Alan Cooper reviews soundfestival 2017: CRÉATIONS SANS FRONTIÈRES





Saturday 11th November, 2107

The first piece in this collaborative project between SOUND and Musiques Démesurées was a new commission by the two festivals from the French composer Stéphane Magnin entitled ‘Hell is empty’. The programme note described it as a mini musical drama of five songs for soprano, percussion, flute, bassoon and cello based on an original text by the French writer Pierre Senges. The words were in both French and English, the title itself coming from a line in Shakespeare’s The Tempest – “Hell is empty, and all the devils are here”. The theme of death was paramount as expressed in the words of Motorhead’s song, “Killed by Death”.

The percussion writing was particularly colourful including an air whip with an almost subliminal sound as well as cymbals and other percussion specialities gently scraped with the sides of sticks. There were water glasses made to sing too and the percussion could be quite soft or in some cases hard driven. The words from the texts came through in a somewhat disjointed manner like cadavre for instance. Juliet Fraser’s vocalisations, I use that word rather than singing because what she delivered went far beyond mere singing. Sometimes her sounds like panting for instance were picked up and amplified by other members of the ensemble and often her unusual vocal utterances were mirrored by members of the instrumental ensemble. The overall result was immensly varied and astonishingly expressive. I was drawn irresistibly into the performance, and found it to be an endless source of fascination with its amazingly generous sound palette. Like most of the other pieces in the programme it was a great piece to watch as well as to hear. Every detail was a surprise and an eye opener. Stéphane Magnin was in the audience to enjoy the relish with which his work was received.

Tresse for bass flute and zarb by Frédéric Pattar was the second piece in the programme performed by the duo of flautist Marion Barbier playing bass flute and percussionist Maxime Echardour playing the zarb. Do you know what a zarb is? No, I didn’t either, but I do now. It is a goblet drum from Persia. It looks like a goblet or perhaps a giant eggcup. Marion played only a few notes on her flute, the rest of the time she used her instrument as another percussion instrument with breath pops and clicks of the keys. This was a delightfully intimate performance with the two players working in perfect tandem. The piece  had a text too but the programme note suggested something that I sensed in all the pieces in this concert. “The reading of the texts (shared between the two performers) generates rhythms and musical figures. Music and text are tangled up, so that the words do not purely carry meaning”.

Monomanies (selection) by the Greek born composer Georges Aperghis was a solo performance by Juliet Fraser. Here again the sheer musicality of the sounds of the words was what mattered. Full of swoops and trills it was a colourful and thoroughly engaging vocal performance.
The next two pieces by the Australian born composer Matthew Shlomowitz now resident in London had most unusual titles. They were performed by Juliet Fraser and percussionist Maxime Echardour, Letter Piece #4 ‘Adams, Blackburn, Camomile, Djibouti & Eurohound’ followed by Letter Piece #5 ‘Northern Cities’. Yes, and they were also the most astonishingly unusual pieces in the programme. I have already said that being able to see the performances of all these works added so much to their performances but with Shlomowitz’s pieces this was an absolute essential. In the first piece, much of Juliet Fraser’s performance consisted of just silent gestures, pointing and beckoning for instance. Later on panting sounds were paramount. In the second piece Juliet began with wolf whistles. There were toy instruments including colourful little bells. The words of northern cities were split up and vocalised. I think the composer meant his pieces to be great fun – and so indeed they were – bursting with entertainment.

The final work in the programme was a fascinating setting of a poem by Andrew Marvell for soprano and full instrumental ensemble. It was composed by John de Simone whose organ composition we heard earlier on in the festival. After all the fun and frolics we heard earlier on in the concert this was almost conventional. And yet, there were things about it that made it equally unusual. Juliet’s singing of the text smooth and sinuous made so much more of the music and its melodic flow than of the words although those did come through. The instrumental backing was happy and jolly sounding. Tuned percussion, piccolo and at one point Maxime Echardour even played a cassotto. I used to sell those but I had not seen one for years. I did not know you could still get them. The rhythms delivered by the instrumental accompaniments were jaunty almost jazzy at times and a constant source of delight. I really liked this piece.

This was a great concert - sound at its most fascinating and engaging on its final day – but there was even more excitement to come. See my final review!

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