HUDDERSFIELD CONTEMPORARY MUSIC FESTIVAL 15 to 28 November 1999
The annual Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is UK's largest and most important. In spite of severe funding constraints, it offers an embarrassment of riches during an action packed fortnight with, some might think, too many visiting individuals and groups passing through the city and tumbling over each other. The complicated logistics are reflected in the programme book's airport cover illustration, which also alludes to the featuring of Brian Eno's Airport Music. This book is a fount of information and very nicely produced too, save for a tendency to squander space upon full page photos, many of which do not justify such magnification (an exception was the moving picture of a gaunt, ailing Takemitzu). There are often times when one would wish the festival was less hectic, and that a particular group, such as Amsterdam's Schönberg Ensemble, or Manchester's Goldberg Ensemble, might have stayed for a second event after a single hour in the limelight, instead of having to give way to the next arrivals.
So this survey cannot be comprehensive, but will concentrate on a few main themes and mention some others. Nor can any one listener empathise with all the idioms and contemporary music movements which co-exist as the 20th Century draws to a close. A few more detailed concert reviews by other writers from the S&H team will follow later. This year I am highlighting Chinese New Music, music theatre, the Arditti Quartet residency and the ambitious Educational Programme.
After two days of its Young Composers' Scheme, the Festival proper got under way with a brilliant theatrical event, Southwark Playhouse's production of the John Adams song-play I was looking at the ceiling and then I saw the sky (1995). The powerful story and shifting relationships between the characters is carried by an unbroken succession of quality pop songs composed by John Adams, drawing on swing, Gospel and rap, scored for sax, clarinet, guitar & bass, with keyboards and percussion. Radio-mikes ensured good audibility of words from the stage, but there were stereo problems with amplification of the band.
Until the occurrence of the catastrophe prefigured in the title, I was stunned by the mix of intelligent text and story line, and by the strong characterisation. The show was well staged at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, with fine acting, singing and dancing by a cast representing seven young people seeking stability and love in multi-cultural California. After the earthquake, a metaphorical catalyst for change, June Jordan's libretto seemed to lose its way and the second act resolution was unsatisfying. With a little re-writing this unique theatre piece might become very viable. At Huddersfield there was an element of topicality too, given the spate of recent earthquakes and natural disasters in many parts of the world.
At a stroke, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival had confronted the dilemma of today, the impossibility of compartmentalising all the musics which now flourish, and the anachronism of old classifications on the cusp of the Millennium. Next day, in this bastion of 'serious' cutting-edge contemporary music, we watched video projections and listened to a Big Band, chased by Chinese pipa and zheng, all vying for attention!
Huddersfield99 will be remembered in the future for its in-depth presentation of China's new music, very timely now just as China is entering the World Trade Organisation. After the collapse of the Cultural Revolution, a small number of students had an opportunity to study composition at Beijing Central Conservatoire. They rapidly assimilated everything from Debussy via Bartók and Stravinsky, to Ligeti and Boulez, and initiated an unprecedented creative flow of compositions, which linked Western and traditional Chinese music in a powerful and unselfconscious amalgam, and many of the composers emigrated to America and Europe.
The Beijing Conservatoire's Chinese Traditional Instrument Ensemble played traditional music in the first half of their programme at Huddersfield Town Hall, followed by UK premieres of works by Qin Wenchen, Guo Wenjing, Tang Jiaping and Tan Dun, who is the best known in UK. These extended the range of the instruments to marvellous effect, giving a whole new palate of wonderful sounds, elucidated further at a morning illustrated talk by Sheffield ethnomusicologist Jonathan Stock. It will take time to learn to name the instruments and remember those of the composers and to sort out their individualities. We were particularly taken by the erhu, whose bow is uniquely threaded between the two strings in indissoluble marriage.
Huddersfield brought together a network of interest in the new Chinese music, which has avoided contamination by the lingua franca of international contemporary music. A leading Dutch group came with some of the rich fruits of their collaboration with Chinese composers who have emerged since the collapse of the Cultural Revolution. The Nieuw Ensemble came from Holland with a programme of recent music by Xu Shuya, Mo Wuping, Tan Dun and Guo Wenjing, one of this year's featured composers. In 1988 its artistic director Joel Bons had taken an initiative, which led to seven of the new generation of Chinese composers coming to Amsterdam for concerts of music, commissioned for the ensemble's unique line-up. For Xu Shuya's Vacuite/Constanze the ensemble's regular mandolin, guitar, harp, piano, strings and percussion were joined by pipa and zheng . In Guo Wenjing's Drama. their three virtuoso percussionists explored thirty ways to play Chinese cymbals, and the ensemble finished with a substantial excerpt from his Wolf Club Village opera, with tenor Michael Bennett enacting powerfully a madman who believed himself surrounded by wolves. Some of that music is included in a highly recommendable CD, which will also be reviewed fully for MotW, New Music from China (Zebra001). The Beijing group's virtuoso flautist, Dai Yun, joined the Arditti Quartet for Guo Wenjing's intriguing, if over-long, quintet for bamboo flutes and string quartet.
