The Printing House Festival of New Music, 25th and 26th November , The Printing House, Trinity College Dublin. Benedict Schlepper-Connolly (violin), Garrett Sholdice (piano), Ensemble Imp, Bulraga vocal quartet, Matthew McCright (piano), Paul G. Smyth (piano), Jürgen Simpson (piano)
There is a new young generation of Irish composers who have ability, energy and enthusiasm, and they want to create a public platform for their work. In addition they what to show the wider aesthetic context in which they write, which they also see as missing its due attention.
If you are a young composer what you need in order to develop, more than anything else, is to hear your work in a live concert situation. What should happen, and the reader might presume that somehow it does, is that you go to a music conservatoire where you can study the craft of composition. Naturally such courses would include all the things you need to develop your craft, and since you will be surrounded by performers, hearing your latest piece live will be something that your professors will ensure takes place. However, nothing of the kind occurs. The PHFNM, happening on a university campus, takes place against a background of massive dysfunction in our so-called music education system. Generally the older music education institutions regard (or act exactly as if they regard) all challenging new composition much the way the concert-going public sees it: pointless and awful. The canon is ample material for the students of performance and does not require any renewal in the form of fresh creativity, instead you renew by disinterring hoards of minor composers from history. It is easier for musicologists and performers alike to look at old music to the exclusion of the new, and that is what the vast majority does. A smattering of living composers who write in a purely pedagogical stream assists in this cover-up of living art, and so the classical music juggernaut rumbles along, a mausoleum of curatorship. That is why in this case the composers took it upon themselves to sort everything out. The composers behind the festival, Benedict Schlepper-Connolly, Garrett Sholdice and Aengus Ó Maoláin, not only composed for and programmed the festival, but also organised and performed. They did this without any significant financial support from either inside or outside the TCD campus, and despite a good publicity campaign, without much support from the public either. Surviving, then, on goodwill and coffee, they nonetheless produced an efficient and professionally-run event.
The festival presented thirty-eight works in nine concerts over two days, a remarkable achievement. Twenty from American composers, sixteen from young Irish composers, one from Arvo Pärt (Estonian), and one from Kurt Schwitters (German, better known as a visual artist). The balance of time was spent on Irish rather than American works, it should be noted, as three of the nine concerts consisted of just one large piece, in each case Irish (including here two lengthy improvisations).
The Irish works were not especially tightly grouped into a single aesthetic (so the next generation is probably as varied as its predecessors), but the festival as a whole achieved a sense of grouping around an aesthetic of sparseness and musical asceticism. The music of American composer James Tenney was the focal point; particularly his ‘postcard’ pieces – where an idea, usually a single process, that can fit on one (small) page may give rise to a twenty-minute piece. The works from Pärt, Simon O’Connor and Garrett Sholdice seemed to agree broadly with this kind of thinking.
Such a hardcore level of material simplicity results in the extreme challenge of hugely unvaried soundscapes, usually completely avoiding what most people think of as musical material, including rhythm (when there is only duration). With that there is a huge danger, or likelihood, if you prefer, of creating the impression of the emperor’s new clothes. When it works, for those for whom it works, it can be ‘cleansing’, and even ‘healing’. But this sort of naked music requires phenomenal interpretation of the type not yet taught. And listening, too. In the harsher light that was the mostly non-professional standard of performance here, it was the Tenney pieces that regularly failed to impress this listener, while the Pärt, O’Connor and Sholdice offerings came across as more weighty and sincere. One may know more than enough Pärt already, but these other two names are worth watching. The reader may notice that my own aesthetic framework is not in sympathy with this sort of sound-world. While it is true that almost every stylistic shift in the history of music has involved the inversion of the practises of the previous generation(s), the rejection of modernism’s excessive polyphony does not automatically require such emptiness as its counterweight. Reich, and in Europe, Pärt, Gorecki, Ligeti (in his later music), Zimmerman (Walter), Andriessen, Volans, Lachenmann and many others have shown a diversity of ways that music can simplify and move forward without such strongly negative and frankly boring results.
Another stylistic area not covered by the aforementioned list is post-modernism. This is not a style, but another even more reactionary field that covers some interesting music and many taste crimes. Matthew McCright provided a carefully chosen programme on the Saturday which gave us a glimpse of what can be achieved when post-modernism avoids the meaningless temptation to write in one single voice from the past (as if revealing a lost Tchaikovsky score, for example). Most of the works in his recital did, however, indulge in the post-modern habit of using multiple easily identified stylistic markers, which is something that is terribly difficult to handle well, and didn’t totally convince, in the music of Mike McFerron, Mark Mellits, or Carolyn Yarnell’s Tenaya. However Rzewski’s De Profundis really did work while doing this, carried along by the powerful and faithful interpretation of McCright; this was the best piece of the festival. Invention by Yarnell, and Zone by Linda Buckley were well-crafted, satisfying pieces, fitting into the programme without being post-modern in the same way.
