It has been twenty-one years since Richard Barrett began his relationship with Elision, an extraordinarily fruitful period for both parties, which was celebrated with a concert at Kings Place, London.
Over the past two decades Barrett has composed several large-scale cycles for Elision, Negatives (1988–1993), Opening of the Mouth (1992–7), Dark Matter (1996–2001), and a work-in-progress, CONSTRUCTION. He has also written several solo works for Elision’s members. fracture/fissure presented three of Barrett’s works: Knospend gespaltener (1992–3, for C clarinet), von hinter dem schmerz (1992–6, for solo cello), and Wound (2009, for solo violin and ensemble). As one expects from Elision the performances were of the highest order, uniformly exciting, precise, detailed, theatrical and enjoyable.
Knospend gespaltener is Barrett at his most straightforward. It is a very audience-friendly piece, performed here by Richard Haynes, whose manner was equally straightforward. Haynes was, however, very much the friendly assassin, dressed with floral militarism (one notices such things having attended recently the London performance of Listen, my Secret Fetish) and playing nonchalantly from memory, for there is little straightforward about either this piece or its performance. Like so many of Barrett’s works there is a moment of lucid transcendence, as when a magician shows a trick in slow motion only to reveal the unavailability of its workings. In Knospend gespaltener this came with the furious movement of fingers that produces the simplest of melodies, followed by unmoving fingers that nevertheless accompany the lithest of melodies. It is a theatrical technique that only works with performers as masterful as Haynes. For those unfamiliar with Barrett’s solo works, this is the place to start.
Barrett’s von hinter dem schmerz was least successful work of the night, less for any inherent weaknesses in the composition, and not for any problems with Séverine Ballon’s excellent performance. Rather, the amplification in the middle section, seeking to bring a new intimacy to the practicemuted cello, distracted whilst providing little benefit. Partly this is an artefact of programming, for James Dillon’s Parjanya-vata had already stolen the show. Here the practice mute was used to shift the dynamic balance towards pizzicato, enabling new counterpoints and allowing clearer structures. The term hyper-virtuosic is easily misused, but Ballon’s performance has set a new benchmark for cellists tackling this repertoire. Other works in the programme sought to emphasise elements of physicality in performance, but it was this work that most immediately demonstrated how extraordinary the dancing of fingers on strings can be.
The final work for the evening is the preview of Barrett’s work-in-progress cycle CONSTRUCTION. Scored for solo violin (Graeme Jennings) with cor anglais (Peter Veale), Eb clarinet and cello, Wound is most engaging for the beautiful use of the timbres of its accompanying instruments. These instruments interweaved and juxtaposed pitch, rhythm and gesture to form a backdrop of palpable transformation against which the solo violin seemed a disjunct. Again, there was a sense in which the programming drew attention to the solo line in a manner not entirely flattering, for Aaron Cassidy’s The Crutch of Memory (2004) had already provided the violin with similarly physical material. Perhaps what this reveals is that both works foreground Jennings’ playing, where I would have preferred more conspicuous differentiation between the very different musics.
Barrett’s programme note suggests that the work ‘is descended, in terms of structure, from the various paintings of Francis Bacon which place complex multiperspectival entities within and around a starkly curvilinear framework’. Cassidy’s composition for musette/oboe/cor anglais and Bb/Eb/Bass clarinets, Being itself a catastrophe, the diagram must not create a catastrophe (or, Third Study for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion), which was played immediately before Barrett’s Wound, refers to Bacon’s destroyed work Wound for a Crucifixion.
Both composers also make reference to parametricism, though where Barrett’s work encourages listening that seeks orientation along vectors of morphology (through, for example, the kinds of accentuated thresholds that I described in von hinter dem schmerz, above), Cassidy’s music demands drastic skepticism. The Crutch of Memory uses tablature to prioritize the ‘physical, choreographic elements of musical performance’. The programme notes states that ‘I am interested here in the ability of these corporeal actions to be present as musical material in their own right and not simply as a means to an end’. Including this music alongside Barrett and Dillon poses some significant challenges: Cassidy’s music presents a sound score that is more austere than Barrett’s, devoid of tricks and ciphers towards orientation; Cassidy’s music is less visually choreographical than Dillon, who is able to deploy movement as a purposeful element; Cassidy’s music denies any heuristics for tracing levels of virtuosity, such that his string writing posits a bleaker version of the performer as virtuoso. Of course, this may well be the music’s greatest strength, and its manner of highlighting memory/memory loss disturbs easy statements about the ‘muscle memory’ of ‘hyper-virtuosic’ performers. Instead it provides a model for music where the unification of elements through paradox is turned inside out: this is neither the fracturing of an object taken apart, nor of objects thrown together.
Like the best of concerts, this one continues to provide challenges long after one leaves the concert hall. The strength of Elision’s performances and of the musical compositions implant themselves in one’s memory (however fallable!) providing materials for the re-evaluation of initial assumptions. They are also highly enjoyable and engaging events.
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