Three releases from Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Founded in 2009, Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) continues to go from strength to strength. Not only as a showcase for what is surely now the powerhouse for new music in UK academe, but as a record label in its own right.

Ending today (30 September), NMC is offering 20% off all HCR releases. Get yours now.

To help you on your way, here are reviews of the three most recent releases.

Diego Castro Magas: Shrouded Mirrors (HCR10 CD)


The Chilean guitarist Diego Castro Magas is a PhD candidate in performance at Huddersfield. A former student of Oscar Ohlsen, Ricardo Gallén and Fernando Rodríguez, he has in the last decade or so become a specialist in contemporary repertoire (his first release, in 2009, featured the first recording of Ferneyhough’s guitar duet no time (at all), with his Chilean colleague José Antonio Escobar).

A performer clearly keen to push his instrument’s repertory to its limit (witness his remarkable realisation of a kind of nostalgia, written for him by the composer Michael Baldwin), on Shrouded Mirrors he takes on more conventional challenges – in whatever sense music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and some of their younger admirers, Bryn Harrison, Wieland Hoban and Matthew Sergeant, might be considered ‘conventional’.

Hoban’s Knokler I (2009) takes perhaps the most radical approach, using a multi-stave tablature notation and a very low scordatura to distort the sound and physical familiarity of the guitar as much as possible. Based on a poem by the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven, it emphasises the physicality of the guitar (knokler meaning bones in Norwegian), as well as the poem’s collage of images. But whereas many composers working in this fashion (including some of those on this CD) produce music of sharp prickles and vertiginous drops, Hoban writes a queasy, unpredictable melting that is distinctive and strangely attractive.

Sergeant’s bet maryam (2011) is a characteristic blend of the headlong and the eldritch, and (like other works by Sergeant) takes its title from an Ethiopian church – this one a small, rock-hewn building on the Labilela World Heritage site. A feature of the church is a pillar that is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the story of the excavation of Labilela, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Deemed too dangerous for mortal eyes, however, the pillar has been veiled since the 16th century, which Sargeant’s piece expresses through the use of a melodic cycle within the piece that is variously exposed or veiled.

Also notable is Bryn Harrison’s M.C.E. (2010), which is quite the loveliest Harrison piece I have heard in some time. Perhaps a source of its particular expressive clarity is that it is named after M.C. Escher, an artist whose work shares much with Harrison’s own.

Of the pieces by the three ‘senior’ composers, Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II has been recorded several times. I know two versions by Geoffrey Morris, released in 1998 (on Etcetera with ELISION) and by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2000. Castro Magas’s version is the slowest of all three (a relative term), and as a result contains more space; but it also features sharper angles between the music’s intersecting planes (most clearly heard in the third movement’s tapestry of knocks and stabs). The result is more fragmentary, an emphasis found more explicitly in Ferneyhough’s later music, and a thrilling take on a familiar work. Finnissy’s Nasiye (1982, rev. 2002) dates from the period when the composer was writing many solo works based on folk musics from around the world. Nasiye is based on a Kurdish folkdance, which gradually emerges, movingly and with great dignity, from the deeply personalised context Finnissy has given it. The album’s title piece was composed in 1987 by James Dillon, and is a proper slice of old-school complexity, given eloquent justification by Castro Magas’s playing.

Philip Thomas: Beat Generation Ballads (HCR11 CD)


At Huddersfield, Castro Magas’s supervisor is Philip Thomas – a pianist currently on a remarkably prolific recording streak. His own release for HCR concentrates on two major works by Michael Finnissy: First Political Agenda (1989–2006), and Beat Generation Ballads (2014), the latter of which Thomas premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014.

Like its predecessor, and topical relation, English Country-Tunes, First Political Agenda begins with thunderous sweeps across the keyboard. What grows out of their dying echoes, however, is somewhat different: not the ironically distorted pastoralism (those never-quite restful open spaces) of English Country-Tunes, but a darker, rougher manipulation of raw materials. Its second movement draws on the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, while the third – ‘You know what kind of sense Mrs. Thatcher made’ – performs a Chris Newman-esque détournement on Hubert Parry’s theme for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, flipping the ultimate musical signifier of England on its end, flattening it and rendering it distressingly mute: a ghastly, heart-stoppingly empty reflection on the ‘sense’ of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.

Beat Generation Ballads contains further references to Beethoven (and, in its 30-minute final movement, Finnissy’s first extended use of a variation form), as well as Allen Ginsberg, Irish Republican protest songs, Bill Evans, the bassist Scott LeFaro, and the poet Harry Gilonis. In its short first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, it also features music written when the composer was only 16, a typical gesture of Finnissian self-archaeology.

There’s far too much to consider here in what is supposed to be a short review, but works are major statements, not (I think?) previously recorded, and are done justice by Thomas’s intelligent and critically reflective performance.

