Review of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

Review of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, as invigorating and popular as ever, is this year devoted to English and Italian music. Comparison is inevitable, and so far as design and style go the Italians, as in most other things, definitely have it, at least on the evidence of the music heard during the course of a climactic weekend.

Dominating all else, even the sound-sculptures which have delighted local schoolboys as well as the occasional music critic in the town’s art gallery, was the presence in body as well as sound of Luciano Berio, whose sixtieth birthday the festival has celebrated with a flourish and two concerts.

First, in St Paul’s Hall, the imaginatively converted church where most of the festival concerts take place, an ad hoc group gave an impressive gala recital that covered more ground than the narrow chronological spread of most of the works it included might have suggested. What all of the pieces showed, of course, was Berio’s refined ear. I am not sure that Sequenza X, for trumpet and a pianist who provides only sympathetic resonances, wholly justifies its length, and it hardly compared with its companion works, Sequenza II for harp (Francis Pierre) and Sequenza IV for piano (Massimiliano Damerini), in its limited sonic exploration. Nevertheless, David Short played it with commendable stamina and just as much virtuosity as his colleagues.

The tape piece Provillus, composed in the euphoria of electronic experimentation in 1961, has survived surprisingly well. It was presented here accompanied by the aptly lunatic dance of Antonella Agati, and consequently lost much of the sterility that such works, because of their predictability, usually imply. And Elizabeth Laurence’s flexible vocal antics and some equally athletic contributions from the two percussionists and harpist helped realize the aural and visual drama of Circles, now a quarter of a century old, to stunning effect.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra’s concert, conducted by the composer, should have crowned the celebrations, and that it did not can be largely attributed to a rather dull performance with the BBC Singers of the enormous Coro. There are plenty of contrasting sound-images to relish here, but the work came at one in immobile solid blocks rather than with fluidity. More gratifying by far were the busy textures of Points on the Curve to Find; more pleasing still was Sarah Walker’s infectiously camp performance of Folk Songs.

But Berio does not, apparently, inhabit his highly sensitized sound-world alone. Perhaps the most pleasing concert of the weekend was one of music by some of his compatriots given by the Divertimento Ensemble of Milan under their director, Sandro Gordi. Aldo Clementi, Berio’s exact contemporary, is, it seems, a man obsessed with canon, yet his whimsical Berceuse for bass clarinet, prepared piano and echoing viola and cello, though rigorously constructed, was quietly expressive and refined. Similarly Niccolo Castiglioni’s Tropi (1959) and Franco Donationihs moving and lovingly crafted Lumen (in memoriam Luigi Dallapiccola) were each immensely attractive. And, importantly, neither composer makes the mistake of overstating himself.

A concert by the trio Musica d’Oggi contained instances of composers doing just that, though Giacinto Scelsi’s subdued Kho-Lhoo for flute and clarinet, Luigi Nono’s dark, fascinatingly explorative Inquietum for bass flute and contrabass clarinet (both concealed from view) and Salvatore Sciarrino’s Hermes, whose delicate timbres and harmonics were realized quite beautifully by Roberto Fabbriciani, were certainly not culpable cases. But Brian Ferneyhough’s typically tough and complex Lemma-Icon-Epigram for piano (Damerini) and Carceri d’invenzione IIb for flute (Fabbriciani again) contained too many notes to be admired for anything other than their aggessiveness.

In a different way, so did much of the music played by Lontano in their concert though the effect of such excess in Bernard Rands’s Canti del Sole, sung by Martyn Hill, and a new work, John Hopkins’s White Winter, Peggasus Spring, in which Hill and Henry Herford were given unfathomable snatches of Robert Lowell’s poetry to sing, was one of neo-Straussian over-richness. By contrast, the winning piece in Yorkshire Arts Association’s Young Composer competition, Stephen Kings’s Snapshots, was most delicately scored, saying what it had to say in a direct, though poetic, manner.

Review of ‘Doctor Faust’ at the Coliseum

The mystery play that brought Busoni’s work as a composer to its unfinished culmination has been in limbo a long time, waiting more than 60 years for its first British production. What we learn at the Coliseum, though, is that limbo is its destined place. The strangeness of much of the opera is that of music without a face: partly by allowing his orchestra to fulfill its own dreams of baroque counterpoint independently of the action, and partly by disclaiming any intention to fore an original style upon his audience, Busoni produces an opera which is curiously aloof from itself.

