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Archive for November, 2011

Huddersfield, or ‘udd’ as it is know, in November means the internationally famous Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, a week and two weekends of immersion in the latest music. Events range from talks and free performances to the chance to attend 5 concerts a day, and then walk back to the hotel late through a city centre heaving with skimpily dressed revellers and bouncers.

Last year, and this, I attended the first weekend of the Festival. Last year there was an overwhelming preponderance of complex music consisting of sound effects, and relying on elaborate notation. While the music looks clever on the page, I found myself unmoved by this concentration on ‘effect’, and the relative neglect of the attempt to move or ‘affect’ the audience. Only one piece, by Howard Skempton, based on the text of a letter from one of the Attica Prison occupiers, moved me at all.

I’m glad to say that the balance was different this year, which may be just coincidence. I heard a number of effective and ‘affective’ pieces, and some which I would like to hear again – but in amongst a predominant aural diet of clever effects and extended techniques. Here is just a sample of the best and worst experiences.

Friday 18th. Trondheim Soloists – a string ensemble. Nachruf by Arne Nordheim was written in remembrance of a friend. It was a moving and understated piece, and wholly effective.

Later – Evan Parker’s ElectroAcoustic Ensemble, which seemed to me the worst of free improvisation, consisting of a series of self indulgent (sometimes consecutive) solos with little of the mutual listening and inter-action which free-improv can offer at its best.

Saturday 19th. A documentary concert on Bent Sørensen, one of Denmark’s top composers, consisting of a silent film of his day at home, during which several of his pieces were performed live. An anatomy of melancholy, with a similarity of mood between the pieces, but I was won over by their directness.

Later, the London Sinfonietta. The concert ranged from the depths plumbed by the first piece, Marula, by Jexper Holmen, which consisted unvarying extreme dissonance, to Shades of Ice by Agata Zubel which drew to great effect on the history of glaciers and floods of meltwater in Iceland. Why, by the way, were there so few women composers represented?

Sunday 20th. Cikada Ensemble. Both to me, and to the rest of the audience, the highlight of the weekend was the performance of three pieces by Laurence Crane. The programme notes were a spoof of the pretentiousness of the notes to some of the other pieces performed over the weekend. Each piece consisted of a series of quiet chords played with great subtlety, separated by silence. Once the audience got over wondering about the relationship to the titles (there was none) they were drawn into listening with rapt attention, and practically burst with enthusiasm at the end.

Later – Quatour Bozzini. (A string quartet) Once again, a concentration on effects. The exception was Zenit by Rozalie Hirs. The four movements relate to the points of the compass. While I liked them to varying extents, West was to me the most beautiful and effective.

Later still – ensemble recherche. How I dread names like that, as if music was a form of research into acoustics rather than a means of human communication. Never mind. Their first piece, Domeniche all periferia dell’imperio by Fausto Romitelli had a consistent and imaginative level of sonic interest, with a re-use and development of gestures which gave the whole piece a sense of coherence. At the other extreme was Steven Daverson’s Escher’s Pharmacy which seemed to me an endless series of unconnected gestures, displaying the virtuosity of the players but little else.

Even later still – From Scratch, by the Basel Sinfonietta. A concert allegedly drawing on the influence of the Scratch Orchestra, though only a couple of the pieces seemed to do so. The highlight to me, and I think others, was things whole and not whole by James Saunders. The orchestra sat in the choir stalls high-up behind their usual space, and performed using scraps of paper and other similar everyday objects to make quiet sounds, following a set of rules on how to respond to sounds made by fellow players. Listening with my eyes shut, the piece presented a fascinating soundscape of noises appearing to move across the performing area in response to one another.

Also effective was Louange (praise) de l’eau, louange de la lumiére by Jürg Frey. The basic material was simple, but imaginatively conceived, and drew the listener into a real drama which seemed to me (unlike sound-effects music) to connect with human experience.

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