Heather Roche: Ptelea (HCR09 CD)


This is the oldest of these three releases; that is, it is the one that has been sitting on my desk the longest. Another Thomas student (she completed her PhD at Huddersfield in 2012), the Canadian-born clarinettist Heather Roche needs little introduction among followers of new music in the UK or Germany, where she now lives. One of the most energetic younger players on the scene, she is a founder member of hand werk, has hosted her own competition for young composers, and writes a widely-read (and actually useful!) new music blog.

Ptelea features works by six composers with whom Roche has formed important artistic relationships: Aaron Einbond, Chikako Morishita, Martin Iddon, Martin Rane Bauck, Pedro Alvarez and Max Murray. As first recital discs go, it’s an unusual one: several of the works are hushed affairs, for deep, close listening. No overt virtuosity here – Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) the closest thing to a ‘typical’ recital piece, albeit a contemporary one – although there is clearly much going on just out of earshot.

The repeated, breathy multiphonics of Bauck’s kopenhagener stille (2013), for example, will appeal to fans of Wandelweiser; Murray’s Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015) to admirers of Lucier and Sachiko M. Einbond’s Resistance (2012) opens the disc with barely more than the noise of air passing through the bass clarinet’s deep tube, and even this is only gradually augmented with the sounds of keys and, eventually, tones. Yet the work is also infused with the sounds of political protest – marches recorded in New York in 2011–12. Played through a speaker in the clarinet’s bell, these slowly emerge in their own right, a weird progeny of the instrument itself.

Iddon’s Ptelea is yet another a quiet affair. Using Josquin’s Nymphes des bois as a framework, Iddon constructs a slippery polyphony out of an impossible monody – a single instrumental line grouped in such a way that not everything can played at once. Difficult to describe in brief (here’s Iddon’s score), but like much of Iddon’s music a surprisingly simple idea brought to its full fruition.

For me, Iddon’s piece is the stand-out track (I really must get round to writing up his CD on another timbre from a couple of years ago), although Pedro Alvarez’s Instead (2013) comes close for creating something distinctly different from a typical solo clarinet work – odd blocks that nod towards minimalism and Zorn, if anything, although that isn’t giving much away. A strange disc, then, with some strange composers – but all the better for it.



Live review – ELISION at Kings Place

My review of ELISION’s concert at Kings Place last week is now online at Musical Pointers:

When your repertory is so full of solo works, as ELISION’s undoubtedly is, there is a tricky programming balance to strike between these and any ensemble pieces. But, at the same time, many of the composers who ELISION play explore our understanding of ‘solo’ and ‘ensemble’, and in this concert both Barrett and Karski made a virtue of this juxtaposition.

Continue reading here.

ELISION: CODEX at King’s Place

I wish I had time to post more today about this concert. Unfortunately I don’t, but that’s no reflection on how much you want to be there:

The blisteringly virtuosic skills of Australian violinist Graeme Jennings meets the challenge of Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona. Links between improvisation and notated aesthetics are explored in a new version of Codex IX, a major electro-acoustic piece of Richard Barrett realised with the participation of the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory of RMIT, Melbourne.  The incessant and inexorable energies of Anthony Braxton/Timothy O’Dwyer and Dominik Karski sit alongside a continuing emphasis upon James Dillon. ELISION is Australia’s premier new music ensemble. The group has established a reputation for delivering authoritative and virtuosic interpretations of complex, unusual and challenging aesthetics, often developed in close collaboration with the composer.  ELISION is proud and pleased to be Artists -in-residence with CeReNeM, University of Huddersfield (2009-10).


Anthony Braxton-Timothy O’Dwyer   For alto
transcription/arrangement for solo violin

Dominik Karski  Overflow (2006)
For oboe, trumpet/piccolo trumpet, trombone, percussion

James Dillon Diffraction (1984)
for solo piccolo

James Dillon Todesengel (1996)
for solo vibraphone and clarinet

Brian Ferneyhough Intermedio all ciaccona (1986)
for solo violin

Aaron Cassidy memento/memorial (2010)
solo oboe

Richard Barrett Codex IX (2008)
Flute/s, recorder/s , clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, percussion, violin, live electronics

Date: 8PM Monday 7th June, 2010
Venue: Hall Two, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London
Price: £9.50
Booking ONLINE:

ELISION at Kings Place – review now online

My review of ELISION’s latest concert at Kings Place is now online at Musical Pointers:

Liza Lim’s Songs found in dream is one of a group of recent pieces by this composer concerned with aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture (the cello solo Invisibility, reviewed here last month, also belongs to this group). Of the pieces in this concert it was the least concerned with an externally-imposed compositional logic, but instead derived a quite special vividity from an instinctive development of sounds, each giving birth to something new as the music proceeded. What logic there was deferred to the sounding bodies of the instruments themselves, which had been given a dry, percussive palette that was evocative, but never derivative of Aboriginal music.

