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Elision X 2

Elliott Carter: Hiyoku
Chris Dench: sum over histories
Richard Barrett: Hypnerotomachia (wp)
Aaron Cassidy: I, purples, spat blood, laugh of beautiful lips
Michael Finnissy: Marrngu
Evan Johnson: Apostrophe 1 (all communicate is a form of complaint) (ukp)

Members of ELISION:
Richard Haynes, clarinets
Carl Rosman, voice, clarinets

King's Place, 2 November 2009

Carter's Hiyoku wasn't an entirely representative prologue to this concert. True, there isn't much contemporary repertoire for two clarinets, and suitable preludes must be even harder to find. Although it was beautifully played, with the rolling suspensions in the second half of the piece flowing seamlessly out of one another, it was a deceptively soft-edged way to begin an ELISION recital.

Chris Dench's "sum over histories", for bass and contrabass clarinet, set a more familiar tone. I've said before that I don't really get on with Dench's music, and still don't get on with the first half of this piece. As its gestural language gradually thins out over the course of the piece I find it easier to get into, but that only leaves me more puzzled about the earlier bits. It's not clear at what level I should be listening: to microscopic detail, or macro-level form. The work's intricacy at its opening strongly suggests the former, but this never really hooks me, and I find myself drifting around the piece not sure of what it wants from me.

Richard Barrett's Hypnerotomachia, for two clarinets in A, was brand new and quite a surprise. I've never heard Barrett's music sound with such a slow harmonic rhythm, or sound in such smoothly curved phrases. I don't want to give the impression that any of the edge of his explorations of instrumental technique has been softened: instead of the jagged forms of another clarinet piece like knospend-gespaltener, for example, I heard the activity and effort compressed through tiny nuances of glissandi, microtones, tremolandi and multiphonic chords. The work is conceived in broadly heterophonic terms - the two clarinets are thoroughly intertwined, exploring similar paths through the material. Amplification further blends them into one instrument, as the two sound sources on stage are combined in the mixing desk and retransmitted through the speakers. Sitting to one side of the stage it was often impossible to separate the two instrumentalists.

Every moment of the 16 minutes of Evan Johnson's Apostrophe 1, for two bass clarinets, sounds impossible: there shouldn't be room for such detail in such a narrow margin at the edge of the audible. The material that might be found in such seams shouldn't be capable of sustaining a large-scale symphonic argument. Johnson creates genuine magic in his music, and this is a beautiful piece. The performers sit with their backs to us, an instruction that is emphatically made on acoustic not theatrical grounds, but the combination of visual and acoustic impressions produces interesting interference patterns in one's reception of the piece. The sound is inevitably muffled, but so are any visual cues as to who might be playing what. The sense of screening off, on several levels at once, was powerful, and added a whole new dimension of mystery to the piece. I'm not sticking my neck out when I say that if he keeps up this standard, Johnson's music will be with us for a very long time.

Haynes and Rosman took one solo piece each: Haynes's rendition of Finnissy's Marrngu for E-flat clarinet was as physically committed as you would expect: the concluding ascent into the fortissimo stratosphere of the instrument was almost too piercing. Rosman set aside his clarinet for Cassidy's I, purples, for voice and computer. The score indicates (in Cassidy's typically hyper-complex manner) everything but pitch: this is determined live by the computer, which plays a continually changing glissando audible only to the performer, from which the pitch to be sung at any moment is selected. I realise I'm going to sound like those critics who carped at Boulez and Stockhausen in the 1950s when I say this, but I wonder how many of Cassidy's original intentions actually survive the processes of notation, performance and reception. Not, I stress, in terms of whether the piece is strictly playable - Rosman demonstrates emphatically that it is - but whether the succeeding concretisations of the idea at each stage don't blunt the transmission of detail and nuance to the next stage. Barrett and Finnissy, for example, keep in sight certain solidities - such as an easily graspable structural framework, a sonic directness, a particularly clear gestural vocabulary (the deafening conclusion to Marrngu, for example) - that I don't find so easily in Cassidy's music. I worry that it is all weight and cladding without the necessary steel skeleton. That in itself is not an unattractive idea, though, now that I write it down. It's the sort of conceit that is better explored in music than architecture, certainly. Jury's still out here.

