hcmf// 2019 is all about the hidden gems. Focusing on smaller scale music and overlooked artists, this year’s festival brings up those under the radar. In this year’s Hidden Gems column, Graham McKenzie highlights a selection events you should know not to miss.
Kelly Jayne Jones
Kelly Jayne Jones is having a huge couple of years. It’s all been about new adventures: she contributed a piece to the Whitworth galley’s tribute to the lithophone, worked alongside photographer Haris Epaminonda on a multi-media installation for Venice Biennale, and performed in collaboration with renowned experimental saxophonist Matana Roberts for Outland Festival. As solo artist, she’s just released Clay Tablets, Hoarded Creatures, a new tape that reimagines the hauntology genre as something vital.
There’s more to come. As one of the festival’s International Showcase artists, Jones returns to hcmf// with a brand new performance-installation made in collaboration with dance producer Dan Valentine and visual artist Joe Beedles. As with much of Jones’ work, it is a combination of elements both tangible and intangible, as much about physicality as it is psychedelia. A World Premiere, carving shapes with many parallel and proportional sides is an attempt to find hidden sounds, and dig them out – bringing them into our world.
Exploring on instinct, Lisa Streich makes work about ‘everything that exists in life and everything that belongs to it’. Pieces hold together different emotions simultaneously; it’s why a work such as Stabat, written for 32 voices, sounds both peaceful and distraught, a drone of dissent. As she told Ricordi, her music contains ‘beauty, ugliness, religion, superficiality and cruelty’, often all at once.
An emerging artist, Streich is set to make some of the most exciting music of the next decade; without fanfare, she’s making striking music in which ensembles take on new structures and shapes, pulled like elastic through their performance. The Riot Ensemble, who have a knack for playing music by the best new artists, will deliver the UK Premiere of Zucker, a work Streich wrote for what she calls ‘motorised ensemble’. It is strikingly quiet and strikingly loud – devastating at both decibels as well as in between them.
A mainstay of Sweden’s burgeoning experimental scene, Lisa Ullén recently released Piano Works, an exhaustive collection of music pieces that debunk the definitions of composition and improvisation. It is a huge musical document, but in reality, it’s only the surface of her career; beyond it, Ullén tours solo and band performances, updating the ideas of the biggest improvisers in both jazz and contemporary music.
Few improvisers can make music so seamless, and even fewer can make every single musical line they play sound as meaningful as the last. Ullén can. Whether or not it’s melody, it sounds like it, her dissonances and contradictions as immersive as her smoothest passages. She describes her performance at hcmf// 2019 as ‘working off a springboard’, taking grains of ideas and turning them into something of the moment. Through all her work, there is an incredible fluidity, a telepathic sense of where to go next.
Performing Evan Johnson’s music is kind of like playing Dark Souls. Often obtuse, sometimes vague and always demanding, his scores exist in a world of their own, requiring musicians to learn a whole new set of logic-defying rules. It explains why he’s taken a while to emerge; it also explains why ensembles clamour at the chance to play his music.
The Riot Ensemble like Johnson’s work so much they’re coming back for more: after straining themselves into producing the intense whispers of his 2016 composition L’art de toucher le clavecin, they return with Linke Hand eines Apostels, a new commission from hcmf// and BBC Radio 3. Johnson describes the work, which traverses cacophonic noises and disquieting near-silences, as a ‘disappearing fantasia’. Unsettling and out of this world, it is music for the curious, those who can’t stay away from something that can’t be explained.
Nadah El Shazly
Nadah El Shazly is one of many musicians leading the new wave of experimental music in Egypt. Based in Cairo, the last few years have seen her compose the thrilling, large-scale opus Ahwar, a record that realises her experiences of jazz, electronic and rock music, blowing up each into the widescreen of a big band. The record is a testament to El Shazly’s open-ended approach: to make an experimental music that engages every possible sound source.
Shazly’s history with music has been eclectic and chaotic; she’s ended up in the experimental composer lane, but once yelled Misfits tunes in disorderly hardcore bands. She’s also used to playing her music solo, taking her expansive ideas and bottling them into something more solitary. Her performance at hcmf// sees her place the big band music of Ahwar in this context – just her voice, a keyboard and the initial ideas that sparked her record.
S4 was formed in 2010 by Swiss musician Christian Kobi. As with the best improvisational projects, it started on a whim; Kobi was looking towards a future festival performance and thinking up potential projects for it. With the help of renowned saxophonists John Butcher, Urs Leimgruber and Hans Koch, he came up with a novel idea: a quartet of soprano saxophones, exploring the farthest reaches of the instrument. The line-up is unusual enough as it is, but their approach exceeds traditions and expectations, as much ‘anti-saxophone’ as anything.
S4’s live performances are rare – when they happen, they are pulsating and versatile, the group playing at a juncture of lawless dissonance and symbiotic harmony. At hcmf// 2019, the group appear to premiere new piece Elastic Voices. Typical of these musicians, it weaves composition into situational free play, the group improvising music for the special acoustics of St Paul’s Hall.
Grand Chromatic Fantasy
Nobody paid attention to Mikheil Shugliashvili, but he didn’t mind. A single-minded artist obsessed with pursuing his craft, the Georgian composer spent his career looking for a corner of minimalism he could call his own. It was at odds with his country’s musical trends, and was ignored by all music institutions – in the end he set up his own studio, continuing to experiment with composition on his own terms. Listening to his work now, you can understand how hard it must have been for him; his music broods and storms, floating through the air like an eternal dark cloud.
Written in 1974, Grand Chromatic Fantasy (Symphony For 3 Pianos) is the culmination of a career spent in isolation. An eerie melodrama that reaches further and wider than any of Shugliashvili’s previous work, it gets its sting from a simple process, positioning three separate pianos at a different pitch and instructing them to go down and up their instrument. Shot through with impulsive dynamic changes and sudden rhythmic curveballs – at times, it’s an endless race to the finish, and at others it’s a tumble down the stairs – Grand Chromatic Fantasy is breathless, devastating and impossible to turn away from. Considering how late listeners have come to Shugliashvili’s music in his home town of Tblisi, where the piece was first premiered in 2013, this hcmf// performance is as rare as they come.
Double bassist James Oesi has transformed his instrument into a mainstay of solo performance, taking apart its tradition as a band tool. His confidence on the instrument is infectious; it’s easy to see things his way, to watch the instrument stand tall on its own. At hcmf// 2019, he’ll premiere a series of new works that highlight his intricate understanding of the bass – drawing on different worlds and converting them to his.