Divers instruments of music likewise to you unknown

I wasn’t there last Saturday, in Huddersfield Town Hall at the dead of night. So I can only write a compromised response to a partial experience. Richard Barrett’s music is so inherently physical in the way it is conceived and arranged – disposed and composed – that anything not in the flesh is almost not there at all.

Well, I exaggerate, but listening to CONSTRUCTION via Radio 3′s online broadcast falls even shorter than usual of the complete picture. CONSTRUCTION is a work so detailed in its working-out, so expansive and spatial in its design, that a stereo stream (even in HD) will always be found wanting.

But here goes.

More than two hours in length, CONSTRUCTION has occupied Barrett for at least six years. Its programme note advertises it in 20 separate parts, but its shape is more complicated than a simple list. Wounds I–V, for example are as much the five movements of a miniature violin concerto as they are separate pieces (although most (?all) have already been performed as such). All of the 20 ‘movements’ of CONSTRUCTION belong to one of four such cycles running throughout the work. And CONSTRUCTION itself, of course, belongs to the much larger cycle of compositions Resistance and Vision.

Another of those CONSTRUCTION movements, heliocentric, is itself a tessellation of several smaller Barrett works to have emerged in recent years. These include the clarinet duo Hypnerotomachia, the flugelhorn and trombone duo Aurora, and the flute and recorder duo Città del sole (now renamed Adocentyn).

Any one of these duos is therefore a work within a work within a cycle within a work within a cycle. As CONSTRUCTION unfolds in real time, the upper and lower boundaries of that ecosystem – the little duo and the overall cycle – are invisible. We are somewhere in the middle, a chosen screenshot within an animated fractal dive. Extending the ecosystem metaphor, perhaps somewhere on the level of organisms or communities.

This sounds like an impossibly complicated design, its execution over nearly 150 minutes a utopian folly. And it’s probably meant to come across that way – utopias, and their relationship to the poorer reality in which we live, is the work’s underlying subject. However, because it is a work of art, it is able to put its own idealism into action, to send it out into the world and let it concretise into an existence of its own.

There’s more here than it is possible to write about. (Perhaps that’s why, as I write myself on Tuesday evening, I can find no other reviews from press or blogs.)

Some favourite things: the sudden emergence of familiar elements from Aurora or Wound II; the rotating solar system, ordered and chaotic, of heliocentric; the blend of electronics and acoustic instruments; the devastating control of one colossal span of time; the staggering instrumental colour.

Some things that either surprised me or still need processing: the children’s playground recording; the final ‘resolution’ of the work’s own utopian goals into improvisation.

For now, that’s all I can manage. CONSTRUCTION is available on the BBC’s iPlayer until the end of the week. I suggest you have a listen.

26 ½ hours in Huddersfield

Friday, 3.30pm

I don’t know why I expected it to be otherwise, but I’m still surprised not to see the area around the station full of people obviously on their way to a new music festival. There aren’t any useful maps either. Google just gave me a large white area around the station, minimal landmarks. I pick a road leading off the square and head vaguely towards my guesthouse.

5.00pm

I get really turned around in Huddersfield’s shopping streets and it takes me a while to find the University, and subsequently the venue for the first concert of the festival. Still no sign of anyone vaguely festival related. In Warsaw you can’t miss them. Instead, some students hang listlessly around the foyer of the Central Services Building. It’s warm and dry and there are seats and a vending machine, so I make temporary camp until the first concert, the UK première of Wolfgang Rihm’s -ET LUX-, performed by the Arditti Quartet and Hilliard Ensemble.

7.00pm

Rihm’s piece ends, an hour after beginning, to the general bemusement and meh of almost everyone I heard express a view. My own thoughts: pretty enough, I liked the harmonic language, which smeared back and forth between Renaissance-y consonance and expressionistic dissonance, but it all seemed an uneasy mix of Tavener and Taverner, and I still don’t know why it came to be written or what I was supposed to get from it. On paper this was a blockbuster way to open a festival, but in reality, yawn.

8.00pm

The main reason I’m here: Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth. The stage is full of instruments, but looks unlike any performance set-up I’ve ever seen. It’s tremendously crowded, too, for just 11 performers. None of the players are on stage yet. The electronic prelude to Opening, Landschaft mit Umenwesen is playing over the loudspeakers, increasingly compressing with giant bass roars the hubbub of the audience taking their seats. The players make their way, discretely, one by one onto the stage. Carl Rosman, the conductor, is last. Landschaft mit Umenwesen suddenly stops; a split second later he gives his first downbeat.

9.30pm

Stunned. I worried at first that the amplification, used throughout, would be too much: some of the early vibraphone passages in abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschreiben distorted. [Edit: I’ve since been told this wasn’t distortion as such, but rather the amplification accentuating the beating patterns in those opening vibe chords. It’s also intentional, which in retrospect makes sense. Coming to the live performance from the recording, though, it did leap out at you.] From where I was sat (near stage right), I thought that the flute (stage left) got a rough deal, but I gather in a later conversation that this wasn’t so apparent if you were sat nearer the middle. I’m still not sure that Engführung II couldn’t happily be cut by a few minutes. But quibbles aside, an extraordinary performance. Deborah Kayser in particular, I thought, was on fire.

