Agora Festival: Week Two

Ensemble Intercontemporain, Arditti Quartet, Ensemble L'Instant Donné, Michel-Dansac Hannigan, etc.

Centre Georges Pompidou, Centquatre, 29 June 2009 4 stars

Lisa RandallThe second week of Agora opened with an anticipated premiere. Hypermusic Prologue: a projective opera in seven planes is a collaboration between composer Hector Parra, scientist/writer Lisa Randall, director Paul Desveaux and artist Matthew Ritchie.

In interviews, Parra has spoken of the work as exploiting opera's capacity to embrace many diverse arts. The breadth of its ambition was certainly clear to see. Its subject, as the portentous subtitle indicates, is scientific in nature. It seeks to deal with contemporary ideas in string theory – a branch of theoretical physics that unites quantum mechanics with general relativity – through the filter of an old-fashioned man-woman love story. Parra was inspired to compose the opera upon reading Lisa Randall's popular science work, Warped Passages. After finishing the book, he contacted the American physicist about writing the libretto for an opera. The resultant creation aims to bring opera back to centre stage as a dramatic art form engaging with current ideas about the nature of the universe and our existence in it. The shadow of Wagner of course falls largely upon such terrain, both in terms of the history of opera and in terms of the totalising ambition. In acknowledging this, Para interestingly points out that even in imagining a type of total anti-art-work we are still referencing Wagner; food for thought.

A noble venture: but unfortunately the realization left quite a lot to be desired. The main problem was the excruciatingly bad libretto. Both plot and characters were wafer thin. A female scientist, seeking to slake her thirst for knowledge, pursues her theories to the point that she somehow enters 'the fifth dimension', a multi-dimensional area hypothesized by string theory. The more pragmatic male character tries in vain to bring her back to reality and to the day-to-day experience of common life, with all its three/four dimensional charms. But any empathizing with the characters was rendered impossible by the endless strings of theoretical jargon which constituted their dialogue and interaction: 'Space-time is deformed! … The fifth dimension opens due to a rupture in the quantum field…' and so on, and so on. The effect was to leave the spectator in the cold. In general it came across as the metaphysico-theological doctrine of a cult. (L. Ron. Hubbard's deifying space operas came to mind.) Matthew Ritchie's set was minimal in terms of props – two tables, one on either side of the stages – but lit up the stage using a large gauze screen which ran the length of the stage behind the actors, through which the musicians were visible. Onto this screen were shot colourful and complex projections, which were impressive and atmospheric. In combination with the action onstage, though, it created more the impression of a 1950s science fiction B-movie than a twenty first century hyper-artwork.

Parra's music was well wrought, although the success of its ambition to reflect musically the conceptual edifice of Randall's theories was difficult to gauge. The vocal techniques, elaborately thought out, did not have much impact, and again seemed a little absurd at times; which would have been fine had absurdity and humour been the object. A large part of the programme notes were given over to explaining how the musical correspondences and machinations operated, with long technical passages and explanations. In listening one would be hard pressed to discern any of the workings listed, and in fact there is no reason why one should. Storyline seemed to have been forgotten about amidst such fetishising of technical data: the contrast between the clichéd simplicity of the characters and the hyper-complexity of the scientific theories being thematised was striking. Slavering devotion to mysteriously discrete technical goings-on does not an opera make. In contrast to Berio's Passaggio, which was heard a week earlier, the work said nothing about the form or the genre. But Parra is a talented composer, and this his first venture into the genre. Perhaps his future efforts will better realise his ambitious synthetic aims.

The previous Saturday saw a concert of new commissions, performed by Ensemble L'Instant Donné, written by students on the second year Cursus programme at IRCAM (along with a dance piece by choreographer Alban Richard). The Cursus programme at IRCAM has produced some notable composers in the recent past, so the names on the programme are ones to watch. The venue for the sold-out concert was a performance space within the Centquatre in northern Paris, a large site of performance spaces the overall scale of which from outside makes one feel like a stranded fly in an enormous bath.

Barbara HanniganOpening the concert was Aaron Einbond's What the Blind See. Einbond is an American composer whose music threads itself through a like silence to that of Lachenmann, but diverges to inscribe its own acoustic space. What the Blind See was a collaboration with filmmaker Pierre-Edouard Dumora exploring, by congruence of music and video, the synaesthesia suggested by the title. The work began with a bow tugged slowly across a lone viola, wisps across the ensemble periodically breaking the silence, as the piece drifted into a space of its own self-enclosure to explore its bounds. Visual forms were provoked in the listener's sound-stimulated imagination, with microscopic acoustic gestures on the instruments blown up to a larger size in a displacement of scale. Video clips on two screens behind the ensemble reacted to these sounds from around midway into the piece. Extended techniques defined the ensemble at any given time: the pianist playing inside the piano with a fishing line, the clarinettist blowing through his instrument, the harpist using a coin on the strings of the harp. The apparition of the players on the stage lit up the music and provided an interesting live animation running alongside the emanating sounds; which moved from the inharmonic noises of the opening towards a gradual coalescing in harmonic synthesis at the close.

