hcmf// highlights from the first 39 editions

Composers, performers and friends of the Festival share their highlights from Huddersfield Contemporary Festival so far and what hcmf// means to them.

Mick Peake, Chair of the Board at hcmf//

We have come to take for granted that HCMF gives us the chance to see presentation of work by the best living composers by those most skilled in its performance. However, beyond that, I think the unique feature of HCMF is the level of immersion in a hugely contrasting range of musical genres and performance practice that allows for a real in-depth understanding and enjoyment of this art form as it grows and develops in our time.

Two of my most memorable festivals poignantly illustrate this ability contrast genres.

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The first was when ‘Bang on a Can’, the New York based group of performers and composers, were featured juxtaposed to the work of Gyorgy Ligeti (who was also present in person that year). The music from these two sources could not be more different, Ligeti’s being written with such detail and technical virtuosity, in contrast to that of such composers as Julia Wolfe, David Lang and Michael Torke which was much more straight forward and easily accessible. I remember sitting next to Julia Wolfe at one of the Ligeti concerts and she was speechless with awe about the quality and power of LIgeti’s work of which she appeared totally unaware.

The second was the year when we featured the complexity of Brian Fernyhough, Michael Finnissy and others from the ‘New Complexity School’ against the ‘minimalism’ of John Adams, Michael Torke and the late Stephen Albert. I recall some heated exchanges in the young composers’ workshops on the apparent intellectual validity of these two extremities of contemporary music world. At that time there was always one major orchestral concert in the Town Hall which formed part of the Kirklees concert series. Many of the seats were taken (or often not taken!) by people who had booked for the entire season, all other concerts of which featured very standard classical and romantic repertoire.

During that festival I had been immersed in, and at times struggled with, the complexity of Ferneyhough and his kind, but at the orchestral concert that was part of the Kirklees season, the programme was entirely made up of ‘minimalist’ repertoire, with major works by John Adams (who was the conductor) and a lesser known work by Stephen  Albert (who died a few years later). The Albert work was, in my view, banal, simplistic and dull, as a result of which I was very restless during the concert. I was sitting next to an elderly lady and when, at the end of the piece, I failed to clap and my body language clearly betrayed my feelings, she said: “yes I know, this modern music is so difficult isn’t it?”.

More recently, when he visited HCMF in 2007, I discovered, for the first time, the music of Robert Ashley. I was entranced; especially by the performances of the Ensemble MAE (sadly since a victim of cuts in arts funding in Holland), such gentle and yet such challenging music!

2017 will be the 33rd HCMF that I will have attended. HCMF always surprises, always challenges and always makes me want to come back for more. Please keep doing it, HCMF, for another 40 years!!!

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Marco Blaauw, Musician

Melvyn Poore, Musician

Andri Hardmeier, Head of Music, Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia

The journey to autumnal West Yorkshire has long become a kind of pilgrimage for anyone more interested in exploring new sounds than getting dazzled by glamour. When outdoor temperatures seem to approach freezing point, Huddersfield becomes the place for truly thrilling listening experiences.

To name just one, Jürg Frey’s barely audible sound installation in the Byram Arcade during the 2015 edition, will forever be in my memory.

The curatorial policy displayed by Graham McKenzie over the years has made hcmf// indispensable to the European festival landscape. It holds up a magnifying glass to the most compelling and diverse developments in contemporary music, and it is precisely this, that makes an annual pilgrimage so worthwhile for listeners, as well as, musicians.

Andrew Burke, Chief Executive, London Sinfonietta

I’m very pleased that in recent years the London Sinfonietta has become a regular contributor to hcmf//, building on our important projects together in the past. Huddersfield is a natural partner for us as an ensemble in the UK, and together with Graham, I’m proud we have realised some important projects not just for our organisations but for UK new music culture in general.

Clear in my memory from recent years are the world-premiere of James Dillon’s Stabat Mater in St Paul’s and the UK premiere of Haas’ in vain in the Town Hall then most recently Beat Furrer’s Fama. And, not least amongst our projects was the extraordinarily affecting music of the late Pelle Gudmundsen Holmgreen, which I believe moved some to tears. As for Huddersfield in November – the bracing cold, the helpful cab drivers, the wedding receptions happening in the foyer of the Cedar Court Hotel to greet you on return from the concert.

But above all, the mind opening experiences and soul cleansing music which leaves meaningful memories and re-ignites shared passions. Happy Birthday hcmf//…..

Of numerous collaborations at hcmf//, I can safely say it is one of the top festivals for living music in the world, maybe the top! Long live hcmf/!

