Braxton and Marclay Broker New Sonic Expressways At Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival



The UK premiere of Anthony Braxton's 'Composition No 103' (1983) and 'No 173' (1994) at this year's Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (hcmf//) was a reminder of his astute attitude toward the creative impulse. Standing in his own shoes as an African-American intellectual, Braxton reaches without prejudice toward the light, be it from Dolphy, Cage or medieval composer, Hildegard of Bingen.

As a renowned reeds player, Braxton effortlessly turns ideas sharply on their heels, or melts soft notes, mature in their humility, into marching band brass, squeals, bebop, hoarse abstract blows or bitter blasts. Brought here by the Monochrome Project, these works for seven trumpets are at base a tribute to the simple idea of in-breath and release. The choreography, absurd Star Trek-ish costume and instructions spoken at the audience through a loudhailer originated in the context of working with Living Theatre actors at New York's The Kitchen. They seem distracting and dated, but these Brecht-ian comments on performance and breaking down the 'fourth wall' gave the hcmf// audience a rare chance to consider Braxton's history and dedication to 'informance' and education.


Also hydrated by New York and its scenes is Christian Marclay (pictured top). Experienced in working with sound, he doesn't write music in the traditional sense; his residency at hcmf// this year confirms a growing disregard of definitions that are past their sell-by date. While his installation 'The Clock' is currently housed at the Tate Modern, the world premiere of 'Investigations' had 20 pianos set out at Huddersfield Town Hall, each with a pianist including improvisers Steve Beresford and Liam Noble. In advance they had all been in receipt of the same 100 cropped photographs of a piano being played in a multitude of ways: with one elbow, reaching up to the keys from below, in a regular way or with four hands. These black-and-white images, often from some past time, rippled with story and each pianist had to write a few notes or chords they imagined came just before, during or after this shot.

The performers replicated the poses, played their notes and quietly asked others to join them for the pictures with four and six hands. There was control and risk, everything seemed still and yet people moved continuously, it was robotic and alert. I noticed Dan Nicholls await a noisy chord to die away before hitting his single note. Yet this landscape was strangely free of dynamics or drama. It was a meditation. Space and silences gave focus to the restricted notes and chords; sudden silvery shimmers or brooding blots. What stayed in mind as the hall cleared was the divine, elegant and emotive vibration; a deep sense of piano.

Marclay's work can appear as media archeology: old film clips precisely sewn together (Bette Davis being hugged, a swimming pool dive, comedy teeth chattering), or cuts out from magazines and comic books with their captioned 'Splat-Blams!'. But these are 'visual scores' for musicians and by having so many performed, hcmf// has blown the dust clean away to reveal the pumping heart. Steve Beresford had a ball playing the organ based on Marclay's pictures of found musical notes from adverts, logos, even a tie, while EnsemBle baBel interpreted 'The Bell and the Glass' with such skill that a spoken word recording of Marcel Duchamp seemed to sing. Improvising musicians are intent on 'reading' and responding to these images so they forget themselves, forget performing, they 'do' less and 'are' more. The result is explosive, continually morphing and wildly-fresh music.

 MG 1924-Reinier van Houdt performance

Another standout performance at this year's hcmf// was a beguiling take on Marclay's 'Ephemera 2', performed by Reinier van Houdt (pictured above) This man was born in a piano and there is no sound or impulse he could or would not convey. His late-night appearance was fierce; immersive, spirited and strange, it will echo in my mind for years to come.

Debra Richards
– Photos by Ivan Rérat (Christian Marclay) and Graham Hardy (Reiner van Houdt)