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Liza LIM (b. 1966)
Winding Bodies: 3 Knots (2013-14) [15:17]
The Heart’s Ear (1997) [12:13]
Jon Řivind NESS (b. 1968)
Gimilen (2014) [20:56]
Cikada Ensemble
rec. live, 23 November 2014, St. Paul’s Hall, Huddersfield.
LAWO CLASSICS LWC1086 [48:26]

Asian/Australian composer Liza Lim doesn’t appear to have a very high profile in the Northern hemisphere, but a peek at her website reveals a hive of activity, and the news that Winding Bodies: 3Knots has been short-listed for the 2015 BASCA award.

The booklet tells us about how her music “reflects on Asian ritual cultures, Australian Indigenous aesthetics, weaving and knots as a metaphorical ‘technology for thinking.’” Winding Bodies: 3 Knots might seem a tough musical nut to crack on first impressions, but this is one case in which the programme notes will take you a long way into the music’s intentions. The piece “looks at the old Nordic tale of sailors going to sorcerers to ‘buy the wind’ tied in three knots – untying the first knot would release a breeze, the second a strong wind and the third contained a hurricane which should never be untied…” Having assimilated this we can better comprehend the strange grinding of the strings, blowing and creaking sounds which emerge. A hardanger fiddle adds Norwegian colour, but this is in many ways far remote from any kind of folk music. In the sense that it paints a picture or pictures in sound then it might arguably have a connection, but there is no dancing.

The booklet tells us about experiments to create the drone effects in this piece, ending up using fishing line on piano strings, and bouquet garni threads for the stringed instruments. This is a technique long known to old Romanian gypsies. Winding Bodies: 3 Knots will for many people be Marmite music – you will either love or hate it. I relish some of the effects, and like the way in which techniques normally used to be suggestive or poetically subversive are here overt and the entire raison d’ętre of what is going on. I doubt sailors will enjoy it however, as it will remind them too much of their worst dreams and the sounds on board ship they would rather not be hearing, right up to the watery splashing at the end.

The Heart’s Ear starts out quite lyrically by comparison. Described as “a meditation on a Sufi melody”, this again benefits from reading the notes. Poetic references are important and point toward the essence of Lim’s work, one such line being “‘like birdsong beginning inside the egg’… an image of wonderful poetic potential: of a song about to be born; of music about to come through a threshold from a magical place.” The title is connected to this as a special kind of listening, and this is indeed the sort of music that demands both an open mind and an open heart. It has an intense and hairy abstractness on which the curtain occasionally wafts aside to reveal a centre with subtly familiar objects. With much that is remarkable, I find myself struggling more with this piece’s self-contained-ness rather than its content. You have the feeling that if you came to love it too much it would still prickle you like a cactus, for want of being able to show you its other sides.

Norwegian composer Jon Řivind Ness’s Gimilen is centred around a trio of flute, clarinet and piano, around which the rest of the ensemble provides “the setting, or background landscape.” The reasons for this are an object lesson in effective collaboration between composer and ensemble. Gimilen is a piece with lots of disorientating quarter-tones and close intervals that may set your teeth on edge. Ness has in general moved from a more swift and hectic idiom towards slowness and simplicity in his work, though this piece doesn’t give the impression of being simple, and there are also sections of considerable rapidity. Bell-like timbres and earthy sounds rise and fall, allied to a strangely unsophisticated view on rhythm. Ness knows what he wants, but if we’d ordered this in a restaurant we might be having second thoughts by the halfway point.

This is a tremendous concert by the superb Cikada Ensemble, and it’s always good to have a little of that adventurous Huddersfield Festival on record. The recording is very good, and if we hadn’t been told there would barely be any clues to this being a live recording: there is more occasional noise from the musicians than from the audience, and there is no applause. I will admit to becoming less patient in middle age and this is all very subjective, but when I come away from this kind of programme I have to ask myself, ‘if this were a sculpture or a painting, would I want it in my home?’ The answer in this case is, alas, no. I’ve enjoyed being shown the pieces and have huge respect for the creativity that has driven them into existence, but have already smiled to indicate my sympathetic if less than comprehending attitude, and moved on to the next gallery. You, of course, may want to linger longer.

Dominy Clements

 

 




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