Huddersfield 2009 (4/5)

There are several pieces and performances I’ve wanted to write about from the Huddersfield festival that don’t fit under a single umbrella. This post will be a sort of catch-all for them.

Rebecca Saundersdisclosure, played with real sensitivity and power by MusikFabrik, was informed by a Beckett quote: “I still see, sometimes, that waning face disclosing, more and more clearly the more it entered shadow, the one I remembered.” Thinking about the piece and the quote in relation to each other helps me to understand each of them better. The focus at the opening was on the transition from the very local-level timeline for any player between not playing (add a hyphen if you like) and playing. Silence was not really a factor, nor was controlled sound. The focus was on everything between the two. The playing moved suddenly to sounds which were on the other side of the controllable playing range (beyond it), and then pulled back to a compelling violin solo, powerfully played by Juditha Haeberlin. Saunders’ vocabulary of sounds is enormous, and the form of the piece was enigmatic. I’m sure I would make something else of it on a second or third hearing. (By the way, there is a very useful, brief interview with Saunders from 2002 on the Ensemble Modern site.)

James Weeks conducted the New London Chamber Choir in a wonderful performance of Jonathan Harvey‘s The Summer Cloud’s Awakening. It was a rich piece and, at 35 minutes, a truly immersive experience. I find it difficult to talk about, but fortunately Harvey describes it well:

“Everything is based on the relationship of a brief phrase from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde to the Buddhist vision of reality. The Wagner phrase is stretched out from 12 seconds to five minutes – the ‘longing’ of the Wagnerian phrase so achingly long that it seems almost motionless.”

“The sound is chopped up at speed and flung around and above the listener, often in canonic formations. Huge clusters of sound (‘clouds’ and ‘mists’ are created from the voices and instruments. Some sounds are recorded, but many are created in real time.”

Oliver Coates‘ stage presence was quite unassuming, but his performance, both on this piece and on Saariaho’s Sept Papillons was tremendous. On the Harvey, he used a second cello with two G and two C strings, all tuned an octave down. Harvey aptly describes this as “a deep, strange, heiratic sound.” Weeks also wrote a very useful article about the piece and its preparation that was posted on the hcmf site.

Sebastian Berweck launched the first CD (Extended Piano) of the new label HCR (Huddersfield Contemporary Records) with his recital for piano and analogue electronics that included pieces by Michael Maierhof, Benjamin Lang, Thomas Wenk, Johannes Kreidler, and Enno Poppe. (The CD also includes a piece by James Saunders.) HCR is curated by CeReNeM, the Centre for Research in New Music at the University of Huddersfield. I will be following the label’s releases as well as CeReNeM’s other activities with interest. Berweck’s recital posed fundamental questions about what the piano is, and what it is that a pianist does. In his program note he speaks of “Five ways to get out of the historical straitjacket … as diverse as can be”:

Maiherhof decides to use the piano as what it is: a huge soundboard with a fake reverberation device.

Benjamin Lang decides to use the piano as what it is: an instrument that makes sound everywhere and writes a piece that barely uses the keys at all.

Johannes Kreidler extends the piano with a tape — a tape that destroys the piano rather than enhances it by bringing sounds from our daily dosage of media entertainment into the concert hall.

Thomas Wenk turns back to the analogue…. Taurus CT-600 is certainly not a piano piece. But a piece for piano player maybe?

Enno Poppe uses the pianist for what he is: someone who can play keyboards. In Arbeit (Work) Poppe uses a virtual rendition of the Hammond B3 Organ.

Each of the pieces was provocative in a different way, and Berweck played them all with real skill and commitment. You can see part of an earlier performance he did of Thomas Wenk’s TAURUS CT-600 at the opening of this youtube video, and part of one of Maierhof’s splitting pieces at the 3:06 mark.

A number of other sound samples are available on Berweck’s own site. I also recently came across this documentary about another piece by Johannes Kreidler that is quite interesting. Kreidler’s answer to the objecting audience member is so articulate that I think he may have been planted there. But in any case, it’s a piece that asks some very cutting questions.

There was tremendous energy in both Matthew Shlomowitz‘s Theme Street Parade and its performance by the Quatuor Diotima. Shlomowitz chose not to write a program note, but in an interview about the piece he said that “The basic premise is a formalistic treatment of vernacular material.” I enjoyed my own shifting reaction to the piece. In a festival situation in particular (when so much music is presented) it’s easy to start making an assessment about a piece from its opening moments. This opening was so straight-forward and conventional that I was puzzled. I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to do. Then the musical materials were broken apart horizontally and vertically, repeated, examined, distorted. After the violist’s string broke a few minutes into the piece, we got another chance to hear how the material was toyed with. Shlomowitz speaks about “taking very familiar musical themes and doing unexpected things with them…. It’s that pulling-the-rug-out thing that I’m interested in.” The actual material used was quite short. Shlomowitz loops back on it to an extreme point, raising questions about what repetition is and what it does. This piece will be broadcast on BBC’s Hear and Now on January 9th and will be available for the week following. It’s really vibrant and packed with innovation–well worth a listen. In the meantime, I’ll post one more video: a performance by Parkinson-Saunders of one of Shlomowitz’s Letter Pieces. They are all quite interesting, but I’m attached to this one since I was one of the members of the audience that bust up laughing at a performance of it at Listen/Space in New York. How they carry it off in such a deadpan performance is beyond me.

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