Monday 21 January 2019

SoundState Festival – Fraser/Ensemble Modern/Kaziboni - Gedizlioğlu, Abbasi, Grütter, Fure, Žuraj, and Saunders, 19 January 2019

Queen Elizabeth Hall

Zeynep Gedizlioğlu: Kesik (2010, UK premiere)
Anahita Abbasi: Situation II/Dialoge (2016, UK premiere)
Martin Grütter: Die Häutung des Himmels (2016, UK premiere)
Ashley Fure: Feed Forward (2016, UK premiere)
Vito Žuraj: Runaround (2014, UK premiere)

Rebecca Saunders: Fury II (2009, UK premiere)
Saunders: a visible trace (2006)
Saunders: SKIN (2015-16)

Paul Cannon (double bass)
Juliet Fraser (soprano)
Ensemble Modern
Vimbayi Kaziboni (conductor)

Musical performance comes in many varieties, many of which I love. I should be lying if I claimed not greatly to look forward to evenings with the likes of Maurizio Pollini or Daniel Barenboim, or my annual visit to Salzburg. There is nothing, however, quite like being confronted with new music: either brand new, in which case only the performers and perhaps the odd rehearsal observer will have heard it, or verging upon it, as for instance in the first of these two concerts in the Southbank Centre’s new SoundState Festival, which, as its publicity puts it, ‘bringing together an unrivalled concentration of global creativity, … celebrates the artists,’ or at least some of them, ‘who are defining what it means to make new music in the 21st century’. It is good for the ears and the mind: I have nothing on which to go other than what I hear there and then. It is crucial for the future of music. And it is far more exciting than any run-of-the-mill subscription concert, with an equally run-of-the-mill audience. A severe spot or two of bronchial activism is likely to prove the most surprising thing in the latter case. Here, who knows what might happen?

The two concerts I heard were both given by the Ensemble Modern and conductor Vimbayi Kaziboni. Performances, insofar as I could tell, were just as excellent as one would have expected from such players. The first concert offered five works by young composers, chosen by the ensemble as musicians they admired, the second three works by Rebecca Saunders, one of my most admired living composers, who just two days previously had been awarded the 2019 Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, the first woman composer to have received the prize and only the second woman at all (the first having been Anne-Sophie Mutter). That, of course, tells its own tale, so it was heartening to hear one concert in which three of the five composers featured were women and another in which the sole composer was Saunders. Such is again another advantage of much, if not yet quite enough, that happens in the world of new music.

Zeynep Gedizlioğlu’s Kesik, or ‘Cut’, opened the first concert. Its opening wind éclat promised much, repeated yet never quite: different outcomes, different potentialities. ‘Lacerating’ was another word that came to mind – not only, I think, on account of the work’s title. Part way through, the oboe cut in, with a microtonal melody line more or less unbroken, that spoke perhaps of the ‘oriental’ or ‘orientalism’, or was that my orientalist projection? There was little or nothing in the way of repose until that oboe line ceased, followed by a thwack of the bass drum.

Two United Kingdom premieres of Anahita Abbasi works within a couple of days of each other: first it had been her Intertwined Distances for harpsichord and electronics, courtesy of Mahan Esfahani; now we heard her ensemble piece, Situation II/Dialoge. A sense of landscape was strong, at least to my ears and imagination: wind, or something like it, something like its effects, rustling through bunches of leaves shaken by two of the players; sounds from inside the piano; cello and double bass working together in crude (from the standpoint of a Mozart orchestra) sounds heard in more or less contrary motion. Sounds that were (relatively) more expected emerged out of that eery calm before a storm, without the storm ever truly materialising. Unisons were achieved rather than a given, quickly lost, prior to a return to the aural world of the opening, chimes fading away a niente.

Martin Grütter’s Die Häutung des Himmels (‘The Skinning of the Heavens’), scored for seven instruments (flute/piccolo, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, trombone, double bass, and distant percussion), came next. The distance of the percussion, behind and above evoked the celestial or at least skyward dimension – like many languages, French does not distinguish between ‘sky’ and ‘heaven’ as English does – of a distant world whose goings on (aural in this case) shaped, even determined those back down on earth, or onstage. A sense of musical drama was strong: almost a scena without words. Teeming wind lines, jazzy (yes, I know, but the cliché seems to work here) bass pizzicato-led riffs: quickly changing moods, like products of the weather or warring gods – are they perhaps the same? – processed before our ears. It felt – and I am doubtless romanticising here, as is my wont – as if a new Alpine Symphony were less being presented then already reimagined, reinterpreted, redramatised.

