The shock of the New Music Dublin

A fascination with music of an experimental hue was evident in this programme

‘Engaging and sometimes crusty’: Harrison Birtwistle, who gave a public interview at the New Music Dublin festival. Photograph: Getty

‘Engaging and sometimes crusty’: Harrison Birtwistle, who gave a public interview at the New Music Dublin festival. Photograph: Getty

Wed, Mar 12, 2014, 01:00

In the world of classical music, contemporary music has a bad name. The undesirable reputation attaches itself to new music, too, just as it did in the old days to 20th-century music. New music’s demographic is altogether younger, its audiences are more embracing, more open-eared, more welcoming of surprise, shock and even subversion.

The “new” in the title of last week’s New Music Dublin festival, at the NCH, raises lots of questions, and its artistic director, composer Donnacha Dennehy, simply sidestepped them. He focused on work he finds exciting and stimulating from the past four decades and more. For example, only one-third of the works in the opening and closing concerts were from this century. Half were from the 1980s.

I’m not pointing this out to make a complaint. But the old situation where new and contemporary and modern and 20th-century used to be regularly treated as interchangeable is somehow still with us. The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has taken the issue on board by prominently describing itself as “the UK’s largest international festival of new and experimental music”. And an interest in the experimental, in the broadest sense, also governed Dennehy’s choices.

Take Austrian composer Georg Friedrich Haas’s String Quartet No 1 from 1997, which requires a special tuning of each of a string quartet’s 16 strings and proceeds in a kind of stuttering discordancy. Or his Quartet No 3, In iij. Noct. , of 2001, which is to be played in total darkness, with the four musicians, all playing from memory, placed apart, typically around the audience. In the Arditti’s performance, the unusual resonances coaxed from the four instruments were even more impressive than in the First Quartet.

Take, too, Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s Schnee ( Snow ), from 2008. Its opening soft rustlings hover on the threshold of audibility; its glinting high piano writing and ghostly blending of flute with pizzicato strings are effects once heard that will never be forgotten. On paper the idea of creating an hour-long piece out of musical canons might seem dry as dust. But Abrahamsen’s handling of an unusually mirrored nonet (involving two pianos) makes sure the bird-like delicacy and obsessiveness of what he has called his “white polyphony” retains a peculiar fascination.

The conceptual rigour of Abrahamsen (whose Schnee was played by Crash Ensemble) and Haas, both of whom are now in their early 60s, and the thoroughness of the follow-through of their particular visions, obviously appeals to Dennehy. The one major nonliving composer to feature, in a double portrait concert by Crash, was György Ligeti. His Études for piano, as fascinating as eccentric clockwork machines, have become the iconic piano pieces of the late 20th century. These works and his Chamber Concerto of 1970, one of whose movements the composer described as “like some quaint, half-broken precision-tool starting up”, now sound prophetic of much that has happened since.

Immediately striking
US composer Michael Gordon, one of the founders of New York’s Bang on a Can Festival and a key influence on Dennehy in the founding of Crash Ensemble, was the other focus in the double portrait, and his iconoclastic Rewriting Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony featured in the closing orchestral concert. Gordon is greatly admired by other composers, more so than any of the other figures associated with Bang on a Can. I’ve heard little of his that’s not immediately striking. He has the knack of writing pieces that can leave an eidetic imprint, as, for instance, in the interloping sliding lines that he has, like a Mona Lisa moustache, added to the opening of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.

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