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BMIC, The Cutting Edge, 2008


Martin Butler: Lovesongs Waltzes

Enno Poppe: Holz solo (UKP)

Adam de la Cour: Beat Me (Cut and Perm no.1) (WP)

Michael Finnissy: Clarinet Sonata (UKP)

Jonathan Harvey: Transformations of 'Love Bade Me Welcome'

Andrew Digby: gripes (WP)

Richard Barrett: Flechtwerk

Libra Duo: Mark Knoop, piano and Carl Rosman clarinet

The Warehouse, 6 November 2008


Knoop and Rosman have played together at the frontline of technical innovation for 16 years now. As one observer noted afterwards, they could make anything sound good; better still, then, that they had chosen some very fine pieces as well. The most heavyweight of these was Barrett's Flechtwerk, first performed by this duo at the Spitalfields Festival last year. In the reverberent acoustic of Shoreditch Church many details had been lost: in the Warehouse it sounded much sharper, although some discontinuities in the first half felt more acute too. This is a dense and complicated piece with some remarkable moments - particularly a long, hushed, lightning quick section in the second half - that certainly convinced more on this occasion than at Spitalfields. Unfortunately the work's difficulties mean it will likely be some time before anyone else takes it up. Rhythmically, Knoop and Rosman are exceptionally tight, debunking instantly the old canard that the sort of complex rhythms demanded in pieces like this are a fool's utopia. What really took my breath away, however, was their dynamic control. An even older myth about the highly-determined scores of the postwar avant garde holds that the precise terracing of dynamic levels required, for example, by certain serial works is physically impossible and therefore musically redundant. That's nonsense of course, although it is very, very hard to pull off.


Despite being a new work, Andrew Digby's gripes came closest to such 1950s models and showed the performers' dynamic synchronicity at its absolute best. The piece itself rather crept up on me, sounding at first rather generic, like laid-back early Babbitt. But as it went on subtle ruptures to the (presumably) 12-tone surface became apparent until a startling moment midway through when suddenly long tones are introduced throwing their relatively homogenous surroundings into sharp relief. At once everything felt less certain and derivative and I became deeply absorbed in the piece's intricacies. On one listening I cannot say whether the success of the piece for me depended on a cheap trick, or whether the tweaks Digby makes to his generic model are enough, or whether it really is as fine a piece as I heard it first time around, but it was very engaging either way.


Butler's Lovesongs Waltzes opened the concert with the more lyrical side of the Duo's talents, indulging deeply in the plush glamour of the 19th-century waltz. Yet it somehow worked as an introduction to the hard-edged 21st-century synthetics and steel that followed. The references and borrowings became more involved with Finnissy's Clarinet Sonata, the piano part of which is built around the treble line of Beethoven's Op.110 Sonata, transcribed in full in a bar-by-bar retrograde. It sounds like a stupid, naive idea that shouldn't work, but it does because it rinses the Beethoven original of any musical sense whilst retaining something evocative of its character (in certain intervallic profiles, ornaments, etc). The task of the clarinet thus became restoring sense to the un-sensed piano part, a nice reworking of the usual soloist-accompaniment sonata paradigm.


De la Cour's solo piano piece was so conceptually dense as to risk collapsing into a black hole: immense slabs of material derived from William Burroughs' Naked Lunch, and borrowing that book's cut-up techniques, were pressed up against quotations from Percy Grainger in a sadomasochistic clinch - with a rape alarm added to reinforce the point - in an attempt, according to the composer, to imitate the process of reading. I don't think the final effect, which was effective as far as it went, quite justified all that baggage. On the other hand, Enno Poppe's solo for clarinet didn't come with enough baggage. Holz solo is derived from the ensemble piece Holz, heard at the Festival Hall last year, and is constructed in Poppe's familiar fashion from a series of hundreds of tiny cells. The problem for me was that without an ensemble to give an added dimension, the solo clarinet line was just a meandering monody and not the microscopic swarming organism of the original.


An early work by Harvey, drawing on his own setting of George Herbert's poem as well as some strong allusions to Messiaen, completed the programme.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson




Brian Ferneyhough: Time and Motion Study I

Lars Petter Hagen: Seven Studies in Self-Imposed Tristesse (wp)

Brian Ferneyhough: Bone Alphabet

Sven Lyder Kahrs: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (ukp)

James Dillon: Todesengel

Bryn Harrison: Five Miniatures in Three Parts (wp)


Asamisamasa Duo (Rolf Borch, clarinets, Håkon Stene, percussion, with Mark Knoop, accordion)

The Warehouse, 13 November 2008


Part of me worries what will happen to Ferneyhough's music when it no longer challenges performers. With so much of the expression dependent on pushing human capabilities to the limit, is there anything to take up the slack when that technical investment is no longer so great? It seems so: Time and Motion Study I here was gripping stuff. Compared to the weakest piece of the programme, Kahrs's Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern, also for clarinet solo, it absolutely justified its excessive demands and, although Borch took those demands in his stride, the piece's construction remains resistant to a casual, normative mode of listening. Kahrs's solo was, in contrast, an anonymous series of phrases spun out for nearly quarter of an hour. Although the melodic contour was in continuous change, it fell into repeating forms (slow spiral followed by quick flurry, that sort of thing) that did not encourage an engaged ear. I confess, however, that I have a general problem with single-line solo works in new music. Without an agreed tonal or modal context lying in the shadows, it's very difficult to generate extended solo lines: there's nothing on which the music can bite and pull itself forward. Ferneyhough, in substituting the well-known physical possibilities of the instrument and performer for that a priori tonal context, finds that necessary traction.


Bone Alphabet is an interesting case, therefore, since the instrumental choices are left to the performer. The only requirements are for seven separate sound sources capable of covering a complete dynamic range. Stene's selection - tom-toms, conga, metal sheet, woodblocks and cowbell - were mostly either low and rumbling or high and pinging, with the conga filling the space between. This effectively agglomerated the score's seven-part polyphony into two groups. This appeared to be a deliberate choice, however, as Stene – who swung breezily through the daunting rhythmic intricacies – emphasised the dialogic aspects of the music, with whole sections emphasising one, then the other instrumental group. This dramatised the music in a way I hadn't seen before, but in resolving an obscure seven into a clear two, I wondered if something hadn't been lost.


Of the other pieces, Dillon’s Todesengel was pretty and tasteful – you could hear the composer tweaking his material to keep it the right side of interesting – but never quite convinced me why or how it came to be. Hagen's Seven Studies were tasteful too, and reminded me, in their fragile, striated sound, of William Basinski's disintegrating tape loops. The Studies are based on musical fragments - preparatory studies for a later work for strings - written by Geir Tveitt and damaged in a house fire. I couldn't tell you where the Tveitt fragments ended and Hagen began (the underlying material didn't seem terribly strongly characterised), but what was present captured something of these notes' traumatic story.


Harrison's Five Miniatures also presented music caught between disintegration and rebirth, but in a way that made better use of the multiple-short-movement structure. Essentially each miniature was the same: a ripple of notes that begins, looping with apparent freedom between three voices, until it stops. We are shown the same thing five times. But in reality we can hear that it’s not the same: the ripples are each different (do the loops just start in a different phase or is this actually new?). Nor are the processes as free as suspected: the synchronisations at the end of each are too distinct to be accidental. Each miniature is sharply alive at the thin boundaries of its beginning and its ending, but the rest, where the music and the development and the content should be, drifted again and again just out of grasp.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson