Adventures in the New Music Fringe

Retro Disco performing at Music Current (Photo: Dublin Sound Lab)

Adventures in the New Music Fringe

The Music Current contemporary music festival – which took place last week in Dublin – has a radicalism in curation that can give listeners a real feeling of discovery. Adrian Smith reviews the four days and asks: can it grow its 'fringe' status in the Irish new music scene?

Even in the outré world of contemporary music there is such a thing as ‘mainstream’ and ‘fringe’, ‘established’ and ‘underground’. It is the latter genre that Music Current has tended to specialise in, featuring smaller ensembles, more intimate spaces and a real hands-on approach to collaboration between composers, performers and technicians. This method of working has been the festival’s major strength and is the vision of the festival director, Dublin Sound Lab’s Fergal Dowling, who has consistently uncovered some of the most interesting up-to-the-minute international trends in European and US new music. Now in its fourth year, this year’s festival (10–13 April) was expanded from a three-day to a four-day event and featured three major groups from the European contemporary music scene: the Swiss-based groups Ensemble Tzara and Retro Disco as well as members of the experimental music collective Stock11.

Much more so than New Music Dublin, the exciting thing about Music Current is that it actively courts a radicalism that can go either way. Whereas much of the music that features in New Music Dublin has already been ‘proofed’ by audiences in Europe long before it ever reached Dublin, most of Music Current’s repertoire still has the feeling of discovery about it. The festival therefore has a buzz that the larger festival lacks. Of course, it goes without saying that not all of these experiments are necessarily successful, and some efforts land well wide of the mark, but if the risks are greater, so too are the potential rewards.

Day 1: 10 April

Irish panorama
Frank Corcoran – Sweeney Lives!
The first concert of this year’s Music Current may seem an exception to the trendy ethos but although he’s an established figure on the Irish scene, Frank Corcoran is probably not the first composer one thinks of when it comes to electronic music. Therefore this presentation of three of his tape ‘masterworks’ was something of a curiosity in itself and gave a glimpse of this little known aspect of his work.

The first piece, Quasi Una Missa (1999), was based on a selection of ‘God-utterances’ extracted from two millennia of Irish religious sayings. These short fragments were enunciated by three voices, one of which was clearly Corcoran himself, while the other two were obviously given lessons in how to copy the distinctive inflections of Corcoran’s own speaking voice. It started well with the three voices in a tightly controlled canon that gradually sped up producing an attractive polyrhythmic texture. The following sections blended these fragments with recordings of recognisable sounds – fog horns, water, birdsong, Tridentine mass, a bodhrán, old women keening, snatches of lilting, etc. – to produce a panorama of Irish religious and cultural expression.

Although it started violently with a scream, Tradurre Tradire (2004) maintained the focus on language, this time on phonemes featuring recordings of similar words and syllables in different languages layered over each other. Most of this was quite interesting although Corcoran’s obsession with elongating syllables meant that it was impossible not to hear ‘how now brown cow’ coming through the texture at one stage. Overall it was a more sophisticated piece than Quasi Una Missa but it was far too long and the inclusion of choruses of uilleann pipes and screaming seemed extraneous.

The third piece, Sweeney’s Vision (1997), a continuation of the composer’s Mad Sweeney series, was an essay in the familiar seascape subgenre of electroacoustic composition. This was the least successful of the three although there was one very striking passage in the second section which seemed to be based on whale sound or underwater nautical sounds. After this it was unfortunately back to the waves and seagulls which bookended this also quite lengthy piece.

An hour-long concert of tape pieces by a single composer is a curatorial experiment worthy of Mad Sweeney himself, but it managed to get a very healthy turnout and had some good things in it. That said, the composer might be more likely to win over listeners to his cause if he didn’t always have to over-egg the pudding with his programme notes. Consider the following description of Tradurre Tradire:

It is both abstract opera and theatre of suffering; the torture-chamber, beside the pipers’ sound-ocean. Tradurre Tradire is my ‘uttering’, human ‘muttering’, beauty and horror. There is a musical growth out of the phonemes. Active and passive suffering, fascinating and terrible, flow from my icon of the scream, Gabriel Rosenstock’s lovely Haiku whose original version in Irish and my translations (but remember…) into inadequate English and German.

