A late late report from the London Ear

Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari hadn’t planned on running a second edition of their contemporary music festival, the London Ear, quite so soon after the first. Yet that proved such a success last year that they consented to do something like an edition 1.5, a halfway house before a larger event, perhaps in 2015 or 2016. But the process overtook the planning, and before long a four-day programme of events was in place and the Second London Ear was on its way.

Taking place a month ago now (sorry …) this was an event that very much built upon its achievements last year. The festival seems to to have found an audience for itself – one that I’m pleased to say includes many unfamiliar faces. The three young performers who were introduced last year – Jenni Hogan (flute), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Tom Bayman (cello) – were given a second opportunity to show their work, in the festival’s opening reception concert. Once again we were hosted by the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo, this time surrounded by the paintings of Gillian Ingham. And once again there was a very convivial, I guess ’boutique’ atmosphere that comes from this being a compact festival that places a premium on interaction and engagement.

As well as the three young performers, this year the festival players were accordionist Eva Zöllner, violinist Victoria Johnson, the London Sinfonietta, 7090, We Spoke, Uroboros, and an impromptu trio of three soloists from Berlin, Antje Mart Schäffer (soprano), Franka Herwig (accordion) and Matthias Bauer (double bass). I was also involved in a small way, hosting first a preview show on Resonance FM a week before the festival, and then chairing three composer roundtable conversations before the evening concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

 

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(l–r: Georg Katzer, Gwyn Pritchard, me, Eric de Clercq, Andrea Cavallari, talking before the Saturday evening concert)

I missed the daytime concerts by Zöllner and Johnson, as well as 7090 and We Spoke’s joint brunch concert on the Sunday, but I still made it to six more in the four days. Too many pieces and too many performances for me to give a detailed run-down of everything, but here are some of my highlights:

  • Georg Katzer’s Three Disparate Essays in the London Sinfonietta’s Friday night concert was truly startling. Just so imaginative, accommodating without ever being obvious, clever without being smug, and quite quite beautiful. Possibly my favourite single piece of the weekend, and really sensitively played by the Sinfonietta’s Timothy Lines, David Alberman and Rolf Hind. (Katzer was also a good sport in taking part in all three of my pre-concert roundtable, and an interesting man.)
  • Bauer was one of the festival’s star soloists: on Friday night his brilliant (and funny) clown-like double bass and voice improvisation almost stole the show. He was as good again the following evening in Helmut Oehring’s bass solo, Baudelaire (envirez-vous!).
  • I liked both Oehring pieces in that concert – the other being the accordion solo gestopfte LEERE.
  • In fact, that early Saturday evening concert – shared by 7090, the Berlin soloists and Serge Vuille (percussion) – may have been the festival’s best in terms of the strength of its pieces: I liked Pritchard’s Three Songs of Mass and Motion, and Cavallari’s Ieri ho sofferto il dolore matched its origins in the troubling life story of poet Alda Merini; both pieces specially written for the festival. Strange Desires by Trevor Grahl, a “bizarre quasi-cabaret” well suited the personae of the three 7090 players, and made an interesting companion piece to the two extracts from bas&koen&nora that we had heard from the same players the night before. Kagel’s Tango Aleman, also part of the same concert, maintained the buffo-serio mood.
  • Of the final concert, Heinz Holliger’s 1966 Trio was the stand out piece, and made a fittingly high quality conclusion to the festival.

Lots of good things then. But with the festival looking ahead to its third instance, it’s not inappropriate to cast a more critical eye too. One thing that does characterise the London Ear is its reliance on smaller pieces, generally for just one, two, or three instruments. Besides helping with certain structural and financial impositions, this has some artistic benefits: the festival is able to shine a light on some overlooked areas of the repertoire that don’t attract much support from the larger institutions. It is also able to include an attractively wide spread of composers within a relatively short space of time. And the listening experience itself gains a certain intimacy when the concerts are on this scale, as I have already suggested. These things are all great, and are essential to the festival’s style.

However, at the same time this approach does mean that many of the composers who are featured are represented only by their slighter compositions. When so many of these are so rarely heard in the UK at all, it seems a pity not to be able to profile one or two of them to a deeper extent. The same might be said of some of the better-known composers too. It was a shame, for example, to have 7090 more or less in residence at the festival, but to have them only perform two pieces from the bas&koen&nora set that Michael Finnissy had written specifically for them: these were the first UK performances of any of these fascinating pieces (I believe), and given that the work is so closely associated with 7090 themselves, we may have to wait a while to hear the whole thing in this country. (You can buy a recording, however, which I recommend.) A little more variation in concert format might help accommodate this sort of thing – rather than every concert containing lots of shorter pieces. This would have helped break up the rhythm a little and, ironically, helped give the whole festival a little more focus.

Another awkward case was Serge Vuille’s performance of the flashy percussion solo Assonance VII by Michael Jarrell, as part of the 7090/Berlin trio Saturday evening concert mentioned above. Most of the music took place in a small space at the centre of the stage, between the piano and two music stands. But one end of the stage was occupied by a very large percussion set-up that visually dominated the space yet was only used for the one piece. (Here’s a video of Vassilena Serafimova playing Assonance VII in Eindhoven to give you an idea.) I enjoyed the piece, and Vuille’s performance was outstanding, but its presence on this occasion really unbalanced what was otherwise a programme with a very distinctive character of its own. The fact that this concert – which otherwise involved no Swiss players or composers – was the one supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, and was followed by a reception hosted by the Swiss Embassy, did give one pause for thought, however, about the delicate but inevitable balance between the artistic and the pragmatic.

