking at this brief score sample, I am only partially surprised to find that the silence I see notated there is as long as 15-21 seconds. And watching the youtube video, it’s clear that others are longer. During the performance, it felt like time was awkwardly suspended for those silences. (This is coming from someone who has sat through many performed silences that are much longer than that.) The whole piece sets up these contradictions between what is sounding and the amount of physical and mental energy required towards that result. Marks holds the slide position of the next sound for the duration of the silence. Often the slide is moving but no sound is produced. The answer is always “more”–more energy, and an effect that, if not heard, is perceived otherwise. But you can watch the video and draw your own conclusions.
Tristram Williams then performed What then renders these forces visible is a strange smile (or, First Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion). Though it’s part of the same set and uses many similar techniques, it’s a very different sort of event, with a wild, visceral, and overt intensity. (Watch for Williams’ own reaction to the performance as he bows.) You can see something of the level of activity in this score sample as well.
Knowing something about Bryn Harrison‘s music and about the focus of ELISION’s repertoire, I was very curious to see what meeting point they would find. You can tell from what I wrote last year about a piece by Harrison and from this post so far that I have enormous respect for both. But they seemed to me to come from very different aesthetic places. Stasis, repetition, and temporal disorientation are common in Harrison’s music. On ELISION’s “about” page is a prominent reference to its “complex, unusual and challenging aesthetics.” I like Tristram Williams‘ characterization on his own website: “ELISION has been at the pointy end of New Music Internationally now for over 20 years.” surface forms (repeating) was a wonderful meeting point (not a compromise) between Harrison and ELISION. The players were in perpetual, rapid motion for the full ten and a half minutes. The dynamic level always stayed low. There was a tremendous tension sustained throughout. And for me, part of the complete focus that it commanded was the continual asking of the question, what is it? The sound world seemed to me to be either microscopic or cosmic in its dimensions. Finally I landed on the image of a tiny nucleus controlling the action of an entire planet of water. The form of the whole is constant and unchanging, but everything within that form is constantly changing. There is a very useful interview with Harrison in the new book edited by James Saunders: The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music. Without quoting too extensively, these couple of sentences about his working process shed some light on the piece I heard on Thursday: “I began to see each bar almost as an area of compression, in which I could subtly contract, expand or in some way distort the rhythms. I would then overlay, combine or link material into longer chains of note values to form whole sections of music or even entire pieces.” It was awe-inspiring to watch any one of the players, but there was no way to get away from the fact for more than a moment that they were operating as a collective unit.
That is one of the interesting and really effective tensions about ELISION for me overall now, having seen and heard them perform live several times now. They are some of the best soloists in the world, and much of the writing for them (in Opening of the Mouth, for example) is highly soloistic. But they interact with one another at a fundamental level. It is not just about doing a job, or playing their part. They listen, and interact, and engage with the music in such a strong and clear way that I can hardly stop thinking about it a week later.