The accomplished Guangdong Modern Dance Company (the only truly contemporary performing arts institution in mainland China) demonstrated huge achievement and unlimited potential after its seven brief years existence. Musical aspects lag conspicuously behind their choreography and hopefully the associations at Huddersfield will have facilitated future contacts and cross fertilisation between various groups who live far apart. The Guangdong dancers' re-appearance at the Brighton Festival next May, in association with the Royal Ballet, is an event to be eagerly awaited.
The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is based at Huddersfield University and derives its unique character from the non-partisan, eclectic interests of its artistic director, Professor Richard Steinitz. The Education Programme co-ordinated by Bill Vince has become an increasingly important presence throughout the festival.
The opening concert was given by the University Symphony Orchestra, which gave creditable accounts of difficult modern scores even though some newer undergraduates playing had only joined the Department a few weeks before. David Lang's Grind to a halt commemorated his teacher Jacob Druckman with a relentless and very loud wall of sound built of a combination of interlocking the rhythmic patterns, which after some ten minutes suddenly stopped (the composer said he would have preferred it amplified!). Takemitzu's Fantasma/Cantos II for trombone and orchestra was a typically gentle piece inspired by Japanese landscape gardening, commissioned by Christian Lindberg and played by Barrie Webb, who also conducted Joji Yuasa's Violin Concerto in memory of Takemitsu. This too was predominantly slow, lyrical music, which might better have been described as a Poem for Violin & Orchestra. Helen Brackley-Jones, who had recently completed her Masters degree at Huddersfield, presented the idiomatic violin writing with confidence and impressive musicality.
College music making, being freed from commercial constraints and compromise, can achieve high standards, well exemplified at Huddersfield by a desirable CD of music by Doina Rotaru, featured Romanian composer at an earlier festival, with the University Symphony Orchestra and New Music Ensemble conducted by Barrie Webb, with prestigious soloists Pierre-Ives Artaud (flutes) and Emil Sein (saxophones) [MPSCD007 available from Barrie Webb at the Music Department; [firstname.lastname@example.org]. The New Music Ensemble gave a concert this year which included an early attempt to explore elements of Japanese music using Western instruments, Patrick Stanford's Taikyoku, dating from the mid-70s. They also attempted James MacMillan's Busqueda (1988) which deals with the 'disappeared' in Argentina. The actors remained only partially clear in the resonant St Paul's Hall, and to one listener this work made a far lesser impact on second hearing.
The versatile and accomplished Kaleidoscope Ensemble, a flexible group of Huddersfield University music graduates, fielded flutes, clarinets, saxes, 2 strings and a hard pressed percussionist (who could do with a stage manager's assistance for placing his multitude of instruments) to present a notable group of pieces produced for them by GCSE students (all girls!) in the Junior Composers' Scheme involving seven local schools, guided by Fraser Trainer and Colin Riley. This was introduced on behalf of the Society for Promotion of New Music (SPNM) by its President for the year, Joanna MacGregor. The chosen short compositions displayed imagination and real achievement, indicating a reservoir of talent waiting to be tapped in our schools; they quite upstaged the professional items in the concert!
Similar conclusions were to be drawn from Errolyn Wallen's group of multinational Kirklees youngsters who performed creditable pop songs created from a 'word bank' chosen they had compiled. Favoured themes included friendship and regret, and problems in relationships. Both schemes will have achieved unconscious learning about how music is made, and Errolyn Wallen urged her students to go ahead and acquire the vital skills then, she said, there's no limit to what they might achieve. This attitude, which has been gathering force in the last decade, is a positive pointer to how the world of music may enter the next millennium.
