Saturday 15 February 2020

Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity: music by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim from the Riot Ensemble at Kings Place

Extinction Events - Aaron Holloway-Nahum, Laurence Osborn, Liza Lim; Riot Ensemble, Aaron Holloway-Nahum; Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 14 February 2020 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Extinction, Nature overwhelmed and toxic masculinity in this evening of striking contemporary music in stunning performances from the Riot Ensemble

The Riot Ensemble's concert on Friday 14 February 2020 was the first of the ensemble's three appearances at Kings Place this year, under the series title ReNew. For this first concert Extinction Events, part of Kings Place's Nature Unwrapped Season,  the centrepiece was Liza Lim's Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus which aspires 'to make music out of the relics of the past' including the song of an extinct bird. Like a Memory of Birds (ii) by the ensemble's artistic director Aaron Holloway-Nahum also used bird-song which was gradually extinguished. In contrast to these two loosely nature-inspired pieces, Laurence Osborn's CTRL was inspired by Grayson Perry's writings on toxic masculinity and featured soprano Sarah Dacey in an explicitly cross-gendered role.

The Riot Ensemble was founded in 2012 and has since made a speciality of bringing often challenging contemporary music to the fore (the group's second appearance at Kings Place this year involves Georg Haas's full-length piece SOLSTICES which is played completely in the dark). The group has given over 200 world and UK premieres by composers from more than 30 countries.

On Saturday we had a line-up of 16 instrumentalists, in classic contemporary ensemble formation with one of each kind of instrument (five strings, five woodwind, three brass, piano, electric guitar and percussion) with players coming and going as needed between works.

We began with Holloway-Nahum's Like a Memory of Birds (ii). Holloway-Nahum studied with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, and with Philip Cashian at the Royal Academy of Music and founded the Riot Ensemble in 2012, being the group's artistic director and principal conductor. The two in the title, Like a Memory of Birds (ii), refers to an earlier piece of which this is the sequel.

Nothing says 'this is serious music and you must concentrate' like switching off the concert hall lights, we listened to Like a Memory of Birds (ii) with only the lights from the players' desk-lights and the emergency exit signs.
Holloway-Nahum's music emerged out of nothing, with just a rumbling thunder-board and then an oboe line emerged. The first part of the work featured this melodic line on the wind surrounded by isolated yet vivid timbral events. The textures were dynamic, in constant motion, and as the piece progressed these events coalesced into a solid texture which gradually dominated. There were moments of transparency, but a constant sense of intensity and restlessness, ending with a gradual unwinding.

The lights came up for Laurence Osborn's CTRL which enabled us, just about, to read Osborn's own words for this three part work, originally commissioned for the ensemble to perform at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Osborn studied music at Oxford with Martyn Harry and Martin Suckling, and at the Royal College of Music with Kenneth Hesketh, and he won the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize in 2017.

The work is about toxic masculinity and evidently at the centre of the piece was a football chant. (something I have to confess that I am unfamiliar with) To sing the vocal line we had Sarah Dacey, dressed androgynously with artfully crafted stubble and using auto-tune to distort her voice. Auto-tune had the effect of distorting Dacey's voice, and she adjusted the effects throughout the work so that the sound varied from pure Pinky and Perky to something laid back and cooler, but thankfully by the end we had Dacey's own voice. Slightly unnervingly, at times we could hear Dacey's own voice hovering in the acoustic behind the amplified version.

For the first movement, 'No heart', we had Osborn's fast moving and vibrant orchestral score, busy, vivid and intense, over which Dacey's insistent auto-tuned, amplified voice intoned a chant. The voice's insistence disturbed me, as did the balance over-favouring the voice which seemed to take away from the orchestral writing. Words were at something of a premium and you rather needed the printed words. Here, and throughout the piece, Osborn's reliance on football chant proved something of a weakness as, quite simply, the vocal line was musically uninteresting and only in the third movement when we heard Dacey's real voice was she able to bring expressiveness to it. The second movement 'Body' brought a cooler, more laid back vocal delivery again with vivid orchestral detail. This movement slowly unwound, leading to the final one 'No Head (Berceuse)' which was a rather moving lullaby with Osborn creating a real Sunday morning hangover feel in the music.

Whilst neither is strictly music theatre, the works by Laurence Osborn and Liza Lim both included a theatrical element to them. This emphasised a feature of the Riot Ensemble's performances, the way everything was done with complete seriousness and intensity. The group really committed itself to the music, and combined this with technical virtuosity, but occasionally I wished for a clear sense of enjoyment and perhaps even humour. After the performance was over there were broad grins, but little of this came over in the moment.

