ELISION at King’s Place, reviewed

Sum Over Histories

Elliott Carter: Hiyoku
Chris Dench: sum over histories
Richard Barrett: Hypnerotomachia (wp)
Aaron Cassidy: I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips
Michael Finnissy: Marrngu
Evan Johnson
: Apostrophe 1 (all communicate is a form of complaint) (ukp)

Members of ELISION:
Richard Haynes, clarinets
Carl Rosman, voice, clarinets

King’s Place, 2 November 2009

As it turned out, Carter’s Hiyoku wasn’t an entirely representative prologue to this concert. True, there isn’t much contemporary repertoire for two clarinets, and suitable preludes must be even harder to find. Although it was beautifully played, with the rolling suspensions in the second half of the piece flowing seamlessly out of one another, it was a deceptively soft-edged way to begin an ELISION recital. Chris Dench’s sum over histories, for bass and contrabass clarinet, set a more familiar tone. I’ve said before that I don’t really get on with Dench’s music, and still don’t get on with the first half of this piece. As its gestural language gradually thins out over the course of the piece I find it easier to get into, but that only leaves me more puzzled about the earlier bits. It’s not clear at what level I should be listening: to microscopic detail, or macro-level form. The work’s intricacy at its opening strongly suggests the former, but this never really hooks me, and I find myself drifting around the piece not sure of what it wants from me.

Richard Barrett’s Hypnerotomachia, for two clarinets in A, was brand new and quite a surprise. I’ve never heard Barrett’s music sound with such a slow harmonic rhythm, or sound in such smoothly curved phrases. I don’t want to give the impression that any of the edge of his explorations of instrumental technique has been softened: instead of the jagged forms of another clarinet piece like knospend-gespaltener, for example, I heard the activity and effort compressed through tiny nuances of glissandi, microtones, tremolandi and multiphonic chords. The work is conceived in broadly heterophonic terms – the two clarinets are thoroughly intertwined, exploring similar paths through the material. Amplification further blends them into one instrument, as the two sound sources on stage are combined in the mixing desk and retransmitted through the speakers. Sitting to one side of the stage it was often impossible to separate the two instrumentalists.

Every moment of the 16 minutes of Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 1, for two bass clarinets, sounds impossible: there shouldn’t be room for such detail in such a narrow margin at the edge of the audible. The material that might be found in such seams shouldn’t be capable of sustaining a large-scale symphonic argument. Johnson creates genuine magic in his music, and this is a beautiful piece. The performers sit with their backs to us, an instruction that is emphatically made on acoustic not theatrical grounds, but the combination of visual and acoustic impressions produces interesting interference patterns in one’s reception of the piece. The sound is inevitably muffled, but so are any visual cues as to who might be playing what. The sense of screening off, on several levels at once, was powerful, and added a whole new dimension of mystery to the piece. I’m not sticking my neck out when I say that if he keeps up this standard, Johnson’s music will be with us for a very long time.

Haynes and Rosman took one solo piece each: Haynes’s rendition of Finnissy’s Marrngu for E-flat clarinet was as physically committed as you would expect: the concluding ascent into the fortissimo stratosphere of the instrument was almost too piercing. Rosman set aside his clarinet for Cassidy’s I, purples, for voice and computer. The score indicates (in Cassidy’s typically hyper-complex manner) everything but pitch: this is determined live by the computer, which plays a continually changing glissando audible only to the performer, from which the pitch to be sung at any moment is selected. I realise I’m going to sound like those critics who carped at Boulez and Stockhausen in the 1950s when I say this, but I wonder how many of Cassidy’s original intentions actually survive the processes of notation, performance and reception. Not, I stress, in terms of whether the piece is strictly playable – Rosman demonstrates emphatically that it is – but whether the succeeding concretisations of the idea at each stage don’t blunt the transmission of detail and nuance to the next stage. Barrett and Finnissy, for example, keep in sight certain solidities – such as an easily graspable structural framework, a sonic directness, a particularly clear gestural vocabulary (the deafening conclusion to Marrngu, for example) – that I don’t find so easily in Cassidy’s music. I worry that it is all weight and cladding without the necessary steel skeleton. That in itself is not an unattractive idea, though, now that I write it down. It’s the sort of conceit that is better explored in music than architecture, certainly. Jury’s still out here, but you can form your own impressions thanks to YouTube: this video was recorded during rehearsals at King’s Place.

An alternative review of this concert, by Stephen Graham, may be read at Musical Criticism.


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