Ashley Fure’s Feed Forward was the only one work I found over-extended, but that may well have been my misunderstanding: I should happily re-listen in order better to find my feet, should the chance arise. There was, at any rate, some initial overlap or affinity with sounds in Grütter’s piece: happenstance, maybe, or good programming? Structure was quite different, as was the overall sound world, accordion sounding surprisingly unearthly in context. A sense (deliberate, I think!) of tiring, of gesture wearing thin, seemed integral to the work and its course.

The first concert came to an end with Vito Žuraj’s Runaround, for brass quartet (two trumpets, trombone, and horn) and ensemble. This was, I think, the second time I had encountered Žuraj’s music, the first having been at the Salzburg Festival in 2013. (Salzburg and new music, you see, are anything but antithetical, whatever false dichotomy I drew at the opening.) Žuraj, it seems, is a tennis enthusiast, many of his pieces (French Open, Changeover, etc.) finding inspiration in some aspect of the game. In this case, it was table tennis: a game in a hotel room with brass players from the Ensemble Modern. There was certainly a sense of everything to play for, aleatoric elements apparently being present. Another thing that struck me was the fineness of ear: even when using extended techniques, there was always a sense of working with rather than against the instruments and their possibilities. Spirits of jazz bands past hovered in fond parody, prior to a whirling, intermittently waltzing vortex that for me faintly echoed – not necessarily a matter of ‘influence’ – Ravel’s La Valse.

Comparison with Saunders would be futile: an established, if woefully underrated (especially in this country) composer spoke for herself, or rather her works spoke for themselves. First to be heard was Fury II, for double bass and ensemble, here with Paul Cannon as soloist. He seemed to me very much first among equals, though, for at heart this is as much an ensemble piece (piano, accordion, bass clarinet, cello, double bass, two percussionists) as anything else. The dark, low rumbling from various instruments played on their affinity: any might have emerged as the ‘soloist’ – or none. Indeed, other instruments seemed often almost to speak as if they were double basses. Saunders’s finely honed, post-Webern writing once again revealed the importance of every note, timbre, combination, and so forth. There was drama – drum thwacks and all – but with the tightest of focus, no ‘mere’ effect. Highly wrought, pent up in the best sense, this was a work of undeniable mastery both as written and in performance.

 a visible trace again offered much affinity and elision between instrumental lines that yet remained clear: for instance, opening transformation of viola into trombone. Intensity of string playing (and writing) was striking indeed, an agent ultimately of distillation that was not quite spare. This is not parsimonious writing, any more than Webern’s is. There is fragility, even lack, yet neither is accidental. As in Italo Calvino’s inspiring words, ‘The word,’ or perhaps the note, ‘connects the visible trace with the invisible thing, the absent thing, the thing that is desired or feared, like a frail emergency bridge flung over an abyss.’ Slow, yet ever-changing (not to preclude frenzy within), this is a piece whose timbral and other relationships never cease to fascinate in their unfolding, in their paths, in the traces they leave and mark out. As one instrument falls silent, another has (almost) imperceptibly already begun.

Juliet Fraser’s soprano performance proved the crowning joy of the evening and of SKIN, a work catalysed by lines from Beckett: ‘… this is the room’s essence/not being/now look closer/mere dust/dust is the skin of a room/history is a skin’. Interrelationships again came to the fore, perceived as if through a skin-like membrane. What was the sound of, say, a string instrument and what suggested it? Breath and its possibilities seemed to permeate the membrane of perception, of consciousness. The eloquence of every differentiation in stages from speaking to not-speaking, from speech to song, created and deconstructed words and music before our ears. Words could speak, but so could instruments; likewise with song. How meaningful was the distinction at all? Was it not the all-embracing drama of something not so very distant from what we should once have called a cantata the thing, the non-staged play, the drama of notes and their performance? It is a large-scale work, yet every note counted: just as much as in its two predecessors. A cry of ‘Sk – in’ at the close reminded us of the work’s origin, course, and destination. End: or, as Beckett might have put it, ‘fin’.