Works by Grisey, Francesconi, d'Escriván, Dowling etc

Garth Knox, viola; Fergal Dowling, computer; Michael Quinn, harpsichord

St. Werburgh's Church, Dublin, 1 December 2009 3 stars

Garth KnoxDublin Sound Lab was started in 2008 by organist Michael Quinn and composer Fergal Dowling, as a contemporary music performance group. So far they have held only a handful of concerts but had quite a coup last Thursday in bringing Garth Knox over from Paris for a solo show, as part of a Dublin Sound Lab two concert 'microfestival'.

Knox is of course one of the most prominent of contemporary music instrumentalists at work today. Having been invited to join the Ensemble Intercontemporain in 1983 under Pierre Boulez, his subsequent career trajectory saw him join the Arditti Quartet in 1990, premiering works by Xenakis, Lachenmann and Cage among others and famously bandying around in the sky as part of the first performance of Stockhausen’s barmy Helicopter String Quartet.

Dublin Sound Lab's speciality lies in computer-mediated performance and this was an element that played a prominent role in both concerts. The manner in which the electroacoustic aspect was used as well as the resulting quality of the work may have varied throughout, but it always provided food for thought. The least you could say of Dublin Sound Lab is that they are acknowledging where we are at musically these days in terms of technology, something all too often ignored in contemporary performance and composition.

St. Werburgh's Church played venue to each of the concerts. Established in Medieval times, its current structure dates from the 1750s, and it made a felicitous host and genial acoustic for the sounds and impressions taking shape within. Its dark wooden interiors were lit up almost solely by some red lights on the upper balcony, and you wondered what the ghosts who had passed through the space at various points in history were making of the sounds vibrating and evaporating in the air.

Garth Knox is obviously a seasoned performer and quite often these days gives solo recitals. Nevertheless he seemed happy to be on home ground (he is originally from Dublin) and was cordial and talkative throughout, helpfully introducing each piece with a preamble that avoided the excessively technical verbiage we are often presented with in programme notes.

Fergal DowlingGrisey's Prologue made an excellent start. Performed here in its version for viola and electronic resonator, it is an endlessly fascinating work, and one that Knox has previously set to record as part of Kairos's Les Espaces acoustiques release. A hypnotic process is set up, with a simple melodic outline bookended by a heartbeat figure, which over the course of its recurrence becomes more complex and less harmonically simple, until eventually it collapses in on itself. It was hard to uproot your attention from Knox’s playing, and the contours of the work lingered on long after it had finished.

The technical workout of Sciarrino's Tre Notturni brillanti brought more speed and sweat to things, Knox ably managing the work's myriad collision of shining sonic particles. Standing out in particular was the third movement, Prestissimo precipitamo, whose technical demands are formidable, and which is all the more enjoyable for that when it is pulled off well as it was here.

Saariaho's Vent Nocturne for viola and electronics is a recent work by the Finnish composer that is dedicated to Knox. The sound of a breath and the sound of the viola's bowing are melded together, as if 'bilingually', although the result isn't entirely successful at sustaining the listener's attention.

A refreshing change came with three of Knox's own Viola Spaces. These short pieces are studies in contemporary techniques for the viola, but their effect is certainly as aesthetic as it is didactic. An appealing sense of humour is combined with a dramatisation of the instrument's playing, and not the least part of the enjoyment was in clear pitches and diatonic gestures featuring quite often, making a nice contrast with some of the surrounding works on the programme.

At once the most technically impressive and most dense work came at the end. Luca Francesconi's Animus II for viola and electronics is something like a concerto for viola and electronics, and again was composed with Knox in particular in mind. Knox read the score off a computer screen that gave a live relay of the progression of the accompanying computer part. It is unsurprising that this piece was developed at IRCAM, its range of synthetic textures seeming absolute in their all-encompassing extent, sweeping globe-like around the spatialised speakers. Perhaps here Knox was at his most impressive, holding unswerving concentration for the long and highly demanding work, which had little if any let-up for the performer. This is the second Animus piece by Francesconi for a solo instrument with electronics (the other is for trombone), and one wonders whether we are seeing the start of a series along the lines of that of Francesconi's former mentor Berio and his Sequenzas.

Michael QuinnTwo nights later the second Sound Lab concert brought together works for harpsichord and electronics along with some excerpts from Bach's Goldberg Variations (the performance of which gave context to the venue, whose interior dates from roughly the same time). Performed by Michael Quinn on harpsichord and Fergal Dowling on computer, this concert was less successful. The main problem lay in the difficulty of bringing together works of sufficient interest and variety for an essentially harpsichord-weighted programme. While works for harpsichord from the common practice era could rely on their interest coming from the interstices of tonal discourse, with tonality gone the interest has to come from elsewhere, and that elsewhere is evidently not so easily located (although of course there have been some excellent contemporary compositions for harpsichord by Xenakis among others).

The range of works could thus be seen each as an attempted broaching of the instrument in its current context. The most successful of these were those that were most economical with their material or most eccentric in their acoustic route. Ailís Ní Ríain's 2 Steep 4 Sheep brings about the unexpected conjunction of the harpsichord with samples of different sheep bleating (perhaps in reference to Rimbaud’s 'Soir Historique', where 'La main d'un maître anime le clavecin des prés'). Julio d'Escriván's reGoldberg gives a 're-remix' of one of the Goldberg Variations that keeps things brief, light and punchy. And Fergal Dowling's Stops IV accompanies the harpsichord's lone onward journey with quick electronic delays and spatialised speaker shifts.

By Liam Cagney

Photo credits: Garth Knox and Dublin Sound Lab

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LachenmannRelated articles:

Concert review: Grisey's Les Espaces Acoustiques given its UK premiere at the RFH
Concert review: Anna Spina performs works for viola at Basel's Gare du Nord
Concert review: Works by Francesconi and others at IRCAM's Agora festival 2009
CD review: Francesconi's Animus for trombone and electronics on Kairos