ELISION in Huddersfield – review


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.


Catching up with Luke Paulding

Last week I spent a few days in Huddersfield with the ELISION ensemble, watching some of their work with young composers. Wednesday featured a workshop and concert with four student composers chosen from an international call for pieces put out by the Institute for Musical Research in London. More than 40 scores were received, from which pieces were chosen by Daniel Moreira (Brazil/Germany), Mark Barden (USA/Germany/UK), Yuko Ohara (Japan/UK) and Leo Birtwhistle (UK). The standard and ambition of all four was high, but for my money I want to say a special word for Birtwhistle’s Mesoscope A for trumpet, trombone and percussion, which struck me as the most effectively written of the pieces for ensemble (Moreira’s BaKaTakaBaKa was for trombone alone, Barden’s PULS for percussion) and a very accomplished piece of work. Given that Birtwhistle is still just a third year undergrad (at York University), I’d suggest looking out for more of his work in the future.

Friday was the main concert, featuring music by Pedro Alvarez, Alex Jang, Luke Paulding and Matthew Sergeant. I’ll be posting a proper review of this next week, but in between rehearsals on Thursday I caught up with Luke Paulding for a chat about his music.


Paulding is an Australian composer, pianist and tubist, living in Melbourne. He was born in Bahrain in 1987 and moved to Australia when he was five. Recently he has begun to visit the country of his birth more regularly and, interestingly, he noted that he is increasingly compelled to bring certain aspects of the country – the political tensions, the regular sound of the Islamic call to prayer, certain features of the landscape – into his work. Not in any literal or programmatic way, but on a deep, maybe subconscious level of influence.

Our conversation kept returning to this idea of the almost imperceptible, or the unobvious-but-nevertheless-present. He spoke, for example, of wanting to avoid too much ‘conceptual definition’ to a piece when composing: ‘I’m happier when it has a visceral quality’.

Something of that visceral quality comes through in his choice of percussion. Friday’s piece, where dust is in their mouths and clay is their food, makes use of dry bamboo twigs and leaves, metal trays and grains of rice. All items to which an audience can directly relate. Everyone can grasp what pouring rice onto a tray might sound and feels like, even if they can’t apprehend what vocalising into a trombone with the slide in fourth position is like, or how it relates to what they hear. Paulding refers to this as a kind of ‘peripheral recognisability’ – things you might recognise, but whose sounds might be distorted or recontextualised in some way – which serves a kind of heightened perception of the work and its meanings.

The idea of obscured or only suggestive meaning came up in the subject of titles too. where dust is in their mouths … takes its title from the Epic of Gilgamesh, in particular a vision of the underworld, ‘a house of dust’ ‘whose people sit in darkness’. (See here, in a different translation: ‘where dirt is their drink, their food is of clay’.) However, Luke tells me that searching for a title for a piece – even one as visually potent as this one – ‘takes almost the whole compositional process’. It’s something that comes into focus only towards the end of the piece, as ‘a way of enriching the work … when it needs a bit of conceptual grounding’. It isn’t a starting point, so its relationship to the material and form of the work is tangential at best. Other works reference lines of poetry by Eleanor Winer or Robert Wilbur, like this one:

One idea behind where dust is in their mouths … comes from a different, but related, piece of Babylonian poetry, describing the descent of Ishtar, the goddess of fertility, love, war and sex, into the underworld. As she proceeds along her path, she has to pass seven gates. Ancient decree requires her to remove one item of clothing at each gate, and when she passes through the seventh she is completely naked. That idea of nakedness and increasing vulnerability was what attracted Luke. The piece is not a literal setting of these stanzas, however, but the idea of them echoes through the music: ‘ghosts of the myth’ pop up throughout.

So the players are pushed to the edge in this work, they’re left out on a limb, they’re made vulnerable. The piece begins, for example, with an extremely rapid, mostly triple-piano solo for tenor trombone, set in an almost impossibly high tessitura. There’s an inbuilt danger to writing like this, which flirts with the possibility of failure. Yet Paulding is smart enough to recognise there is also a certain artifice to this impression: that when a composer gives their music to an ensemble like ELISION, experience, skill and commitment will always trump risk in the end. ‘Writing for ELISION still has something of the fantasy about it’, he says. And the same holds true for listeners: risk in a formalised concert hall situation with elite players on stage is a highly mediated kind of risk.

We can’t decide whether this means that ‘complexity’ has reached a point of expressive saturation. There’s a chance that it has. And Paulding acknowledges that there are other paths one might take towards a similar expressive effect. However, we do agree that the shock value that was accessible to composers in the 70s and 80s is long gone. ‘But maybe that allows for different possibilities,’ he concludes.

If you’re in Dublin you can catch Luke’s piece tomorrow night (Tuesday 12) at the Kevin Barry Room, National Concert Hall. Concert starts at 7.30, and there are more details here.