Alvin Curran, Composer

Robert Worby, Broadcaster

There are many, many remarkable occasions, occurrences, concerts, events, performances, conversations, revelations, insights, observations and other reflections that swirl around whenever I think about the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

But the one moment to which I always return is that, at St Paul’s Hall on 25 November 1989, when John Cage and Pierre Boulez were reunited after a period of about 40 years.

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This was the beginning of the second weekend of the festival and it was devoted to Boulez, the first weekend having been devoted to Cage. To begin the proceedings, there was to be an interview/discussion, between Boulez and George Benjamin, at St Paul’s. An audience, that included John Cage, was gathered, waiting for the arrival of Boulez who was being driven up from London along with Olivier Messiaen and Yvonne Loriod.

On the stage area, there was a low platform with two chairs and microphones. I was stood just beyond stage-right, waiting to record the conversation. We waited and waited in an atmosphere of great anticipation. I imagined a luxury hire-car, with Boulez in the passenger seat and Mr and Mrs Messiaen in the back, racing along the M62 motorway, through pools of sodium orange light, the winter blackness above. The festival director, Richard Steinitz, and festival staff conversed nervously, hoping we wouldn’t have to wait too long.

Adding to their apprehension was the fact that Cage and Boulez had not met in several decades and it was well known that they had had major disagreements about many things. How might they respond when they would meet that evening? Might there be an awkward, embarrassing snub? Each brushing aside the other? Seething anger? Stony silence? We simply didn’t know.

Boulez eventually arrived and the interview was excellent. There were ripples of laughter when he uttered quizzically, “Serialism? What is Serialism?” After it was over, Boulez stood a few feet away from me chatting with Richard Steinitz and others. As John Cage walked down from his seat, the small crowd parted and he walked straight up to Boulez smiling his huge, wide smile. “Pierre”, he said affectionately. “John Cage, my friend”, beamed Boulez, “I haven’t seen you in nearly 40 years.” They embraced warmly as cameras flashed, capturing the poignant moment. Festival staff were visibly relieved. A short while later Boulez was whisked off for a late dinner and John Cage walked alone across the ring road and then up the Halifax Road to the house where he was staying. I knew I had witnessed a profound moment but I wasn’t to know that it would continue to resonate within me for so long.

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Claudia Molitor, Composer

Ed Mckeon, Third Ear

Philip Thomas, Musician

Irvine Arditti, Musician

Huddersfield for me has been the single most important event in this country. It has continued through thick and thin and never relinquished its responsibility to myself and the quartet. International exposure has been at the forefront of our activities but the importance of performing our quartet repertoire in the UK cannot be underestimated.

We have performed at 22 festivals since 1982.

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That first year saw our collaboration with Xenakis coming to England. This gentle man in Huddersfield sowed the seeds for a long friendship with this man and the famous Tetras followed a year later. The next year we played Carter in Huddersfield with two of his monumental quartets performed. Xenakis’s Tetras also came in 1983 shortly after its premiere in Lisbon.

In 1989 came Cage and Ben Mason. Who was the most complicated? Certainly not Cage as his angelic behaviour radiated. This concert saw the premiere of Four which was the last work he wrote for us. Cage’s visit was highlighted with mushroom pickings and the things he was fond of. Socialising was to the forefront and this was an important factor of the way he respected the musicians who performed his music. Cage consulted Richard Steinitz to see if he could dine with us after the concert. But this was no usual culinary experience.

Huddersfield being short on fine restaurants saw us every year, heading for the all-safe Indian cuisine. First Cage asked if he could bring his vegan food to the Indian restaurant (since burnt down) and then he sent a message to us ask us asking if we minded him joining us after the event. If only all composers were so polite.

Many composers were represented in our programmes and many were present. There was a strong representation of ‘our’ UK composers with several performances of Ferneyhough, Harvey and Dillon. Some pivotal violin works were also represented with Cage’s Freeman Etudes and Ferneyhough’s Unsichtbare Farben also having a place.

We fast forward to recent years when new names appear but many old names reappear. Zorn with Haas, Parra, Stroppa, Clarke, Paredes and many others. An important Dillon feature of all his 7 quartets crowned 2014.

Thank you Graham for understanding the importance of what we do. Long may the festival continue with a budget that recognises the importance of what it does.

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James Dillon, Composer

I’ll swerve talk of the many memorable HCMF/Dillon performances I’ve  received over the years, way too indulgent to list. Instead I’ll recall an evening of extraordinary music making, November 1982, St Pauls Hall when those two Xenakis stalwarts Sylvio Gualda and Elizabeth Chojnacka came together on a very cold Yorkshire evening and conjured up little short of white heat.

