Huddersfield 2009 (5/5) — communities and dialogues

Graham McKenzie, the director of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, has made the point that he does not like to assign themes to festivals, but prefers to watch patterns emerge during the event itself. For me, one of major patterns I saw on all sorts of levels was community and dialogue–from the institutional level–between organizations like the festival and the university–to the interactions between musicians–improvisers in particular–onstage. So much is made possible when independent, forward-thinking people work together within the context of an event.

Alvin Curran has been exploring various ways of involving local communities in his pieces, from the Maritime Rites installations and performances to the community bands of Oh the Brass on the Grass, Alas. His piece, OH MAN OH MANKIND OH YEAH was called “A Community Sing,” which included the Huddersfield Choral Society, the University Choir, instrumentalists from the university, and vocalise, “the Festival’s new vocal group for young people.” Curran writes,

The work is about singing, transforming ponderous mass into weightless matter, singing invisibly together, singing in reckless conflict and sweet harmony, singing with you… so join in at the end if you like!

The performances were all quite strong, but the kids stole the show. They were having so much fun up there on stage, and they were totally engaged in their various noisemaking activities.

Curran, along with Frederic Rzewski and Richard Teitelbaum, is also a member of Musica Elettronica Viva, which has been in existence since 1966. As they themselves put it,

Part myth, part reality, part dream, Musica Elettronica Viva in its 23rd year continues to resist retirement and greatly enjoys its one gig a year.

In the name of the collectivity, the group abandoned both written scores and leadership and replaced them with improvisation and critical listening. Rehearsals and concerts were begun at the appropriate time by a kind of spontaneous combustion and continued until total exhaustion set in.

In a totally enjoyable conversation and Q&A session after their performance, the friendship of these three Americans expatriates in Rome was obvious. Rzewski responded at some length to one question, and Teitelbaum then said, “I completely disagree with Frederic.” In their performance, they were at many times so remarkably in sync that I might have thought it was a piece that had been composed and rehearsed. But learning more about the background of the group and the (in)frequency of their performances made it clear that it wasn’t. These are long-standing friendships that play out in music as well as in life. They made the point in the conversation afterwards that they have used fewer and fewer instructions as they have continued to work together.

Quite similarly (though to a very different effect), on the day of fORCH‘s performance, Richard Barrett said in an interview with Graham McKenzie that over the last few years,

the amount of notated material has gradually gone down until for today’s performance there’s very little left… this collective of people has developed its own musical personality and become its own composer, so to speak.

Barrett wrote in the program notes that “The framework … is intended not to enclose improvisatory spontaneity, but to create a point of departure for it.” The players, who that night included Phil Minton and Ute Wassermann (voices), FURT (Richard Barrett and Paul Obermayer, electronics), Anne La Berge (flute, electronics), John Butcher (saxophones), Aleks Kolkowski (viola, musical saw), and Rhodri Davies (harp), are overwhelmingly creative in the sounds they find and explore in their instruments. FURT plays an interesting role, sewing together, splitting apart, amplifying, distorting, and otherwise manipulating the sounds produced by the rest of the group. Their performance at the hcmf and the material I have heard on their myspace page are like nothing else. I’ll hold off on writing more about the individual members’ other involvements for some future entries. What they are doing is too interesting to squeeze into an already-long post.

Another partnership is crucial to all of the events that I’ve written about in these last five posts, as well as the many others that I did not cover, and that is the partnership between the University of Huddersfield (including CeReNeM) and the hcmf. The mutual benefit is substantial. That is not just for the obvious practical reasons of venues for the festival, exposure for the university, etc. All of that would be trivial if it were not for the fact that both the festival and the faculty and students involved with new music have a similar and complementary orientation towards… (It’s dangerous to try to codify this too much, but I’ll make a first stab) … highly creative work that lies well outside of the mainstream. The students and faculty that I’ve had a chance to get to know have a huge diversity of interests and approaches, but they have quite a lot to say to one other. It was great to see that in the three masterclasses I attended, the nine pieces were remarkably different from one another, but Liza Lim, Jonathan Harvey, and Rebecca Saunders had really insightful things to say to the students about each of them. The programming of the whole festival was similarly vibrant, free of aesthetic branding, and rich with opportunities for thought and discussion. What more can I say? If it continues to be this strong, and on this schedule, I’ll be missing many more Thanksgivings. Something really special is happening in Huddersfield.

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