Following this was Fernando Villanueva's Bukowski Madrigals for string trio, female voice and electronics. Various extracts of poems by the American writer were combined by the composer in this work to provide a tapestry for the singer to sail through, to the swirling backing of the electronically treated strings. Vocal compositional models from the sixteenth century onwards were utilised by Villanueva in the work to underlie the form of the music, which was quite repetitive. While featuring a lively and back-and-forth string part, the lilting vocal writing was a little unsatisfactory. Donatienne Michel-Dansac lit up the room and the lines of Bukowski with her presence, but the relation of the words to the mood of the piece was unclear, and the subtle monotony of the music perhaps became a little too monotonous after a while.

After the interval the stage was arranged for Australian composer Paul Clift's work, With My Limbs in the Dark, a collaboration with choreographer Alban Richard. Here the instrumentalists were more spread out, forming a large circle on the stage. In the background shadows of the low-lit footlights stooped a figure dressed in black, a lone dancer. Deep register growls pivoted from opposite sides of the stage between bass clarinet and cello, the female figure beginning to stir. The ritualistic quality of the piece saw the course of its music embodied by the dancer's movements around the stage, its trajectory tied up with her own. In a more literal sense, too, she embodied the music: two speakers were attached to her body, one on each hand, which projected the work's electronics. The extension of these speakers by way of the dancer's hands triggered further speakers that were attached to the acoustic instruments.

After the opening stirrings, a ghostly soprano voice lit up the stage's space, the soprano herself absent, entering upon the scene by way of the dancer's speakers: this absence and its spectral presence draped over everything else occurring onstage. As the piece progressed, the dancer winding faster, tracing arcs initially increasing in radius and then becoming ever more reduced, the music shifted in kind. The concert hall stage seemed a chamber underground, the figures traced onstage those of a frieze, existing for the duration of the work, dissipating thereafter. The piece progressed to a climax with the ensemble dropping out leaving just the harsh sounds of electronic feedback and noise shooting from the dancer’s hands, outstretched as if to channel the two eyes of an otherwise absent sight.

Friday 19 June saw the festival brought to a close with a string quartet concert by the Arditti Quartet, along with soprano Barbara Hannigan. The title of the concert was 'L'air d'autres planètes', a line taken from the Stefan George poem set to music by Schoenberg in his second string quartet, in which a voice intrudes on the quartet’s internal discourse to usher in free atonality.

The concert saw two premieres, the first of which opened the concert. Denis Cohen's Erinnerung, composed for string quartet and electronics, takes as its point of departure a remembered image from the third of Schoenberg's Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 16. Cohen is a composer based in France who fits no particular contemporary school, having positioned himself aside from both serialist and spectralist groupings. Erinnerung is in a traditional four-movement form and utilises Max patches throughout in a relatively understated electronics part. The Arditti Quartet showed why they are so highly regarded as they blistered though the work to the highest standard. The work itself is a serious addition to the genre, and the Germanic tradition, as well as the quartets of Bartok, very much seem to be taken up and continued in this fine piece. The electronics were used neatly in parts for some close delay, phasing and echo (although they broke down for a while during the third movement).

Schoenberg's second string quartet followed. Tonality here is vehemently askew, lurching this way and that before breaking down altogether. The theatrical element introduced by the presence of the soprano in this work means it is a work that really should be heard live for its full impact. Although over a century old, it sounded fresh and bemusing on the night (there is a rendition of 'Hail to the bus driver', as featured on The Simpsons, around midway through the work). The performance was a knockout and Hannigan in particular took the plaudits of the audience afterwards.

Philippe Schœller's Operspective Hölderlin closed the concert. Its performance featured the first use in concert of the newly developed Wave Field Synthesis system, which creates 'audio holograms' that distribute simulated sound objects spacially around the auditorium. The area used onstage for this piece was expanded. The string quartet took up far stage right, lit from above by a white light, and the soprano took stage left, behind a podium lit up by red light. The string writing was again here impressive, the quartet beginning the piece on its own with the soprano offstage. The sound of the quartet was somewhat drowned out however by the electronics part, which, although, impressive, was so loud as to smother everything else. Although acoustically impressive, it decentres the string quartet in too much of an aggressive way. Hannigan slowly drifted towards the stage someway into the piece and took up her space at the podium. The vocal writing was understated and took advantage of the soprano's vocal projection with long drawn out notes that resonated throughout the hall. The piece as a whole was overlong but intriguing in its dramatic and sombre mood.

In all, the Agora 2009 festival presented a fine range of innovative music and stimulating events, and the organisers should be commended on a job well done. Sizeable crowds at all the events testified to the existence of a public interest in such experimental programming and contemporary works. Next year’s festival focuses on the music of Tristan Murail.

By Liam Cagney

Photos: Lisa Randall; Barbara Hannigan by Marco Borggreve

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