Australian composer Liza Lim is interested in collaborative and transcultural practices, with ecological concerns being central to her current compositional concerns. Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus was written in 2017 and premiered in 2018 at Wittenertage für neue Kammermusik. It was described as being in five movements, 'Anthropogenic debris', 'Retrograde inversion', 'Autocorrect', 'Transmission', 'Dawn Chorus', but it was not clear in performance where one ended and another began. And Tim Rutherford-Johnson's admirably detailed programme note gave little sense of the work's structure, and after listening to it once I confess I am non-the-wiser. A comment I heard after the performance was highly prescient, saying it was like a playlist (one that the listener had enjoyed), and this was true. Events happened and flowed into other events.

Lim's style is eclectic, and she is interested in meta-music so that there were theatrical moments too. Whether it be the brass players using half-valve sounds to create unstable and uncertain music which drifted in and out of focus, the song of an extinct bird, or a violin solo based on an ancient Chinese star map.

When the piece started, there was no violin on stage, and at a certain point violinist Sarah Saviet started playing from the back, amplified, yet when she appeared she was swathed in cellophane. A visual metaphor, but also a clear percussive effect (albeit a non-traditional one). Coming on stage, the cellophane was passed around the orchestra, finally reaching the percussionist and his manipulation of it accompanied the ensuing violin solo. This was a prescient moment, a visual metaphor which turned into a musical one, it was also rather funny though executed in a strange deadpan manner.

Another theatrical moment was when all the lights were switched off and violinist Sarah Saviet tried to teach percussionist Sam Wilson an elaborate melody which he 'played' on a string drum. Here the two did bring an element of theatrical nous and engagement to the scene (and received a round of applause), though quite how it fitted in to the overall structure, I was not sure.

And then there were the kazoos (more common than you might think in contemporary music), but here they were in luminous pastel colours! These were accompanied by strange whirly percussion instruments; at this point none of the ensemble played their own instrument, and even the conductor was involved. This created a striking aural effect, recreating a natural sound-scape evoking the dawn chorus of coral reef fish, later on with added farting brass (a sound that Lim seems quite fond of) Then the musicians left the stage, and we were left with a final disjointed conversation between double bassoon, double bass, cello and drain-pipe. And was the cellist (Louise McMonagle) really playing her instrument with a bouncy ball on a stick (though at first we thought a luminous pink dildo, thanks to Louse for clarification). This last section revealed another weakness of the  piece, Lim just did not seem to know when to stop, and we went far beyond evocative, well into 'is this never going to end' territory.

Overall, I found Lim's piece by turns fascinating and irritating. It clearly needs a good editor and some structural tightening up (it could, I think, do with losing 10 minutes), yet there were some brilliant ideas, and she has a superb ear for timbre, texture and orchestral detail. I did wonder whether the Riot Ensemble ought to have gone the whole hog and staged it completely allowing the music theatre piece, which is clearly embedded in the work, to fully emerge. The performance itself was everything that Lim could have wished for as each individual brought an element of technical bravura to the music, yet they clearly function brilliantly as an ensemble. I just wished that they let their sense of enjoyment and engagement in the music show.
Elsewhere on this blog
  • Teamwork, resilience, self-discipline: teaching life-skills through music, I chat to Truda White of MiSST (Music in Secondary Schools Trust)  - interview
  • Vividly engaged: Schubert's Death and the Maiden from the conductorless string orchestra, 12 Ensemble (★★★★) - CD review
  • Kokoschka's Doll: a new melodrama inspired by the tempestuous affair between Alma Mahler and Oscar Kokoschka is the starting point for this new disc  (★★★½) - CD review
  • Whither Must I Wander? A young American duo bring poetry & imagination to a voyage around RVW's Songs of Travel (★★★½) - CD review
  • Riveting & magnificent: Yan Pascal Tortelier & Iceland Symphony Orchestra's 70th birthday tour reaches London with Yeol Eun Son in Ravel and Anna Thorvaldsdottir's Aeriality (★★★½) - concert review
  • Bringing the music to vibrant life: Owen Rees & Contrapunctus explore the enthusiasm for Josquin's music in 16th century Spain  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Les vêpres Siciliennes: Verdi's French Grand Opera makes a rare appearance in Welsh National Opera's striking new production  - opera review
  • For a piece to suit the requirements of a particular occasion is the ultimate praise: composer Bernard Hughes chats about his approach to composing & his new disc of music for narrator & orchestra, Not Now, Bernard!  - interview
  • Opera to Die For: the National Opera Studio in opera scenes from Mozart to Britten through Gounod, Puccini, Janacek & Ullmann at Sadler's Wells - opera review
  • Monteverdi to Italian contemporary music by way of Cage, Berio & Glass: Highlands and Sea from Laura Catrani and Claudio Astronio (★★★½) - CD review
  • Arianna: Kate Lindsey & Arcangelo bring Ariadne vividly to life in cantatas by Scarlatti, Handel & Haydn - (★★★★) CD review
  • An evening with Rosina Storchio: Ermonela Jaho's Wigmore Hall debut celebrates Opera Rara's 50th anniversary  (★★★★) - concert review
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