A Festival of Different Futures

Six Moving Guitars

A Festival of Different Futures

On 14–18 April, Louth Contemporary Music Society presented a five-day online festival featuring work by Sarah Hennies, Kevin Volans, Cornelius Cardew, Leo Brouwer and more. Brendan Finan reviews.

After an unexpected hiatus in 2020, Louth Contemporary Music Festival has returned in 2021 with a new all-online format, several new commissions, and an opportunity to explore music made for last year’s festival along with work suited to the medium. This year’s festival, ‘We Sing for the Future’ also has a directly political angle, giving prominence to politically active and engaged composers like Sarah Hennies and Cornelius Cardew, with the founder Eamonn Quinn saying recently, ‘these are voices we need to hear, and listen to, especially at such times.’ The choice to make the festival free (with donations encouraged), with the videos still available to watch on the Society’s webpage and YouTube channel, emphasises the focus on amplifying these voices.

Sarah Hennies’ powerfully moving Contralto, as the name might suggest, is built around the voice. More specifically, it is built around Hennies’ own experiences and the voices of other transgender women. With the composer acting as director and editor as well, the work has the feel of a video installation, starting with the subjects making ‘H’ sounds, slowly growing into words and phrases.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of dissociating the video and the music from each other, to think of the latter as ‘accompaniment,’ but they’re far too closely linked for that. Over a black screen, we hear a note or cluster of notes that are then repeated, with varying levels of confidence, by the video subjects. A couple of times, the music slowly builds in intensity while the subjects read or perform exercises, until it’s like a stimulus overload. The subsequent quiet is balm.

Contralto was conceived for live instrumental accompaniment, but it can be and has been broadcast as a full video work before. It’s even possible to watch on the composer’s Vimeo page. But just the fact of programming it, of making it the opening work in a primarily visual music festival, emphasises the composer’s voice – and these women’s voices – in a way to make them heard.

Mechanistic dance
My initial read on Six Moving Guitars, composed by Fredrik Rasten and streamed on Thursday 15 April, was that it was a commentary on the pandemic, as six masked guitarists moved through space in a small room, seeming to maintain social distance and repeating simple rituals: walking around the room without interacting, spinning on the spot, orbiting the room, jogging.

The work was written in 2018, though; the allegory coincidental. Nonetheless, this feels like it would be a very different work experienced live, with the performers moving in and through the same space inhabited by the audience. I was to a large extent unconscious of the fluctuations in tone the work explores until very late in the performance, though the secondary sounds (mostly feet, shod and unshod, as performers rotated on the spot or jogged around the room) and the mechanistic dance of the visual performance came to the fore.

Delicate, subtle change
The festival’s focus on visual presentations continued with See Hear, a new video work using an extant piece of music: Marc Sabat’s Gioseffo Zarlino. Visually, this work almost stands as a polar opposite to Six Moving Guitars: over a recording of the work, the visual artist Mareike Yin-Lee Lee has added images of the musicians outdoors, standing quietly, each alone though often superimposed upon one another, actively listening. The focus, visually and aurally, is on delicate, subtle change. Sabat’s composition incorporates tonal theory developed by the Italian Renaissance composer for whom it was named, and the result is a work that is more complex than it seems, the simple steps of the melody and bass parts changing and differing microtonally, overlapping and gently clashing like animal calls at sunset.

The bridge between pre-Baroque and contemporary music, an alternative to tradition that often circumvents the Common Practice era, is something that Louth Contemporary Music Society has explored before. The Sunday evening performance, given by the German violin virtuoso Carolin Widmann, returned to that same space, though with music by Bach and Telemann as well. Her performance opened and closed with music by Hildegard von Bingen, walking into, and out from, St Martin’s Church in Audigast, Saxony. The performance showcased the violinist’s skill and array of tonal control, from her slow-burning Bach to the spikily lyrical Julian Anderson. George Benjamin’s poetic Three Miniatures followed Bach, transitioning from D minor to a stranger place. The last was a startling duo for solo violin, the right hand bowing the strings while the left plucked. 

Recorded at Windmill Lane, Kevin Volans’ new work Lenguas de Fuego, commissioned by Louth Contemporary Music Society and performed by a small ensemble conducted by Andrew Synnott, was the first evening broadcast of the festival, released at 5pm rather than 8pm. This is bracing music, often peaceful and still before exploding into showers of sparks. Later points give us a not-entirely-gentle rocking, vanishing into high fluttertonguing in the flute before it goes out like a candle. 

Return to folk
The penultimate night’s concert, from Henry Wood Hall in London, featured music from the English composers Laurence Crane and Cornelius Cardew. Crane’s work with drones was his most captivating, performed by Apartment House, and using four guitar EBows to create a drone in the piano. John White in Berlin was a slowly breathing meditation, creating tension suddenly with just the slightest change, while Old Life was Rubbish created just enough serenity to sting when it broke. 

Before his untimely death, as his left-wing activism developed, Cardew had turned away from the avant-garde, considering it elitist, and developed an interest in folk music. He arranged songs from Britain and Ireland such as ‘The Croppy Boy’, performed by Michael McHale at the beginning of this concert. McHale also performed We Sing for the Future as the concert’s finale, Cardew’s lengthy fantasia on the song of the same name, in which he has fully replaced his older avant-garde style with one that resembles nothing more than music from the early Romantic period.

The final concert was in two parts, the first from Cafe Oto in London, with the second at last bringing the festival home to St Peter’s Church of Ireland in Drogheda. Both were dedicated to the Cuban guitar composer Leo Brouwer.

Brouwer’s music integrates traditional and modernist techniques better than any other composer I know, and can slip between astringent atonality and Cuban folk music sounds as comfortably as turning a corner. Aided by passionate and skilled performances by Andrey Lebedev and cellist Cecilia Bignall in London, and by Alec O’Leary leading a guitar quartet in Louth, it also explores the wealth of tone colour on a guitar. The first work performed, by Lebedev, La Ciudad de los Columnas, was a walking musical tour of Havana, but also of these techniques – the warmth created when the right hand is over the fretboard, the tightness when it’s by the bridge; the variegated strings; sharp strums and steely plucks; the crystalline harmonics. The latter was explored extensively in the night’s second solo guitar work, Cuban Landscape with Bells, with a beautiful, ethereal, not to mention virtuosic closing melody in harmonics performed by O’Leary.

The last concert also incorporated two new works commissioned from Brouwer by the society: Irish Landscape with Rain, a response for guitar quartet to the composer’s Cuban Landscape with Rain, written almost four decades ago, and Dorian it is Too Late, written for solo guitar in memory of Oscar Wilde. The former emphasises the rain, percussive sounds and sharp plucks ringing around the four guitarists, while the latter finds a place to reach a serene conclusion.

In living with a new reality – lockdowns, essential travel, and so on – it’s easy to make assumptions about why we feel the way that we do. Two of my recent reviews for the Journal of Music have covered festivals, and I mused about the difference between watching a virtual performance as it was made in the moment or watching a live recording. I wrote that seeing the performance live – or at least believing that it was live – was fundamental to the feeling of connection between audience and musician.

I was wrong. ‘We Sing For the Future’ made no pretensions of being a live broadcast at any time. Yet as I watched each night, as the sunlight in my home office grew long and began to vanish, I realised that I was inhabiting the same psychic space that Louth Contemporary Music Festival creates each year. In that space there was something I never experience at other festivals, and in that experience a kind of homecoming.

For all concerts, visit www.louthcms.org/concertseries2021/

Published on 21 April 2021

Brendan Finan is a teacher and writer living in Meath. He writes a blog at www.brendanfinan.net.

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