Taking the Irish composers together, they ranged in achievement from polished to unsure voices, and apart from Buckley, O’Connor and Sholdice, already mentioned, the most assured was Judith Ring, but there was also promise in the music of Ó Maoláin and Brian G. Flynn. Flynn’s Genome began with evidence of a thoughtful and musical mind, if perhaps rather close to the world of the ‘holy minimalists’, but the piece was rather too long for its material. Ó Maoláin’s House Quintet was one of those pieces that do exactly what they set out to do. It was concise and balanced, and its simplicity meant it sat well in the general festival context. Enda Bates’ Discordianism and Mick Major’s Elements were less convincing, seeming uneven and/or slighter in their level of craft. Sarah O’Halloran’s Bad Pop Duo came across as groping and torturous, perhaps in a Beckettian way, but perhaps only due to the edgy performance, I could not be sure.
Improvisation formed another vital strand to the festival, and two concerts were entirely given over to it. Paul G. Smyth’s Descenders was a true example of the art of improvisation, using the most contemporary musical resources to produce something concentrated, absorbing and energising. Jürgen Simpson’s untitled concert of improv explored the other side of the art, where styles wander rather too freely and the listener’s mind wanders too. A number of pieces elsewhere in the festival derived from scores that give so much freedom that they too become improvisations, guided or pure. Freedoms such as unspecified duration spring from Tenney scores, while total freedom is to be found in the scores of Pauline Oliveros, which consist of very brief written suggestions, where two realisations of a work can be aurally opposite in every imaginable way. Her work Sonic Meditation XXI was a product of a particular collaborative process involving group meditation specific to her original group, The ♀ Ensemble. The performers on this occasion found it enriching, I am glad to report.
Of the performers, it should be made clear that the only professionals in the festival were Matthew McCright and Paul G. Smyth, while the young composers provided violin solo, violin and piano, and other ensembles that included electric guitars, bass, and saxophone. (Bulraga, a vocal quartet also performed, in a concert that I missed owing to it clashing with Composers’ Choice at the NCH.) Uneven performances were therefore quite a feature of the festival as a whole.
If the PHFNM 2006 can become only the first in a long line then it will have been very worthwhile. As it stood, there were some flaws, all derived from excessive ambition, imagination and idealism. Surely then, that is a complaint of two halves, and it must be hoped that the event can attract in future the material support that allows it to reappear and progress.
A clash of times on the Sunday meant that I missed the seventh PHFNM concert, going instead to the first of the Composers’ Choice series at the NCH. This was given over to the work of EAR, the Electro Acoustic Revue. This is a group of composers connected as students or past students of Maynooth University who work with instruments and electronic media.
Their programme was extremely heterogeneous, but this made a pleasant contrast with the typically homogeneous programmes in the PHFNM. The standard of pieces was good across the board and there was a large and appreciative audience. The pieces ranged from very accessible (even excluding two movements of a Bach violin partita played with verve by Leonie Curtin) to sound-art. The latter was Splitting 5 by German composer Michael Maierhof. While this was challenging for a Dublin audience, it would be pretty ordinary for a German contemporary music audience. The economy and weirdness of this piece were welcome in this programme, but it could be extremely wearying if surrounded by more of the same type of music.
The concert opened with the only tape-only piece in the programme, VOX 5 from Trevor Wishart. This was non-gimmicky proper tape music which showed how Wishart has created his own place in this crowded medium, and left you wanting to hear more of his work. Rory Walsh, in Where do we go now but nowhere, gave us a piece that was conservative, rather mild, and did not use its seven players particularly fully. Benjamin Dwyer’s Crow, for flute and tape, was the most expressive piece of the programme, and is an exemplar of what can be achieved economically with the right materials. Flutist Susan Doyle performed with effortless skill.
Ensemble, from Fergal Dowling, pursued an intriguing line of logic with restrained musical means, though I wondered if the piece was realising its full, intended effect. Nonetheless, here is a composer of imagination and promise. A much more elaborate surface was to be found in Perils of Parallax by David Stalling. This created a tantalising sense of music from the past, without the perils of postmodernism. Its rich multi-angled examination of material succeeded, in a way reminiscent of a Berio or Stravinsky.
The concert finished with the mentor figure of the group, Victor Lazzarini, whose And Through the Rhythm of Moving Slowly, was tightly organised around a single motif. Extremely well-crafted, in both instrumental and electro-acoustic aspects, but the piece’s kernel motif was maybe too slight to bear the weight it was asked to carry. The weekend as a whole showed that contemporary Irish music continues to look outwards to Europe and increasingly, America, for its reference points. Being plugged in to those riches is obviously a good thing, but we must also remember that while there are no short cuts in good composition, there are time-consuming detours to be avoided – such as falling completely under the spell of a Feldman or Tenney or whoever. It’s important; that difference between cult and culture.
Published on 1 January 2007
John McLachlan is a composer and Executive Director of the Association of Irish Composers. He is a member of Aosdána. www.johnmclachlan.info