Hearing this piece on CD is less than 50 per cent of the music. Most of the notes (especially in the percussion) aren’t apparent from the recording, but are obvious visually from Peter Neville’s flying limbs. The amplification roughened everything, giving the sounds real tack and abrasion. The improvised passages are vicious.

The whole dimension of utterance (its impossibility made possible through the actions of Celan’s poetry and Barrett’s music) is much better seen with the singers in front of you, than hidden behind the screen of a CD player. The ritual aspect, too, has to be seen. So powerful is this sense of ritual communion, of a shared congregational activity between performers and audience (an engagement achieved solely through the penetration of the music, not through any cheap, ‘participation’ gimmicks) that when the purely electronic movement Zungenentwürzeln arrives, the sense of temporary divestment from live, human actions to the music of a pre-recording unmistakably recalled the offertory of the Mass, when the intensity of ritual participation relents, allowing space for private contemplation and a moment to relax.

That sounds like a liturgical reading, but it’s not meant to be exclusively so. I’m just describing what I felt within its ritual structure through the parallels of the ritual with which I am most familiar.

I’m starving, though, so I have to dash into town for fast-food relief before I have a chance to speak to anyone.

11.00pm

I’m not sure how that could be followed. And I barely know Anthony Braxton’s music (and haven’t found much to love in it yet), so I know even less how well a sequence of three of his piano compositions (Nos.1, 10 and 32, played by Geneviève Foccroulle) is going to work. The first few seconds of No.1, angular and obviously indebted to Stockhausen’s early Klavierstücke, kick in. I settle in for a long haul.

Saturday, 12.15am

I shouldn’t have worried. No.32 is 35 minutes of fortissimo clusters, exploding like a thousand suns in the sonic universe of a continually depressed sustain pedal. It is utterly, utterly mad, unlike anything I’ve heard before.

No.10 I thought was just another graphic score. Possibly remarkable to study or to play from, but I didn’t find it so to listen to.

No.1 was a complete revelation. Those opening seconds, it turned out, were just Braxton’s little joke. He was more interested in a weird, warped, post-serial kind of jazz. Where was the jazz? Somewhere in the rhythms, which swung something like the shoulders of a stride pianist, somewhere in the melodies, which crept in in tiny fragments here and there but were never forgotten. But mostly it was in the pianism of treble, middle and bass lines. A bass line in late 60s avant-garde piano music? Strange but true. This music shouldn’t hold together. It shouldn’t exist. Any other composer would have tightened it up, cleaned out a lot of the extraneous material, given it some clarity of structure. And that would have been boring as hell.

9.30am

Over breakfast with some Dutch performers Braxton is the main topic of conversation. And when we say Braxton, we all mean the long, shattering, unique and baffling No.32. It’s the sort of piece that profoundly impresses people, but to such an extent that it’s hard to find anyone prepared to say much about it even a day later. The mental dust still hasn’t settled enough.

10.00am

Harvey in conversation, and a showing of Barrie Gavin’s film Towards and Beyond. Harvey says a few interesting things – most memorably about the inherently more interesting dynamic of the spectral hierarchy over a serial flatness – but it is Gavin’s film that really impresses. A beautifully contemplative piece of work – for one long passage towards the end the filming essentially stops entirely, and hands over to the sound of Harvey’s Madonna of Winter and Spring. I’ve never wanted to hear Harvey’s music at length more than this, something I must rectify soon.

1.00pm

Sarah Nicolls – Michael van der Aa: Transit; Atau Tanaka: new work; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: Un clou, son marteau, et le béton. My head isn’t in a place that’s terribly fair to Nicolls. After Barrett, Braxton and a real taste for Harvey I feel like I’ve got more than enough value out of my time here already, and I don’t really want anything to upset that state of balance.

3.00pm

Ensemble Exposé. Everyone is talking Barrett and Braxton. I don’t know if it was chance, but the two together seemed like an inspired piece of programming. Even the Rihm fitted this plan, even if it didn’t measure up musically: as a feature-length ritual exploration it was set up as a perfect intro to Opening. Credit to Graham McKenzie and the festival organisers.

Exposé’s programme notes (and not just theirs) are plagued by the language of the funding application not the aesthetic document. I’m not sure that the music measured up to the explanations either (which is their fault more than the music’s, I instinctively feel). Christopher Redgate is an extraordinary player in any language, though. The concert might have been better heard in a smaller venue than Bates Mill (which was also noisy from rain drumming on the roof and running down the gutters), but the pieces by Archbold and Redgate in particular came across well.

6.00pm

A bit of last-minute rescheduling means I’m able to catch James Dillon (in conversation with Robert Worby). He’s surprisingly honest, open and unprickly, particularly given some of the questions, which weren’t the most penetrating.

I’ve completely failed to meet any of the people I’d meant to introduce myself to (I’m the world’s worst networker), but it’s almost time to catch my train, it’s wet and the homing beacon has clicked on. I grab something to eat and head for the station.