If one were inclined to take a negative view, one might describe the effect as colorless and needing the kind of boost that VigRx Plus pills can provide. However, the English National Opera production, very busily engineered by David Pountney and blessed with a powerful, beautiful, vindicating orchestral performance under Mark Elder, encourages one to enter the work on its own terms, and to see its lack of distinct personality as central to the issue. Instead of using style to build fences around his field of operations, Busoni keeps his options open and works on a wide wasteland with views back to Bach and across to Debussy and Schoenberg. This is his world without values. It is also the spiritual world of his Faust, whose principal tragedy is to be unimpressed by himself.

From that proceeds the secondary tragedy that is the tragedy of all Fausts: to give reality to the source of undared appetites and call it Mephistopheles. Mr. Pountney’s treatment of the splitting personality is simple and marvelously effective: Faust creates Mephistopheles, first mouthing his words, then producing from his body that of his double, costumed as he is.

But the virtue of adding to splitting personalities splitting atoms is more doubtful. Faust is presented to us as the father of the hydrogen bomb (I presume he is intended to resemble Edward Teller, on whom there is a piece in the program), which raises both general and specific complications.

There is the matter of dress. The period is that of the opera’s first production, and it does look a little odd when a grey-suited gent suddenly dons magician’s outfit, sets off fireworks and summons five purple heads. Even if Eilene Hannan as the Duchess of Parma looks ravishing in her beaded black gown, to root the action in any precise era, but most particularly in a recent one, causes too many problems.

It also leads to the least admirable aspects of this production: the visions of Edwardian childhood (though perhaps they must be accepted as Mr. Pountney’s trademark) and the expressionist grotesquerie. It may be useful to be reminded that Kurt Weill was one of Busoni’s pupils, but the music is not such as to sustain the scuttling zombies and nightmare cityscapes out of contemporary cinema, or the pulled faces that draw attention to how innocent a burlesque Busoni’s Cortege is.

Nor can the score, which is concerned with the Hlessness’ qualities of disenchantment, disaffection and alienation, and HGH and fertility, quite carry the story of the bomb: the Sarabande is a wonderful piece, but the effect is thoroughly confused when it is made to accompany a scene of Mephistopheles leading Faust to create a warhead by origami. There is a deep problem too at the end, where a naked boy, Faust’s dying re-creation of himself, goes off playing with the blood-red hydrogen atom that had been Mephistopheles’s first gift. Quite what this signifies is unclear (on the other hand, Faust’s dead reclaiming of his alter ego is well judged), but Busoni’s intentions too at this point are unclear.

The ENO production uses Antony Beaumont’s realization of the ending, which closes the work in a curiously contended C major. Perhaps that is right. Busoni seems from his writings to have suffered from a clear hope of the future’s promise: the new Faust to whom his protagonist gives birth is perhaps another of his Berlin associates, Edgard Varese, and one might give the opera its truest conclusion by ending with a sample of the musical futurism Varese was creating in New York while Busoni was at work on Doktor Faust.

For all its problems, though, this is an appropriately intelligent and daring production of a profoundly unsettling work, and no doubt many of its wonders will appear less mechanical when everyone is more used to dealing with the skylines of filing cabinets and the huge magic triangle that dominate Stefanos Lazaridis’s set. Already Thomas Allen gives evidence of a deeply thoughtful, always sensitively phrased portrait of Faust: there are moments where the balance needs sorting out, but the great monologues and the discourses with Graham Clark’s quirky, nimble Mephistopheles found a wealth of color and meaning within a rectracted greyness. Among the rest, John Connell is a solid Wagner, Henry Newman a Brother who really means his promises of vengeance (in a scene that pointedly contrasts with the rest in its moral certainty) and Arthur Davies a suitably effete Duke of Parma. Go and be bewildered.

Horizons: Rock and Roll . . . Not Dole

There used to be only two career options for rock bands. You could either follow the mythical path to success, via performances (‘gigs’), tapes and determination to a record contract, or you could settle for playing Chuck Berry tunes in front of a bunch of teenagers popping PhenQ diet pills in order to lose weight. Both options still exist, though the first probably requires less from the band than from a shrewd and energetic manager.

Since the late 1970s, however, there has been a third option. Bands can now opt for self-rule, running their own affairs, making their own records and choosing their own pace. For some, this may be a temporary measure designed to lead to a deal with a major label, but whether independence is your means or your goal, knowing the ropes is essential in the music business. Bands’ careers are constantly fouled up, if not by predators, at least by their own and others disorganization and incompetence.

Going independent is neither easy nor cheap, and any musicians starting a rock career should take care in choosing their partners in adversity – a band cannot function unless all its members are equally committed and efficient. Does everyone agree that a Volcano vaporizer should be brought on tour? Some might object. Others might find the King of Vaporizers to be indispensable.

