New Music North West 2016 (opening weekend)

New Music North West (NMNW) kicks off tomorrow at the RNCM with, amongst other things, a performance of Gary Carpenter’s Listening SymphonyThis is a massive festival of new music; over a hundred composers have music being played and there are over 50 premieres.

There are so many things in the festival I want to shout about; music by Harrison Birtwistle (who is visiting the festival for three days); concerts by Distractfold; ACM; ddmmyy; a wide range of music performed by, in particular, RNCM and Manchester University Students; and two short concerts by my group the House of Bedlam (I’ll post on that early next week). However, as I have curated the opening weekend (and thanks to festival director Clark Rundell and RNCM artistic director Michelle Castelletti have had extraordinary free rein) so I thought I’d write a bit about this here.

The things going round my head when I was thinking about the programme was how I might interpret the name of the festival, which has traditionally focussed on all kinds of new and recent concert music, what I really mean when I refer to ‘a composer’ and that the RNCM, somewhere with a great deal of vital new music, has a platform to explore some compositional and performance extremes.

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The Vonnegut Collective

The relatively new Vonnegut Collective is performing in the 8pm slot on the Saturday. I’m enticed by a new music collective that started when two BBC Philharmonic instrumentalists (Gary Farr and Gemma Bass), experts and obsessives in new music and new sounds, spent their rehearsal breaks exploring free improvisation.

I sincerely hope this catches on…

They collaborate with the composers they work with (who usually perform with them) and bring together improvisation, composed music, devised music and conversation about music. This is the case at NMNW; Tullis Rennie and Cath Roberts join the collective as composers and performers alongside performance of music by Cornelius Cardew. They are also performing a short work by Gavin Osborn in the Lecture theatre three times at 12pm, 12.20 and 12.40 to very small audiences for an intimate concert experience.

At 2pm there are diverse responses from RNCM student (on the popular music and composition programmes) to current and historic Manchester-based bands. Expect surprising covers from two very, very different ensembles (including a version of Nina Simone’s cover of the Bee Gee’s Please read me (go on click and have a listen – crazy piano playing), because, well because I love it and asked the students involved very nicely). This is alongside Kathryn Williams performing Laurie Tompkins’ recent work for flute and electronics (elusively connected by a short reference to Oasis…).

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Nina Simone

At 4pm the Junior RNCM, whose new music concerts always showcase such good playing and writing, are staging a deliciously ambitious concert. Taking over the concert hall they start with a large-scale open scored piece, gradually downsizing through more conventional ensembles and notation to end with a short work for solo wheelbarrow. As you do. I can’t wait.

And later on, as it’s Saturday night, there will be a couple of RNCM bands playing in the bar. It’s after the Big Band concert so Harry Fausing Smith, playing with his band Pope Vivian, have promised some connection to jazz. Last time they provided some music at my request (for a Decontamination concert) it was a short barrage of unapologetic noise (go on – have a listen). I’m rather glad that, deep down, I don’t really know what to expect.

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Part of Matthew Sergeant’s ‘[Kiss]’ programme card.

Sunday is a rather different and stared, for me, thinking about two works by good friends that I find extremely exciting. The first is Matthew Sergeant’s [Kiss] – a live solo violin work that lasts between 4 and 6 hours. The second is Nina Whiteman’s (I believe on-going) collection of overlapping works of variable duration The Astrolabe Series. I am personally inspired by these ambitious, deliriously (in some respects) impractical pieces was desperate to see them/see them again.

The day begins at 11am with a short round-table discussion with some of the composers about the perception of time in music chaired by expert-in-the-field Dr Michelle Phillips. The music starts at 12 with not only Matt’s [Kiss], but also a new very long video installation of Ian Vine’s, a performance of a recent work by RNCM undergraduate composer John Uren (an hour of piano and electronics) and RNCM students performing one of Morton Feldman’s late monoliths Crippled Symmetry.

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Morton Feldman

At 5pm, in straightforward stark contrast (and inevitably containing a number of straightforward stark contrasts), is a concert dominated by miniatures featuring new minute-long pieces by fifteen RNCM staff members, some early James Saunders and pieces by RNCM undergraduate Michael Brailey and former head of composition Anthony Gilbert. I’m a simple person and, to be honest, was initially motivated by wondering if the two less-than-twenty-second movements in Tony’s Six of the Bestiary (which I love, refer to when teaching and have listened to countless times) would sound different to me after hours of Feldman, Sergeant, Vine & Uren. I also really wanted to hear James’ 511 Possible Mosaics. Given that each one is eighteen seconds long it seemed impractical to travel to New Zealand for the premiere back in 1999.

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Nina Whiteman

Nina Whiteman takes centre stage with Trio Atem in the 7pm concert, which culminates in a 30-minute (and to date largest) version of her Astrolabe Series. I’ve lost track of exactly what’s happening in this piece, which is spatialised around the vast canvas of the RNCM’s opera theatre, but I understand the trio is augmented with 17 extra performers, there are pieces that include multiple double basses, multiple flutes and live electronics. The trio also get to showcase their more usual practice with works by Elizabeth Ditmanson and Grace Evangeline Mason and, excitingly for me because it has been a while since he has written for his own trio, a new work by Gavin Osborn.

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Solem String Quartet

The weekend rounds off with the fifth in the Decontamination Series. I was thinking of this concert as something that might untangle the threads of the weekend and the overlapping pieces of Nina’s new work(s). So here we have pop singer/songwriter, storyteller, troubadour and Manchester cult favourite Aidan Smith shuffled with the Solem String Quartet’s return to the series, the latter playing music by their own violist Ali Vennart, the rarely performed in the UK (and frankly f*****g awesome) Hell by Liza Lim and an extract from Henri Duttieux’s ravishing Ansi la nuit; a modest tribute to a great composer in his centenary year. There are so many good songs of Aidan’s but I have a particular soft spot for The Merry-Go-Round of Abingdon Town partly because of a great version I heard him do at a gig a couple of years ago and also because I grew up near Abingdon and know it well.

Aidan Smith

Aidan Smith

So yes, this is essentially a protracted advert, but with good reason. I’m more than chuffed that there are performances of pop music, jazz, improvisation of various kinds, new concert music, 5 hour+ violin works and installations, pieces that last 15 seconds, explorations of modular practice, and so much more all strangely and varyingly connected by the North West of England and, most importantly, a love of musical exploration.

And to anyone involved in making new music you can imagine the number of people involved who have given so much of their time and energy far beyond what can realistically be afforded or fairly expected. So share this, shout about it, come along and, I hope, have a flipping fantastic weekend.

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Still from Ian Vine ‘twenty-seven trios’ (and link to some more information).

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