Opera for kids, far-out sounds, secret whispers and musical jokes
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.