Works by Nono, Furrer, Gausin, Cleare, etc

Contra Culture

Kevin Barry Room, National Concert Hall, Dublin, 27 November 2009 5 stars

Carol McGonnellThe third concert in the 'New Sound Worlds' series was held this week. This concert featured works for flute, clarinet and electronics performed by Contra Culture.

Contra Culture are Erin Lesser and Carol McGonnell of New York's Argento Ensemble. Argento have established a strong reputation in contemporary music, having worked closely with some of the biggest composers and having released recordings of works by Murail and Hurel on Aeon and Supir/Plus loin. This flute and clarinet duo is a new venture for Lesser and McGonnell, and on the evidence of their performances here they will enjoy much success with it. Over the course of the evening they displayed an arsenal of technical prowess that others would be hard pressed to match.

This was possibly the best concert of the series so far, and was witnessed by a full house. The main reasons for its success were the excellently weighted programme, the quality of the compositions and the power of the performances, which dealt the music a jolting spark. As healthy a picture as you could wish for was given of the current state of contemporary music, with works drawn from various countries.

A poet as well as a composer, Frenchman Allain Gausin is professor of composition and orchestration at the Conservatoire de Sevran. Though not as well-known a composer overseas as some of the other French composers of his generation, his works benefit from staying free of reduction to any general school (spectral or otherwise).

Erin LesserHis Satori for clarinet solo made a good opening to the concert. With the score laid across four music stands in front of her, McGonnell started with long and quiet tones interpolated with short repeated intervals. Microtonal content gave the lines and phrases a fluid definition, and the piece gradually built to a climax of shrill shrieks in the upper register of the clarinet, hitting tones that beat in the listener's ears. McGonnell's performance was very much in sympathy with the music as she stamped her feet and grimaced and knocked loose leaves of the score onto the ground, still all the while playing with circular breathing the ongoing tones. The crowd were warm to the performance and Gausin, in attendance, shared the applause.

Harold Metzer's Focus Group for piccolo and Trapset for alto flute followed. Lesser spoke a little about the music beforehand, and the two works were oblique and charming, the latter animating a polyphony of key clicks, tongue stops and flutter-tonguing, all occurring by way of one instrument and its performer. This theme of the work as the performer's meeting with the score was present throughout the night – the impression being of the score as realisation of the performer as much as the other way round; a space of performance, as much as a space of music, being thrown open by the work.

A Pierre is a work from Luigi Nono's fertile late period. Scored for contrabass clarinet, contrabass flute and electronics, its quiet sound world of constantly undulating and fluctuating sounds invokes the composer's impressions of Venice and the transportations of sound brought about by the city's play of space and water. Breathy resonance, whistles and multiphonics from the live instruments combined with delayed, filtered and harmonised electronic processing to bring about a state in which before long you couldn't be sure of the source of sounds, there being a severance between the visual and the acoustic. Quite as striking as the music was the staging: the enormous contrabass flute was bigger than Lesser who was playing it.

Ann CleareAnn Cleare is one of the most interesting young Irish composers working at the moment. Currently studying under Chaya Czernowin at Harvard, her previous studies were at UCC and IRCAM. Eyam for contrabass clarinet and live electronics presents the process of a sound object undergoing continuous change towards terminal modification. The title refers to the English 'plague village' that isolated itself in 1665 to prevent the plague that had invaded its bounds from spreading. The work was suitably dark, with the live electronic part incessant and fragmented, inhabiting a space opened up only in order to collapse in entropy. The listening act is written into this work: if the work's narrative process is inevitable, so too is its viewer’s gaze bound to following it. The contrabass clarinet’s capacity for multiphonics played a large part in a writing that gravitated towards heavy noise, with weight given to the live electronic part.

A more rhythmically based work followed. Although Brazilian-born Alexandre Lunsqui's Topografia for solo bass flute does not employ electronic effects, it was on the night amplified to excellent effect (much credit is due to Alexis Nealon, who had charge of the sound desk throughout). Lesser shot through a series of breath-heavy pulsations, rasps and hisses. The music tended towards its sound being heard as pure air – an addendum to the human breath, with a strong rhythmic backbone as bolster.

Beat Furrer’s Fama is a 'sound theatre' work, a monodrama about a young woman who finds herself in the situation of having to degrade herself to save her bankrupt family. The performers played the sixth scene, for contrabass flute and actor, with McGonnell taking the actor's part alongside Lesser's flute. The work was unexpectedly thrilling, a counterpoint struck up between vocalist and flautist leading to their merging in and out of each other, clicks and hisses oscillating back and forth, the flute commenting on the words spoken by its counterpart.

Rounding things up on a lighter note was Scelsi's Piccola Suite for flute and clarinet, the oldest and most conventional work on the programme (which is saying something). An uncharacteristically conventional work by comparison with what Scelsi's name usually conjures up, it was composed immediately after the Italian composer’s breakdown, and its four movements gave a chance for McGonnell and Lesser to display a more traditional but no less rich interplay.

By Liam Cagney

Photo credits: Carol McGonnell and Erin Lesser, Argento Ensemble; Ann Cleare, CMC Ireland


LachenmannRelated articles:

Concert review: Hind and Leonard perform Lachenmann at the 'New Sound Worlds' series
Concert review: The British premiere of Luigi Nono's Prometeo at the Royal Festival Hall
CD review: Orchestral works by Giacinto Scelsi on the Neos label