I’m quibbling. I realise it’s very difficult to execute both things that I’m asking for here: a coherent, focussed programme that is also diverse, original and multi-faceted. The fact that it’s all done (still) with no support from any of the major UK arts organisations is a fact both remarkable and shaming. The London Ear remains an excellent new venture that I hope will cement a place as an essential part of the London new music calendar; if it can do so without having to depend on the generosity of overseas embassies, so much the better.

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Reviews resurrected: EXAUDI at the Warehouse, October 2009

Resurrected because it features my first encounter with a couple of pieces on EXAUDI’s forthcoming disc for HCR – Stephen Chase’s Jandl Songs, and Claudia Molitor’s lorem ipsum. Not sure why I didn’t mention the pieces by either Gwyn Pritchard or Linda Catlin Smith at the time, and now of course I can’t remember anything about them.

Originally published on Musical Pointers.

Don’t forget the launch concert and party for EXAUDI’s CD, this Saturday, 4th May, at the Only Connect Theatre, Kings Cross.

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EXAUDI, dir. James Weeks

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmer
James Weeks: from Mala Punica
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour
Claudia Molitor: lorem ipsum

The Warehouse, London, 29 October 2009

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

The obvious exception was Agrimbau, and it’s not entirely unrelated that I found his the least satisfying piece of the evening. Instead of establishing for itself a position in critical relation to tradition it preferred to dwell overlong on a series of new music tricks and treats. The dense accompanying notes didn’t help much – the music itself didn’t seem correspondingly dense. On the contrary. Perhaps the philosophical underpinnings would reveal themselves on subsequent hearings. Another puzzle was the relationship between score (described as highly graphic, and featuring emoticons) and the sounding result (which was precisely ordered and didn’t betray any aleatoric origins). Maybe EXAUDI had undertaken a substantial act of David Tudorism in translating the graphics to conventional notation, but then, one has to ask, why the graphics in the first place? All in all, a baffling piece.

The rest were much lighter in tone. The middle movement of Hoh’s mantra:imagine was a Zen-like setting of ‘Pepsi Cola’, but it was the first movement that especially struck me, a series of dense harmonic textures, interrupted by chunks of silence, rather like Ligeti cut into large panels and pegged out on a line.

Ligeti was also recalled inthe group’s director James Weeks’s three pieces from his Mala punica. Each was constructed around canonic procedures that derived great complexity from simple materials. The result was simultaneously airier than Ligeti, but more robust and unsettling. There was a sort of dark madrigalian quality to the individual part writing too, which suggested a greater interest in the Latin texts than Ligeti ever showed in his Requiem or Lux aeterna.

The two stand-out pieces for me were those by Chase and Priestley. Chase’s six Jandl Songs belong to an in-progress series of settings of the avant-garde Austrian poet. The texts themselves are curious, experimental verses, the flavour of which Chase captured perfectly in his clean, but deceptively clever settings. It was impossible to pin down why they worked so well – an explanation sat just out of view – but work they did, extremely well.

Priestley’s Unloose to the Murmer, a sort of deconstruction of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by way of Cageian Musicircus ritual, may have had loftier ambitions – and it didn’t quite reach them as satisfyingly as Chase’s songs – but it was nevertheless a successful and revealing piece. The Orfeo extracts were chopped and tossed together to form a series of choral refrains, which each degraded in turn into aleatoric passages governed by giant sheets of manuscript covered with transparencies, on which were graphic notations for more indeterminate interpretation. The performers were distributed about the space, with a sheet each. After each refrain they removed a transparency each and the cycle began again until all the transparencies were gone, leaving a slow, underlying cantus firmus. The graphic transparencies seemed to suggest movement as well as sound, so the indeterminate sections became miniature theatre pieces. It is more complicated to describe than it was to experience: the effect was actually quite direct, yet with an element of mystery, exactly like Cage. I thought Monteverdi was a good choice for such a treatment: his sectional constructions, melodic simplicity and harmonic and rhythmic robustness mean that he can be bashed around quite a lot without losing his fundamental identity. These are qualities shared, incidentally, by many British composers you might hear at the Warehouse, for whom questions of material and its malleability are central to their aesthetic – Molitor and Weeks, in different ways, might be two more. Priestley, on this evidence, sounds like she shares this interest, and I suspect she will go far with it.

Just what London needs

London-Ear

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.

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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.

EXAUDI at the Warehouse, this Thursday

EXAUDI makes a rare appearance in London this week with an eight-voice programme of the newest contemporary music – much of it to be premiered at this performance. EXAUDI are a staggeringly good choir and not to be missed: if you need some persuasion, here’s what I said about their performance last year at the Spitalfields Festival.

The concert is part of Sound and Music’s The Cutting Edge series and takes place at the Warehouse, next Thursday, at 7.30pm.

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine (2007, UK premiere)
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs (2007-)
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos (2007, UK premiere)
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist (2009, world premiere)
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmur (2009)
James Weeks: from Mala Punica (2008-9)
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour (2004, UK premiere)
Claudia Molitor: Lorem ipsum (2007)

Concert details

7.30pm, Thursday 29 October 2009 The Warehouse, Theed Street, London SE1 8ST Tickets: £10 on the door or £7 online by following the ‘Book tickets’ link here: http://www.soundandmusic.org/activities/events/exaudi-exposure-09.