Unlike some, I don’t have an unhealthy obsession with programme notes, but this kind of vainglorious blarney seems more designed to bamboozle the hapless new music punter and is quite likely to put off potentially sympathetic listeners. A more restrained, and dare I say, modestly informative approach might better serve his music.

Black & Decker aesthetic
Stock11 – Sheriffs Love Songs
The later concert that evening featured three members of the Stock11 collective: Hannes Seidl, Michael Maierhof and Christoph Ogiermann. It would be great to be able to write that this concert had something genuinely ‘new’ in it, but for me it felt like a manifestation of Adorno’s concept of ‘the aging of new music’. The concert had an almost nostalgic tone and exhibited an overreliance on the same jaded strategies that went out of fashion decades ago.

A particularly choice example would be Ogiermann’s NOTIZ for Tim, an extended improvisation of scratching on the violin delivered with the typical swaying gestures of the Romantic violinist, a parody that Mauricio Kagel had exhausted back in the 1970s.

There was also a video piece Intona by two of the collective’s members Sebastian Berweck and Dick Raaijmakers, that documented – naturally in high definition – the destruction of microphones with an assortment of vices, drills and blow-torches. Presumably, the sound that one heard in the video was recorded by microphones in the process of their own destruction – hence the indispensable konzept.            

While these pieces at least didn’t take themselves too seriously, Maierhof’s splitting 50 illustrated the collective’s more self-indulgent aspects. It consisted of Maierhof using overpressure bowing on the bridge of the cello to play a live part that was a half second ahead of a prerecorded tape part consisting of much the same thing. A plastic cup, which appeared to contain some vibrating motor, was pressed against the fingerboard in various ways, changing the timbre so that it sounded like a variety of different power tools, thus forming a continuation of the Black & Decker aesthetic from earlier. This went on for over ten minutes and illustrated the kind of proud one-dimensionality that characterised virtually all the pieces in this concert. 

Perhaps it all goes down well in the neue musik safe spaces of Darmstadt and Donaueschingen but to listeners familiar with the Fluxus movements of the 60s, Kagel in the 70s or even the far more imaginative antics of Johannes Kreidler these days, this all seemed very routine. 

Day 2: 11 April

Brittle puppets
Steven Takasugi / Ensemble Tzara – Sideshow
What made Ensemble Tzara’s concert an infinitely better experience than the previous evening was the realisation that such ‘aged’ new music gestures needed to be given a radically new context in order to reanimate them. In the case of American composer Steven Takasugi’s Sideshow (2009–15), this came in the form of a whimsical and darkly comic theatricality inspired by the amusement parks of Coney Island at the turn of the 20th century.

This tone was set right from the beginning of the piece where the performers, after settling themselves, turned to the audience one-by-one and pulled a forced smile. They then proceeded to plough through blocks of hectic pointillistic textures made up of fragmented piano gestures, extended techniques and crackling noises – in other words, fairly standard new music kitsch. Much of this was ‘mimed’ in that the music came from the accompanying tape part and not the musicians themselves despite their physical gestures – an illusion that was also a feature of Stefan Prins’ Piano Hero cycle at last year’s festival. However, Takasugi’s exploration of this was far more engrossing and animated.

For much of the first section the double-bass player in the centre of the ensemble maintained a disturbingly fixed grin and acted as the ventriloquist’s ‘dummy’, choking out a forced stuttering laugh. A variety of hysterical poses were shared around between the members of the ensemble so that the performance resembled a deadly precise, surreal and slightly decrepit freak show that transformed the performers into brittle puppets, subservient to the whims of the music.

The piece was also very well constructed in terms of pacing. The use of long silences between sudden bursts of activity gave each block a hard-edged definition, and Sideshow managed to negotiate a considerable range over its 50-minute duration ensuring that the piece never succumbed to being merely a one-dimensional exploration of an interesting concept. The theatrical and musical abilities of the charismatic Ensemble Tzara delivered a terrifically engaging performance.

Day 3: 12 April

A word for that
Retro Disco – Retro Disco

Three of the members of Ensemble Tzara – Moritz Müllenbach on cello, Simone Keller on piano/synthesiser and Samuel Stoll on French horn – comprise the experimental trio Retro Disco from Switzerland, a group whose eclectic tastes recall everything from Dadaist theatrics to the synth-drenched style of the 1980s. 

