Wednesday 2 October 2013

Counterpoise – ‘Out Hear’ and out there

Counterpoise - Photo credit Nicky Colton-Milne
Photo credit Nicky Colton-Milne
A Sunday afternoon at Kings Place listening to Counterpoise as part of the Out Hear multimedia experience should have been an interesting adventure, but unfortunately due to the interruptions of the audience didn’t quite go as planned.

Counterpoise was set up five years ago to perform On the Edge by Edward Rushton, and since then has performed at major festivals and concerts across the UK. The four members of Counterpoise are all strong players: Alexandra Wood, violin, is the leader of the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group and has performed with Philharmonia, the City of London Sinfonia, and the Orchestra of St John’s, Smith Square; Deborah Calland, on trumpet, has performed with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, the Virtuosi di Kuhmo, and the Britten Sinfonia. The saxophonist Kyle Horch teaches at the Royal College of Music and has performed with many major orchestras including the London Philharmonic, the Royal Philharmonic, and the Royal Opera House. Iain Farrington is an organist, pianist, arranger and composer who has played with London Symphony Orchestra and whose composition Wing It was performed during last year’s Prom.

Billed as ‘A blank canvas for open-minded programming in experimental and multimedia performance’, the Out Hear concept is one of experimentalism and electronics in contemporary classical music. Today’s performances, which were all acoustic, began with The Fall of the House of Usher (premiered in 2010) by Jean Hasse. The music was composed as a score for the 1928 silent short film by James Watson and Melville Webber (starring Melville Webber) with an ambiguous script by e. e. cummings.

The film itself is very avant garde and relies heavily on symbolism and, what must have been at the time, experimental cinematic effects, such as multiple exposure and superimposition. Jean has brought some order to the film by using different instrumentation to signify the protagonists, whilst enhancing the atmosphere, using effects including the haunting ghostly stroking of piano strings for the flying coffins, and percussive effects for the nails being hammered into the coffin of the still alive Madeline.

By its very nature the ensemble required careful and sympathetic blending of sounds so that no one instrument outshone the others. Counterpoise were very good at managing this, letting each instrument take its place within the music, but also to reach out or recede where necessary.

The Fall... was followed by a very short film (at four minutes long) which was repeated twice with a brief explanation by the composer Charlotte Bray sandwiched between the two. The video Soft City was made Olivier Ruellet and the accompaniment was composed by Charlotte (the two were students together) as a memorial for him. The film is based on the idea of circles and on the similarity between a city and a human body. The viewpoint zooms from microscopic to macroscopic, only to return full circle. Charlotte used elements in the film to focus her composition, which was all about imagery rather than detail. You can see the original film here albeit with a different soundtrack.

John Casken’s Shadowed Pieces (2008) is based on a series of pictures of the Northumbrian countryside, which were shown as a slide show behind the piano and violin. The pictures themselves were atmospheric, and by using different styles, techniques and layers of texture, including right hand pizzicato or sliding the violin out of or in to tune, John evoked the spirit of each scene. The final section ‘ the harrowed land’ which denoted both the idea of a pained land, and agriculture and its consequent renewal, was illustrated by fast running themes on both violin and piano, through a more Romantic section, to staccato. At the end there did not seem to so much resolution as peace.

However the beauty of the piece was quite destroyed by coughing, spluttering, and whispering from around the audience ,which started during the quiet of the second movement and continued throughout – getting louder as the music got louder. Perhaps I happened to be unfortunate in where I sat, but when the performers left the stage at the end of the work I did wonder if they would either take a break, or return to repeat it.

Benjamin Britten’s Six Metamorphosis after Ovid (written in 1951) originally written for solo oboe but performed here by Kyle on soprano saxophone were similarly interrupted.

In a concert exploring construction and disintegration each of the works was a transformation of music and visuals. Urban Abstract by Russell Hepplewhite managed to combine elements of both circularity and driving forwards to an inevitable future. Urban Abstract is a celebration of architecture, present, past and future accompanying a film, part pictures of buildings, part anime. Utilising the whole ensemble, the musical interaction of Curves and Angles contrasted with the poetic Elegy for demolished buildings of rare beauty, and with the final movement - the forward looking Urban Abstract. Unlike The Fall... and Soft City - here the visuals enhanced the music rather than being necessary.

The composers present, the performers, and their families and friends were deservedly proud of their accomplishment.
review by Hilary Glover

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