Experiments with sound


THE ARTS: Guitars played horizontally made compelling listening and won the approval of the audience at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, writes Michael Dervan

It seems perfectly normal that composers should be commissioned to write works for concert performance. After all, concerts are the forums through which, in the first instance, compositions usually reach an audience. It probably seems a strange, if not an almost implausible, question to ask why composers aren't commissioned to write concerts instead.

Yet composed concerts do exist, and they were to be heard - not for the first time - at this year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. And the concept goes back as least as far as the 1930s when Igor Markevitch, then known for his compositions rather than his conducting, dipped his toe in the water.

This year Huddersfield offered an hour-long "staged concert," Italia anno zero, a multi-media collaboration between composer Olga Neuwirth and clarinettist Roberto Padi Dalò "based on investigations into texts by Antonio Gramsci, Giacomo Leopardi and Pier Paolo Pasolini". Sadly, this suffered the fate of many a musical multi-media show, of straining after ambitions which could have been far better addressed by altogether simpler presentational means.

The festival's portrait concerts of Huddersfield-based Christopher Fox, who turned 50 earlier this year, included a performance of his modular composition, Everything you need to know. This resulted from a commission from the Amsterdam-based Ives Ensemble, who requested a varied concert rather than a conventional single work. The piece can extend up to 85 minutes; the version heard in Huddersfield was just over half that.

Fox shows flashes of brilliance in the generation of ideas, but that brilliance was only dimly reflected in the sonic specifics of the pieces heard here. Everything you need to know is a kitchen-sink-and-all style of piece, with a megaphone-toting, prancing singer, and a snake-like marching band. However, like most of the other Fox pieces in the birthday celebrations, the musical material too often seemed undistinguished, even banal.

James Dillon's five-volume piano solo, The Book of Elements, takes up a full concert slot, even when given, as in Huddersfield's late-night performance by Noriko Kawai, without an interval. Glasgow-born Dillon, who has a reputation as a composer of knotty, demanding music, has here written a work of rewarding allusive freedom and sometimes almost improvisatory manner. He has found a means of engaging with earlier musical styles - sometimes startlingly overtly - while not significantly diluting the multi-layered complexity of his writing.

Quatuor Diotima's performance of his recent Fourth String Quartet reinforced the impression of a composer who is somehow recolonising the past without actually revisiting it.

The major focus of Huddersfield's closing weekend was one of Germany's leading composers, Helmut Lachenmann, whose 70th birthday coincided with the festival's closing day. Lachenmann is renowned for having spent so much of his career avoiding conventional means of instrumental sound production. He's a man who can think of more unorthodox ways of eliciting sound from any instrument than the Eskimos have words for snow.

In this regard, the high point in Huddersfield was the mesmerising Salut für Caudwell of 1977 for two guitars, incorporating texts by the Marxist poet Christopher Caudwell. The guitars (played by members of Ensemble Modern) are placed horizontally on the performers' laps, and yield an array of tight, high percussive sounds, as if the musicians are strumming some kind of supercharged egg slicer. This may sound like a grotesque experience, but it made for compelling listening, won a roar of approval from the audience, and the players' music-stands attracted crowds of onlookers at the interval, anxious to see how such a strange piece could have been notated.

Lachenmann's extreme political and aesthetic stance, and his concentration on alienated sound, won his music the sobriquet "musica negativa". But the description hardly makes sense in the face of his fertility of invention. His recent Concertini, with members of Ensemble Modern (conducted by Brad Lubman) spread in groups around Huddersfield Town Hall, generated a heat and energy that are altogether more common in his music (as nowdays, too, are more conventionally produced sounds) than his reputation in this part of the world yet acknowledges.

The festival also included focuses on the works of two Japanese composers, Jo Kondo (born 1947) and Toshio Hosokawa (born 1955), who both have a way of dwelling in the moment that seems quintessentially Japanese. In conversation with the festival's guest artistic director, the critic and broadcaster Tom Service, Kondo engagingly explained how he composes intuitively, in an additive, one-note-at-a-time fashion.

Two Irish composers featured in this year's programme. The Smith String Quartet played the Second String Quartet, The Cranning, by David Flynn, winner of the festival's young composer award last year. As the title suggests, Flynn is seeking to bring the sounds of traditional Irish music to one of the most hallowed forms of classical music, and a number of moments in the quartet's performance of this minimalist-influenced work gelled to perfection.

Jennifer Walshe says He wants his cowboys to sound like how he thinks cowboys should sound "is concerned with the idea of isolation and being separate". Like much of Walshe's work that I've encountered, this new piece, performed by the exceptionally virtuosic Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart who commissioned it, engages in a musico-theatrical exploration of behaviours and gestures we associate with the mentally disturbed. Walshe is a composer whose probing style allies a relish in gestures once the territory of the avant-garde with a sometimes Beckett-like facility at getting under her audience's skins.