Of the early concerts of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, Cecilie Ore’s ‘shadow opera’ A stood out as one of the most intriguing. A hour-long electroacoustic/video work, to be shown late at night in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: what’s not to like?

I knew the music a little already from the Aurora recording (featured on Radio Rambler earlier this year), but before yesterday I didn’t know much else about what it was about (Paal-Helge Haugen’s libretto is mostly in Norwegian), or even quite how it would be staged. I liked the sound of it though, its relentlessly doomy gongs, so was looking forward to this.

One practical thing first: the decision to stage it in the sculpture park was baffling. In fact, it was staged within an identikit white box – the park’s Longside Gallery – that could have been anywhere, and surely didn’t necessitate the 30-minute coach journey there and back. Since it was long past sundown (the concert began at 10.30pm), the only part of the surroundings that was visible in any case was the car park. The school trip atmosphere was quite fun, but that was about it.

On the work itself, I was really split. Really. This was, I gather, a new video realisation (by Torbjørn Lunggren), so I’m still unsure as to what earlier productions have looked like. (You try googling “A”.) Some bits I liked; others not so much. Text, textiness, texuality: it’s all key to the work’s aesthetic. The ‘story’ is basically that of Agamemnon’s siege against Troy, told through his own interior monologue. Aware of the horrors he has perpetrated he defaults to linguistic constructions for his justification: ‘It was order. It was the world. It was revenge. It had to happen. It was an order.’ Words, and especially their formality, are the source of this power (note the pun on ‘order’).

At the same time, words are suspect, and subordinate to action. The libretto’s key couplet occurs near the middle of the piece: ‘Revenge is order. Forgiveness is chaos.’ The action of Grecian order versus the words of Christian chaos.

This is powerful stuff (drawing heavily, I think, on the original Greek), and it moved me. Ore’s stripped down soundtrack – behind the spoken voices inside Agamemnon’s consciousness there is little more than roiling gong sounds and whisps of sibiliance – achieved a powerful rituality, if at the expense of variation or nuance. But then Troy was never the place for subtlety. Most impressive was its dramatic pacing: somehow it ended exactly where one felt it should, although there were few clues in music or visuals that the end was coming up.

On the negative side of the ledger, however, one has to mention the video. This was closely modelled on Ore’s music, in that it, too, made use of a minimal number of motifs and materials. In this case, a Matrix-like datastream of phrases for each chorus section, interspersed with fixed texts that were either projected as flat and static, or whose letters fell down the screen, as 3D blocks, like collapsing buildings. The ideas were nice enough, but some of the graphics felt like they had been rushed to completion. There was the same issue of repetitiveness as in the music, but again this sort of worked within the ascetic context of the drama. What bothered me most was that – inevitably, I guess, when you’re pushing bits of Helvetica around a screen – it all looked a bit, well, Powerpointy.

As I say though, I came out of it all genuinely in two minds. Emotionally, it really connected; intellectually, I’m not so sure. Aaaaargh.

P.S. 5against4 made it to the Ore premiere – Come to the Edge – on Saturday.


Just what London needs


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.

From Studien 2: Das Meer

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 MoosbruggerFonds, 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.