At the opposite pole, A level students of Shelley High School made a strong showing in Oblique Strategies -Concrete Results, a musical-dramatic show developed by Sophy Smith from Professor (!) Brian Eno's lateral thinking suggestions about ways to cope with blocks in artistic creativity (the creator of the ambient Music for Airports is now pioneering 'cross-technology arts' at the Royal College of Arts). Innovation and achievement in plenty, with confident group speech and movement based on loops generated by the Koan system readily available to us all for downloading from the Internet. Hilarious sketches constructed by 'sampling' a Mills & Boon Guide to intelligent living and a physics textbook; and reproducing their dictums in discordant contemporary contexts. Inspiring, and what a far cry from the old 'school play'.
CONTEMPORARY MUSIC - A HEALTH HAZARD?
Manchester's music education was represented notably by the Royal Northern College of Music Brass Band, which gave a belated premiere of Dividing the Lines (1986) by Steve Martland (next year's SPNM President), which had been intended for the Grimethorpe Colliery Band at the time of the miners' strike. Challenging, loud and dominated by cornets in their top register (I trust that the College's consultant audiologist is advising about the tinnitus hazard to its brass students?) it was well worth an airing, but might have profited from revision and pruning, now that the miners dispute is part of history.
Whilst Steve Martland's brass band music must be hazardous for its players' hearing; the audience too was imperilled twice in several concerts. The next day Richard Steinitz warned us to anticipate Rebecca Saunders' unleashing of whistles during her bizarre evocation of Molly's monologue from Ulysses; ears were duly (and very necessarily) covered until the danger had passed. Later in the week, in Psappha's first concert, Saunders re-asserted her penchant for causing gratuitous pain in duo 3 for viola and percussion, which included whistle (again) and prolonged bowing on high-pitched crotales (requiring ear covering).
That programme was, however, redeemed by two useful trios, Philip Cashian's horn trio, which should be a companionable partner with Brahms, and James Macmillan's continuous Fourteen Little Pictures, a welcome abstract piece by a composer much given to dramatic programme music. The sequence of brief, connected pieces, traversing all permutations of three, made for a satisfying piece, which built to a grand climax and ought to earn a place in regular piano trio recitals.
Brutalism characterises Galina Ustvolskaya's sound world. Screeching piccolo, and the relentless hammering on her trademark wooden box, assaulted the ears in her Compositions I, II & III, presented in uninterrupted sequence by Reinbert de Leeuw. Her works evoke graphically the stoicism needed to endure the unremitting greyness and continual menace of life in Stalin's USSR. But it was profligate to bring Holland's prestigious Schönberg Ensemble (4 flutes, 4 bassoons and eight double basses, all deliberately drained of timbral potential!) all the way from Amsterdam to play her music alone. What rich possibilities that line-up might have suggested to some enterprising young composers? Ustvolskaya's bleak message is subject to swiftly diminishing returns on repetition, and this misconceived concert of her music alone confirmed my considered belief that it is better programmed in suitable context (see also my review of Ustvolskaya and the Piano, with CD recommendations, in S&H, November).
CLICK TRACKS AND METRONOMES
During the same day there was an interesting and paradoxical contrast in the tyranny of time control exercised by some contemporary composers. The New Yorker Julia Wolfe had a click track to help the conductor negotiate her piece inexplicably entitled Girlfriend. Taped noises of destruction were slotted into the score played by Lontano. During quiet passages we could hear the clicks. When it was louder Odaline de la Martinez looked uncomfortable at having to cover her earphone with her hand, so that she could hear them and keep proper time. John Cage had made fun of obsession with time precision in his score for Water Music, which had passed on a screen to give Joanna MacGregor instructions timed to hundredths of a second! In his Four for string quartet, played by the Arditti Quartet, the smooth sequence of gentle, haunting music played quite independently by each of the players was controlled by stop watches; you'd never have guessed.
ARDITTI QUARTET IN RESIDENCE
This was the centrepiece of the first half of the Arditti Quartet's review of important commissions during their 25 years at the top, as their recital was aptly billed. A re-hearing of Jonathan Harvey's 1st Quartet was particularly welcome, its halo of 'radiance' which gathers around the source melody particularly memorable. A carefully balanced programme of music the Ardittis stand for ended with Xenakis's trenchant, and sometimes even witty, Tetras, preceded by a modern classic, Ligeti's 2nd Quartet, which they have made very much their own. The Arditti Quartet plays mostly abroad. Their four day residency at Huddersfield provided rare opportunities to meet them in a master class with post graduate quartets from Manchester's RCNM, and playing new scores for a composers' workshop led by Brian Ferneyhough (in which Irvine Arditti was unable to resist unleashing a few apt shafts of his notorious wit).
