Last week saw the first edition of the London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music, a new showcase for serious modern composition. It’s surprising that such a festival should be necessary in a city like London, which prides itself on its world-class musical offerings, and its wealth of venues and performing ensembles. But, sadly, it is.
The bigger venues – like the Southbank, Barbican Centre, and so on – have become adept at Total Immersions, birthday parties or fairground attractions. But works that are harder to programme in this way don’t often get a look in – works for smaller ensembles or soloists, or works that don’t have an easily packaged hook. Work that constitute the bulk of new musical activity, in fact. Since the demise of the BMIC’s Cutting Edge series a few years ago, it has become even harder to hear such works live in the UK’s capital.
Which is why LEF is so welcome. Yes, you could complain that these were small works played in small venues to relatively small audiences (although the numbers were good for the venues chosen). But the intimacy and quality of the musical experience for those who did go was greater, I would suggest, than that for some more obviously glitzy events elsewhere.
Prior commitments meant that I was only able to attend two concerts (out of an impressive 11), on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. On Saturday I saw the Norwegian ensembles Nordic Voices and Bit20 in a split programme of works for voices and/or percussion by mostly Norwegian or Norwegian-based composers – Arne Nordheim, Rolf Wallin, Cecilie Ore, Lasse Thoresen and Craig Farr – alongside pieces by Peter Ablinger and Giacinto Scelsi. I enjoyed in particular Nordheim’s Response IV for four percussion and tape, proggy, indebted to its time (1977) and no less joyous for that; and Wallin’s xylophone and marimba duo Twine, which wove atmospheric, minimalist-y textures with skittering runs and arpeggios in increasingly complex patterns.
The best work, by common consent it seemed, was Ablinger’s Studien nach der natur, 10 short pieces (of 40 seconds each) that each attempt to transcribe a natural or man-made sound for six a cappella voices. The scores (available via Ablinger’s website) have the sort of of detail you would expect from a composer so deeply engaged with the processes of transcription, and the resulting performance was extremely realistic.
But – like oh so much of Ablinger’s music – there was more at work here than mere gimmicry or mimicry. The redundancies that are built into the process of painstakingly notating the sound of the sea, or a motorway, or an electrical hum, and then painstakingly rehearsing and performing it, are obvious, but they bounce the listener’s attention on to alternative questions of efficacy, value, meaning and form. Our idea of place, for example, or of reproduction or capture, or the tiny – almost tragical – narratives that inevitably form: why the squeal of tyres as the car accelerates into the distance? Why did the fly stop buzzing? Why was the sea, suddenly, no longer heard?
The Sunday evening concert was given by the excellent Ensemble Phoenix Basel, and made a fitting climax to what, by all accounts that I heard, had been an extremely successful few days. Unlike Nordic Voices/Bit20, Phoenix brought just four pieces, of roughly 15 minutes each. This made for a more rounded programme. Switzerland was represented in the second half by Hanspeter Kyburz (Danse Aveugle) and Franz Furrer-Münch (Skizzenbuch), while the first half featured Wayang, by LEF co-director Gwyn Pritchard, and a new piece by Alexander Moosbrugger, Fonds, Schach, Basar. After Pritchard’s knotty, uncompromising, but carefully coloured Wayang – an investigation of shading and shadows, rather than anything specific in Balinese culture – the concert gradually grew in momentum. Moosbrugger’s new work introduced a turntable, playing a crackly recording of András Schiff, in between dark ensemble writing and passing (nostalgic?) hints of Baroque harmonies. It didn’t grab me on first hearing, I confess. Maybe its heterogeneity and transitions between live and recorded materials would cohere better on disc. Danse Aveugle was typical Kyburz, a vibrant, energetic, shape-shifting stream. Perhaps not his best work, but enjoyed here. Furrer-Münch, a composer I had talked up a little before the festival, and whose music I have really enjoyed discovering over the last few weeks, closed off proceedings. Like many of his works seem to be, in unexpected ways, Skizzenbuch is a peculiar piece. Which is what has attracted me to his work. Its four short movements take the sketchbook idea seriously, being not only partly sketched themselves, but also relating to one another in only the very loosest ways, almost as though entirely separate leaves from that book.
The performances in both concerts I saw were very strong, and given the calibre of musicians performing on other dates I imagine they were throughout the festival. But on top of interesting, original music, seriously treated, the festival managed to pull off a special intimacy, among the audience, composers and performers. By being focused on two small venues just round the corner from each other, and by incorporating other perks such as extremely reasonably priced food and drink in the festival club, pre-concert events, late night shows, and so on, a London festival was able to achieve the warmth, openness and community vibe that you only usually get in smaller regional towns. Lauren Redhead (who has written her own appreciation of LEF) compared it to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but I’d say it goes even further than that in its villagey atmosphere. This really is a unique asset, and one for which the festival’s organisers are to be greatly commended. There are rumours of a second festival in a couple of years. Fingers crossed that that happens, and that the London Ear is able to build on such a strong start.