Music | Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival surprises and delights

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (15-24/11/13)

The 15-24th November this year saw the thirty-sixth annual Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Relatively little-know in the student sphere, this event has gradually grown since its conception in the 70s to an international expose for the cutting edge in contemporary music.

The city of Huddersfield provides an intriguing setting for the proceedings, with imposing stone buildings harking back to the industrial grandeur of the past, and an equal measure of less-imposing industrial depots and shopping centres.  As I arrive on the Monday morning, crowds of music academics, composers, performers, journalists, students and festival-goers gather for the first concert at 11am. The first highlight of the day, ‘two pianos in an Atrium dialogue’, saw its two performers spaced ten metres apart under the vast expanse of the creative arts building atrium. Ryoko Akama’s ‘Ka/Ga/Ku’ filled the space with a serene, meditative energy, as crystal clear resonant musical gestures exchanged with a fragility and tenderness held the audience captive. Artists the Rotaplane Amigos provided a contrast later in the day with their free-improvised set. Audacious, screeching processed oboe jarred against Luke Poot’s distorted vocal, creating an intense and unpredictable sound-world.

HCMF is the most significant contemporary music festival in the UK, with artists traveling from across the globe to participate. In previous decades, it has featured giants of contemporary music such as Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen. But one of the many assets of this event is its commitment to supporting not only the most revered composers, but also emerging artists with significant new ideas. As festival director Graham McKenzie puts it, HCMF is “unfettered by the restrictions of pre-determined themes”, and provides a platform for composers of all backgrounds and musical disciplines.

Concerts take place in around ten different venues -from the airy and spacious atrium of the creative arts building, to the grandiose town-hall – allowing for a multitude of different concert experiences. The program this year explored an array of new works, but at the heart of the festival was an exploration of the work of a few key artists. Among these were the prolific Brian Ferneyhough of the New Complexity tradition; New York based saxophonist, composer and curator, John Zorn, and Jacob Ullmann, an avant-garde composer who links the character of his work to a childhood spent in the former Communist German Democratic Republic.

During the week that the festival ran, I attended around ten concerts over four days.  Wednesday’s performances saw an intimate premiere of a piano work by Harvard-based composer Evan Johnson, which, despite being played too slowly, displayed incredible beauty in its painstakingly rendered pianissimo note clusters. The nuances of Johnson’s harmonic language seemed to evoke every colour imaginable. Later that evening, history was made in the form of a premier of Jakob Ullman’s ‘Son Imainare III’, a piece of music written in 1989, previously only ever heard in the form of an unsuccessful attempted performance during the destruction of the Berlin Wall. The performance started with an ecstatic silence, every member of the audience and ensemble fully aware of every sound in the space. For the entire hour, the piece was performed at a dynamic so low that it was equal to the ambient sound of the audience. Fragile, sustained, overlapping sounds emerged from an array of musicians spread out around the space, creating an eager tension that did not dissipate until the piece concluded.

Thursday saw five concerts devoted entirely to the prolific John Zorn. The playful, rhythmic and quasi riff-based sounds of ‘The Steppenwolf’ for solo clarinet sat next to an interpretation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the musicians. Here, lyrical and turbulent flute and clarinet cadenzas clashed with frantic be-bop style jazz drums and baroque-esque side-drum and flute interplay, in a wonderfully eccentric web of musical contradictions. A particular highlight of the day was a stunning performance of the string quartet Necronomicon, described as a “five movement tour de force of Black Magic and Alchemy”, which drew stark contrasts between hyperactive quartet polyphony and restrained and ethereal legato sections.

My concluding visit saw the performance of a piece by the University of Leeds’ own lecturer in composition, Scott McLaughlin. Six guitars were positioned on different balconies around the atrium, creating an immersive sonic experience in which players created feedback loops with their amplifiers, forming pulsating consonances and dissonances, engaged in a natural interplay of clashing, blending and beating. The sheer volume of the performance completely immersed the audience, many moving around the space to change perspective, as if this were more of a sound sculpture than musical performance.

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is a fantastic showcase of the cutting edge in contemporary music. Watch this space for news and information about the 2014 festival. Every year there is a ‘free day’, where anybody can see as much as they like for nothing. Go with an open mind and challenge your musical perspectives.

Alex De Little

photo: Alex Beldea


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