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…


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