Huddersfield Contemporary Music festival loves the space where noise and music overlap.
The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is very different things to different people. Not least, because only tiny numbers could be accommodated at some of the events.
Take the two operas in this year’s programme. German composer Claudia Molitor’s Remember Me is, literally, a desktop opera. It was triggered by thoughts about a writing desk Molitor inherited from her grandmother (“the inside of this desk was the only physical space that she could have truly called her own”), Adriana Cavarero’s writings on voice, and the works of Gluck and Purcell.
The result is one of the most intimate pieces you could imagine, a kind of doll’s house ritual, with Molitor herself as the white-gowned high priestess who supervises everything. The work is short and slow-moving, with processionals before and after, a food offering in the middle, and a secret whisper in the ear for every guest before departure (you didn’t feel like a listener, nor did you feel like a member of an audience). The music was very much a background, sometimes with Satie-like apparent artlessness, the singing very limited, but similarly affecting. It was one of those occasions that added up to more than the sum of its parts.
I didn’t make it into the small seashell tent for Norwegian composer Maya Ratkje’s Korall Koral, a “baby opera” for children up to three years old — I didn’t deserve to, as I didn’t have a toddler with me. I sat outside, peering through the openings, and marvelling at the absorption and wonder of the young listeners, though there were momentary tears when one youngster took fright. Strange, wiggling, athletic female figures making ululating sounds can obviously be threatening when they’re a couple of times your size.
Calm had been restored by the time I had to slink off to catch another of Ratjke’s works, her Concerto for Voice (moods IIIb) with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Matthias Pintscher. The voice concerto exploits what are blandly called extended vocal techniques, in other words any or all of the sounds that a resourceful vocalist can manage to produce. It’s an area that’s been well-explored since the 1950s, easy to make a virtuosic impression in, but much harder to bring off with musical point. The lasting impression of Ratjke’s piece was of her uninhibited, very personal vocal virtuosity.
The festival’s current artistic director, Graham McKenzie, has a real grá for experimental music, whether it’s contemporary or not. This year he included programmes on the music of three Americans, Philip Corner (born 1933), James Tenney (1934-2006), and Malcolm Goldstein (born 1936), with Corner and Goldstein both on hand as performers.
Tenney is the best known of the trio (and they are a trio, having together founded a celebrated exploratory concert series, Tone Roads, in the 1960s). The festival closed with a two-hour, multi-venue performance of his Postal Pieces, 11 works written between 1965 and 1971, succinct enough to be printed on the back of postcards, some of them just words, others including musical notation among the instructions. It’s a very 1960s kind of undertaking — think of Stockhausen’s contemporaneous Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days), or the graphic scores of Roman Haubenstock-Ramati.
I’m not sure that these pieces survive the awe at novelty of their era particularly well, and that’s a matter of the performers’ frame of mind as well as the receptiveness of listeners. It was, however, fascinating to see Malcolm Goldstein standing attentively within earshot of a number of the pieces, one of which was the Koan for solo violin, which is dedicated to him.
Corner’s concert was one of those events that had started before a large segment of the audience had realised it — the moving of two harps into place was actually part of the performance. Corner played piano, with his back to the audience and with the lid down. That orientation, facing away from his listeners, is a fair metaphor for the navel-gazing character of the actual music, which took the form of slow, amorphous musings.
Goldstein, even at 76, is a virtuoso violinist who makes you sit up and take notice. He engaged in banter with his audience, laughed a lot, and played the violin with a kind of mad-scientist mania that I’ve never encountered before. He improvises, and improvisation comes into his actual compositions, too. If you like musical fireworks, you won’t find greater showers of sparks and explosions on the violin than you’ll get from Goldstein, whose dynamism made me fear for the long-term physical integrity of his violin.
The borderline or overlap between noise and music seems to be a major Huddersfield concern. Austrian composer Peter Ablinger has real philosophical depth in his considerations of musical perception. But the performance of his pieces by the Dutch avant-rock trio The Julie Mittens, still sounded like just another noise fest.
Other far-out explorations were engaged in by Canada’s Quatuor Bozzini. How about ditching string quartet history, and tentatively beginning again? Christopher Fox’s Chambre privée didn’t make a persuasive case. Or preparing special carbon-fibre bows with foreign objects (just as pianos are prepared with rubber, nuts and bolts between the strings), and amplifying the results to bring the string quartet into a new dimension? Denmark’s Simon Steen-Andersen’s Second String Quartet certainly managed to map out an area of new possibilities, although fans of traditional string quartet playing may want to give it a miss. Or Ireland’s Scott McLaughlin, whose a metastable harmony turned a special effect (playing with the hairs of the bow right next to the bridge of the violin) into a kind of spectral normality? Steen-Andersen’s Back Box Music, scored for “percussion solo, amplified box, 15 instruments and video”, mocks conductors’ hand gestures — yes, the black box and video deal with conducting hands trapped in a small black box, complete with its own curtains and props. A good joke, even if it did go on rather too long.
