Art & music by David Briers
"Previewing his programme for the festival, McKenzie somewhat provocatively asserted that we were going to get ‘music that demands to be 'seen' - not simply heard!"
Articles by Chris Townsend in two recent issues of Art Monthly (AM310, 312) have described how the practice of video art has lately made incursions into the world of staged opera, thereby offering opera ‘opportunities for renewed historical relevance' counter to ‘the disabling properties of visual spectacle'. Those articles were written by a self-confessed opera lover. I am not an opera lover, as it happens, but I am a close follower of festivals of contemporary music. Such festivals, which provide platforms for new modernist and postmodernist composed concert music, are as different from performances in opera houses or large mainstream concert halls as chalk and cheese. Performances at contemporary music festivals are given before closely attentive and completely silent audiences, an equivalent condition to the archetypal white cube that acts as a neutral ground on which to place a new work of art. In contrast to the world of opera, these are almost anti-spectacles. Here, however preoccupied the music is with randomness and other playful compositional strategies, it is essentially experienced as a form of serious intellectual discourse. In this discrete world I have observed over a number of years an increasing contiguity with aspects of contemporary visual art practices.
To some degree, this encroachment is happening because of the prevalent awareness of the phenomenon of sound art, currently flourishing as a popular artistic practice and curatorial favourite, and heading towards institutional respectability as an academic discipline, with its own contextual theory, history and historiography. For some years it has uncomfortably positioned itself taxonomically between fine art practice (most practitioners who are happy to be called sound artists trained on fine art courses) and contemporary music, in the way that the many attempts to devise a theoretical context for live art used to founder somewhere between its dual contexts of art history and theatre history. When the paradigm of the latter shifted from having been considered a subspecies of theatre, and contingent upon it, live art became, according to Philip Auslander, ‘a subset of a still larger category reasonably called performance'. In a similar way, the tendency now seems to be to consider sound art and composed music both as subcategories of sound culture. There are still, of course, many blurred borders between these and other multifarious practices within sound culture: experimental music, electroacoustic music, low tech sound sculpture, performance art, sound poetry, radiophonic art, turntable culture, noise music, soundscape design, field recording, acoustic ecology, psychoacoustics and the philosophy of sound.
All of these featured in one way or another at the 30th Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (HCMF) in November, to a greater degree perhaps than previously at this event. There are many established and nascent international festivals and gatherings specialising in sound art, free improvisation and noise music - for example, the Happy New Ears Festival at Kortrijk in Belgium, Krakow's annual autumn Audio Art Festival, and the forthcoming Soundwaves Festival in Brighton. There are not so many international festivals of contemporary concert music these days, though some new ones have come into being in recent years, like Klangspuren in Austria, the Gothenburg Art Sounds Festival, and Dublin's Printing House Festival. The most substantial contemporary music festivals have been going the longest: the Warsaw Autumn since 1956, and the Zagreb Music Biennale since 1961.
HCMF is equivalent in importance in the contemporary music world to Documenta or Ars Electronica. Like those manifestations within the art world, HCMF concentrates on presenting new work within an international frame of reference, and is conditioned to some degree by the ideas of one director. Set in the academic context of Huddersfield University, HCMF's initiator and its director until 2000 was composition lecturer Richard Steinitz, who fostered a climate of considerable openness tempered by academic rigour and complete seriousness. The new director, Graham McKenzie, came to Huddersfield from CCA in Glasgow, a centre for presenting visual arts and film as well as contemporary music. HCMF 2007 was promoted as having ‘a new look'. Previewing his programme for the festival, McKenzie somewhat provocatively asserted that we were going to get ‘music that demands to be "seen" - not simply heard! There is an emphasis on "audiovisual" and interactive media but, in addition, elsewhere in the programme its roots are firmly steeped in the aesthetics of live art or performance art.' There were certainly things at the festival that would have been equally at home at an international art biennale, and with all the qualities of classical performance art. But identifying the visual art and modern music crossovers at HCMF 2007 was not as simple and straightforward as all that; several interleaved strands could be distinguished.
On the most obvious and immediately evident level were those pieces with a video art installation ‘look', in particular some of the pieces by this year's composer in residence, Yannis Kyriakides. He is as happy writing music to accompany an art installation as a string quartet (in 2005 a commissioned work by Kyriakides for eight-part choir and sine oscillator was incorporated collaboratively into a project by visual artist Louise K Wilson in a former military base at Orfordness). Described as ‘audio-theatre', Kyriakides's affecting work, Buffer Zone, 2004, which reflects on the Green Line in the composer's native Cyprus, is more like a rather formal art installation, involving video, surveillance cameras and minimally moving live performers as well as musicians. Wordless, 2004, is a pre-recorded audiovisual piece with projected text. You could purchase it as a DVD from the festival shop, but in a concert situation the audience wears wireless headphones - not the usual thing to do at a music festival.
At the civic art gallery was Extended Play, a continuously running work by visual and turntable artist Janek Schaefer, realised in collaboration with the composer Michael Jennings. This very good looking installation, using specially made vinyl discs mutating sonically over extended periods of time, is derived from the coded BBC broadcasts of classical music to Poland during WWII. This was a substantial festival commission, rather than an independent festival add-on, which is what has tended to happen in previous years. A similarly high profile was accorded the acoustic artist Christina Kubitsch's Electrical Walks around town; she and her work are more often seen in an art context.
