The opening weekend of hcmf// 2014

hcmf artwork 


By Val Javin

How better to start a weekend at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival than with the rich, atmospheric tones of baritone Thomas Buckner?

Buckner joined chamber orchestra, Ostravskà banda making its first visit to hcmf// from the Czech Republic, in a tribute to Christian Wolff. What a way to celebrate the 80th birthday of the avant garde composer and to underline what lies ahead - 10 days of contemporary music, a heady cocktail of modern music giants and vibrant new talent.

A clearly delighted Wolff was in the audience at St Paul's Hall to hear the concert open with his piece 37 Haiku, a setting of John Ashberry's poems written in the form of Japanese Haiku. And it was Buckner's sombre tones which provided the verbal punctuation marks as each ensemble member offered lines of instrumental sound juxtaposed with words spoken and sung.
An extraordinary start and much, much more to follow including John Cage's recently rediscovered version of Wolff's For Six Or Seven Players.

Written as a piece for American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, it demands the minute precision and drama of the dance world. Fascinating to see the arm movements of conductor Petr Kotik choreographed as beautifully as the fingering of his instrumentalists.
A hard act to follow? Perhaps not with Catalonia's ensemble CrossingLines high on my Saturday to-do list.

Here was another sell-out. Hardly surprising as this young group of performers sprung a whole bag of musical surprises. They packed Phipps Hall and almost burst the walls with energy and vitality.

Alistair Zaldua's contrejours was eerily beautiful. Four performers, one piano and a bag of electronics add up to a massive range of sound which flickers and bounces around, blurring light and shade, turning darkness into day.

If you thought the electric typewriter had been consigned to the scrap heap then Manuel Rodríguez Valenzuela might just make you think again. Kaleidoscopic sound and word patterns in his piece, T (t) blocks A + B + C + D were the smile-inducing part of my day.
One day down, so how to follow that. With Oslo's Cikada Ensemble, which never fails to deliver, and the equally remarkable combination of the London Sinfonietta and the BBC Singers.

Sunday 23 November

My Sunday started at St Paul's Hall at the civilised hour of noon with music to match. Cikada showcased the work of composer Liza Lim, on home ground since she is also professor of composition at the University of Huddersfield.

In her piece, Winding Bodies: 3 Knots there were absorbing textures, sibilant sounds and whispering as the music wove a thread as rich as the Nordic tale of sailors ‘buying the wind' tied in knots.

And in The Heart's Ear, flute, clarinet and string quartet create a poetic sense of longing, of fluttering hearts and spirits.

If all those riches were not enough, Cikada added the compelling piece Gimilen, written by Norwegian composer Jon Oivind Ness and well worth the warm reception it received.

But then to what has to be my five star vote winner of the weekend, the world premiere of James Dillon's Stabat Mater Dolorosa, a new concert-length work for the London Sinfonietta and BBC Singers.

This year's composer in residence at hcmf//, Dillon is an old friend of the festival. Theirs has been a long and fruitful relationship and one on this latest showing, just keeps on giving.

Beautifully written, complex, layered and in places, extraordinarily moving, this piece is just what hcmf// audiences love. Challenging for players and performers and one of those works you just might want to say "I was there when it was first played."

Fine performances everywhere with the astonishing virtuosity of instrumentalists matched by the pitch pure, bright and muscular vibrant tones of the BBC Singers. Festival heaven.

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Carlos Casas: Avalanche


By Val Javin

Wind howls, thumps and rumbles around the rafters. It's cold and the chill bites all the harder as an answering call comes from what, in the imagination, could just be a wolf.

Then comes a voice. Thin, wavering, the tone of a man scoured perhaps by the harshness of the landscape that looms out of the dark.

Scale the flights of stairs into the Loft at Bates Mill and you will see the roof of quite another world. Mountainous, scrubbed almost bare of foliage by the harshness of the weather, the village of Hichigh clings to the terracotta terrain of the Pamir mountains in Tajikistan.

But for how long? That seems to be one inescapable theme which emerges from Carlos Casas' remarkable installation.

Will a culture and a way of life which has long existed high in the mountains, out of reach and beyond sight, be overtaken by the Avalanche of change brought ever nearer by modern life and communications? Or will one of the world's highest inhabited villages simply fade like the daylight, returned to the earth from which it was created by an avalanche of savagery unleashed by wind and weather?

Conditions may be brutal, the villagers' daily existence eked out by the simplest of means, but there is a rare and aching beauty here that demands to be recorded even if it cannot ultimately be retained.

Stunning imagery, coupled with a new soundtrack created by Carlos in addition to the original overture soundtrack from Phill Niblock, underline the stillness and clarity which seem to glitter like jewels in an otherwise barren landscape.

Rocks lean in the foreground, barely able to stand against the wind on a high plateau of rich, red earth. Snow fingers the mountain tops behind.

Then we see the face to match that reed-thin voice. It too is creased and worn, the lines deep and dark as the earth. His hands bear the same marks of wear as he pounds grain with a boulder. A companion uses the same, timeless method to break open precious nuts.

Together they harness fire and water to fuel a rudimentary forge in which to craft tools and a milling stone to produce flour.

The essentials of this harsh and remote lifestyle include music where strings, rhythm and voice combine to produce a sound which holds echoes of past lives and enduring traditions. But it is to the often haunted faces of the village that you must look to see the reality of what life is like living in such a demanding and powerful environment.

Out on the mountain, a boy forages for stone, meticulously selecting materials to create a cairn - a monument perhaps to the timeless existence that he and his family must live until the mountain decides otherwise.

For what comes over loud and clear in the silence of this landscape is the depth of understanding needed to survive in an environment as harsh as this. And the inescapable truth that one day, this exposed village will slide into the darkness along with the fading daylight.


See this utterly compelling installation at Bates Mill until November 29 (10am to 4pm) - closed Friday 28 November.

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Gaman CD launch

Early and LateAfter 6 years of unusual concert adventures in the Nordic countries, USA and Europe, the Danish trio Gáman now present their debut CD, Early & Late, with the trio’s favourite repertoire: a unique combination of traditional folk melodies from islands of the Danish commonwealth – Fanø, Greenland and the Faroe Islands – and three world premieres of works by composers Pelle Gudmundsen-Holmgreen (b. 1932), Sunleif Rasmussen (b. 1961) and Rune Glerup (b. 1981).

Early & Late will be released at hcmf// on Sunday 24 November – The Loft, Bates Mill (Huddersfield, UK).

1.30pm – Release reception
2pm – Festival concert

All festival guests are invited for a pre-concert drink with the trio - and CDs will be sold at special release price!

The concert and reception are parts of hcmf//’s special day devoted to the special meeting between past and present, early and late – folk tunes and new music – under the Nordic heading Mytologier.

Read more about Mytologier.

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