A Big Day Out with Apartment House (Part Two)

Wednesday 17 April 2024

[Part 1: daytime concerts]

In the evening at Wigmore Hall, Apartment House presented two more premières but opened the concert with a late work by Elisabeth Lutyens, Go, Said the Bird, scored for string quartet and electric guitar. It’s a haunting piece, with the guitar (played by Sam Cave) contributing a unique sound, owing nothing to the usual popular styles associated with the instrument. Despite this, Lutyens shows a deep appreciation for the guitar’s capacity for timbral variation, with Cave first playing mysterious ascending glissandi in the bass range as coloration beneath the acoustic strings, using the clear and natural tones as both lead and background while occasionally throwing in moments of nasal treble or passages using a strange, watery modulation effect.

Elaine Mitchener was the soloist for the first premiere, as the vocal lead for an ensemble of seven musicians in Rolf Hind’s Blue to the Throat. The eight movements play through without a break and Hind makes innovative use of the voice, first more as instrument before emerging into song. The piece makes great use of Mitchener’s talents as a singer and for holistic interpretations of the music presented to her, with extremes of register expertly handled, quick-changes in attitude and extraneous techniques extending to percussive effects (torn paper, whipped violin bow) and Mark E. Smith loudhailer employment. Despite this, I still have trouble getting my head around Hind’s compositions; the combination of expressionism with ayurvedic equanimity doesn’t sit well with me and never seems to settle into a style that’s comfortable with itself. It made me notice that the details get a bit messy and many of the effects, such as those mentioned above, get lost in the aural clutter.

Blue to the Throat was conducted by Jack Sheen, who returned as composer in the second half for the première of his piano quintet Press. It carries on from where his Solo for Cello from last year left off, with strings again suppressed by heavy, metallic mutes to produce sibilant, desiccated whispering. Even longer than the Solo, Press plays for about fifty minutes and is broken into three movements. The remoteness implied in last year’s recording was strongly felt here, as Apartment House played constant, scurrying passages that twined around each other, but so faintly that at times you had to strain to listen. The hall was simultaneously filled with sound, but empty; a self-contained microclimate where forces swelled and ebbed but never broke into full voice. As for the piano, it was largely absent, adding an occasional low tone. The second movement continued much the same as the first and for a while it seemed to have turned into an exercise in duration, before small but deliberate changes made you suddenly notice that something was up. The third movement brought more changes but never relieved the tension, serving only to create further apprehension until the piano burst forth into a stupendous, disturbing cadenza that resolved nothing. Press is the eerie, negative image of an epic.

Low Strings: Jack Sheen, Bryan Eubanks

Sunday 30 July 2023

The sleeve notes for Jack Sheen’s Solo for Cello recommend you to listen with the speakers “placed as far away as possible”, as if the music itself wasn’t alienated enough. For thirty-five minutes, cellist Anton Lukoszevieze (he of Apartment House) grinds a dogged path through an uncanny valley of cello music, all fluttered harmonics and slow rasps, smothered by a heavy, metallic mute. The same sonic intrigue created by the effects of the ‘whispering cadenza’ from Ligeti’s Cello Concerto are regimented here into erratically cycled patterns and dynamically compressed to allow only occasional random stray outbursts to leak from the seams. It’s also not exactly a solo: an electronic component is present from time to time, but only to add to the uncanny effect that you’re not quite hearing a cello, or otherwise to coat the pristine background with a layer of schmutz. At certain interludes Lukoszevieze’s industrious labouring on his instrument drops away to a prolonged, sullen drone before the sawing resumes, producing a texture both thin in range and thick in detail. An even more stark and nervy companion piece to Sheen’s Sub released last year, Lukoszevieze makes Sheen’s solo a tour de force of suppressed ferocity. It’s been released as a CD by cassette label Trilogy Tapes but it may not be in quite as anomalous company as it first appears.

Almost missed the Insub release of Bryan Eubanks’ for four double basses a year ago; which was pretty stupid of me as it’s a weirdly beguiling piece quite unlike his other electronicky stuff I’ve heard. It’s all harmonics again, real soft when backed by the incipient sonority of the large wooden instruments, playing in a staggered canon of repeating patterns. All you need to know is printed right there on the front cover. It should be looping but there’s just enough fuzziness in the setup to create a dreamlike gauzy sound that seems almost too insubstantial to persist in your consciousness, yet only seems to move when you let it slip from your attention. Jonathan Heilbron, Mike Majkowski, Andrew Lafkas and Koen Nutters man the contrabass viols with a feathery touch.

Night Music: Jack Sheen, Rohan Drape & Anthony Pateras

Tuesday 31 May 2022

If not dark (pace Lorca), then indelibly crepuscular; SN Variations’ release of Jack Sheen’s large ensemble work Sub arrives just in time for northern summer. A broad, dank thicket of furtively scurrying sounds, Sheen’s ensemble writing in this piece both invites and repels comparisons to Haas and very late Feldman’s writing for large ensembles. Sub is played low: alto flutes and violas with trombones, bass clarinets, piano and percussion. The fifteen musicians of the Octandre Ensemble, conducted by Jon Hargreaves, play winding figures over and through each other, with sounds tending towards the breathy and brushed, all muted and blurred by a backdrop of audio tracks that let grey noise seep into any remaining cracks that might admit outside air. While teeming with microscopic, sightless life, Sheen’s composition is never allowed to relax into an organic flow. Cyclical passages are cut up into eleven movements over forty-seven minutes, divded by silences of varying lengths, with some sections dying away and other unnaturally stopped dead. After about twenty minutes, when you think you’re settled in to a work of moody textures, things suddenly lighten up, only to plunge back into redoubled activity. From there on each section becomes more sharply contrasted in sound balance and rhythm, always sounding stranger with the ensemble’s playing turning more febrile as the parts get simpler, until they resemble a muzzy tape recording of a full orchestra. It’s an uncanny, paradoxical work that thwarts movement while remaining in motion, yet never finds balance while remaining in place.

Rohan Drape and Anthony Pateras’ earlier work with keyboards and electronics has been discussed here before but finally received its long-awaited follow-up last year. The traces of a mistake, the most simple one possible the reactions of even younger children presents three related works, including two versions of the title piece. Originally scored for piano, violin, two organs, drums, electronics and Revox tape deck, the piece first appears here in a version for solo piano haunted by an electronically processed haze. Pateras’ piano playing here is uncharacteristically restrained, maintaining an aura of stillness even as the notes gradually fill up the spaces left by Drape’s flickering microtonal drones that slip in and out of consonance. In the middle work, Distance bestows then takes right back, the duet adds pipe organ to the mix, elaborating the ideas from the earlier work into thicker sonorities and more forthright piano work that plays within and around the shifting harmonic space. The final track opens out further, returning to the opening work in an ensemble version with violin and percussion, Drape on piano and Pateras reworking material on a variable-speed tape. Violin adds high overtones and resonance, drums the sub-bass beating signals: even as the texture becomes more active and fraught, with electronic taps and echoes, the suspense and powerful atmosphere is maintained and amplified across all three of these superbly judged and executed works.