Continue reading here.

ELISION – Terrain – at Kings Place this Monday

Opening bars of Ferneyhough's Terrain

This Monday sees the first London appearance of the full ELISION cohort, as they come to Kings Place armed with classics by Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon, plus new and recent works by Mary Bellamy, Aaron Cassidy, Bryn Harrison and Liza Lim. Should be a great night.


Liza LimSongs Found in Dream (2006)

Bryn Harrison – surface forms (repeating) (2009)

Mary Bellamy new work (2009)

Aaron CassidyAnd the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) (2009)

James Dillon – Once Upon a time (1980)

Brian Ferneyhough – Terrain (1992)

Tickets are selling fast, I’m told, so visit the King’s Place website now for booking information and more details.

ELISION – Invisibility

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, comes in two parts:

1. Get out your diary, turn to February 8th, and write down some or all of the following information:


Date: Monday 8th February
Time: 8PM
Venue: Hall Two, Kings Place 90 York Way
Price: £9.50
Booking and more details

Timothy McCormack: disfix (2008)
For clarinets, piccolo trumpet/flugelhorn, trombone

Klaus K Hubler: Cercar (1983)
For solo trombone

Liza Lim: Invisibility (2009)
For solo violoncello

Richard Barrett: Aurora (2010)
For flugelhorn and trombone

Roger Redgate:  new work (2009)
For bass clarinet, violoncello and trombone

Evan Johnson: Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) (2009)
for quarter-tone flugelhorn and alto trombone

James Dillon: Crossing Over (1978)
For Bb clarinet

Richard Barrett: Codex X1 (2010)
For oboe, clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, cello and live electronics

The personnel list for the performance is-
Peter Veale | oboe
Richard Haynes | clarinet in B-flat, bass clarinet
Tristram Williams | piccolo trumpet, trumpet, flügelhorn
Benjamin Marks | alto and tenor trombones
Daryl Buckley | electric guitar
Richard Barrett | live electronics
Séverine Ballon | violoncello

2. Stay tuned for some great original material in support of this concert – composer interviews, free downloads, round table discussions, party balloons, cake!

26 ½ hours in Huddersfield

Friday, 3.30pm

I don’t know why I expected it to be otherwise, but I’m still surprised not to see the area around the station full of people obviously on their way to a new music festival. There aren’t any useful maps either. Google just gave me a large white area around the station, minimal landmarks. I pick a road leading off the square and head vaguely towards my guesthouse.


I get really turned around in Huddersfield’s shopping streets and it takes me a while to find the University, and subsequently the venue for the first concert of the festival. Still no sign of anyone vaguely festival related. In Warsaw you can’t miss them. Instead, some students hang listlessly around the foyer of the Central Services Building. It’s warm and dry and there are seats and a vending machine, so I make temporary camp until the first concert, the UK première of Wolfgang Rihm’s -ET LUX-, performed by the Arditti Quartet and Hilliard Ensemble.


Rihm’s piece ends, an hour after beginning, to the general bemusement and meh of almost everyone I heard express a view. My own thoughts: pretty enough, I liked the harmonic language, which smeared back and forth between Renaissance-y consonance and expressionistic dissonance, but it all seemed an uneasy mix of Tavener and Taverner, and I still don’t know why it came to be written or what I was supposed to get from it. On paper this was a blockbuster way to open a festival, but in reality, yawn.


The main reason I’m here: Richard Barrett’s Opening of the Mouth. The stage is full of instruments, but looks unlike any performance set-up I’ve ever seen. It’s tremendously crowded, too, for just 11 performers. None of the players are on stage yet. The electronic prelude to Opening, Landschaft mit Umenwesen is playing over the loudspeakers, increasingly compressing with giant bass roars the hubbub of the audience taking their seats. The players make their way, discretely, one by one onto the stage. Carl Rosman, the conductor, is last. Landschaft mit Umenwesen suddenly stops; a split second later he gives his first downbeat.


Stunned. I worried at first that the amplification, used throughout, would be too much: some of the early vibraphone passages in abglanzbeladen/auseinandergeschreiben distorted. [Edit: I’ve since been told this wasn’t distortion as such, but rather the amplification accentuating the beating patterns in those opening vibe chords. It’s also intentional, which in retrospect makes sense. Coming to the live performance from the recording, though, it did leap out at you.] From where I was sat (near stage right), I thought that the flute (stage left) got a rough deal, but I gather in a later conversation that this wasn’t so apparent if you were sat nearer the middle. I’m still not sure that Engführung II couldn’t happily be cut by a few minutes. But quibbles aside, an extraordinary performance. Deborah Kayser in particular, I thought, was on fire.