The works played were not by any stretch my favourite works by Xenakis (Psappha, Komboi etc.) but something rather special happened that evening. Extra seating was hurriedly laid to the sides to accommodate late-comers, late-late-comers allowed a space on the floor.  Whilst Gualda danced his way through an installation of garden pots and more familiar percussion, Chojnacka a red headed sorceress not so much danced but demolished her way through the music.  It was how Xenakis should sound, uncooked, raw, nerve-jangling, only the Arditti’s could match this type of musicking!

Denied the luxury of the kind of financial support of its continental neighbors just how has this annual miracle survived 40 years? Well first of all it understands that it has to continuously refresh itself, to maintain vitality. Affectionately known simply as ‘Huddersfield’ it has put this once proud producer of “the best wool worsted in the world” back on the map. Today Huddersfield services more than Savile Row, rather it continues to serve an eager public starved of real musical nourishment.

James Weeks, Composer

So many great memories: my first hcmf was in 2000, when Lachenmann and Rihm both came and blew my mind as a rookie composer; later on when I started coming as a performer as well the festival always had the warmest (and most knowledgeable) welcome of anywhere.

I remember all my concerts there as clearly as if they were yesterday: Finnissy and Skempton in 2004 (duetting with Howard on his ‘Pineapple Melody’ in the festival Hub to a bunch of bemused Dutch composers was a highlight), Fox in 2005, Cardew’s Ode Machines and a Mažulis epic in 2006 (the one where one of our singers fainted and was resuscitated and carried on without the music stopping – cheers to hcmf’s resourceful stage staff!), and so on, through to Rihm’s epic Vigilia with musikFabrik in 2012 and more Finnissy (his Gesualdo: Libro Sesto) in 2013.

And then there have been the times I’ve had my own work played…

Forty years on, hcmf remains a beacon of new music not just in this country but the whole world. I’m always proud to be a supporter, audience member, composer and performer. Happy Birthday hcmf!

Henk Heuvelmans, Director, Gaudeamus Muziekweek

Harrison Collins, Volunteer

Francoise Clerc, Director of Classical and Jazz, Bureau Export

As head of classical and contemporary music at the French Embassy in London, one of first tasks was to visit Huddersfield. That was in 2010 and since then I have been to every festival where the international family of contemporary music is meeting in a warm and friendly atmosphere.

Graham McKenzie has been a catalyst for an eclectic and a high quality international festival, inviting musicians and artists from many different fields and mixing them with talent. HCMF has become an unmissable professional rendez-vous. Programmed concerts are an amazing to discover new pieces, new composers, performed by the greatest musicians.

It has always been a pleasure to visit hmcf//.

Joost Fonteyne, Director, Wild Westen Festival

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is a quintessential hot spot that for lovers – and professionals (but undoubtedly lovers too) –  of contemporary music. During two weeks new music afficionados from all over the world  are gathered in the middle of England, in the town of Huddersfield. Always good for great encounters with music and colleagues! And for a ‘ près-concert’ whiskey at the infamous Cedar Court Hotel Bar.

Praise to the open mind of the festival program: a collection of contemporary music, improvisation, experiments in electronic music, sound art and much more.

I’ve witnessed a lot of great concerts during my visits, but I hold a precious souvenir of ’Trance Map’ by Evan Parker and Matthew Wright in the Phipps Hall at the Huddersfield University on Friday, November 25th, 2011 at 11.00 to be precise. I recall the setting very well: two musicians facing each other and carefully searching paths of interaction. Great dialogue between two generations, so well connected. Subtle yet decided, experimental yet so open. A little musical gem.

Thank you!

Andy Hamilton, Writer

I was a fan of contemporary composition before my first hcmf in 1988, but my experience of it live was fairly selective.  When I got my first proper job, at Sheffield University, I was intrigued to hear about a new music festival in the vicinity.  Driving over the Pennines, in that first year I was able to experience delights such as Stockhausen’s realisation of Sternklang in Huddersfield Sports Centre.  Ensembles of musicians moved round the venue, as did the audience, some with their dogs – the latter in particular, evidently, keen aficionados of musical modernism.  According to director Richard Steinitz’s excellent history of the festival, Explosions in November, this visit by Stockhausen became a media circus; a BBC vox pop on the high street could find no one who’d heard of the composer, but did locate one respondent who thought that Stockhausen might be a World War One flying ace.

