Crrritic!

As basically every other music blog on the planet has already reported, the New Statesman (in association with the RAM) has announced their Young Music Critic competition.

The introductory page has a short statement from each of the members of jury outlining what they’re looking for.

I really like this (particularly the final sentence), from Alex Ross, of The Nest is Roy’s fame:

Perhaps the greatest challenge is to remain passionately engaged over the long term — not to become jaded, politely accepting, cynical, or, worst of all, nostalgic. To the end, critics must remain open to the possibility of being totally undone by what they hear.

Ross is right to identify this as a challenge. How often are we subjected to criticism, often in major publications, that makes a mockery of such ideals? Maybe no single critic – no matter their field – really can live up to these for the span of a career (although there are some, like the inimitable Robert Hughes, who give them a run for their money). But if a competition such as this can help instil some wonder into the music criticism of tomorrow, then bring it on.

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Invisibility

On 8th of February at King’s Place, London, the ELISION ensemble gave their first concert of 2010. Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s review of this can be found in Musical Pointers.

I wrote last year about Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) when it was premiered in Melbourne. At that time, I found it highly thought-provoking, but my mental jury was out. The performers were seated so far from the audience as to be almost inaudible in a boomy acoustic that eradicated detail and was unflattering to the larger shapes. Since then, I’d heard both the ABC radio broadcast (electrifying) and the studio recording made at Radio Bremen in September (about fifty times more so). But while these documents represent a fascinating aural experience, there is a live-performance aspect missing that is, I feel, fairly integral to the piece. When such recorded detail is so conveniently presented on a nice silver disc, the sense of cognitive struggle in performance that Johnson’s work embraces is simply absent.

So it was with great delight that I witnessed the extraordinary alchemy of Tristram Williams and Benjamin Marks, in the idiosyncratic acoustic of King’s Place, reveal this work as a masterpiece. Firstly, this performance was a great deal more polished than the Melbourne one. Gone were the deafeningly loud page turns, and gone was the frantic struggle of just trying to get through it. This was replaced with a tight focus, an utterly thrilling sense of danger and, of course, about a truckload of physical effort.

The acoustic of King’s Place does wonderful things to quiet dynamics. The finer degree of detailing in dynamic shapes are retained with great fidelity. The listening experience of Apostrophe 2 this time was one in which the islands of barely audible, barely stable sonorities violating the peripheries of perception was maintained, but with an endlessly fascinating, multifaceted sonic outcome. It’s a shame that the physical demands of such a work mean that it will never be more than niche repertoire, as this is music-making of the first order.

Liza Lim’s Invisibility for solo cello (here lovingly communicated by Séverine Ballon) also benefitted a great deal from the acoustic. The myriad different flavours of sonic fracture accessed through the use of the guiro bow took on an almost larger-than-life character. The semantic import of melodic and textural shapes seemed almost devastatingly potent. I first heard this piece at HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. My recollection is that the performance in Huddersfield seemed more precise, but this performance provided an astonishingly profound inner journey. And I certainly wasn’t the only audience member to think so.

The other really notable piece on this programme was Timothy McCormack’s Disfix. This is an important work by a very important (although still emerging) composer. Again, I heard this work for the first time at HCMF, where the sheer violence and force of this work were nearly overwhelming. Unfortunately this was a case wherein the acoustic of King’s Place was deeply unflattering, with the energy seeming somehow insulated from the sonic force.

Here is a video, available on YouTube, of the HCMF performance of Disfix. Turn your speakers right up.

The ink-still-wet-on-the-page Aurora, by long-time ELISION collaborator Richard Barrett was a bit of a disappointment. While there were some very striking moments, the piece as a whole just seemed to not quite work. However, as TR-J’s review rather diplomatically puts it, this could be for any number of reasons. Sharing an instrumentation with the Johnson, the work was clearly less played-in, and this may also have contributed. I’d really like to hear a second performance of this piece, though. Perhaps more time with this piece will reveal things that were missed the first time around.

The concert also featured the premiere of Roger Redgate’s Tehom, Klaus K. Hübler’s 1983 trombone solo CERCAR, a beautiful performance of James Dillon’s Crossing over by Richard Haynes, and the premiere of the eleventh installment in Richard Barrett’s ongoing Codex series of pieces.

In the coming weeks, I will put up some more in-depth looks at the work of both Evan Johnson and Timothy McCormack, as well as, hopefully (and at the risk of this space becoming little more than a paean to ELISION) some material related to ELISION’s March concert in King’s Place.

The Rambler

My hat goes off to Tim Rutherford-Johnson and The Rambler – easily one of the best new music blogs on the web – for his 2010 initiatives.

Focussed, at this point, around Invisibility, the ELISION concert at King’s Place next Monday (if you’re in London, please go – this is not to be missed), Johnson has initiated a series of composer interviews (read the one with Evan Johnson here) and round-table discussions (involving ELISION director Daryl Buckley, trombonist Ben Marks and composers Evan Johnson, Richard Barrett and Tim McCormack).

This strikes me as the perfect way of blurring the frequently- (and annoyingly-) insurmountable boundaries between the practice of ‘informal’ musical commentary and the engaging in real discourse about the meaning and purpose of what we do. TRJ has succeeded in creating a space where these discussions can take place publicly, rather than being restricted to an ivory tower or (more often) a pub.