Hearing this piece on CD is less than 50 per cent of the music. Most of the notes (especially in the percussion) aren’t apparent from the recording, but are obvious visually from Peter Neville’s flying limbs. The amplification roughened everything, giving the sounds real tack and abrasion. The improvised passages are vicious.

The whole dimension of utterance (its impossibility made possible through the actions of Celan’s poetry and Barrett’s music) is much better seen with the singers in front of you, than hidden behind the screen of a CD player. The ritual aspect, too, has to be seen. So powerful is this sense of ritual communion, of a shared congregational activity between performers and audience (an engagement achieved solely through the penetration of the music, not through any cheap, ‘participation’ gimmicks) that when the purely electronic movement Zungenentwürzeln arrives, the sense of temporary divestment from live, human actions to the music of a pre-recording unmistakably recalled the offertory of the Mass, when the intensity of ritual participation relents, allowing space for private contemplation and a moment to relax.

That sounds like a liturgical reading, but it’s not meant to be exclusively so. I’m just describing what I felt within its ritual structure through the parallels of the ritual with which I am most familiar.

I’m starving, though, so I have to dash into town for fast-food relief before I have a chance to speak to anyone.


I’m not sure how that could be followed. And I barely know Anthony Braxton’s music (and haven’t found much to love in it yet), so I know even less how well a sequence of three of his piano compositions (Nos.1, 10 and 32, played by Geneviève Foccroulle) is going to work. The first few seconds of No.1, angular and obviously indebted to Stockhausen’s early Klavierstücke, kick in. I settle in for a long haul.

Saturday, 12.15am

I shouldn’t have worried. No.32 is 35 minutes of fortissimo clusters, exploding like a thousand suns in the sonic universe of a continually depressed sustain pedal. It is utterly, utterly mad, unlike anything I’ve heard before.

No.10 I thought was just another graphic score. Possibly remarkable to study or to play from, but I didn’t find it so to listen to.

No.1 was a complete revelation. Those opening seconds, it turned out, were just Braxton’s little joke. He was more interested in a weird, warped, post-serial kind of jazz. Where was the jazz? Somewhere in the rhythms, which swung something like the shoulders of a stride pianist, somewhere in the melodies, which crept in in tiny fragments here and there but were never forgotten. But mostly it was in the pianism of treble, middle and bass lines. A bass line in late 60s avant-garde piano music? Strange but true. This music shouldn’t hold together. It shouldn’t exist. Any other composer would have tightened it up, cleaned out a lot of the extraneous material, given it some clarity of structure. And that would have been boring as hell.


Over breakfast with some Dutch performers Braxton is the main topic of conversation. And when we say Braxton, we all mean the long, shattering, unique and baffling No.32. It’s the sort of piece that profoundly impresses people, but to such an extent that it’s hard to find anyone prepared to say much about it even a day later. The mental dust still hasn’t settled enough.


Harvey in conversation, and a showing of Barrie Gavin’s film Towards and Beyond. Harvey says a few interesting things – most memorably about the inherently more interesting dynamic of the spectral hierarchy over a serial flatness – but it is Gavin’s film that really impresses. A beautifully contemplative piece of work – for one long passage towards the end the filming essentially stops entirely, and hands over to the sound of Harvey’s Madonna of Winter and Spring. I’ve never wanted to hear Harvey’s music at length more than this, something I must rectify soon.


Sarah Nicolls – Michael van der Aa: Transit; Atau Tanaka: new work; Pierre Alexandre Tremblay: Un clou, son marteau, et le béton. My head isn’t in a place that’s terribly fair to Nicolls. After Barrett, Braxton and a real taste for Harvey I feel like I’ve got more than enough value out of my time here already, and I don’t really want anything to upset that state of balance.


Ensemble Exposé. Everyone is talking Barrett and Braxton. I don’t know if it was chance, but the two together seemed like an inspired piece of programming. Even the Rihm fitted this plan, even if it didn’t measure up musically: as a feature-length ritual exploration it was set up as a perfect intro to Opening. Credit to Graham McKenzie and the festival organisers.

Exposé’s programme notes (and not just theirs) are plagued by the language of the funding application not the aesthetic document. I’m not sure that the music measured up to the explanations either (which is their fault more than the music’s, I instinctively feel). Christopher Redgate is an extraordinary player in any language, though. The concert might have been better heard in a smaller venue than Bates Mill (which was also noisy from rain drumming on the roof and running down the gutters), but the pieces by Archbold and Redgate in particular came across well.


A bit of last-minute rescheduling means I’m able to catch James Dillon (in conversation with Robert Worby). He’s surprisingly honest, open and unprickly, particularly given some of the questions, which weren’t the most penetrating.

I’ve completely failed to meet any of the people I’d meant to introduce myself to (I’m the world’s worst networker), but it’s almost time to catch my train, it’s wet and the homing beacon has clicked on. I grab something to eat and head for the station.