Over the 10 days of the festival, the experimentalism has the effect of making swathes of contemporary music that would challenge most musical audiences seem, well, kind of normal. Orchestral works by Wolfgang Rihm (Versuchung) and Matthias Pintscher (Songs from Solomon’s Garden and Mar’eh) sound as if they’re still dealing with the fallout from Mahler and the Second Viennese School. Selections from Rihm’s chamber music sound almost old-fashioned in the eclectic borrowings of its overt expressionism.
It was Rihm, who turned 60 last March, who provided what seemed to be generally acknowledged as the festival highlight. His Vigilia, seven motets with instrumental interludes, does what he does best, which, in musical terms, involves having your cake and eating it. Vigilia, given a riveting performance by the choir Exaudi (especially its fearless soprano Juliet Fraser), with organist Francesco Filidei and Ensemble musikFabrik under James Weeks, somehow manages to live fully in musical worlds that are actually centuries apart. It’s contemporary music and it’s early music. It’s both, and it’s neither. It’s just Rihm. And it takes you over.
A generation and a vast gulf of musical difference separates Wolfgang Rihm and his German compatriot, the composer and conductor Matthias Pintscher. But what they have in common is that both frequently look to visual art as a source of inspiration: Pintscher has created aural responses to the installations of Joseph Beuys; while Rihm’s cello concerto, Versuchung (which Pintscher conducted with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra), is a reflection on Max Beckmann’s expressionist triptych, The Temptation of St Anthony.
The Concerto, thrillingly played by Nicolas Altstaedt, pitted a turbulent cello line against rich, restless scoring that reflected the conflict between romanticism and modernism at the heart of Rihm’s music. St Anthony’s trials seemed to mirror Rihm’s own resistance towards atonality: he is tempted, but never quite goes there.
In a second concert with the BBCSSO, Pintscher presented his own violin concerto, Mar’eh. Written predominately in the register of whispering, high harmonics, it was exceptionally demanding but never showy — an approach that Pintscher refers to as “concentric virtuosity”. Experiencing the gossamer threads of sound spun by soloist Erik Schumann was like hearing a cobweb disintegrate.
The Norwegian vocal improviser Maja SK Ratkje was the featured composer at this year’s festival, and her Concerto for Voice showcased the spectrum of sounds she is able to coax from her extraordinarily agile larynx. The unaccompanied cadenza was a combination of high-velocity coloratura and ethereal moaning, as if Mozart’s Queen of the Night were being sung by a whale.
But the prize for the weirdest noise produced at the year’s festival was probably taken by Quatuor Bozzini, who played Simon Steen-Andersen’s String Quartet No 2 with masking tape on their bows. It didn’t help their legato playing at all, but sounded remarkably like a giant snoring.
Visiting the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music is a like a trip to a classical music Twilight Zone. Nothing is what it seems; music becomes noise and vice versa; familiar instruments are made to seem unearthly and strange. Seated in those darkened spaces, all kinds of feelings flood over one: curiosity and even delight when things seem to be going well, disquiet and boredom when they’re not.
Underlying the shuttlecock of feelings is an uncertainty about what “going well” and “going badly” actually mean in this topsy-turvy world. On Thursday night, one of the world’s great new-music quartets, the Canadian Bozzini Quartet, submitted with every sign of grace and good humour to having their venerable medium totally deconstructed. In the 2nd String Quartet by young Danish composer Simon Steen-Anderson the instruments’ strings were muffled, and specially modified roughened bows supplied with contact microphones were used to scrape the strings rhythmically. The weird crackles and hoarse growls that resulted were given a naively rhythmicised pungency by Steen-Anderson.
It was engrossing in its way, but once you’d grasped the rules of the game it seemed limited. Much the same could be said of Christopher Fox’s Chambre privée. This was based on the conceit that the entire string quartet tradition had been wiped out, and the four players were trying, with agonised tentativeness, to work out what a string quartet might be. Through the fragile, wispy, mistuned chords memories of the lost tradition seemed to loom, though one could never be sure. Gagaku Variations for quartet and accordion by the Festival’s resident composer Maja Ratkje was less perfectly self-contained, but for that reason more winning. One felt the composer struggling to capture the strange beauty of the ancient Japanese orchestral tradition of Gagaku, while keeping her distance.
Then it was time for a brisk walk through the driving rain to the post-industrial space of Bates Mill, for a late-night encounter between cool, severe abstraction and rude avant-rock energy. Here the graphic scores of Austrian composer Peter Ablinger were the source material. Their assemblages of geometric shapes on a white background invite a cool, aloof rendition, but the three players of Dutch avant-rock group The Julie Mittens and clarinettist Gareth Davies flung them out with huge energy and ear-splitting volume.
The playing was impressive, but the slapdash mise-en-scène with its trailing wires certainly wasn’t. Bottled-up energy needs a tight theatrical frame to work its effect.