The first piece, Swiss composer Jannik Giger’s Maestro (2016), was a conceptual dialogue between snippets of historical recordings of Igor Stravinsky in rehearsal and the musicians from Retro Disco. Some of this was mildly amusing such as when the trio played in lockstep with Stravinsky’s ‘dum, dum, dum…’ but the concept soon exhausted itself and tended to resemble a medley of unrelated fragments.

Despite the fact that David Sontòn Caflisch’s ultra low-key La métta da fein (2013) barely raised above mezzo-piano for its entire duration, its material somehow managed to produce a strangely compelling experience. This consisted of endless circling around a limited number of sine-tones in the middle register of the synthesiser counterpointed against a more expanded range of pitches on the cello while the French horn added a variety of growling and breathy extended techniques. The piece had a fascinating tension despite never leaving the same key.

Robert Ashley’s Mixed Blessing, Indiana (2012) was based on the advertisements for books of contemporary American popular literature translated into the Romansh language that is spoken in regions of south-eastern Switzerland. Each of the performers took turns at walking up to the microphone to declaim the texts in the manner of a fiery political rally while the other two accompanied with drone-like textures. There wasn’t much more to it than this and it was tough going for the work’s 25 minutes duration. While there was some theatre, this was solely down to the performers’ committed recitations rather than the material itself.

Karen Power’s …let the current take us… (2019), a Retro Disco commission and world premiere, mixed recordings of nature sounds – wind, the sea, waves breaking, water droplets – with what seemed to be improvised responses from the trio. While I was initially sceptical that this would turn out as another ‘seascape’ piece, it gradually won me over as the material emanating from the trio blended well with the natural recordings and the meditation brought to mind associative sonic images such as a boat rubbing against a pier or a rope stretching with the pull of the current.

Eoin Callery’s You Might Need a Word for That (2017) was another low-key affair that began with slow melodic lines on the cello and horn generating some mildly dissonant clashes between them while the synth provided a very retro backdrop. It developed into a gently pulsing texture later in the piece producing a quite beautiful ambience. Perhaps because of the synthesiser part, of all the pieces it best fitted what one might imagine as the retro disco aesthetic, being both contemporary and nostalgic at the same time.

Day 4: 13 April

Blowing into the f-hole
Retro Disco – Currents

An annual part of the Music Current festival is an open call for composers to submit work to be played by the featured ensemble. The final concert showcased eight such works submitted by both Irish and international composers.

Maya Verlaak’s highly conceptual Evidence-based (2018) asked the performers to reconstruct a pre-composed piece for harpsichord that had been deleted. From various pieces of ‘evidence’, including a written analysis and a melody derived from the ‘natural harmonics’ of the original piece, the performers attempted to regenerate the work. Retro Disco’s examination of the evidence led them in a very 1980s video game direction with the three performers using hand-held controllers to manipulate live electronics while walking constantly around the stage. The piece did seem to be genuinely ‘fun’, and it would be interesting to compare the results of this puzzle with other ensembles’ interpretations to see how close or far apart the musical results happen to be.

Luke Smyth’s Watching some hyperbullet on provided a soundtrack to a video projection showing a series of hyperbullet chess matches on the player interface. The music coming from the ensemble did correlate, more or less, with the movements of the chess pieces on the screen but these felt like unremarkable improvisations and despite possessing a certain degree of humour, the piece suffered from its singular strategy. After a few minutes my attention resigned.

In contrast David Bremner’s Themework was an example of a piece that managed to stay in the one place and yet remain interesting. The piece was a continuation of the composer’s ‘application of fractal, generative techniques to melodic contour’ that was also a feature of his Permanent Ritornello premiered by the Crash Ensemble at New Music Dublin last month. Themework did share the same kind of microscopic intricacy, but the result was far more immediate and less opaque. For much of the piece, the cello kept circling around an eerily expressive melody confined within a limited pitch range in the middle register while the horn produced a variety of gurgling sounds. In the background, the synth entered at various intervals with what seemed like low-register chords on a Hammond organ as the composer controlled live electronics that added additional layers of complexity. The piece was genuinely weird and never lost interest as there was so much happening in what seemed like a very constricted space.

