“New Sounds from Britain and Ireland” in New York

It’s been some time since my last post. I could try to explain the delay (things came up), but that would not be as interesting as the set of concerts I saw in New York last month.

Called New Sounds from Britain and Ireland, 2008, the concerts were put on by Alex Waterman and Travis Just, with performances by the visiting artists (James Saunders, John Lely, Tim Parkinson, Angharad Davies, and Jennifer Walshe) and the New York ensembles Either/Or and Object Collection. I don’t think they will mind if I excerpt the description of the concerts.

New Sounds from Britain and Ireland features recent works by young composers of the post-Cornelius Cardew generation. Their works are defined by a reduction of material, involvement with alternative methods of sound production, theatrical gestures, and improvisation. The festival features visiting artists Angharad Davies, John Lely, Tim Parkinson, and James Saunders (UK) as well as the Irish composer/performer and current Brooklynite, Jennifer Walshe. Programs will focus on recent and unheard music by the freshest musicians to the right of the Atlantic.

The performances were strong throughout the weekend. James Saunders and Tim Parkinson’s performance of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Letter Piece No. 5 – Northern Cities had all the discipline of comedy, and it was hilarious. Tim and James were very strictly coordinated in their motions, some of which were sounding and some silent, all on a very strict pulse. Stephanie Griffin’s performance of Markus Trunk’s Four stills for solo viola (2003) had the intensity that seems to be a crucial component of any performance of Trunk’s work. Angharad Davies’ violin improvisation was incredibly delicate and hugely inventive. On that last night of my month away from home, it perfectly met some undefined need that I felt. In dirty white fields, Jennifer Walshe found unconventional ways of matching the sound of her voice with her violin. At times the performance was intensely dramatic, at other times deeply internalized.

Laurence Crane’s
Come back to the old specimen cabinet John Vigani, John Vigani part 3 was enlightening, beautiful, and funny in equal measure. The textures played by the cellist (Alex Waterman) were matched in completely unexpected but effective ways by the six auxiliary players with kazoos, voices, stones, plastic bags, and tin cans, among other instruments. The humor in the use of these objects was both expanded and surpassed by the incredible sympathy between the sounds they produced and the sounds produced by the cello. Even the articulations had little to nothing to do with the articulations on the cello. I have no idea how these correspondences were found, but they worked. Crane’s other pieces on the series (steyning and Cello Piece for Michael Parsons) were understated and powerful.

A number of the pieces dealt with sonic transitions and boundaries. John Lely’s rigorous The Harmonics of Real Strings explored the areas between harmonics and pressed strings quite effectively. James Saunders’ either/or seemed to take place in the motions preliminary to normal sound production. The sounds were unvoiced, on their way to being voiced, and never quite arrived. In Paul Whitty’s 39 pages, the fragments were cut and articulated in such a way that the piece really seemed to happen in single notes and chords. Tim Parkinson’s untitled (2004) crosscut seemingly throwaway material, or scraps, with silences in such a way that the silences became incredibly active. The space between sounds felt more dynamic than the sounds themselves, and I found myself taking more of an interest in the rests than the notes. I quite enjoyed that inversion. As the title of John Lely’s The Parsons Code for Melodic Contours suggests, the contours were given but not the specific pitch locations, resulting in some really wild pitch combinations. As all this was happening within a very strict and obvious pulse, there was a sense of near-anarchy within a strictly imposed order. James Saunders’ #111308 involved filaments and occasional wisps of sound, played with tremendous sensitivity by Angharad Davies and Alex Waterman. I asked them if it was written in the score that they should hardly move their bows, and they said no, that was just necessary to keep the piece on the edge of silence. It was a beautiful piece to watch, as well as to hear.

Of course there are a number of pieces I haven’t even talked about, and some I have only touched on. If you were at any of these concerts, I would love to hear from you.

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