Ostrava Days 2023 Live

Sunday 7 April 2024

The Ostrava Days Festival began the new year with a compilation of highlights from their 2023 season, available in a few permutations (the CD version captures only a quarter of the downloadable material and you miss a lot of the best stuff). The download collection focuses on orchestral and larger ensemble works, most of them premieres. It’s tragic but appropriate that the first album begins with the first performance of the late Phill Niblock’s High Noon, given last September by ONO – Ostrava New Orchestra under Petr Kotík’s direction. Hearing one of Niblock’s dense sonic monads executed by a mass of acoustic instruments instead of his usual electronic drones is a powerful experience, with ONO retaining the expected level of intensity to achieve the complex but single-minded nature of Niblock’s music. I hope to hear this live one day. Also present is Christian Wolff, with the premiere of his For 38 Players by Kotík leading Ostravská banda this time. Wolff exploits the instrumentation to produce a particularly lively and colourful work, with the playful inquisitiveness of his discontinuous aesthetic at the forefront. Kotík’s own Outline / Fragment II retains a discernible foundation of his radical steady-state compositions from the Seventies beneath a more elaborate, if not exactly ornate, surface which raises the question of whether he has matured into a more eloquent mode of expression or just mellowed out and regressed towards conventional concert-hall gestures. We’re closer to a Boulez situation here than Glass or Reich so it’s fair to say the former.

Besides Kotík and Wolff, a couple of other names from recent festivals. Bruno Ferrandis conducts Ostravská banda’s premiere of Petr Bakla’s Diptych, an austere work for twelve string players. Bakla reduces everything here as much as he can, sustaining a monotonal line with a slow pulse, the faintest harmonization and gradations in colouring and dynamics to produce the illusion of motion. There is again a Xenakis piece, which seem to take on the role of a yardstick here amongst all the premieres. This time it’s the tour de force for string orchestra Shaar from 1983, which is always welcome, especially as ONO (conducted by Pavel Šnajdr this time) maintains momentum through the steady rhythm passages without trundling. Amongst the newer voices found here, several others lean into the same “less is more” approach heard in the Bakla piece. Michal Wróblewski’s Rhythms no. 3, Glissando appears to feature neither, except in a very subtle way to produce a precarious weave of light, thin material as played by Ostravská banda. James Falzone’s Neither/Nor II inhabits similar territory, even as Ostravská banda require a conductor (Ferrandis) for this piece, with studious attention to each pitch while sounding scarcely any thicker in texture than the original version scored for a trio of violin, piano and vibes.

There’s not enough of Zygmunt Krauze’s music readily available, so fortunately both download and CD include the premiere of his Rivière souterraine 3, with the composer as soloist on piano and Ostravská banda augmented by electronic sounds. It’s a craftily constructed montage of tableaux in which texture and colour take precedence over small-scale shape, where the details are articulated by what I suspect are sublimated examples of Krauze’s predilection for quotation, or ersatz quotation. In my ignorance I’m imagining that the title is a reference to the scherzo from Berio’s Sinfonia, but I’m not looking it up and the album booklet doesn’t say. The provided booklet doesn’t tell us anything about the music really, except that we dodged a bullet when the theatre piece about American politics documented in several photos was omitted from the album. There’s enough theatrics in František Chaloupka’s Allegory of the Cave II., which sounds like it should also be a piano concerto and almost is, making grotesques out of movie soundtrack tropes while occasionally channeling the earlier works of John Adams; it’s a natural fit but as with all grotesques the proportions of wonderment and disgust in your reaction will be a personal matter. Less forgivable is Ian Davis’s Pale Blue World which has a wan presence in this company, with that apologetic air that wafts through too much modern composition these days. As a disclaimer, I’m not an expert on this subject: for example, I keep mixing up Anne Cleare with Anna Clyne. This conundrum has hopefully been resolved once and for all by Canticum Ostrava’s performance of Cleare’s Earth Waves, a nakedly and defiantly weird piece from 2018 that combines the vocal ensemble with trombone (played here by William Lang) and electronic processing. Cleare relocates the contemplation of natural phenomena away from the limited realm of human experience, where the vast majority of it takes place, affirming its strangeness in relation to us while using the human voice as a means for doing so. The trombone and electronics act as transformative elements, both in altering the voices and in guiding them into extended means of expression. That exploratory, expressionist bent recalls the avant-garde of fifty years ago but tackles the medium with more assurance, aware that the technical and technological crudeness of the time is no longer necessary.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.