sound festival 2022 review: Listening

Nicholas Daniel oboe
Emily Hultmark bassoon
King's Pavillion, University of Aberdeen
Friday, 28th October 2022


Emily Hultmark - Beauty is Wild
Hannah Kendall - yes, flash bright lightening, in my southern sky
Thea Musgrave - Niobe
Catherine Lee & Juniana Lanning - Silkys
Torbjörn Hultmark - Listening (World Première)
Jenni Brandon - Going to the Sun

Friday evening’s concert for sound in King’s Pavilion was reasonably well attended. It was a veritable double reed extravaganza – a kind of musical tapas presenting six very differently flavoured musical treats ranging from the final work ‘Going to the Sun’ by Jenni Brandon in which oboe and bassoon duetted in wholly traditional performance format without electronics (although there was a film of scenes from Glacier National Park in Montana USA shown on a screen behind the two musicians) to Hannah Kendall’s piece in which Nicholas Daniel produced screeching sounds on two disconnected oboe reeds, while three wind-up musical boxes on a desk produced a mixed-up tinkling background. In a sense, here were two pieces from extreme ends of musical composition.

The first piece in the concert was by bassoonist Emily Hultmark, ‘Beauty is Wild’. Regarding her piece, Emily quoted the words of Sibelius ‘Every note must live’. Behind the performer on the screen was a picture of a bare tree in Winter with crows roosting in the branches, one or two of them flying about from time to time. With unshod feet, Emily activated a row of foot switches to control backing sounds some of them releasing captured sounds from the live bassoon. We heard children’s voices, water sounds, voices in crowds, rhythms from Indian tabla hand drums and Indian chanting voices. The live bassoon played a dreamy rather beautiful tune which was taken up in apparent orchestral breadth. The performance itself was hugely entertaining to watch, as Emily drew beautiful languorous melody from her bassoon while being absolutely on top of all the other controls she needed to deliver this piece. I found it both fascinating and often rather beautiful.

There followed Hannah Kendall’s piece with the oboe reeds and the tinkling music boxes. Hannah’s piece was inspired by a poem from Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter. Was this bringing a sense of revolt and upset to the world of music. The oboe reeds blown by Nicholas Daniel produced screeches which could have been regarded as funny, but was there not also considerable anger delivered by these sounds? Were the music boxes representing the world of tradition against which the oboe reeds were in revolution? I’m not sure.

Thea Musgrave’s ‘Niobe’ was the second of her pieces heard at this year’s soundfestival. The oboe’s melodic line was complex, free running and it represented the weeping of Niobe all of whose children had been killed. The backing tape had slow tolling bells of different pitches with possibly a deep gong and distant singing voices. It was musically a rather beautiful piece both deeply atmospheric and emotionally powerful. You do not need me to say that Nicholas Daniel played it brilliantly.

‘Silkys’ by Catherine Lee, with sound design by Juniana Lanning, was possibly the most unusual piece ever presented by sound. All the performers backing Nicholas Daniel’s oboe were silk worms. There were also visuals of these insects on screen. Do the families of these silk worms get copyright payments? All right that’s a joke, but these really were the most unusual performers. Nicholas Daniel’s oboe had a succession of advanced techniques, sliding to quarter tones or less and multiphonics. These are very difficult to control, though not for an expert like Daniel. They worked really well in this piece.

Emily Hultmark was back with her bassoon, foot switches and all and microphone in ‘Listening’ by her father Torbjörn Hultmark.  The work is in eight short sections including five poems by the Australian writer Hazel Smith. There were many passages of spoken words in this piece, often with more than just a touch of humour. ‘Is my microphone on – she asked’. The bassoon in Emily’s own piece was smoothly, warmly melodic, but in her father’s piece we heard a much wider range of bassoon sounds, faster edgier music for instance. I was reminded of the time when we were told in orchestration class (you’re not supposed to use the word orchestration now, say orchestral writing instead) that the bassoon is the clown of the orchestra. I felt there were moments of that. There was a bit of fun where statements about a poem were made and the answer was to be positive in numbers between one to ten. Were we in the audience supposed to answer? Well, we didn’t but Nicholas Daniel from the side of the Hall did, very loudly. I’m not sure that I understood this piece, but perhaps that does not matter, because as a quotation in the programme note said, ‘for enjoying music you are more of a performer than a listener’ and I suppose that is exactly what I am doing in writing this piece.

I certainly enjoyed the final work in the programme, Jenni Brandon’s ‘Going to the Sun’. Here Nicholas Daniel and Emily Hultmark proved that they were players of the first order in a traditional duo. Much of the music was attractively dreamy and I particularly enjoyed passages where bassoon and oboe responded teasingly to one another in question and response passages. On the screen behind the players were beautiful pictures from Glacier National Park. Did the music match the pictures? I’m not sure but I certainly enjoyed both.

Has anyone else noticed that this year’s soundfestival has matched music with visuals more than ever before?

As usual Fiona Robertson in a post concert discussion asked if any of us had questions. There were not many takers. Possibly like me, people were simply stunned by the sheer variety of what we had just seen and heard. This of course is what sound is all about. We need to be challenged by what is new to us in music.   

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