Invitation to a real-time ritual

TLS Review of Huddersfield Festival

Our experience of music, more than any other art form, except perhaps dance, draws on our awareness of the living moment, of the here and the now. This is perhaps why music seems so often to retain its links to the performance of ritual, to the sacredness of places and why, in a world where technological change – not least in the music recording industry – gnaws away at the force and meaning of physical presence, live contemporary music remains important.

Opening of the Mouth, Richard Barrett’s setting for soprano, mezzo, ten instruments and electronics of poems by Paul Celan, is named after an Ancient Egyptian ritual in which the mouth of a statue or mummified corpse is touched with sacred objects in an attempt to bring the body back to life. Barrett’s piece, in seven overlapping movements, is concerned with animating the dead in the rather different sense of reviving the meaning and force of an association. Specifically, his intention is to create a time and space in which the “unsayable” of the Holocaust can be said, and heard. The idea is a good one. Our awareness of the Holocaust should not be consigned to uneasy history lessons and conventional pieties but should, in some sense, still resemble an open wound which the impossibility of full description keeps from healing over. So it is appropriate that Barrett’s music should be “impossible” to listen to. The words – or, more often, individual syllables – stick into the musical texture like shards of meaning that can’t be pieced back together. There’s no hope of following a text, and the music wriggles free as soon as you think you’ve identified a recurring rhythm or motif. Much of the excitement is visual as the momentum passes between members of the ensemble, often stretching performer and instrument to breaking point. A large part of the focus, inevitably, is on the two voices, particularly that of the mezzosoprano Ute Wassermann, whose ability to manipulate register and timbre are crucial to the composition. But all the performers – from the Australian ensemble Elision, who gave the world premiere in Perth in 1997 – were committed to the point of entrancement. Opening of the Mouth is seldom performed. This was its British premiere.

Despite moments of great and genuine power there was a clear sense in Huddersfield that Barrett’s music is apt to stimulate performers rather than listeners, though a musical ritual requires both parties to attend. And then there is the moral discomfort: the value of works such as these consists in their extension of an invitation to consider something – an invitation which may, or may not, be taken up. The problem is that Barrett’s work strong-arms the listener into confronting the subject matter, just as the nature of the subject matter forces us to suspend our critical engagement with the musical experience. “This is about the reality of the Holocaust”, the music seems to jeer, “how can you dare to doubt me?”. The spectacle left me open-mouthed, certainly, but I also felt like stopping my ears on one or two occasions. Barrett is often numbered with Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, Christopher Fox (Barrett’s colleague at Brunel University) and James Dillon as an exponent of the New Complexity, and its mission to keep alight in Britain the torch of astringent musical modernism. Dillon is the exceptional figure: he claims to have little interest in the British music scene, professing it to be parochial and nepotistic – despite the fact that it was during the early years of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival that his talent was first brought to wider public notice, just as it is a British record label (NMC) and publisher (Peters) that allow this wider notice to sustain itself. The scope and depth of his musical achievement require that such churlishness be overlooked. Two new pieces presented at the festival this year confirmed that there is nothing cranky about his music.

The Leuven Triptych, which commemorates the Renaissance master Rogier Van der Weyden, was commissioned by the Leuvenbased ensemble Ictus, who premiered the work in Belgium before bringing it to Huddersfield. The links to painting are apparent in the movement titles (“signum crucis”, “deposition”, “omnia vanitas” – suggesting the inspiration of Van der Weyden’s “Descent from the Cross”), but there is not much else here to please those seeking a musical gallery tour along Mussorgskian lines. Instead, the relation of image to score is more symbolic, the shifting and interweaving musical textures recall the foldedness of a triptych, while a quotation from Dufay, as well as incorporated chanting from sacred Latin and French fifteenth-century texts in the long, central tableau, anchor the generalized mysticism in a specific historical context. The detail is difficult, as in the Barrett, and yet the Triptych comes across as a profoundly peaceful and balanced work, its poised and esoteric beauties reminiscent of medieval craftsmanship or illumination. While the shorter outer movements are more decorative – as if completely absorbed in the task of exploring figurations and textures – the middle movement is unusually lyrical, and structured as the musical equivalent of a cruciform plan. The ear hears an expressionistic palette of extreme dynamic contrasts in constant succession and nagging, rhythmically mutating motifs. Had this been offered as a literal depiction of Christ’s deposition, it would have been hard to erase the impression of a body still convulsed, with agony and ecstasy outflowing.

The other new piece by Dillon is his fifth string quartet, intended as a gift to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Arditti Quartet, and begun six years ago. With the fourth string quartet completed in the mean time, the fifth was finally ready for the Canadian group’s thirty-fifth birthday instead. The music is a writhing blend of dances, consciously reminiscent of Bartók and Haydn. Like Barrett’s larger piece, it plays with different partnerships among the four players, who evidently delighted in repaying the composer’s craftsmanslike compliment with a typically engaged performance. The Dillon quartet shared the stage with Jonathan Harvey’s fourth String Quartet, written in 2003. The Fourth is the only one of Harvey’s quartets to make use of the realtime electronic sound manipulation for which the composer is so well known. It is also the best of his quartets, in part because the electro- acoustic manipulations are so effective in exploding the idea of four-part counterpoint in spatial and textural terms. But the electronics are tricky to pull off and the work is not performed as often as it might be. This was the first time I had heard it live, and it was not an experience I shall soon forget. With the festival centred on Harvey – it included a memorable performance of six of his solo piano pieces by the young Dutch pianist Ralph van Raat – the mood at Huddersfield this year was always going to be suffused with a certain spiritual glow. Yet if the opening of new spaces, and times, in which our need for the sacred can be met is one of contemporary classical music’s most important tasks, its other traditional function – that of entertaining us – shouldn’t be overlooked. Huddersfield is generally rich in arcane rituals of one kind or another, but more traditionally conceived musical entertainments are something of a rarity, so the arrival of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, with David Sawer and Richard Jones’s new musical mime, Rumpelstiltskin, was doubly welcome.

Their production is pitched as a “grotesque fable for our times”, the obvious moral of the tale being the one about greed, to go with the less obvious one about money flowing to power and staying there. And there is a third: a warning that the world may be stripped of its mysteries as a result of failing to heed morals one and two. Despite the repulsiveness of the dwarf, the boneheadness of the father, the shallowness of his daughter, and the callowness of the king, there are no real villains in Rumpelstiltskin; like all fables, there is something immutable about the sequence of events, which moves beyond the world of cause and effect into the realm of presence. The beauty of Sawer’s and Jones’s dramatization is its careful preservation of balance between story and mystery.

Much of the success is Sawer’s. In its idioms and its constant, fleet-footed movement, his music is distinctly Stravinskian (not that this narrows it down: both Petrushka and The Rake’s Progress are audible antecedents), with vibrant dance rhythms and ostinato effects mirroring the comic ballet. To reinforce the circular aspect of the fable, Sawer’s players – who are also in costume (1940s, rural Central Europe) – make their way around the stage or pass in circular motion between the main group on the left and a variously constituted quartet on the right. The choreography and staging are both, in their matter-of-fact simplicity and coarse humour, well suited to retelling a familiar story. For anyone under the impression that contemporary music is necessarily an obscure abstraction, here was delightful evidence to the contrary.

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