The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) has been a highlight of the new music calendar in the UK since its foundation in 1978. It has always attracted major figures: I saw György Ligeti give an extraordinary talk on fractals and music in the early 1990s, and spotted John Cage, looking baffled, standing in front of a forlorn half-dead tree outside a Huddersfield café. The projected 2020 programme could not happen, but the festival was relocated online and on BBC Radio 3 between 20-22 November.
Riot Ensemble were recently named joint winners of the prestigious Ernst von Siemens ensemble award. I will never forget their stunning performance of Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus; since then, their activities have been smaller in scale but not in quality. They have commissioned work for ensemble soloists, including the six pieces composed for the Zeitgeist online gallery which were showcased during the HCMF weekend.
Two of these works might be classified as virtuoso studies, two as music theatre, and two feature imaginative fusions of text and instrument. Anna Appleby’s 13.8 Billion Years was performed by saxophonist Amy Green. Inspired by ‘the formation of the universe, through clouds of matter to galaxies, to stars, planets and, eventually, life,’ Appleby explores the universe of soprano saxophone technique in an accessible work with a rhythmically inventive central section that shows her affinity with dance. Green’s outstanding breath control and perfectly placed multiphonics revealed this piece to be an excellent addition to the repertoire of adventurous saxophonists.
Violist Stephen Upshaw was a compelling interpreter of Tonia Ko’s Soothe a Tooth, in which the composer ‘suggests both the physical motions that manifest our stress, and the techniques we might try in order to soothe them.’ Tapping the fingerboard or bouncing the bow on the strings, lurching from gesture to gesture, by turns lyrical, astringent and scraping, this is stress transformed by a highly creative imagination.
Ko’s work does not explicitly reference the pandemic as stress inducer, but Matthew Grouse’s Left Right, Left Right for practice pad, drum trigger, and live electronics ‘was written in observation of the obsessive behaviours and routines that [he] believes have been magnified during this period.’ Sam Wilson’s drumstrokes triggered individual words, and Wilson joined in the ‘conversation,’ having nobody else to talk to. But totally unexpectedly, a vocoder (his inner voice?) mused on lockdown behaviours, Wilson dashed offstage and returned in a toy soldier outfit. He yelled a barely comprehensible tirade while playing a snare drum, and the piece ended with him aimlessly hitting a practice pad.
While Grouse focuses on the isolated individual performer, the British-Rwandan composer Auclair gives voice to a tragedy that we need to know about. Munganyinka is a Transformer, for bass clarinettist Ausiàs Garrigós Morant, is a homage to the voice of Auclair’s mother, a refugee from the first Rwandan genocide in the late 1950s-early 1960s. The bass clarinet follows the phrasing of a recorded narration about the experience of being in a refugee camp, though telling phrases such as ‘He was tied up so the killers were coming back to finish him after’ stand alone. Key clicks and slap tonguing vividly underline a report of shooting; elsewhere, the instrument conveys the narrator’s heartbeat. The piece ends abruptly: how could there be a neat conclusion?
Heloise Tunstall-Behrens’ Picea 433 ‘pays respect to the spruce tree […] the source of pianos’ resonating soundboards.’ Illuminated by spruce-coloured light from his iPad, the multi-tasking pianist Adam Swayne struck poses away from his instrument, staring unnervingly at the camera. He put on several beige T-shirts and finally a pink chunky beanie in between stroking the strings and soundboard in various ways and even playing rather conventional chord sequences. Kudos to the filmmaking team, ThirdMan Productions, whose inspired camera angles contributed a good deal to this work.
This year, Hannah Kendall‘s Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, inspired by Jean-Michel Basquiat, was premiered at the Proms, and her HCMF/Riot Ensemble commission draws on the same series of paintings. Several pieces I’ve heard recently have parts for music box or singing string player; Kendall’s work features both, without dealing in contemporary music clichés. The dynamic and exciting Tuxedo: ‘Hot Summer No Water’ for cellist Louise McMonagle uses the additional noises as found objects, like a Basquiat collage. McMonagle turned the handle of a music box and started humming along, as if we were eavesdropping on a private moment, then moved to her cello and continued vocalising or blowing on a police whistle.
Solo commissions have multiplied in this COVID-19 period, larger-scale performance being impossible. Riot Ensemble’s Zeitgeist series fuses simple yet imaginative film production with fascinatingly diverse compositions and strongly communicative performances. I enjoyed listening from the comfort of home, while also missing the chilly wind, buzzing foyers, and random encounters of Huddersfield in November.
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