Irvine Arditti and Rohan de Saram, the remaining members of the original Ardittis, gave alternating violin and cello solos in a late night concert, and the wide ranging final concert of the residency left no doubt that in its current constitution (Graeme Jennings, 2nd violin, Dov Scheindlin, viola) the quartet is in excellent health. This last of their five appearances at the festival was notable for the sensuous beauties of Arcadia, seven exquisite 'vanished or vanishing idylls' by Thomas Ades, and the iridescent Angel's Wings by Bent Sorensen.
MORE BRITISH ENSEMBLES
The Goldberg Ensemble from Manchester premiered Geoffrey Poole's ch'i kun, a cycle of variations 'without a theme' which grown in duration and complexity. An excellent group of about a dozen strings who play standing, they were directed by Malcolm Layfield who was not able to do anything with a disappointing accordion concerto by Eddie McGuire, best forgotten!
The Galliard Ensemble, well remembered from their successes as Park Lane Group Young Artists and more recently at the Proms, gave a well balanced programme which finished with Ligeti's 1953 Bagatelles, composed in Budapest whilst Budapest was still in cultural isolation. Their originality and promise for the future shone through. Birtwistle's Five Distances sounded far better in St Paul's Hall than between the highly reflective walls of the Serpentine Gallery opposite the Royal Albert Hall, where the difference tones from high winds really hurt. Immaculately prepared, they also gained from the players standing well apart as instructed by the composer. Reflecting the educational theme running through the festival, it was good to hear Tinico's Autumn Wind, composed for the RAM's Junior Academy, and James Olsen's Imbroglio, composed when he was in his mid teens and a winner in the Galliard Wind Quintet Competition.
PIANO AND ORGAN RECITALS
Nicholas Hodges played a tough programme of recent piano music in the university's Recital Hall, ideal for catching the piano's internal resonances, which fascinate Sciarrino. One of his 4 Nocturnes had been dedicated to the pianist, who also repeated his performance of Sciarrino's 5th sonata, with which Hodges had made a notable impression at Philip Mead's Contemporary Piano Competition.
The set piece played by all semi-finalists at that competition was Jonathan Harvey's evocative Tombeau de Messiaen, which Joanna MacGregor included in her Contemporary Music Network concert with accompanying video-productions. It is controversial how much that helps. To my eyes and ears they mostly distracted attention from the music and contributed little, apart from the opportunity to watch the score of John Cage's Water Music pass across the screen, Joanna MacGregor making frantic efforts to keep up with its detailed performance instructions, timed in hundredths of a second!
The centre of her recital was Harrison Birtwistle's marvellous Harrison's Clocks, which are sure to enter the regular repertory for contemporary piano. They are now released on Joanna MacGregor's own label (Sound Circus, SSC004). Tombeau de Messiaen, with live electronics, is performed by Philip Mead on a recommendable 60th birthday CD for Jonathan Harvey, which includes a re-mix of his seminal electro-acoustic Mortuos Plango, Vivos Voco built from Harvey's son's treble voice and the bells of Winchester Cathedral (Sargasso SCD28029).
Kevin Bowyer gave us a rare opportunity to appreciate the fine qualities of the handsome modern organ, built by Wood of Huddersfield, which normally presides silently over all the St Paul's Hall concerts. His programme was enthralling and sounded marvellous, with chosen registrations never too loud for comfort. Ian Matheson subverted usual expectations with one piece built of short, quiet notes throughout, another's continuous chords varied in intensity by the number of notes in each. Douglas Bousted's Woldgate Requiem commemorated a tragic local accident. Brian Ferneyhough's Seven Stars and Diana Burrell's Arched form with bells are major works, both included in Bowyer's important double CD of contemporary British organ music Mandelion (Nimbus NI5580/1). With a northern branch of the Royal College of Organists based at Huddersfield University and organ examinations held at St Paul's Hall, it would seem simple common sense to follow up this success and celebrate the wealth of contemporary music for the instrument by including a Young Composers' Workshop and a recital at next year's Festival?
Misleadingly hyped, with a full-page photo spread, as '- - surreal - - sublime - - a night of high risk and subconscious daring', Frances-Marie Uitti with DJs and VJs achieved the nadir of the festival. She brought to Huddersfield three instruments, several bows (two used simultaneously to minimal effect) and a quantity of electrical equipment (which sometimes worked) for a self-indulgent sequence of 'improvisations', with scratchy sounds produced at record turntables and equally desultory visual accompaniment. One assistant crawled around her feet taking hugely magnified videos of Frances-Marie's profile and hair.
