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Concert Review/ Ensemble Hodos & others at the Umlaut Festival

img  Tobias Fischer

Ensemble Hodos

Philip Corner – 12 tone
Christian Wolff – Pairs
John Cage – Four6
Christian Wolff – Microexercices

The variable-geometry Ensemble Hodos (gathering here a double bass, a cello, a guitar, a clarinet and a sax) is devoted to music written in a way that gives performers some control over the output; some freedom, if you prefer. Having been freed from tonal systems, the notes take on an existence of their own. Logically their act tonight is dedicated to John Cage and two younger, abnormal composers who have always been close to Cage's creative groups: Christian Wolff and Philip Corner. The programme begins with Corner's well-behaving 12 Tone piece: one tone at a time is played in unison by all musicians, followed by a silent pause of indeterminate duration; an experimental laugh at serialism which nobody thought could have been that simple. Wolff's 1968 piece Pairs feels like looser Webern-influenced music with more notes, and so does Cage's Four6, which contained more silence though, often placed near drones coming from both wind instruments. The latter work, a half hour-long piece written in 1992, asks « the performers [to] choose twelve different sounds each, with fixed amplitude, overtone structure etc., and play within the flexible time brackets. » Twelve sounds: serialism again but with much more flexibility. Despite the freedom, no need to say you could feel the tension and the attention of every musician to each other's sounds. The instruments are sometimes used with extended techniques: the sax and clarinet players blow air, the bassist and cellist bow the wood, etc. The sounds of materials scraped, rubbed and air blown played down the idea of a musical narrative, letting some kind of natural flow drive the music. Stuff happening. It's interesting to see how a few pieces can tell about issues that made 20th century music history so rich and absurd at the same time: control and freedom (usually paralleled with serialism/aleatory music) are not that incompatible a couple after all; silence and drones (inexistence and sustained presence) are just two different ways of reaching emptiness. Cage used extensively the ancient Chinese divination book I Ching to write most of his compositions and this comes as no surprise. He didn't come to it by chance though, Wolff presented Cage with a copy of it back in 1951.

Didier LasserreSur quelques surfaces vacantes (on some vacant surfaces)

A cymbal, held horizontally, and a drum, that's enough material to build a gorgeous sonic world on. Lasserre doesn't want to do anything impressive, his music is never loud and you have to listen carefully. Used like a gong, a cymbal will deliver complex timbres and colours, more than pitch and  intensity. Indeed the room is filled with colours for the ears, inducing an altered state of mind. The rawest kind of polyphony: the resonating scrapes or murmurs of metal and the striking of the animal skin, spiralling in the air. The audience doesn't even move.

Burkhard Beins and Derek Shirley

Berlin-based percussionist Beins and bassist Shirley have taken no bass guitar or percussion  whatsoever tonight. They're sitting before a table bearing a large electronic equipment and a synth bass. That's how open they are about their instruments. They build austere soundscapes out of signals and frequencies, soft white noise and bassy sounds. Slowly. The synth emits deep heartbeats and many other things you cannot always quite differentiate from Beins' electronics. In the middle of the performance, it's all about microbeats. Both performers play with tempo, like two castanets going slightly out of rhythm and coming back together. Beins triggers little bleeps by using a gas-lighter (sounds like it) and a barcode scanner (looks like it). And at the end come the black and grey layers again, the quiet though powerful waves of pure bass, gaining momentum, so profound you want to pray.

By Antoine Richard

Homepage: Ensemble Hodos
Homepage: Didier Lasserre
Homepage: Burkhard Beins
Homepage: Derek Shirley

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