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.

Eva-Maria Houben at Cafe Oto

Thursday 1 September 2016

A warm Tuesday night in London and Eva-Maria Houben is playing piano at Cafe Oto. She’s chosen to play three short sets, so people can enjoy the outside air, a drink and a chat, and refresh their focus on the music. Her music is typically slow and quiet, with a virtuosic use of silence. Such pieces can be very long, but not tonight. Two of the works are being played in public for the first time; one of them, Dandelion, is a loose collection of pages. Houben explains that it could go on “for hours” but tonight she’s selected just three pages to play.

Alex Ross, in the latest issue of the New Yorker, gives a good description of challenges and pleasures the new listener finds when discovering the Wandelweiser collective.

Eva-Maria Houben, a mainstay of the group, has written, “Music may exist ‘between’: between appearance and disappearance, between sound and silence, as something ‘nearly nothing.’”

He also observes the group’s “slightly cultish atmosphere” but this has started to fall away in recent years, as individual voices from within the group have become more recognisable. At Oto, Houben gives a short introduction to each piece, enthusiastically describing her inspirations. These sources are surprisingly diverse, as is her music.

She begins with another premiere, Tiefe – Depth for Piano. It’s a consummate study in decay and resonance. Isolated notes are struck and released immediately, held a short time and allowed to die away, sometimes being cut off, sometimes allowed to fade. Throughout the evening, there’s little use of the sustain pedal to colour, or cover, the frequent silences. Rather like Jürg Frey’s guitar music (another Wandelweiser composer), she sets the piano’s sounds within the surrounding silence and not against it.

Dandelion draws on prose inspiration rather than fixed notation, with the instrument’s strings mostly plucked by hand. For her Sonata for Piano No. 10 she explains how she was intrigued by Enescu’s talent for producing bell-like sonorities in his piano chords. The dedicatee for each movement is a very unWandelweiserish composer: Mussorgsky, Enescu, Schumann, Liszt, Messiaen. The semblance of each composer is evident in each movement’s set of tolling chords.

For all the emphasis on silence when describing this type of music, Houben gives particular attention to the piano’s capability for producing harmonic resonances and overtones (she refers to them as “partials”, suggesting a wish to complicate the instrument’s harmonic characteristics even further). In another work, the score is four pages of three lines each, single tones on a single stave in the treble. The piece ends with a long, steady drumming on a dense cluster of notes in the bass. The resonating strings produce a halo of high notes whistling over the top. No need for this low chord to be written down or on the music stand.

I still can’t get my head around this composer. The first pieces I heard seemed too bald – dependent on a theory, underdeveloped. Then I heard pieces which seemed much more warm-blooded to me. Others had a hint of veering into New Age meditation or whimsy, still others embrace tintinnabulation not unlike Arvo Pärt. Tonight, the music ranges from finely nuanced (Tiefe, Dandelion) to obsessively single-minded, as in the Sonata and another piece made entirely of single notes in groups of three, stacked end to end. Far removed from the sacerdotal austerity of Wandelweiser’s image, this is living, messy, human music.