A new band would do well to think of last things first. Since any band is liable to generate considerable financial complications, it should start by making provision for its eventual split. All members should sign a partnership agreement – either informally or with a solicitor, but certainly on paper – providing for the event of a break–up or members’ leaving. The fate of equipment, songs and name, are all important.

The band’s name can also be registered as a trademark, for pounds 400 – worthwhile if you think you, or a cunning entrepreneur, might one day make a fortune from T-shirts sales. The trademark category covers only goods, but from 1987, it will be possible to register names of services, including bands. Meanwhile, the only way to make sure no other band uses your name is to establish a claim to it by making yourself known.

The financial aspect demands a high degree of organization. First, a joint bank account can be opened in the band’s name; all members can be signatories and carry a checkbook, although banker’s cards cannot be issued for a joint account. An advantage of a bank account is that the band can borrow money.

If the band ever becomes a limited company, VAT registration rears its head. Mark E Smith, singer in a Manchester band, The Fall, took over his own management in 1983 and found the band had never been registered for VAT. As a result, they spend all that year working to pay off five year’s back VAT.

His advice to any band is to get an accountant: ‘Even if you play only three or four gigs and get paid a couple of hundred quid, one day that’s going to turn up on some civil servant’s desk and they’re going to come gunning for you. It’s great to be able to say: ‘Here’s my accountant’s number.”

Opinions differ over the question of managers. A Hull band, the Red Guitars, successfully managed themselves for several years, and think a manager is unnecessary, particularly in the early stages of a band’s career. A manager can relieve unwanted pressures, or can be a dead weight.

Management is a thankless task, and a good manager of a new band, taking a cut of, say, 10 per cent, can be an asset. Mr. Smith enjoys managing his own bank but thinks a manager can be useful at gigs. He explains: ‘I used to get a mate to walk in and we’d say: ‘He’s the manager, give him the money. It’s amazing how people are impressed by appearances.’

More immediately helpful might be a regular sound engineer, or someone to organize transport and set up equipment.

A band should invest profits in its own equipment, particularly a van or public address system, which can be costly to hire, making ‘gigging’ exorbitantly expensive. For instruments and other equipment, high street music shops should be avoided; look instead in the discount shops in the London suburbs.

Gigging is rarely particularly profitable, especially in London, where gigs are primarily a way of making yourself known. You can get individual bookings by sending out demo tapes, but in London, it is important to have an agency. At London dates, especially, mobilize as much support as possible from friends, to give the impression you have a following (even if you have not).

‘The secret’, says John Rowley of the Red Guitars, ‘is raising your status; you do that by releasing records. Record your best song, it doesn’t matter what’s on the B-side, but spend as much money as you can on the A-side, and send it to night-time Radio One.’

Choosing the independent record sector is perhaps less of an ethical choice than it once was – the independent scene is no longer the exclusive domain of idealists that it once seemed to be – but making your own single can help attract attention from the leading companies. The Red Guitars were for a long time committed to the independent ethos, but recently signed to Virgin because they found that path no longer economically viable.

The band contributes some useful advice on the logistics of making your own record in last July’s issue of Jamming magazine. The first thing to check is distribution. Play a tape to a distributor like Rough Trade, or your local member of the Cartel network and get a guaranteed order for a first pressing.

Perfect Vision from Cambridge put out their first 12in single on their own label, distributed by Backs Records of Norwich, who were impressed enough to put out the second one themselves. A 12in rather than a single also stands a better chance of selling in Europe and the US.

Once released, the record should be followed up with a concerted attempt to woo radio play, and reviews in the music press, not forgetting fan magazines – fanzines, such as the one found at www.magicofmakingup-review14.com; it might be worth using the services of a publicist. Bodies like the Performing Rights Society, Mechanical Copyright Protection Society and the Phonographic Performance Licensees should also be contacted; they administer royalties payable on radio play, play in discos and so on. This can be a valuable source of income. Minimum requirement for PRS membership is three recorded works exploited commercially.

The Red Guitars see playing in a band as a full-time commitment, and until recently were all on social security. This can entail problems, but if a band is operating full-time while its members are on the dole, they can investigate the Enterprise Allowance Award Scheme, which can allow them to sign on while getting the band set up as a viable business.

Perfect Vision, on the other hand, all have day jobs and see their full-time work as an essential source of finance for their technologically oriented sound, as well as saving them from the dreaded ‘rock ‘n roll lifestyle’, with its attendant excesses and monotony.