Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

OUT HEAR: Terrain

Liza Lim: Songs found in dream

Bryn Harrison: surface forms (repeating)

Mary Bellamy: Transference (wp)

Aaron Cassidy: And the scream, Bacon’s scream, is the operation through which the entire body escapes through the mouth (or, Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion) (wp)

James Dillon: … Once Upon a Time

Brian Ferneyhough: Terrain


ELISION/Manuel Nawri

Kings Place, 15 March 2010


Liza Lim’s Songs found in dream is one of a group of recent pieces by this composer concerned with aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture (the cello solo Invisibility, reviewed here last month, also belongs to this group). Of the pieces in this concert it was the least concerned with an externally-imposed compositional logic, but instead derived a quite special vividity from an instinctive development of sounds, each giving birth to something new as the music proceeded. What logic there was deferred to the sounding bodies of the instruments themselves, which had been given a dry, percussive palette that was evocative, but never derivative of Aboriginal music.


At the other end of the spectrum lies Aaron Cassidy. His musical explorations originate not in the desired sounds, but in the mechanical actions of the performers, and the structural organisation of these created by the composer. These instructions give rise to sounds, of course, but because so many are contradictory or self-cancelling (depressing a trumpet valve separately from breathing, for example) the precise sonic results are indeterminate. And the scream collects and reshuffles material from solos for trumpet and trombone, and the oboe and clarinet duo Being itself a catastrophe (reviewed on these pages), adding related parts for violin, viola and double bass, all underlaid with a sort of continuo part for harp and percussion. This latter was, for me, the most peculiar and revelatory aspect of the work, as it shrouded Cassidy’s characteristically brittle flutters and flurries with a halo of diatonic pitches. It’s hard to dismantle harp or percussion technique in the same way as that for violin or trombone, so the former parts became a strange presence of determinate attacks and timbres, resonating against the foreground distortions.


Transference was written in close cooperation with its performer, Séverine Ballon, who contributed her personal repertory of playing techniques to the compositional process. It has the character of a written-out improvisation – its developmental logic is very free, and its surface forms indebted to those extended performance techniques. But at the same time I heard faint connecting threads – certain pitches, gestures, etc. – hinting at an underlying unity. Although it was music that was barely breathed to life, it still made something beautiful from its gentle steps back and forth between sound and silence.


A fourth representative of Huddersfield’s vibrant composition department was Bryn Harrison. surface forms (repeating) continues the composer’s recent preoccupation with abstract, almost repetitive forms that fill the musical canvas with highly detailed, glittering textures. The impression is of stasis, or near stasis, but the movement ‘through’ the music is passed to the listener, who is encouraged by this overwhelming density to step in and out of the piece, focusing on one voice or another, rather than tracing the lines of a horizontal musical argument. Adding to the feeling of expression submerging itself was a looping tape part of tintinnabuli sounds. I had the fortune to hear this piece in rehearsal, when the tape blanketed the instrumental voices, almost (but not quite) suppressing all definition from them. I found this a particularly successful effect but it was not replicated in the Kings Place hall. Whether this was a consequence of the sound design or my off-centre seat I’m not sure, but I missed this aspect of the work.


ELISION continued their year-long commemoration of James Dillon’s 60th birthday with the early and riotous … Once Upon a Time. It is the music of a young, rebellious and unconventional mind, constructed from raw chunks slammed together with a rare viscerality. The players grabbed its thrashing torso from the first and held onto it – somehow – until the last.


For many the concert’s biggest draw was Terrain, Ferneyhough’s monstrously difficult pseudo-concerto for solo violin (the indefatigable Graeme Jennings) and chamber ensemble. In the context of five other, highly distinctive and deeply intriguing works it might have suffered, and it did sound, for me, oddly conventional in the way that it paced itself and built its climaxes, for example. But at the same time the role of the soloist, who sometimes leads heroically from the front, sometimes struggles to assert himself against a usurping ensemble, is classic Ferneyhough: unstable, complex, dialectical. There is plenty to ponder and intellectualise in this piece but, at the same time, it is also an outstanding showpiece of violin pyrotechnics. Jennings brought out this side of the work without diminishing its profundity, and his playing reached unendingly into new possibilities for his instrument. Any of London’s serious violin students who missed his performance should kick themselves now.


Tim Rutherford-Johnson