Concert review: Borealis Festival Launch

Borealis Festival Launch

Mark Knoop, piano
Rolf Borch, clarinet
Baltazar/Habbestad, flute and electronics
MoHa!, guitar, drums, keyboard
Simon Katan and members of Trinity College of Music, escalators, video

King’s Place, 25 January 2010

A sort of new-music variety show, this. As a concert, it was a little bitty (although I found some of the juxtapositions very revealing), but as a taster for the Borealis Festival, taking place in Bergen next month, it was tantalising.

It was also a showcase for the technical expertise and flexibility that they have at King’s Place. Five different acts, including piano, electronics duo (and 12-channel sound diffusion), film and an industrial duo with a mega-watt lighting rig – all on the compact stage of Hall Two. Few venues would be able to manage all this so seamlessly, so hats off right there.

As to the music: Mark Knoop played short piano pieces by Gerhard Stäbler, Kunsu Shim and Bryn Harrison. Shim’s music was completely unknown to me before tonight. It was quite gentle, mobile-like, but not flimsy. It formed an interesting and unexpected bridge between Stäbler’s flinty agit-prop and Harrison’s Feldman-esque shimmer. The other ‘traditional’ new music performer, clarinettist Rolf Borch, played Jennifer Walshe’s THIS IS WHY PEOPLE O.D. ON PILLS, a structured improvisation guided by the experience of skateboarding. A short and bathetically funny film introduced Borch’s novice attempts at learning to skateboard as part of his preparations for the piece. Of course, you’re not expected to be able to reverse-engineer a skateboard ride from the music that is played, but knowledge of that background did help shape and colour my experience of Borch’s playing.

Baltazar and Habbestad are an electronic and flute duo, working with an 12-channel sound system. Their piece was listed as an improvisation, renamed a composition, but I think it fell somewhere between the two. It’s always very difficult to tell exactly how something like this is put together, but it seemed to originate mostly if not all from live flute playing, which was then heavily processed, dismantled, reassembled, and thrown around the space. On one level the sonic transformations taking place were very exciting. On another, it all started to get a bit samey. Too much change, too constantly, starts to lose the capacity to surprise. Maybe I’m being harsh: but the contrast with Stäbler’s two short piano pieces, both of which were full of self-subverting oddness, was striking.

But Baltazar and Habbestad possibly aren’t out to confront expectations quite so forcefully as Stäbler. MoHa!, on the other hand, and in their different way, presumably are. A guitar/keyboards and drums duo, they served up a monstrous barrage of industrial noise and a blinding light show. Their playing was awesome: everything was brutal metrical shifts and angular riffs, all impossibly well controlled. 20 minutes of that, all composed, all played from memory. Simple and bludgeoning in one dimension; intelligent and subtle in another.

Finally, the item that probably attracted most attention: Simon Katan’s composition for the King’s Place escalators. The premise was simple: the performers (all Trinity students) each wore a sandwich board with a large coloured disc on the front, and a large coloured O on the back. When they stepped onto the escalators, a video tracking system would pick up the empty or filled-in circle and trigger a sample. The composing parameters were thus to do with how many performers were on the escalators, how fast they travelled, whether they went up or down, faced front or back, and so on. I think the sample bank also changed throughout the piece.

The pleasure in such pieces is always in the ways that the composer lays out his parameters, and then finds surprising flexibility and richness from an apparently closed system. They work best when the composer finds something that the audience – who are tempted to think ‘I could have done that’ – won’t have thought of. Katan’s piece thoroughly explored all of the possibilities that were available to him, and produced some intriguing moments, but I just didn’t find that moment of inspiration that would really have lifted the piece. It’s a neat idea, though, with a lot of potential – other venues would be present different opportunities. It would also be a great piece for kids.

This concert will be broadcast on Radio 3’s Hear and Now on 20th February.

One thought on “Concert review: Borealis Festival Launch

  1. “The pleasure in such pieces is always in the ways that the composer lays out his parameters, and then finds surprising flexibility and richness from an apparently closed system. They work best when the composer finds something that the audience – who are tempted to think ‘I could have done that’ – won’t have thought of.”

    Well said.

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