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I began reviewing the festival for The Wire magazine – and later for other publications – though at first I was learning on the job.  (And probably still am.)  Jazz had been my specialisation, but Huddersfield broadened that out.  In the heroic era of musical modernism that was then coming to a close, it was extraordinary in 1989 to witness the appearance in person of John Cage, Pierre Boulez and Olivier Messiaen – with performances by the latter’s wife Yvonne Loriod.  One of that year’s highlights was the production of Cage’s Roaratorio.  Cage enjoyed a reunion with his estranged friend Boulez, described affectingly in Richard Steinitz’s memoir – Cage was open and eager to engage in debate which Boulez, friendly and polite, avoided, I think because he knew he would have to give his honest opinions.

I recall so many wonderful or striking performances at hcmf.  Highlights of music drama included in 2001, Heiner Goebbels’s utterly enchanting Hashirigaki – which surely should have been released on video by now (someone has posted an audio version on YouTube).  Also that year was Sciarrino’s improbably bizarre Lohengrin, where performers crawled over a slatted bench, emitting throttled sounds at the limits of musical expression.  Visually as well as musically compelling was Dean Drummond’s Newband in 1998, featuring Harry Partch’s microtonal instruments, with diamond marimba, gourd tree, cloud chamber bowls and spoils of war.

Reminiscing brings to mind those I got to know at the festival, who are no longer with us.  Two acute critical presences, whose views and advice I greatly miss, were John Warnaby, who reviewed the festival for Tempo over many years, and Bob Gilmore, author of one of the great musical biographies, on Harry Partch.  Bob will be known to many festival-goers; John, who died in 2007, perhaps less so.  His house in Port Talbot was a Welsh hub of the European avant-garde, and he came to hcmf every year as well as visiting new music festivals around the UK and central Europe – he was blind and travelled with his partner Elfriede.  John and Bob were the most honest and insightful of critics.

Hcmf has had many tireless organisers and supporters, one of the longest-serving and enthusiastic being Dr. Mick Peake.  But my most heartfelt tribute must be to Richard Steinitz, who somehow had the vision to realise that a mostly former industrial town in the North of England, known for its Choral Society, brass band heritage and as the home of rugby league, could be the base for an international festival of new music.

As I commented in my Wire review of his festival memoir, Explosions in November, in some ways Richard Steinitz is an unlikely impresario – rather quiet, academic, not obviously a hustler.  One could call him a left elitist, but I think of him as a cultural democrat who always wants to get the best music to wider audiences.  His successor Graham McKenzie has revitalised the festival with greater infusions of forms including improvised music, that had been present in some way from the beginning – including a memorable 50th anniversary reconstitution of improvising trio AMM, with John Tilbury, Keith Rowe and Eddie Prévost, in 2015.  Hcmf and its audiences have been lucky to have directors of such critical vision.

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Louis Andriessen, Composer

Bert Palinckx, Artistic Director, November Music

For around 10 years I’m visiting the Huddersfield festival. It always take place directly after my festival November Music so in a way it’s relax to listen to all these great concerts without being responsible for everything but it’s also a big challenge to stay awake with so many concerts on a day and the cold outside and warm temperature inside.

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For me the Huddersfield experience starts at the station. Arriving at this old and small station, looking at the George Hotel and the taxis taking you to the Cedar Court Hotel. Always nice talks with the Pakistani taxi drivers who have no clue about contemporary music festivals taking place in their home town.

After checking in the first goal is to get some food. This is necessary because you never know if there is time to have some real dinner between all the concerts. Yes, I’m a professional in different ways.

In general the first festival visit is the sound installation in the contemporary art space (highlight 1: Sound Installation Janek Schaeffer: Extended Play). After the opening the first reception with drinks and food starts with a short speech by Graham. The first real concert takes place at St. Pauls with some wonderful chamber music (highlight 2: Arditti Quartet and Hilliard Ensemble with Wolfgang Rihm: Et Lux) followed by a reception with drinks and food and a speech by Graham.

Then walking to the town hall for some ensemble concert (highlight 3: Klangforum Wien with music by Enno Poppe) of course followed by a other reception with drinks, food and a speech by Graham. A real Huddersfield evening ends at Bates Mill (highlight 4: Keith Rowe & Bill Thompson & Rick Reed) trying to stay warm.

Of course a Huddersfield day really ends at the Cedar Court Hotel with Graham, old and new friends having a nice drink at the bar with a grumpy bartender before going to sleep.

Visiting the Huddersfield town and festival is a once in a year experience which you don’t want to miss. I’m already looking forward to the next Huddersfield experience in November 2017.

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Your highlights….?

As we approach the 40th edition of hcmf//, share with us your Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival highlights.


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Your hcmf// highlight


Selected highlights may be included on the hcmf// website and social media. We will give your name if your highlight is selected unless you request for us not to do so.