Tim Rutherford-Johnson

Barrett, Cassidy, Dillon, & Redgate

Roger Redgate: Augsgangspunkte
James Dillon: Parjanya-vata
Richard Barrett: knospend-gespaltener: von hinter dem schmerz: Wound
Aaron Cassidy: The Crutch of Memory: Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe (or, Third Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion)


Members of ELISION:

Séverine Ballon – cello

Richard Haynes – clarinets

Graeme Jennings – violin

Peter Veale – musette, oboe, cor anglais

This is Tuesday: fracture/fissure at King’s Place, London; 28 April 2009


ELISION are world-renowned interpreters of new music’s most difficult repertoire, and they brought a varied selection to their second concert at London’s King’s Place. At its heart were three works by Richard Barrett, a long-time collaborator and a founding influence in the group’s early years, and two by Aaron Cassidy, an American composer based in Huddersfield, whose music is rapidly gaining international recognition through ELISION’s support.


Roger Redgate’s Ausgangspunkte, written as long ago as 1982, was probably the most stereotypically ‘complexist’ of all the works presented but, by the same token, was exceptional in its formal abstraction, a paradox that points to the expressive diversity of current complex music and the diminishing historical value of the term. Peter Veale’s performance of this exceptionally challenging solo seemed at times to teeter on the brink of physical collapse as diaphragm and embouchure were stretched to their utmost, but he continued to the end to rise to new and impressive heights of endurance and control.


In contrast, James Dillon’s Parjanya-vata was a walk in the park for cellist Séverine Ballon. Which is not to say that it was easy by any means. However, Dillon’s music reaches more overtly for the heart, an impression supported by glimpses of more conventional components – riffs, grooves, certain harmonic formations – that are forced out from beneath a complex skin. The first Barrett piece, knospend-gespaltener, provided Richard Haynes with his moment in the solo spotlight and he grasped it impressively, playing not only with fluidity and absolute commitment, but also from memory. One day – surely soon? – less honest performers will stop denouncing this sort of music as ‘impossible’ when they really mean ‘beneath my attention’.


The first of Cassidy’s pieces, The Crutch of Memory, was played impressively by Graeme Jennings. The level of detail and notational complexity in Cassidy’s music has to be seen to be believed (there are plenty of examples at his website, aaroncassidy.com), and seeing it performed live is something else again. Remarkable on this occasion was the speed with which Jennings negotiated the score, practically sprinting from one end of the obligatory row of stands to the other. For all the impressive fireworks, however, I found it difficult to penetrate much beyond the surface of the music on this occasion and hard to grasp many details or local gestures within the piece. This may have been my mood at the time: a private recording of Jennings playing the same piece didn’t present the same difficulties when I listened at home.


Nevertheless, for similar reasons I appreciated the unobtrusive amplification to Barrett’s cello solo von hinter dem schmerz: it made the sonic form more robust and helped legitimate the wealth of detail. Part of me idly wondered, since Crutch is scored for unspecified four-stringed instrument, how differently it might sound on a more resonant instrument like the cello. But then, to impose such a sonic preference deflates the tension between sound and performative action that is central to much of Cassidy’s music.


More immediately gripping – thanks in part to a carefully theatricalised performance from Haynes and Veale – was Cassidy’s new work, Being itself a catastrophe, a duo for performers on B flat, E flat and bass clarinet, and musette, oboe and cor anglais. Again hyperbolically packed with incident, the music was punctuated conspicuously by long silences – these in part were to allow changes between instruments, but the two performers contributed an additional absurdist dimension in their choreography of these changes, another example in which the performing action and the sounding result do not precisely coincide. There was theatre, too, in the contrasting performing styles: Veale bends double, wrestling a column of air from his chest into his instrument, whereas Haynes is more poised, channelling similar energies as though a rigid pipe. This contrast – a symptom of double reed versus single reed – creates idiomatic possibilities that may be exploited musically, but on a single listen I couldn’t say how much of this Cassidy had in mind and how much was due to the performers themselves. Either way, this was a provocative work and a mature statement on the part of its composer.


The final work, the first performance of Barrett’s Wound, brought all four players to the stage for the only time. Wound (as in injury) is the first in a new series of works for solo violin and ensemble under the title CONSTRUCTION, and represents another daunting challenge for Jennings, whose maniacal, wide-ranging leaps and figurations spew almost non-stop for the piece’s duration. The trio accompaniment of E flat clarinet, cor anglais and cello is more subdued and appears at first to play a distinctly inferior supporting role. However, it is soon apparent that each trill and flutter of the trio picks up and magnifies a passing moment in the violin part, and the two halves of the ensemble jostle for equal rights, one forcing the other, then vice versa, and frequently working in brief but moving moments of unified purpose. In this, it felt to me, it continued ideas of homogeneity and variety that Barrett began to explore in his earlier London première, 2006’s Flechtwerk. It may prove to be a rich vein.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson