Founded in 1978, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival was for a long time primarily a venue for New Music. Since Graham McKenzie was appointed its Artistic Director in 2006, however, the festival’s focus has become considerably broader. This is also obvious when one looks at the Swiss contributions to this year’s festival, its 40th anniversary edition. Just like the last two festivals, this one too focussed on contemporary Swiss music.
From academic to ecstatic
A prominent place on the programme was assigned to Stephanie Haensler, whose works ganz nah and Im Begriffe were first on the bill at the festival’s opening concert on the early evening of Friday 17 November. Haensler represents a young generation of academically trained composers, and her highly crafted, subtly developing works found committed, sensitive interpreters in Romaine Bolinger and Lora-Evelin Vakova-Trara (ganz nah) and the remarkable Red Note Ensemble from Scotland (Im Begriffe).
Nik Bärtsch and his quartet MOBILE come from a very different place – they play a minimalist, repetitive music that is as static as it is urgent in its forward motion. At their performance in the clear acoustic of St Paul’s Hall, their intermeshed, polyrhythmic interplay united razor-sharp precision with effective shifts in sound colours and textures that were calculated just as precisely. In its apparent simplicity of repetition, this music seemed tangible and tactile, but also remained difficult to grasp in its expansive interweavings and unpredictable twists and turns. One might call it a static yet eventful space – or, to use Bärtsch’s own words: “Ecstasy through Asceticism”.
Hard labour for angel voices, and the joy of the squeal
Raphaël Languillat’s Flagellation of Christ (after Caravaggio) comes across as less dialectic: it is a 15-minute tour-de-force for the performer, who brings his grand piano into convulsions with its rapid, uninterrupted fortissimo semiquavers in a manner that makes the overtones collide fiercely with each other in the church’s acoustic. It’s not as a compositional gesture that it’s so stunning, but in its powerful interpretation by Gilles Grimaître, who seemed to understand perfectly that it takes hard labour to make the angels sing cheerfully.
The English composer Christopher Fox wrote untouch-touch for the percussionist Serge Vuille, who gave its world première on the following Monday. It plays with abstracted sound materials, removing the performer’s movements from any causal relationship with the sounds he generates (though it also leads him back there again). Vuille got everything possible out of this piece with his concentrated, clean performance. The approach behind the work has a certain appeal; it is like the twofold realisation of a kind of blueprint using different sonic means – sinus tones in the first part, gongs in the second. But ultimately, the idea proved to offer more in its conception than in its implementation, and the piece was somewhat long-winded.
Monday was tightly packed with numerous, short, free concerts, and it came to a close late in the evening with Christian Weber on double bass and Joke Lanz at the turntables. Their duo performance last year was greeted with such enthusiasm in Huddersfield that they were promptly booked to appear again this year. And with good reason – their dizzying agility makes one wonder in astonishment, and their rapid reactions, even in freefall, leave you at times with no option other than to squeal with pleasure. See you next time, perhaps?!