No contemporary music ensemble can ignore the impact of electronics and sound diffusion on new music, but surprisingly few have the interface of live performance and electronics at the heart of their mission. Explore Ensemble, directed by composer Nicholas Moroz, who also handles live electronics in their performances, are a welcome exception; all the pieces in their Wigmore Hall concert on June 21 were connected in some way to the live/electronic relationship.
The ensemble is heavily involved in commissioning and premiering new work, and also champions neglected work of the recent past. I don’t recall seeing the French composer Pascale Criton (b. 1958) on a programme in London before, and her Clines (1989), for bass flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano with electronics, was given its U.K. premiere. She is best known as an electronic music composer and for her interest in microtonality; in Clines the recorded part uses up to 1/16th tones, while the live instrumentalists employ only the chromatic scale. The piece built up a rich texture, combining a recorded wavering and fluctuating line with the far more disjunct, expressionist fragments of the ensemble. The title evokes the dips and crevices of a difficult mountain climb, and Explore Ensemble’s traversing of this challenging terrain made the best possible case for the work. Criton’s poignant melodic language, combined with a disquieting recorded part, announced a composer with a distinctive and appealing voice.
Nakul Krishnamurthy’s One Million Dancing Shivas was premiered in this concert. The Glasgow-based composer’s work builds bridges between Carnatic vocal traditions and Western classical/experimental music. This performance was based on Ten Thousand Dancing Shivas, recorded for Café Oto’s Otoroku label in 2020. Around 60 vocal phrases, with the composer as vocalist, build up a shifting texture in the original; Explore Ensemble reimagined it here as a live work. Each member (David López Ibáñez, violin; Morag Robertson, viola; Deni Teo, cello; Taylor MacLennan, bass flute; Alex Roberts, bass clarinet) introduced in turn a short, bendy phrase, intercepted by silence, and the texture slowly built up in elaborate counterpoint. A gentle recorded sustained synthesiser line added further contrast about halfway through. The piece suddenly stopped, suggesting it might be a fragment of something that continues forever.
Italian composer Clara Iannotta (born 1983) was represented by dead wasps in the jam-jar (iii) (2019), for string quartet and sine waves. The title, drawn from a poem by Dorothy Molloy, hints at something desiccated and trapped, but in fact the piece is fluid and subtly shifting. The sine waves are more like harmonics, upper partials blending with a huge variety of live sounds: string instruments can, it appears, creak, breathe and whisper. Featuring Amy Tress as second violinist, the ensemble’s superb balance made us forget that they are not a regularly performing quartet.
Anyone who by this time had had their fill of slow-moving, meditative pieces would have been delighted to see the name Alex Paxton on the programme. The composer is currently getting a lot of attention and recently won a prestigious Ernst von Siemens prize. It speaks volumes that my first thought about the title Spit Crystal Yeast-rack, dripping (à l’orange) was ‘that sounds like Paxton.’ His work is riotous, multicoloured and utterly endearing. ‘I’m just trying to make the most sonically sensuous, magic sound-stuff-thing that I can’ he writes, and he does.
Imagine a chaotic, happy living room where one person is watching a vintage cartoon, another playing a videogame on a tinny device and someone else is listening to Ligeti at his wittiest, and you will have some idea of Paxton’s soundworld. The six Explore musicians rose to the very considerable challenge of Paxton’s 20-minute piece, which sounds like free improvisation — Paxton is also an improvising trombonist — but in fact is meticulously notated. Moroz balanced the live sound with a recorded track that continually builds the complexity. MacLennan moved seamlessly between piccolo, flute, a triple slide whistle and a bright red otamatone. The heroic keyboard player Sarah Park negotiated a crazy synthesiser part, the three string players (López Ibáñez, Robertson and Teo) at one point were asked to sing along with their parts, and Roberts once swapped his clarinets for a kazoo, though retained his deadpan expression. Nobody had a break longer than a few seconds, although there was a funny moment when the recorded track had a ‘solo’ and the live musicians all got out their phones for a sneaky peek.
Combining premieres of music by U.K. composers and a welcome opportunity to hear work by significant European figures, the Explore Ensemble’s programme reinforced their reputation as one of the preeminent new music groups working with live and electronic sound. Pascale Criton was revealed as a distinctive voice in late-20th-century French music, and frankly if they can play Paxton’s piece, the Explore musicians can play anything.
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