The Cutting Edge: Exaudi

Works by Molitor, Weeks, Agrimbau, Pritchard, Smith, Priestley

The Warehouse, 6 November 2009 4 stars

James WeeksThe vocal ensemble Exaudi opened Sound and Music's The Cutting Edge series of concerts at The Warehouse last week with a typically enterprising programme of new and newish works by young (and youngish!) composers. Led by their director James Weeks, Exaudi's performance exhibited technical poise alongside real elegance in interpretation that befitted their obvious passion for the music.

In accordance with the ensemble's own practical convictions (as enumerated by Weeks in the notes) and in line with the designation of the series, Exaudi's concert consisted exclusively of works from recent years. The oldest piece, Linda Catlin Smith's movingly direct setting of Emily Dickinson's Her Harbour, was premiered as recently as 2004. As might be expected, then, much of the music utilised familiar expressive tenets of the younger generation - the common practice experimental style of our age - such as graphic notation and other open score models, stylistic heterogeneity within works, broad influence of popular culture, and musical delineation of intellectual ideas from contemporary philosophy/cultural theory. Even accepting these disclosures of a collective technique, the musical results nevertheless proved extremely sonically and technically diverse.

Chung Shih Hoh's mantra:imagine opened the concert. The piece adopts a Buddhist approach to sound in its exploration of the sonorous qualities of specific phonemes. Exaudi were immediately stirring; haunted choral textures in the first movement were leavened by the bathos of the Pepsi Cola second, whilst the sprightliness of the phrasing and ensemble in the madrigal-esque finale were a delight. Countertenor Tom Williams's exquisite way with line and tone really stood out here. Stephen Chase's more obscure Jandl Songs (of which only a selection were heard) operate, unsurprisingly (they being based on the work of the sound poet Ernst Jandl), in the sort of sonic-aesthetic area defined by Schwitters' famous Ursonate. As such, I did wonder at times how much is gained by their being composed out as opposed to let live as the vibrant glossaries of sonic possibility that they already are. That reservation notwithstanding, though, I did enjoy the reduced ensemble's idiomatic, fun and often virtuosic interpretations. 'suchen wissen' was particularly effective in its matching of silly uncanniness of text to sympathetic musical explanation.

Gwyn Pritchard's short but powerful Luchnos preceded the Nono-esque exploration of the possibilities of linguistic meaning, of verbal sense, and of the power relations that articulate and become articulated by those elements, which fill up Ignacio Agrimbau's enjoyable and confusing (as the best things are) The Humanist. Dramatising the ensemble in a multiplicity of roles, from omnipotent commentators, to searchers in the nascent field of language formation, to absurd players in a nonsense dialogue, and sometimes all of these things at the same time, the work is highly ambitious in intent and detail. It is one of those searching provocations that asks its audience to imagine that the parameters of music are capable of not only proposing a dialectic, but also, ideally, of occluding that dialectic as ultimately servile to the idea of music itself, which must surely contain the dialectic rather than be contained or even defined by it. The Humanist attempts a Wagnerian re-articulation of the world as sound.

It asks, thus, a lot of its interpreters, and Exaudi struggled at times to keep a hold of the pushing and pulling energies of the work. This, it must be remembered though, is half the point of the work. Understood in this way, the frequent invocations of the confusional sublime that were occasioned by the performers can only really be acclaimed a success. You felt secure in one strand of thought before being wrestled away by a break in the syntax towards another abundance of ideas. It is to the composer's and performers' credit that the dense framework underpinning the piece never totally overburdened the expressive force of the vocal scoring or the dynamic action of the music.

James Weeks' three settings of text from the Song of Songs were a very different proposition. Conveying a compositional rigour worthy of Ockeghem, Weeks builds a busy foliage (yet another nod to the flora imagery of the text) of canonical textures out of strikingly simple melodic gestures. Like the earlier man, Weeks directs these abstract procedures towards the expression of an emotional intensity that results both from the obvious pleasure that can be gained from the exercise of the discipline of musical grammar in itself, and from the poetical density that results from the careful shaping of that grammar into complex sonic events. And so it was the case here; the outwardly punctilious technique of composition gave way to fervency in procedure and affect.

Amber Priestley's Unloose to the Murmur disperses the performers around the hall, asking them to work with huge graphic scores in combination with notated versioning of extracts from the Monteverdi Orfeo. The work lacks something in focus, moving a little too inelegantly and a little too frequently between the undeniably beautiful conducted refrains (some of the singing was profoundly sweet, the cadences being brought off with a beauty of tone and calmness of affect that were wonderful to hear) and the looser, more aggravated 'free' episodes. Again, though, the possible deficiencies in idea were never fatal; Priestley displayed an impressive degree of wit and skill in her writing. Cladia Molitor's Lorem ipsum communicated all her usual command; the pairing of nonsense Latin with eclectic gesturing of serious and frivolous intents made for a wonderfully destabilising conclusion to the concert.

The irony on display in the Molitor was typical of all of these works. Crucially, however, so were its deeply-felt emotional convictions. These pieces clearly proposed a powerful sort of humanist postmodernism that bodes well for the music of our young century. The concert was so full of ideas and sounds that if anything it felt a little overlong, but despite this, I left quite encouraged by the sounds I had heard.

By Stephen Graham

Photo: James Weeks by Helen May Banks


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