There was also contemporary music as sheer spectacle. The ‘Night of the Unexpected', which opened the festival, was a format borrowed from an annual event at the legendary Paradiso cultural centre in Amsterdam, comprising an informal segue of experimental sound events performed before an ambulatory audience not in a concert hall but in a large disused mill. The cataclysmic sonic impact of four local brass bands playing a commission by Alvin Curran (in September Curran created an environmental piece on the Thames under the aegis of Tate Modern) was followed by a mostly engaging and sometimes laborious farrago of live art, from a disconcerting sound and laser beam spatial intervention by Edward van der Heide, to a convoy of little red toy vans playing vinyl LPs overseen by the Dutch Staalplaats DJ artists.
Similarly informal and performative was the Cut & Splice day organised by the Sonic Arts Network, a mini-festival nestling within the bosom of the main programme. Apart from the irresistible Vienna Vegetable Orchestra, the day featured Los Angeles sound poet Charles Amirkhanian (the only time I can think of that sound poetry has been performed at this festival, other than in a bastardised form as part of Stockhausen's Hymnen and Stimmung), some fairly upfront and physical body art, and quite a lot of real performance art, notably a table-top presentation of Lee Patterson and Helen Gough making breakfast, frying eggs and brewing tea, and amplifying the resultant tiny sounds to fill the auditorium.
A concert devised by the avant-garde harpist Rhodri Davies required the bringing together of 20 concert harps. The pre-concert installation of the full ensemble of harps on stage on their own, beautifully lit, was almost sufficient in itself. You might have thought it to have been a work by Martin Creed. If you were still thirsty for art spectacle, elsewhere classical pianist and visual artist Tomoko Mukaiyama combined elements of the traditional classical recital, performance art and a fashion show, floating on a billowing sea of tulle.
This festival has been aware of its own history, and has shown a preoccupation with reconstructions and reinterpretations of the performative music events of the late 60s and early 70s, when the compositional procedures of the English Experimentalist composers had much in common with those prevalent in the visual arts, and the composers concerned found it easier to gain employment in art colleges than in music academies. As part of a tribute concert at HCMF in 2001, Cornelius Cardew's Schooltime Compositions, 1969, were interpreted as a classic art school happening, with performers reading newspapers and doing jigsaws. Halfway through, a pizza was delivered. At the 2003 festival Gavin Bryars participated rather reluctantly in re-creations of some of his early Fluxus-inspired actions dating from his years of teaching in the fine art department of Leicester Polytechnic.
This year, the group Apartment House performed textual ‘scores' by the late George Maciunas, here framed as a Lithuanian composer rather than as the founder and administrator of Fluxus. Maciunas's Fluxus composition Solo for Violin (for Sylvano Bussotti), 1962, in which a violinist at first casually and then ferociously destroys his instrument, can still provoke shocked gasps if performed properly, as it was here. The American composer Robert Ashley is now in his 70s, and a performance of his works might also have had an archival aspect, except that he was here performing them live, on his own and with a young Dutch instrumental ensemble. His oeuvre, combining unaccompanied spoken texts, literary as well as musical processes, formal rigour and West Coast loucheness, resists definition and a concise description, other than to say that this was undoubtedly an intimate, inimitable and unrepeatable highlight of the festival.
HCMF 2007 has been widely reported to have changed direction. In truth, it has not really diverged so dramatically from the range of options it has always encompassed. Those who thought that the 2007 festival included more freely improvised music than hitherto, for example, might be surprised to discover that the 1980 festival featured almost as much. In 1983, the festival announced that it was concerned to ‘extend its boundaries to embrace related areas of some other art forms'. A day conference called ‘Music as a Plastic Art' featured at the 1987 festival. The difference is that the festival is now more focused and much less embarrassed about such things. The fringe has become the centre.
The composition of the audiences at HCMF is sometimes as fascinating as the composition of the music. As at an art biennale, professionals are regular attenders - composers, critics, publishers and broadcasters. But those from well outside the music world form an equally substantial constituent of ardent attenders who take ten days off work and come to everything. In 1996, for example, a series of compelling late night performances of Morton Feldman's chamber compositions of long duration attracted an intensely attentive lay audience in a rapt atmosphere of communion. That audience included visual artists, who are not always drawn primarily to those HCMF concerts which incorporate visual elements, or direct art references, such as Richard Rijnvos's semi-theatrical musical homages to Joseph Beuys, performed at HCMF in 2004. They are just as likely to go for abstract works that comply with all the traditional performance etiquette of classical concert music, but which offer a parallel aesthetic that might be assonant with their own formal concerns, however disparate. At HCMF in 2007 there were still works performed with a compositional or performative complexion that would fall into this category. There was, for example Walter Zimmerman's new 40-minute piano composition Voces Abandonadas, in which he attempts to translate each of the sentences of a book into an equivalent sequence of 514 pianistic ‘sound emblems', or the riveting hour-long harpsichord recital by the idiosyncratic performer-composer Guus Janssen. It is to be hoped that this strand of musical performance at HCMF is not in danger of being lost or marginalised in favour of attention-seeking spectacle.
David Briers is an independent writer and curator based in Yorkshire.
David Briers sees increasing links between contemporary music and visual art at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival: For some years sound art has uncomfortably positioned itself taxonomically between fine art practice (most practitioners who are happy to be called sound artists trained on fine art courses) and contemporary music, in the way that the many attempts to devise a theoretical context for live art used to founder somewhere between its dual contexts of art history and theatre history.