A Fascinating Collection of Recent Pieces, Expertly Performed

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Castellarnau, Agnes, Saunders, Malondra, Watanabe, and Bagés: ClapTON ensemble, Morphosis Ensemble. St Leonard’s, Shoreditch, London, 10.1.2016. (MB)

Carlos de CastellarnauNatura Morta (2014, UK premiere)

Michelle AgnesVento Noroeste (2012/2015, UK premiere)

Mateu MalondraSystematic Double Bind (2015, world premiere)

Rebecca Saundersthe under-side of green (1994)

Yukiko WatanabeMono-Dialogue III (2012, world premiere)

Joan Bagés i RubiSobreimpresión (2009, UK premiere)

It is always an exciting prospect to hear a concert of entirely new music (new to me, at least, and much of it new to the world). For me, moreover, five of the six composers were new too. With no programme notes for a crutch, simply a list of composers and works, one has little idea what to expect. One might well gain a greater appreciation upon repeated listening, yet one might also wish one were able to hear the Ninth Symphony for the first time again: imagine! In many ways, it is difficult, almost impossible, to do so. A lack of faith in new music in many quarters has led some to take refuge in a remote pseudo-historicism, which knows little more history than our political masters. The alleged cure proves worse than the imaginary ailment: better, of course, to point to the fallacy via an encounter between London- and Barcelona-based ensembles.

Carlos de Castellarnau’s Natura Morta, for accordion (Josep Vila) and electronics (Joan Bagés) proved something of a performing tour de force: one could hardly but be impressed by Vila’s musicianship. The material seemed to incorporate, indeed truly to integrate, some more ‘popular’ elements, without descending to the level of the ‘folkish’. Repeated notes, long notes (perhaps with a touch of nostalgia?), something not so far removed from white noise, eventually fading away into nothingness: throughout there was a strong visual, physical element, but the sustenance came from an undeniable sense, both in work and performance, of musical line.

Michelle Agnes’s Vento Noroeste for bass clarinet (Alejandro Castillo), violin (Kamila Bydlowska), and cello (Mónica Mari), opens with harmonics, swiftly supplemented, followed by scurrying, whispering slides. (The clue, one assumes, lies in the title.) I thought a little of Debussy’s Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest, not that the music in any sense sounded ‘like’ Debussy’s. There seemed to me a real sense of patient yet dramatic, even pictorial, development.

Mateu Malondra’s Systematic Double Bind followed, musicians as follows: voice (Josephine Stevenson), flute (Ilze Ikse), cello (Mónica Marí), and electronics (Bages). The vocal part had me think both of Berio (post-Berberian lightness) and Stockhausen (breathing and manipulation), but they might simply have been personal points of reference. The piece emerged almost as a mini-cantata, or scena. At one point, I felt an almost Romantic (though certainly not neo-Romantic) cast to the cello line. Instrumental combinations always intrigued; the sense, again, of dramatic ‘line’ was quite compelling.

Rebecca Saunders is, apparently a ClapTON ensemble favourite: an excellent choice and the composer with whose work I was a little familiar. the under-side of green, for violin (Bydlowska), clarinet (Castillo), and piano (Tomeu Moll) opens with an éclat that perhaps inevitably brought Boulez to mind. A sense of pinpoint precision within sonic (post-Webern?) drama offered ample opportunity, well taken, for brilliance in performance at combining of different instrumental registers. There was a very strong impression of musical procedures working themselves out, perhaps especially in an almost toytown-like section of piano writing.

Yukiko Watanabe’s Mono-Dialogue III is for ‘two flautists’ (here, Zinadra Kodrič and Ilze Ikse). As a piece of performance art, it certainly made its point, the two flautists having split the flute between them. I struggled to find a great deal more behind the extended techniques, but the fault may well have been mine.

Joan Bagés i Rubi’s Sobreimpression was the final work performed. Flute (Kodrič), bass clarinet (Castillo), cello (Marí), Moll (piano), and electronics (Bagés) participated in a performance that certainly had its ‘performance art’ quality but seemed to go beyond that. A multi-media element was offered by initial numbers whirling around on screen; I do not know whether they had importance beyond that, but assumed that they offered a digital shuffling of the pack, the numbers finally settling upon corresponding to the ordering of sections of the music. (I may, of course, have had that entirely wrong!) It was, at any rate, theatrical. There was, moreover, more perhaps of an ‘ensemble’, less of a ‘chamber’ sound, although the boundaries are anything but absolute , and I found a real sense of sonic art-drama upon a first hearing. Highly assured writing seemed to attract equally assured performances. For what it is worth, if anything, the number sequence was 7563142.

Mark Berry

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