Continuing the video game theme was Claire Fitch’s And The Birds Sang (2016) which explored the reactions of the performers to a video or ‘animated score’ that visually resembled what a game of Tetris or Dig-Dug might look like if you’d taken some hallucinogenic drugs. The trio engaged in controlled improvisations, based on their reactions to the visuals and soundtrack, and the changing nature of the projections ensured a variety of quite different sound worlds.

The stand-out piece of this concert for me was Weston Olencki’s for melodicas (2017–18), a piece constructed in several quite distinct blocks that possessed a hard-hitting impact when changing from one block to the next. The highlight of the piece was a lengthy central section where a gloriously luminous chord was sustained through gradually shifting harmonic and timbral colours. The piece was well-paced structurally and the tape track blended perfectly with the melodicas, making possible the strange disjuncture between these modest instruments and the big sound.

Seán Ó Dálaigh’s three islands explored the transition between states of noise and tone. The piece was very much centered around the Korg MS-20 analog synthesiser which according to Ó Dálaigh ‘provides the flow with which all the musicians interact’. The problem was that the Korg tended to dominate the piece to the point where everything else seemed merely a decoration. Also, for much of the beginning of the piece the material emanating from the Korg had, for me at least, the unfortunate association of a petrol lawnmower. The other instruments exerted themselves more strongly from the midway point onwards, and therefore produced a more engaging overall sound, while the overall flow of the piece had the sense of a continuum about it that was impressive. At the end of the night, Ó Dálaigh was awarded next year’s Music Current Festival Commission.

Alessandro Perini’s Resonance II (2014–19) utilised two metal plates positioned on either side of the stage to produce resonances from the horn and synth. The actual material – initially long sustained pitches and then mostly clusters on the synth – wasn’t the most fetching but the resonance aspect of the piece can’t have been helped by the Smock Alley Theatre’s acoustic, which has the same resonance potential as a shoebox.

The final piece of the night was by Argentinian composer Patricia Martinez who was last year’s awardee of the Music Current festival commission. Her piece, A state of divinity, had a darkly theatrical element with the starring role given to horn player Samuel Stoll who walked onstage under the spotlight and began to raise his arms very slowly. As with Takasugi’s Sideshow, the impression was not of the performers being in control but rather having to submit to the force of the music. Around the midway point, the music became quite brutalistic with a pulsing, industrial sounding riff. This led into a very aggressive section with screaming sounds coming from the horn after which Stoll fell to his knees to offer up the horn in what seemed like an act of submission. Up until this point the piece was utterly gripping and this dramatic moment felt like it should have been the climax. The remainder of the piece couldn’t recoup this tension and the cellist taking up his instrument and blowing into the f-hole near the finish seemed like an afterthought.

Martinez’s piece was a good illustration of a factor that came across very strongly in both of these Retro Disco performances and that was the manner in which the trio completely gave themselves over to the music no matter what style they were playing. There was a sense of care and deep love for the work that is one of the hallmarks of the best new music ensembles and, as such, they were an ideal group for this festival.

This year’s Music Current festival once again proved what an indispensable fixture it is on the Irish contemporary music calendar. It showcases a range of work that Irish audiences rarely have a chance to experience in such a concentrated format. While the festival highlight was definitely Takasugi’s Sideshow, much of the work by younger composers in the two Retro Disco concerts also greatly impressed and, on balance, the festival managed to get comfortably into the black in terms of quality.

Although Music Current was generally well attended and audience numbers seemed up on last year, I’m still convinced that the festival should be attracting full houses for at least some of the gigs. Much of the events would surely appeal to those in the rock and electronic music scenes as well as those in theatre and other performance-based artforms. Perhaps there is a need to look beyond the contemporary ‘classical’ community and tap into these constituencies.

Nevertheless, if the new music momentum in Dublin can be maintained going forward, there is the real possibility that Music Current can develop into a fringe festival to New Music Dublin, presenting lower-budget, riskier ventures in smaller more offbeat locations. Of course there’s no reason why there can’t be some crossover but as a specialised festival with a coherent curatorial aesthetic, Music Current is much better positioned to deliver this kind of music to Irish audiences. If this crucial distinction can be grasped by those in charge of dispensing the funding, then there is a real possibility that Music Current will become a serious fixture on the European new music scene. 

Published on 18 April 2019

Adrian Smith is Lecturer in Musicology at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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