The audience of contemporary music enthusiasts soon began to haemorrhage from St Thomas's Church in droves, like rats from a sinking ship, two London critics surviving until about half time. I cannot tell you how many remained to show their appreciation at the end - perhaps one of those could write to S&H and explain why?
This had been a gifted artist, and unquestioned contemporary cello virtuoso, well remembered by this writer for a fine solo recital at Huddersfield not so long ago, a spectacular duo recital with American pianist Ursula Opens in Amsterdam, her collaboration with Scelsi, and in the UK premieres of concertos by Per Norgard and Jonathan Harvey (hear her at her best in Harvey's works for cello, including the concerto: Etcetera KTC1148).
Philip Sheppard's new blue 'electric cello' showed greater promise. Technically efficient, it yet lacks a repertoire of sufficiently good music for a successful recital. It came into its own in a totally successful screening of two Buster Keaton films for which a group of leading London free-lancers improvised live soundtracks; brilliant!
The famed Avanti Chamber Orchestra showcased their most celebrated composers, Magnus Lindberg and Kaija Saariaho. Lindberg conducted four of his scores dating from 1979-92. Joy made a particularly sumptuous impression. Saariaho's subtle scores were perhaps placed to disadvantage in a late night concert at the end of a heavy day? Finding time for food and sleep can be quite a problem at Huddersfield!
During the second week there were two more elaborate music theatre events brought from Europe. Dansers Studio from Groningen brought Double Track, a choreographic creation by Beppie Blankert upon themes of waiting and indecision, with music by Louis Andriessen, which uses the idea of mirroring. The main stage was placed behind the audience, which was seated looking forward into a wall of mirror! John Taylor waited at a station (on video) and trains rushed past. He recited Beckett's Text for Nothing No. 7 and danced, at first alone, later accompanied by an incorporeal alter ego (perhaps) who appeared and disappeared in the mirror. A uniquely fascinating hour by a notably innovative team.
The last visiting group before I had to leave was the renowned Ensemble Recherche from Germany, regular visitors to Huddersfield. Easy to enjoy was their morning sequence of short pieces from The New 'In Nomine' Consort Book, devised as a present for the director of the Wittener festival. We heard contrasted miniatures by fourteen composers, variously arranged for combinations of string and wind trios, piano and percussion. Why not a comparable collective commission to honour Richard Steinitz's achievements for contemporary music in Huddersfield and for UK?
Ensemble Recherche brought also a theatre piece, Zwielicht by Aperghis, with extensive spoken texts by Goethe, Klee & Kafka in the original German - no sur-titles at Huddersfield, but English versions were supplied at the theatre, together with an attempt by Aperghis to explain (in French!) his obscure purposes. Sad to confess, this all left me nearly as completely bewildered on second sighting as it had previously in Strasbourg, when I prudently refrained from commenting. I am therefore indebted to Alexa Woolf (who had elucidated Heiner Goebbels Max Black for S&H readers) for an appreciative afterword about Zwielicht.
Peter Grahame Woolf
Zwielicht (Twilight) by Georg Aperghis
at Musica99, Strasbourg and at Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, 27 November 1999
Ensemble Recherche arguably gave us the most sophisticated music theatre seen at Huddersfield. Zwielicht created a synthesis of sounds with instruments, speech in German (using extracts from Goethe, Klee and Kafka's writings); singing and bodily marking of rhythm and, disruptively, of anti- or non-rhythms; and movement, through space, dance and light. It exemplifies contemporary attempts at breaking out of the confines of categorisations which are no longer adequate to give validation to the constantly shifting, complex cultural and social interactions.
It is possible to enjoy Zwielicht as purely formal aesthetic sight and sound, but the perfect union of form and content ignited philosophical musings and, at a deeper level, the work can be seen as an engagement with, and questioning of, cultural formalisations. The ring fencing and anchoring of open-ended possibilities was made audible, and visible, through the enactment of the fragmentary texts by Goethe and Klee. Kafka's texts, heard & seen, highlighted the intrusion of subjectivity, and prepared the ground for a challenge to seamless transparency of aesthetic control. The conditional, temporary and perspectival element of all formalisations was brilliantly exemplified by repeatedly immersing a red dress in a tub of water, and raising it to a great height. The resulting sight and sound of whooshing and dripping water was disruptive of formal coherence, which could not integrate this event, thereby creating space for shifts and thoughts.
A most memorable music theatre experience.
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