How strange that the idea of a bunch of musicians talking to one another about music on the web should seem somehow revolutionary…

HCMF 2009

Since relocating to Europe from Australia, one of the more profound experiences I’ve had (things like Paris weddings and the constellation of transcontinental bureaucratic trivialities notwithstanding) has been the 2009 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I’d say the boat has well and truly sailed in terms of the relevance of doing any kind of blow-by-blow account of what actually happened at the Festival, but I don’t think I can escape without saying something.

This was my first experience of a contemporary music festival that exists in such a concentrated form. All of my previous festival experiences have been of either the two-days-of-frantic-activity variety, or else the one-month-of-sporadic-activity variety. In Huddersfield, though, not only is it ten days of multiple events, but it is situated in a small town with nothing much else going on. Unlike major-city festivals such as Berlin’s Ultraschall, there is nothing else to distract you from the music-making. Additionally, the size of the town lends a social air that is, perhaps, impossible in more ‘accessible’ circumstances. For ten days, there is nothing to do but listen to and discuss the music.

The Festival has a strange physiognomy. Each year, at possibly the most stupidly climatically untoward time of year, a small (although not as small as one might expect) band of deeply committed new-music enthusiasts converges on West Yorkshire to attend it. Started by Richard Steinitz in 1978, the Festival was initially intended as a way to bring ‘culture’ to Yorkshire (and, more generally, the North of England). With little more than a shoestring budget Steinitz managed, in his twenty-three years as Festival director – through a combination of determination, sweet contacts and sheer force of personality – to bring the avant-garde’s most important luminaries (Boulez, Berio, Cage, Ligeti, Messiaen… the list goes on) to Huddersfield, quickly building it into undoubtedly the most important new music festival in the United Kingdom.

One of the more remarkable things about the experience of a Festival such as Huddersfield’s is the degree to which it reinforces the sense of this being a living tradition – a highly instanced series of performances which, by virtue of their context, interrogate a broader cultural tradition, asking questions, rather than declaring answers. Such living tradition – such dialogue – is not something that submits cheerily to ‘over-programming’. Sometimes it’s necessary to simply allow the dialogue to develop on its own, which is precisely the curatorial strategy that HCMF 2009 adopted.

One thing which stood constantly in the background was HCMF’s recently formalised relationship with the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Research in New Music (CeReNeM). While this relationship was occasionally ‘marketed’ (such as through the talk with HCMF director Graeme McKenzie, CeReNeM Director Professor Liza Lim and inaugural recipient of the CeReNeM/HCMF scholarship Lefteris Papadimitriou), generally this manifested through the subtle presence of CeReNeM composers and performers. But the relationship has deeper implications than this. It was never really explicitly stressed, but the HCMF/CeReNeM partnership imparts a sense of potential development, of continuing ramifications beyond the temporal limits of the Festival proper. CeReNeM is able to provide not only a focal point for continuing musical discourse, feeding into the Festival, but is also able to function as a kind of custodian of the HCMF’s history and legacy. This is probably most visible through the newly formed Festival archive – a massive collection of scores, concert programmes, etc donated by Steinitz – housed in the library at the University of Huddersfield.

One criticism that I was surprised to hear people make was that the Festival this year was quite mainstream, that it didn’t focus enough on new works by young composers. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really find this problematic. While Jonathan Harvey is obviously a ‘big name’, the other featured composers sit (at least slightly, and some more than others) apart from the establishment. For me, Musica Elletronica Viva was (by far) the featured item with the least relevance to this context (one concert-goer going so far as to jokingly describe it as being like Last of the summer wine). I actually quite enjoyed it, but it was the almost voyeuristic thrill of staring back through time at a performance practice and aesthetic grounded in another era, rather than the thrill of being a part of something new.

A final thought: Having only arrived recently in the Northern Hemisphere, with my sense of cultural cringe firmly intact, I was very surprised at the impact of Australian musicians at this Festival. ELISION presented three concerts – more than any other individual or ensemble, with the exception of Phillip Tomas’s daily Pisaro performances, and by halfway through the Festival their virtuosity, commitment, and sheer awesomeness was the talk of the town. Similarly, composer Liza Lim had five works performed throughout the course of the week – the same number as ‘featured’ composer James Dillon. Genevieve Lacey presented an almost wholly Australian programme of solo recorder works, and Quatuor Diotima performed the premiere of a new work by Matthew Shlomowitz. Vienna-based Australian Tamara Friebel and I presented works in a symposium with Jonathan Harvey. The stonkingly arse-kicking Köln-based ensemble MusikFabrik contains a number of Australian members. It seemed like, wherever one looked, Australian musicians were prominently placed, in the best of all possible contexts.

This phenomenon was both heart-warming and heart-rending. Most Australian artists realise that, as a nation, we punch above our weight in terms of the quality of what we produce, but it’s tragic that the cream of Australia’s remarkable crop is able to find genuine recognition on a global stage, but unfortunately has trouble paying the bills back home. Even more tragic is that this probably doesn’t come as news to anyone…