'Structure and Freedom': Works by Dumitrescu and Avram

Hyperion Ensemble

Jerwood Hall, London, 23 November 20113 stars

DumitrescuThe name spectral music is usually associated with the group of French composers, among them Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail, who in the mid seventies in Paris spearheaded a compositional aesthetic based on the physics of sound and the performance of whose works centred on the ensemble L'Itineraire. It's less well known that at roughly the same time in Romania a group of composers were coming up with their own brand of spectral music, which, as with the French version, was based on the discrete dynamic properties of sound.

Perhaps the most famous representative of the Romanian school is Horatiu Radulescu, who died in 2008. Upon leaving Romania Radulescu repatriated to France, where he took citizenship in 1974, when Grisey et al were composing their first spectral works. Well known as a man of idiosyncracies, Radulescu focused in his music on the minutia of sound, and his works have extravagant, unwieldy titles like 'Being and non-being create each other' and 'Infinite to be cannot be infinite, infinite anti-be could be infinite' (a work that's scored for nine string quartets). But this is amazing music, some of the best composed in the late twentieth century, different from and rawer than the more studied, more cool, sometimes more bland French spectral works.

Two other well known Romanian spectralists are Iancu Dumitrescu and Ana-Maria Avram, who are married to each other. Dumitrescu and Avram are currently touring a few major European capitals – London, Paris, Berlin and Bucharest – with Spectrum XXI, an international festival of spectral and proto-spectral music of which they are the founders. Performances of works by the Romanian spectral school are few and far between. For this festival the Hyperion International ensemble, founded by Dumitrescu in 1976, has accompanied Dumitrescu and Avram, both of whom conduct their own works. The last concert of the London series was last Sunday evening at the LSO's Jerwood Hall, a programme featuring works by Dumitrescu and Avram.

Dumitrescu cuts a striking figure in person – tall and slow-moving, dressed in black clothes with a large red scarf and long curly hair. This appearance became even more distinguished when as conductor he struck up the evening's opening piece, Micro and Macroscopic Erruption I, with the concert attended by a respectable audience.

Rather than keeping time as normal and lightly honing the ensemble dynamics, Avram and Dumitrescu's approach to conducting sees them gesticulate, sweep and throw their arms skyward in front of the assorted players. It makes for an unconventional prospect to say the least. But once you get past the initial strangeness it's apparent that the players are tightly focussed on the gestures of the conductor in front of them, whether Dumitrescu or Avram. Just a light flick of one finger or a quick jerk of the head, coupled with direct eye contact with the musicians, indicates a musical gesture the conductor desires.

Obviously with an approach like this, which melds together the roles of conductor and composer, the musicians aren't reading their parts from a conventionally notated score. With Micro and Macroscopic Erruption I, as with most of the other pieces, the acoustic instruments played alongside a pre-recorded electronic part coming from a laptop and broadcast over the venue's PA system. This electronic part indicated to Dumitrescu or Avram where in the piece they were at a given time and so what the players should be doing.

In an interview Dumitrescu has rightly noted how the advanced technical means placed at the disposal of composers such as those associated with IRCAM has led to standardised, often bland results. The electronic part of his My Demon was anything but bland: rough in character, certain imperfections were audible in the sound that had been brought about accidentally due to the way the computer software had been used. But rather than being a bad thing this was refreshing to hear, lending subtly to the noise character of the sound objects produced.

Dressed in leather trousers, Avram conducted her Orbit of Eternal Grace II with much gesticulating. Tim Hodgkinson and Yoni Silver on twin bass clarinets made an ugly squall in their solo parts, while the ensemble strings used extended techniques to early Penderecki-type effect and the three percussionists clattered at everything within arm's reach.

A notable guest member of the ensemble was Stephen O'Malley. O'Malley, lynchinpin of avant-doom metal band Sunn O))) and member of various other musical projects, contributed low moaning guitar tones and other signature sounds, in part using a violin bow across the strings. It was interesting to notice that though the individual members of the ensemble were generally anonymous within the collective sound, O'Malley's guitar playing very much sounded like Stephen O'Malley's guitar playing (not a bad thing).

More variety in the programme would have been welcome in this concert, whose first half dragged. But it was nevertheless a pleasure to witness the music live. As well as showing a commendable exploratory approach towards musical composition and a refreshingly unorthodox approach towards conducting and performance, it was nice to hear Dumitrescu say on behalf of himself and his wife, once the applause had died down at the end of the first piece, 'This music only exists because of you' – an unassuming sentiment rarely expressed.

By Liam Cagney


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Concert Review: IRCAM's Agora festival 2009