Richard Haynes/Paul Hübner/Steve Menotti

Get ye to St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield tonight to see/hear Richard Haynes (clarinets), Paul Hübner (trumpets) and Steve Menotti (trombones) play the shit out of some really bad-ass music. The composers and performers on this programme comprise some of my favourite musicians and human beings in the world. I wish I could be there. ‘Nuff said.

Clarinets: Richard Haynes
Trumpets: Paul Hübner
Trombones: Stephen Menotti

Programme:

Michael Baldwin: what ¯lurks beneath¯ (WP) for clarinet, trumpet & trombone

Timothy McCormack: Here is a sequence of signs, each having a sound and a meaning for trombone solo

Eduardo Moguillansky: limites
for one trumpet player

Hang Su: Julischnee (WP)
for trumpet, bass clarinet & trombone

*** intermission ***

Chikako Morishita: Lizard (shadow & light) (WP) for clarinet, trumpet & trombone

Evan Johnson: Apostrophe II (pressing down on my sternum) for quarter-tone flugelhorn & alto trombone

Jeroen Speak: Epeisodos
for bass clarinet

Timothy McCormack: Disfix
for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet & trombone

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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…

Sternum = well-pressed

Last week, the incomparable ELISION ensemble performed in Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium.

Richard Haynes has put together a pretty comprehensive précis of what went down on his blog, and I shan’t say too much more about the repertoire itself. A somewhat unsympathetic review can be found on Resonate, too.

[EDIT 11-oct-09: a much more sympathetic review has just appeared on RealTime Arts although, sadly, it doesn’t say anything about the Johnson work.]

Evan Johnson‘s Apostrophe 2: Pressing down on my sternum, for quartertone flugelhorn and alto trombone, though, provoked a few thoughts. The work itself was an extraordinary exercise in suppression. Heavily muted, facing the back wall, as far away from the audience as possible, Tristram Williams and Ben Marks let fly with a blistering performance of some of the quietest music you will ever hear, comprised of instrumental sonorities, vocalisations (the trumpet’s vocal part – terrifyingly – starts on ‘Queen-of-the-night F’) and throat manipulations. Johnson will be familiar to Melbourne audiences from the premiere of his Apostrophe 1: All communication is a form of complaint for two bass clarinets last year, or Hyphen for solo crotales from a performance by Speak Percussion in May.

My first instinct was that the stifling of the performer was so successful that you couldn’t even tell that they were being stifled, and that this might have been mitigated by either losing the mutes or performing facing the audience. But really this depends on where Johnson locates the game – the piece definitely succeeds in creating an atmosphere where the audience itself struggles to relate to the performance (itself a struggle), and it’s perhaps all the more fascinating for that.

From the discussions I’ve had with other audience members (both after the concert and in the intervening weeks), it seems that this work polarised opinion somewhat. Interestingly, the people that seemed to react very well to it tended to be those that are more heavily involved in Melbourne’s experimental music scene, rather than those whose activities are restricted to more conventional new-music concertising. I don’t think this necessarily has any bearing whatsoever on the actual quality of the work, but it certainly does have implications in terms of the development of a context for this music.

This is music which, for better or worse, requires a great deal more from both performer and audience than most, and it’s telling that those audience members that got into it were those with long-standing habits of attempting to engage with foreign musical materials, rather than sitting placidly, passively back and waiting to be ‘wowed’. The strength of Johnson’s music is precisely this – it forces its audience to have a complex reaction (whether positive or negative), rather than simply trying to impress its audience with superficial charms.

But I wonder (and I’m far from the first) if the standard concert format is conducive to this sort of musical engagement? Certainly, I’ve been to concerts where the space and acoustic have permitted an intimate connection with the performance, but most concerts seem to resemble a presentation by a performer to an audience, rather than an interaction between audience and performer.

It’s only natural that, as the repertoire evolves, the concert format needs to evolve in sympathy. This is not necessarily something that needs to be forced, and probably can’t be predetermined. But it’s incredibly exciting to be there, in the front row, as performance practices for the blisteringly new are explored.

Coming up in Melbourne

Tonight is Lucky Number – a performance of music by little-known Australian experimental composer Syd Clayton.

Tomorrow is ModArt09 – new works for vocal ensemble performed by The Song Company directed by Roland Peelman.

Tuesday 28 July is ELISION in Session – including modern classics by Richard Barrett, Liza Lim, Michael Finnissy and Roger Redgate, and some very recent and new works by Richard Barrett, Jeroen Speak, Ben Marks, Evan Johnson and Robert Dahm.