Just over a week ago in Huddersfield ELISION presented a concert of four works by postgraduate composers Alex Jang, Pedro Alvarez, Matthew Sergeant and Luke Paulding, followed by a realisation of Richard Barrett’s CODEX IV for four improvising musicians.
These being student works, there were naturally areas where more experience and development in the future will count. But more importantly, I heard four distinct voices, each attempting a tricky artistic problem, and each coming up with a musically intriguing result.
Jang’s Retracings, for trumpet and percussion, was instrumentally and formally the lightest of the pieces; it had a much lower density of activity, at times stripping down to just the sizzle of a cymbal or rumble of a bass drum. It was also, I think, less concerned with weight and presence, and more a sort of spectral afterglow.
At several points one felt a distinct sense of dissipation, but the music was so low-key that there was rarely a sense of where we might have dissipated from. It is a piece possessed of strange and unidentifiable energies. Yet it somehow made a shape for itself. Although fragmentary in style, Jang’s use of a controlled timbral palette (dominated by sizzling or brushing sounds) prevented it from becoming too discontinuous.
The balance of activity between the two players is interesting. The music is dominated by the percussion, with the trumpet playing a very aphoristic role, certainly not acting as a melodic voice in its own right. It’s less of a duo than a solo + 1. Alex told me afterwards that he intended the trumpet as an extension of the metallic percussion instruments – its music came from the timbre and gestural language of percussion, rather than brass. And again, the choice of a sonic palette is a dominant feature.
Alvarez’s Debris was the least ‘ELISION-y’ of the four pieces, in that it didn’t emphasise virtuosity, and set its formal argument on the macro- rather than micro-level. It is arranged in sharply defined panels, which are continually shuffled and varied as the piece progresses. The composer’s notes refer to ‘negat[ing] aesthetic ideals of fluency and continuity’, and the idea of gate-switching between different gestural states is important. In addition to a small set of restricted (and related) instrumental textures, two further elements were in play: an electronic patch that was a sort of mellowed aggregrate of the previous instrumental sound, and very short bursts of noisy, saturated improvisation.
In an unexpected way it owed a debt to minimalism, or post-minimalism, like a Michael Gordon without half an eye on its audience. Certainly Alvarez is tackling the themes of continuity, rupture, form, duration and so on familiar from minimalism, but doing so with less easily assimilated materials so as not to let the work slip into a new agey/Arcadian mode. I liked it more than I thought I would, if I’m honest. On stage its longeurs are forgotten, and its subtle shifts in rhythm and texture are well-judged to maintain a sense of inquisitive experiment. I wasn’t convinced by the improvised interjections/punctuations, but they require such a vertiginous change in playing that I appreciate they may be hard to bring off successfully.
There’s a very obvious temptation for a young composer invited to write for a group like ELISION to forget any considerations of technique or practicality, and just let your ideas run to their limit. Matthew Sergeant cannot be accused of not taking this opportunity.
yimrehanne krestos is a trio for flugelhorn, alto trombone and percussion. It’s about 11 minutes long but it is played at a ferocious speed and, for the two brass players, completely without a break. In truth, it stepped beyond the boundary of the possible. In one passage percussion notes are flying past at a rate of about 10 per second. With grace notes in between. The writing for flugelhorn and trombone (!) hits similar speeds at times.
That’s what the score says, anyway. In practice ELISION brought the tempo down a notch, although not that you could tell from the dementedly fast sticks that Peter Neville brought out on the night. Most astonishingly it wasn’t just a blur, but playing that retained its contours of rhythm and timbre. Similarly, how Tristram Williams and Ben Marks coped without so much as a quaver’s rest between them I will never know.
But this piece is more than a speed-fuelled thrash. Yimrehanne Krestos is the name of an Ethiopian negus, and a church supposedly constructed by him deep inside a volcanic cave. From what I know it sounds an extraordinary, uncanny and bizarre place. The church is constructed of wood, and behind it lie the mummified bodies of some 10,000 pilgrims and workmen. At the front of the cave is a spring that supposedly has healing properties.
You can get a sense of the place from this video:
Having all this in mind (although I was lucky to be pre-informed – there were no programme notes), I parsed the work as a brass/percussion duo, in which the two brass enacted or suggested a complex of ghostly presences, fear, precariousness, mortality, presence. There’s an obvious apocalypse/trumpets route through there, but aspects of the sinuous counterpoint, rhythm and over-abundance of material made it richer than that. The percussion meanwhile was arranged in three clear sections: scrubbing brushes on bongo skins; tom-toms, bongos and congas played with Thai sticks (the passage mentioned above); and vibraphone (motor off, very hard sticks). One could hear this as a journey – outside/inside? arid/liquid? towards clarity? revelation? That’s a thematically appropriate but very literal reading; actually the shifts in the brass/percussion balance that take place throughout the piece complicate this picture.
There was an interesting continuity between Sergeant’s piece and Paulding’s where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, in which similar instrumentation is brought to bear on another perspective on the afterlife. Again the brass appeared as the conduit to another world, but with the Messianic clangour of yimrehanne krestos replaced by something more ungraspable, internal, fearful.
I’ve already introduced the piece, but on the night it wasn’t without its surprises. Most unexpected was the rice which, having been poured into a collection of shallow trays and bowls, is struck like conventional percussion, causing clouds of grain to fly into the air, a beautiful and intentional visual effect. The overall soundworld was also much more fragile than its score suggests, a realm of apparitions of sound from all three players.
The concert ended with Barrett’s CODEX IV, a guided improvisation in which the four players made maximal use of the sounds, mutes and percussion instruments already on stage to close the concert with a network of incidental sonic connections.
And then it was time to sweep the rice.