sound festival 2019 review: We need to talk / Il faut qu'on parle

Noéme Boutin: Cello
Matthew Sharp: Cello 

Frédéric PattarAround Aegôn
Laura BowlerTwo Cellos

I have not met many musicians who are in favour of Brexit, (sorry for including such a dirty word) so it was interesting to have a concert that brought together both composers and performers from France and the UK so near to the 31st October.

Both pieces in Saturday’s programme, world premières, were far more than just musical performances with a small ‘p’ where the players just come on, play the music and then go off again. Nowadays some performers do say a few words to the audience but many don’t. On Saturday evening, however, what we got were full scale PERFORMANCES.

The composer of the second piece, Laura Bowler introduced the concert, but the first piece was by the French composer Frédéric Pattar. It was entitled Around Agôn. The word 'Agôn' is an ancient Greek term for a conflict, struggle or contest. It can be any sort of contest: athletics, music or literature. Obviously music was involved here—a contest between the two cellists—but there was also the duel between two languages and the words of two poets: Rimbaud representing France, and William Blake representing England. The composer wrote that his intention was 'to explore ontology (a philosophical term about the nature of being or existence) and tragedy through playfulness, humour and a certain lightness'.

In much of the opening section the two cellists played perfectly together in unison with very straightforward music. Soon however, differences began to creep in. After a while Matthew Sharp deserted his cello and moved to the rear of the stage where waiting for him was a ‘prepared’ cello. He began firing off pizzicato notes on this instrument. Soon, things began to diversify and in a sense to heat up. At one point the performers worked on the prepared cello with two bows at the same time. In another section of the piece, the cellists stood at each side of the stage, away from any of the cellos but each holding two bows which they began whipping through the air producing whiffling sounds. I thought for a moment of fighters beginning to square off with lightsabres but possibly that was not an intention of the composer. Towards the end of the piece Noémi Boutin began to play extended passages of high harmonics. This is very difficult to sustain perfectly but Noémi certainly triumphed. She also had passages in the score where she sang, sometimes in English, and fragments of both French and English words were part of the performance. 

If Frédéric Pattar’s piece was rich in many different kinds of performance, cello playing, speaking, singing and movement using the whole platform, Two Cellos by Laura Bowler went far farther. There was singing, particularly fine singing from Matthew Sharp, spoken words, pre-recorded words and sounds, mist floating over the stage, shadows of the performers projected on to the rear cyclorama. There were two bows on one cello, the performers stroking one another’s cellos as if they were human bodies. At one point Matthew Sharp removed one of Noémi’s boots while the French text referred to a servant refusing to clean his master’s boots because next day they would just get dirty again. I could concur with that. Towards the end of the work, a recorded voice referred to the difference between the French spirit and the English. If France takes over the world we will be ruled by all 26 letters in the alphabet. If England takes over, the world will be ruled by the numbers one to ten. I think I get the point that a certain British party are only interested in money. I thought that was the Americans but possibly after Brexit we may be turned over to an American governor as an insignificant part of their empire.

There was so much in Laura Bowler’s piece to digest. Drama, comedy and politics too. I was reminded of when opera was one of the special themes of sound. I went to an opera which was held in a flat near the harbour in Aberdeen. One of the performers was Alan McHugh. He was brilliant but I more often see him when he appears as the regular pantomime dame in the annual HMT Production. In a way Laura Bowler’s piece reminded me of that opera. At the post concert discussion I asked her about that and she said I was right. She is heavily involved in opera. Do any of you remember the opera on a bus that was part of sound some years ago? Matthew Sharp said that he took part in that very production.

Another quick aside. I was speaking to cellist Martin Storey who played in the Red Note concert at lunchtime. He told me that he was having to rush off back to Glasgow because he was playing in Scottish Opera’s production of Tosca. Doesn’t sound manage to bring some absolutely brilliant talents to Aberdeen!

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