New music organisations have been just as harshly treated as opera by funding bodies over the past year. In the last week alone, following the confirmation that Manchester-based new-music group Psappha had been disbanded, news emerged that neither the Cheltenham music festival nor Dartington summer school would continue in their current form.
But somehow the Huddersfield contemporary music festival forges on regardless. This year’s programme, which packs more than 50 events into 10 days, has all the vigour of its pre-Covid years. And, unquestionably, there is still an audience eager to take on everything HCMF has to offer – all of the concerts I attended during the first weekend were filled to capacity and enthusiastically received.
The festival began with the UK premiere of Personhood, a music-theatre piece by Jennifer Walshe composed for the extraordinary accordionist Andreas Borregaard. It explores how concepts of personal identity have become inextricably entwined with the control the digital world now exerts over us. The soloist, treated as a laboratory specimen, is given tasks to carry out, choreographed movements to execute and visual images to which he must react, while being marked out of 10 for his efforts by the ensemble around him, the Oslo Sinfonietta.
As well as playing his accordion and moving almost constantly around a stage strewn with everyday objects such a potted plant and a table lamp, Borregaard delivers reams of text, some spoken, some sung; the music itself ranges from simple ditties and pop-style tunes to moments of almost Wagnerian grandeur – one extended, surging climax seems like a riff on the opening of Rhinegold. It’s a richly strange, multi-layered mix, hard to grasp at a single encounter. Among all the activity any clues the texts might have offered were hard to grasp; there was one section that clearly referred to Britney Spears, but others were opaque, and instead one was left to wonder at the sheer stamina and commitment of Borregaard’s hyperactive performance.
Grasping the full import of the texts involved was also a challenge in the other theatrical piece of the opening few days. Like the Walshe, Laura Bowler’s Advert, receiving its first performance, is concerned with individuality; in her own words it’s “an exploration of the ‘self’ amid an ever-increasing tribalist society”. Aided and abetted by the six members of the Decoder Ensemble, Bowler is very much the protagonist, recalling memories and snatches of her autobiography in a mix of speech and song. These are conceived as a series of what she calls adverts, which also incorporate texts by other writers, including Sam Redway, Edwina Barvosa and Amy Chua. At one point she dons boxing gloves to spar with a member of the ensemble, while the work ends with her being tattooed onstage by the tattoo artist Julia Rehme, with closeups of the work in progress (an abstract design snaking down her forearm) projected onto a video screen, while Bowler sings an increasingly impassioned chant. Though it’s all a sometimes bewildering clutter of ideas, the sheer energy behind it is irresistible.
More conventional new music came in the form of two UK premieres of major pieces by Rebecca Saunders, whose works have been a regular feature at Huddersfield in recent years. The silence-haunted Skull, composed for the 14 instrumentalists of the Oslo Sinfonietta, completes the triptych that began with the superb Skin in 2016. Saunders’ literary starting point this time was a passage from Haruki Murakami’s Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, while for Us Dead Talk Love, the source of the title and the text came from the video artist Ed Atkins – a stream of consciousness about the body and its flesh, which Saunders matches to an increasingly histrionic vocal line, composed for the spectacular virtuosity of the contralto Noa Frenkel, paired with the instrumental quartet (drums, electric guitar, keyboard and saxophone) of Ensemble Nikel. Expressively, it seems much more unbuttoned than Saunders’ previous vocal works, more direct in its impact, but as always every texture, every gesture is precisely imagined.
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