Alan Cooper reviews soundfestival 2018: Any Enemy

Saturday 3rd November, 2018

‘ANY ENEMY’ sounds like a very unusual name for an instrumental ensemble, although I
have known several musicians who regarded others as their enemies. I am sorry to
confess that for me, that was often great fun to encourage! Actually, the words have
nothing to do with that, they come from a sound-alike acronym, N.E.N.M.E. It stands for
North East New Music Ensemble. It was recently founded by violinist Guera Maunder and
bassoonist Lesley Wilson inspired by the activities of the soundfestival. Any Enemy is
therefore in a sense the offspring of the Festival although they will probably perform out-
with it as well. It is a flexible ensemble and therefore could have almost any number of
musicians within the chamber range. In today’s performance there were ten performers – a
string trio, violin, viola and cello, a flute, two bassoons including contra-bassoon, an oboe
doubling on cor anglais, a trumpet and two percussionists. I normally find Pete Stollery
seated in front of an electronic mixing desk but today he was standing in front of the
musicians as their conductor.

The first two pieces were Colin Riley’s ‘Fluorescent Sea & Butterflies from Impossible
Worlds’ and ‘Sirens’ by Howard Skempton. As Professor Stollery explained, these two
pieces were not actually composed for today’s ensemble but were written for high, medium
and low instruments. Tom toms, oboe and bassoons stood out in high relief in Colin Riley’s
first piece. As it progressed, the other instruments coalesced into a full orchestral blend. I
was impressed by the way in which the stronger instruments controlled their forces in
order to produce a smooth sound blend. Thinking about other composers ideas of
butterflies, like Grieg or Schumann, Colin Riley’s second piece seemed rather static but as
it too progressed, sensations of movement were established by the percussion and strings
in particular.

In ‘Sirens’, Howard Skempton’s piece gave us exactly what Pete Stollery had promised –
chords oscillating between different instrumental groups.

All the same, these two pieces which were not intentionally written for this ensemble
seemed just a little bit cloudy. What a difference there was in the next two works expressly
commissioned for the ensemble with support from Aberdeen City Council. Both pieces
were enjoying their World Première performances today.

In the first of these pieces ‘Almost the One’ by Gemma McGregor, the instrumental
texture was cleared and opened up. Instrumental solos and discreet groupings projected a
lovely clear palette of colours and the first class playing of today’s performers who are all
from among the best in Aberdeen, shone through with delicious clarity. In her programme
note Gemma invited us to to give our response to her music which, she said, would be
different in every case. For me it was the particular pleasure of hearing music by a talented
composer who understood the ensemble for which she was composing and in addition,
hearing the talents of the many musicians I recognised being brought out so marvellously.

They are all really fantastic.

The same was true in ‘nothing good gets away’ by Rose Dodd. I loved the way in which
different instruments rose to the surface of the ensemble while the general full sound
remained strong. It was thanks here to our splendid players and to the effortless direction
of Pete Stollery.

One of the problems that audiences find with some contemporary music is that it, quite
deliberately, I believe, eschews any kind of emotional content or drive. The final piece in
the concert blew any such assumption right out of the water. It was a 1971 composition by
Gavin Bryars entitled ‘Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet’. Professor Stollery recounted
the story that Bryars liked to tell about the background of the music. He said that during
filming of a documentary about homeless people around Elephant and Castle and
Waterloo Station some of the homeless were drunk and sang rowdy songs but one old
man who did not drink sang part of a religious song. This was not used in the documentary
but Bryars transferred the old man’s song onto a continuous loop. He went for a coffee and
left it running. When he returned, he found the normally lively people in the room had
become quiet and some were sitting alone weeping softly. This convinced him of the
emotional power of the old man’s singing and eventually he composed a simple, gradually
evolving orchestral accompaniment intended to further boost the impact of the old man’s
singing. Professor Stollery told us it is possible that Bryars had simply found the song on a
tape among studio fragments. Whatever the truth was, it made Bryars famous.

In today’s performance Professor Stollery started the recording of the old man very quietly
gradually increasing the volume. With minimal signals, he gradually brought in the
instruments of Any Enemy – cello, viola, violin, bassoon, marimba and the others until all
were playing a repetitive orchestral melody. Very quiet playing was increased in strength
as was the old man’s song leading to a passionate crescendo and then the process was
put into reverse with at the end only the violin playing softly. You would have to have a real
heart of stone not to be moved by the performance. The old man’s song itself had a
special power but the addition of the orchestral backing raised its level very considerably.
Today’s arrangement for the orchestra had been prepared by John Harris of Red Note.
This made a very moving conclusion to Any Enemy’s fine performance.

Before going to hear this performance, I went to the other end of the corridor in the
Anatomy Rooms to listen to a recorded performance of the 40 part Renaissance Motet
‘Spem In Alium’ by Thomas Tallis (1505? - 1585). Nic Pendlebury, Head of the String
Department at Trinity Laban and a founder member of the Smith Quartet who have
performed for sound in past years had recorded each of the 40 parts of the Tallis motet,
originally meant for voices, on his viola. He had taken great trouble to balance all the parts
perfectly and the result if you listened in the large auditorium where all the speakers were
set on chairs was enthralling. Even from the corridor outside, it sounded sometimes like an
organ and at moments like a consort of viols. Tallis himself was a champion of new music
in his own age and this electronic performance of his music brought it bang up to date. In
my previous incarnation as a music seller, we once ordered the score of Spem In Alium for
a customer. In an edition by Philip Brett from Oxford University Press, it arrived in a huge
cardboard package. It was about two feet wide and three feet high at least. We had to take
real care in protecting it for our customer. I don’t think he ever performed it, nor had I ever
heard it sung properly so today’s performance was a particular delight. Thank you sound
and Nic Pendlebury.

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