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.

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.

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