The 25th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival offered some inspirational programming, writes Michael Dervan.
By Michael Dervan
It seems quite right that, as the largest event of its kind in these islands, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival should shine light in the most unexpected of places. Take Christian Wolff, for instance.
Anyone with a keen interest in the music of the last half century will probably know him as one of the New York school associated with John Cage. But, for all that most people have heard of his work, and his inclusion in rock band Sonic Youth's Goodbye 20th Century album, he might as well be the J.D. Salinger of music, silent and reclusive since a peak in the 1950s.
Wolff, now 68, was one of the featured composers at Huddersfield this year. He's a gentle, soft-spoken man, who chose to combine his composing activity with an academic career that transferred from classics at Harvard to a professorship in classics and music at Dartmouth College. In 1979 he became Strauss Professor of Music at Dartmouth, a remarkable achievement, for someone essentially self-taught - he describes his lessons with Cage as having taken up a mere six weeks or so.
Wolff's music is sometimes as quiet as the man. His earliest pieces made much use of silence, and were extremely restricted in material. The short 1950 String Trio uses just five pitches. He became interested in aspects of freedom and interaction in performance. He used graphic notation, wrote pieces that were indeterminate. He wanted "to make a lively situation for the performers", though he also said "my music is set up in such a way as to require anyone who wants to deal with it seriously to exert themselves". He used a technique of cueing which highlights performers' sense of dependence on each other, and, like Stockhausen, he reached a point where he abandoned musical notation in favour of the printed word for musical scores. In the late 1960s, he encountered the British experimentalist Cornelius Cardew and his Scratch Orchestra.
Social inclusiveness, through writing music that non-professionals could play, became a concern.
Since the 1970s his music has taken on an overtly political dimension. His desire is "to stir up . . . a sense of the political conditions in which we live and of how these might be changed, in the direction of democratic socialism". Political songs appear in his music, sometimes clear and on the surface, sometimes buried and unrecognisable. In his more recent works, the techniques explored in earlier pieces are used side by side.
The festival performance of Burdocks, for "one or more orchestras of five or more players", was given by groups of students from Huddersfield and Sheffield, with a stiffening of composers and teachers, including Wolff.
It raised the thorny question of whether the issues of access and ability as well as accessibility make this piece (or at least made this performance of it) more rewarding for the players than the listeners.
Wolff confirmed that he sees Burdocks as a piece for an audience, too, and he's on record as preferring many a committed amateur effort to professional gloss. It was striking during the performance, how his own, simple contributions had a quiet intensity and focus that most of the other participants failed to match. The excerpts from Burdocks in a later screening of a documentary about dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham made a stronger musical impression than the live performance.
Wolff is a slightly impassive presence, but there's a strong fibre in his music, and an unceasing experimentalism which produces work so unusual and distinctive that Cage once described it as being "like the classical music of an unknown civilisation".
The Bozzini String Quartet from Canada offered a programme which juxtaposed Wolff's Exercises out of Songs and Gerald Barry's 1998. This was an inspired bit of programming, presenting the work of composers whose refractions of their chosen material produced some momentarily similar gestural outcomes. 1998 is possibly Barry's most rigorously unyielding composition. It's clear in one sense - it's in three sections, with the third being a simultaneous performance of the first two (shades of Milhaud's octet made out of two string quartets). But it leaves the listener - and apparently the composer himself - with an uncomfortable feeling of being unanchored.
Barry's promised new work, the intriguingly titled L'Agitation des Observateurs Le Tremblement des Voyeurs, didn't materialise - he ran out of time after completing the Second Act of his new opera, The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant. This was given its British première by the Orchestra of Opera North under Pierre-André Valade, with Majella Cullagh a virtuosically upbeat Petra, and Julie Moffat (standing in at short notice for the indisposed Mary Plazas) a more restrained Karin.
Huddersfield prepared its concert audience with an afternoon screening of the glamorously stylised and claustrophobic film Rainer Werner Fassbinder made from his play, the text of which Barry has chosen to set without any omissions.
Barry's take seems at once more everyday, more extravagant (it's opera), and more blackly comic than Fassbinder's own, but the Huddersfield performance missed many touches of light and shade. Valade drove the music with a ferocity that was too consistent - taxing for singers and listeners alike, and missing the expressive range that Gerhard Markson found at the première in Dublin in September.
The Ives Ensemble from the Netherlands offered a Barry portrait which included a piano quartet version of the unusually titled Ø (originally for two pianos playing identical parts), and the strangely-coloured Quintet of 1994 with trademark contrasts, always fresh-sounding, whether of texture, motion, or colour. There were other Irish contributions in this year's programme: Jennifer Walshe's theme from, a new work for violin and piano which failed to find the necessary gestural intensity in a performance by members of the ensemble Psappha; Deirdre Gribbin's Notes from the Edge, a theatrical presentation of readings from Bernard MacLaverty's Grace Notes with music so slight it's almost not there; and a piece by Simon Mawhinney, The Pot of Pulgarve, was workshopped and performed by the BBC Philharmonic under James MacMillan.
The most detailed portrait of this year's festival was of Denmark's leading composer, Per Nørgård, who turned 70 this year. Nørgård is a rover, a curious adventurer whose escapades cover a range so wide they hardly seem to be containable within the confines of a single personality. Over four decades ago he discovered a fractal-related "infinity series," which has been credibly likened to a musical DNA rather than the serialism of the mid-20th century. I'm still puzzling over why so much of his music played in Huddersfield passed me by.
Things that definitively didn't were the compacted, entropic contrapuntal writing of Aldo Clementi, the individual lines woven so tightly that they lose their identity like strands in twine (Clementi believes he's charting the end of music); Tom Johnson's Narayana's Cows, a humorous working out in music of an ancient Indian mathematical riddle; Giorgio Netti's place for string quartet, groaning and grating sounds and fragments which dissolve into echoes, and echoes of echoes; the fifth volume of James Dillon's Book of Elements for piano, capricious and earnest, reaching out to tradition as well as far beyond it; and Giorgio Battistelli's one-man, boundary-stretching not-quite-opera (there's no singing) about Lenin's alcoholically deranged embalmer.
On the way to Huddersfield I caught up with Kaija Saariaho's genuine opera, L'amour de loin, given its British concert première at the Barbican in London by the BBCSO under Robert Spano. It's a mesmerisingly slow, haunted piece, exploring the self-deception of love with a patient raptness that brought Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande to mind. It's a bit too long, perhaps, but absorbing against all the odds - there's a cast of just three (Gerald Finley outstanding as Jaufré Rudel), and nothing happens over two hours, except love and death.
Michael Dervan - critic at The Irish Times."