LCMF 2019 Highlights, Part 1

Sunday 22 December 2019

Flubbed last year but saw all of the latest London Contemporary Music Festival. Curators Igor Toronyi-Lalic and Jack Sheen put together the most ambitious programme yet – six gigs over nine days, with bold, eclectic programming and newly-commissioned large-scale works. The theme of “Witchy Methodologies” implied that it might demand the punter to buy into a ragbag of mismatched and demotic metaphysical woo. This was thankfully avoided, although each of the first two nights did feature performers who expected the audience to join in. The blurb that promised “rituals and reenchantment, doubling and transformation, gossip and eavesdropping, hauntologies and orreries, mysticism and technomancy” etc. was interpreted broadmindedly enough to make a varied, compelling programme, setting very different works into a new context. Questions over the nature of transformation and meaning ran through each evening in music that ranged from musical table-rapping to Fluxus.

It all began this year with a performance of Ligeti’s Poème symphonique, repurposed here as a kind of initiation rite. As a bold but seemingly empty gesture, it served as a threshold to the unknown. Its soundworld was echoed later in the evening by Fritz Hauser’s Schraffur, which began with Hauser alone in the middle of the vast space of Ambika P3 scraping a notched drumstick and then multiplied throughout the audience, with performers using different resonant surfaces at hand to create an enveloping cicada-like din.

The rest of the gig was all voices, with the group Musarc giving beautifully realised performances, unexpectedly matching Poulenc’s Un soir de Neige against new commissions by Joseph Kohlmaier and Lina Lapelytė. The two premieres made simple use out of call-and-responde and convergence in a way that felt tentative and underdeveloped, making both somewhat disappointing in their lack of adventurousness. By contrast, Jennifer Walshe’s The White Noisery was a powerfully sustained celebration cum laceration of pop culture, tradition and social movements. A slightly older work (2013), it received its first UK performance here and gave a rare occasion to hear Walshe’s music without the commanding presence of the composer herself. Musarc was fully up meeting the same level of manic intensity and sudden mood swings, in a piece where the usual ironic postmodern collage of cultural references is turned in upon itself, depicting a world where all experience is mediated. It was a sign of things to come, later in the festival.

The first Sunday was a quieter night: “On Hauntology” was appropriately given over to the past. Susan Hiller’s video Belshazzar’s Feast feels quaint now, while Rosemary Brown’s little piano pieces have taken on a new currency. Brown gained notoriety in the Sixties for her musical medium schtick, channelling the spirits of Chopin and Liszt to transcribe new compositions they dictated to her. As observed by Nicolas Slonimsky, the old masters’ talents had been “fatally affected by their protracted states of death”, but he also saw that she was a musically gifted woman who had been denied the opportunities to develop her talent. Strangely, her use of stable tonality, gentle arpeggiation and modest scale means that her music fits right in with what would now be classified as “modern composition”. The Brown was interleaved with short improvisations by veteran vocalist Maggie Nicols, who continued the theme of confused groping for the past.

High point of the evening was a new commission by Eva-Maria Houben. A peaceful, silent place is a lengthy work for reed organ and piano. Houben played organ, sat across the hall from pianist Siwan Rhys, who had previously played Rosemary Brown. Houben’s organ pieces can range from subdued to almost imperceptible, and here she blended this restrained gamut of dynamics into a subtle, ever-changing palette of tones and textures. The tone of the organ became particularly mysterious, sounding muted, half-stopped and breathless. The cavernous space became part of the instrument, as Houben’s playing sought out different resonances and overtones, creating new harmonics out of the air. At times it was hard to tell if she was just very soft or completely silent, letting the ambience reverberate. Rhys played piano with infinite patience, an occasional high chord in close harmony that rippled through the sustained organ tones, stirring up new emergent sounds, gently pushing the air a little more.