This year’s composer in residence at HCMF, Lisa Streich, was represented by an appropriately large number of performances, allowing for a pretty deep dive into her musical thinking. If i say that a lot of what i heard of Streich’s music was more intriguing than immediately enjoyable, i need to qualify that straight away by pointing out that many of my now greatest musical passions began in exactly the same way: intrigue, being pulled into its orbit, compelled to consider, listen again, and go deeper. All the same, while she was never exactly boring, the occasions when it seemed as if Streich transcended the increasingly familiar boundaries of her language – typified by a predilection for stark polarities – were relatively few, though strikingly impressive.
Among the most interesting of them was FRANCESCA, given its UK première by Riot Ensemble, though one of the primary reasons for its interest was they way it seemingly deliberately went in the opposite direction of what one expected, if Streich’s programme note is to be taken at face value. Supposedly, it was concerned with Francesca Romana, the patron saint of Rome, attempting to imagine the “choir of cherubs” she heard on her deathbed. Yet everything about the piece suggested not only a different Francesca but a completely opposite context: Francesca da Rimini, lurking in the rings of Dante’s Inferno. However, this apparent inversion of expectation and meaning wasn’t in any way problematic; as it was, its diabolical soundworld filled with blank repetitions, fragile chords, harsh, shrill impacts and dull monotony suggested something a lot more true to the drudgery of religion than the kind of “idealised, heavenly, beautiful conception” Streich also mentioned in her note. In that respect, FRANCESCA was a work of raw honesty, like an extended moment of horrifying realisation at the literal moment of death. Though somewhat overlong, the work was nonetheless superbly engaging in its coalescing of fantastical and unhinged elements, playing out in a world characterised by continual close proximity extremes.
The same concert featured two excellent works from Ukrainian composer Anna Korsun. The first, Plexus, contained a musical texture not merely busy but positively frantic, continually shifting so rapidly as if life depended on it. Over time my attention felt more and more drawn away from this ear-catching activity to question what might lie below this delirious surface, what it was that was impelling this behaviour. i was still mulling over the possibilities and implications of this when the music passed through a series of curious rising scales, and ended.
Just as captivating was Spleen, a work of total contrast comprising a single, extremely slow line with some sounds falling away from it, others buzzing around, as if drawn to it like a magnet. This swarm activity subsequently took on a darker hue, becoming vague and harder to read, the pitch focus all but gone. As with Plexus, the piece presented fascinating outcomes that left one deeply curious about their origins; at just 11 minutes it was over far too soon, i could have happily listened to a lot more of this.
Lisa Streich’s music was heard at its best in Riot Ensemble’s second concert on Tuesday evening, which was surprisingly small-scale and intimate despite being held in the incongruously huge space of Huddersfield Town Hall (there had evidently been a plan for us to move around the hall according to a number of planned pathways, but this was abandoned). Of the five works performed, Sai Ballare? (Can you dance?) was especially effective, bringing together a motorised cello (unplayed but with a small motor attached to it, rotating pieces of paper over its strings – a device Streich used in many of her pieces), violin and piano. It demonstrated a low-key version of Streich’s fondness for polarisation, setting up gentleness and delicacy from the violin that was repeatedly undermined by loud pedal thumps from the piano. Over time it gave this combination gave the work a sombre fragility, those thumps resembling a muffled drum, which made the violin’s eventual, completely unexpected, frenzied outburst all the more shocking and traumatic.
In some respects, Streich’s shorter solo work Cadenza for motorised piano made an even stronger impact. Though ostensibly emotionally blank, it was weirdly moving, Adam Swayne’s actions enhanced by the odd little machine mechanics, whirring and clinking like a wound up music box teetering at the point of coming to a stop. It was achingly poignant.
Cellist Séverine Ballon gave an equally intimate recital in the much smaller Phipps Hall on Wednesday afternoon. She took the title of Sam Hayden’s instabilités literally, unleashing an interesting kind of energy – evidently in large amounts but initially emerging in fits and starts. Its gestural shapes formed not so much a continuity as a consistency of attitude and behaviour, which gradually gave the impression of a volatile equilibrium. Overall it came across primarily as surface music, an essay in caprice that didn’t seem to offer much deeper, though its energy was always engaging and the work’s conclusion offered something new, a lovely sequence of distorted lyricism that Hayden, having finally switched off the volatility setting, allowed time to ruminate.
The highlight of the recital was another piece rooted in instability, Shades of Light by Annelies Van Parys, in which cello and electronics were pitted against each other. Or were they? – there was at times a sense that the electronics were not so much in competition as simply responding with overwhelming enthusiasm to the cello’s progression from precarious to florid music, resulting in a wall of noise. Furthermore, the electronics were held in check and, apparently, systematically reduced by the cello via a foot pedal, leading to a more sympathetic relationship with Ballon’s grinding creaks (having essentially come to a halt) being transformed into a three-dimensional texture. The end was exquisite, the cello’s tremulous lyricism accompanied by a soft hint of bells.
A different kind of drama occurred in Chiyoko Szlavnics‘ Whorl Whirling Wings, receiving its first UK performance by EXAUDI. Just as we were getting used to its nocturnal, love-infused soundworld, the piece literally broke apart, directly addressing the effect of the Ukraine conflict on Szlavnics’ creativity, and her inability to continue the work to its otherwise natural conclusion. Whether or not it ultimately ‘worked’ as a composition is both beside and precisely the point: it was a startling demonstration of the disruption and damage that atrocity can inflict on any one of us.
In the same concert, Lorenzo Pagliei’s stunning new work Marea flusso deriva set up six parallel streams of expression, coalescing at times, in a communal flurry of activity before each singer figuratively fell asleep. Small ripples perturbed the calm music that followed, purr-like snores, mild agitation, undulating phrases, all resettling until Pagliei woke everyone up, returning to the wild cavalcade of moods. The piece would have benefitted from being shorter than its 17-minute duration, but it was nonetheless highly entertaining.
Everything i’ve mentioned was a bright highlight of this year’s HCMF, but the brightest of them all were the two performances of music by Lithuanian composer Justė Janulytė. i’ve been a passionate admirer of Janulytė’s work for many years, but until now haven’t had the chance to experience her unique soundworlds in the concert hall. Both times it was literally incredible. The first was given by Marco Blaauw’s multi-trumpet Monochrome Project, in the UK première of Unanime. (The piece exists in two versions, 15 and 27 minutes respectively; this was the extended version.) It’s often hard to know what you’re actually hearing and what’s an illusion in Janulytė’s music. Here, the homogeneous texture gave the impression of falling arpeggios, and also seemed to be sagging while simultaneously remaining completely unaffected. Stasis or progression? Changes in the extents of the mutes, and their later removal and reinsertion, were obvious indicators of progress, yet the illusions continued: the sense of the make-up of the hovering chord diversifying yet impossible to pinpoint where it was altering; the suggestion of a cadence teetering on the edge of resolution, a beautifully inscrutable suspension somehow minor, major and diminished all at once. Even something as basic as its dynamic nature was hard to fathom. It was all a gorgeous, glorious mystery in sound.
A similarly paradoxical mix of impenetrability and immersion permeated the London Sinfonietta’s performance of Janulytė’s Sleeping Patterns. Now we were in the midst of a gentle, breathing pulsation, dissonant and consonant at the same time. Though rapturously beautiful, it too was hard to fathom: neither static nor moving, a shining, shimmering cloud radiating colour and warmth in all directions. It’s ironic that Janulytė describes herself as a ‘monochrome’ composer; the palette may be enigmatic, but i’ve rarely heard music more suffused with such a vivid panoply of colour.