Wednesday 26 May 2021

The spaces in between: José Luis Hurtado's music explores the relationships between complexity and freedom

José Luis Hurtado Parametrical Counterpoint; Talea Ensemble, José Luis Hurtado; KAIROS

José Luis Hurtado Parametrical Counterpoint; Talea Ensemble, José Luis Hurtado; KAIROS

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 25 May 2021 Star rating: 3.5 (★★★½)
Graphical scores by the Mexican composer create works of great freedom, complexity and luminosity

Music has always been a contract between the composer and the performer; nothing is every fully written down and the unwritten element presumes an agreed way of doing things. That is why historically informed performance often requires performers to comb theses and manuscripts to elucidate exactly what was taken for granted and not written down.

Composers write down what is important to them, and leave performers the flexibility to adjust the rest and this is just as true of Bach, Beethoven or Birtwistle; apparent complexity can mask a considerable amount of leeway for the performer. On this new disc of music by the Mexican-born American composer José Luis Hurtado, Parametrical Counterpoint on the Kairos label, Hurtado and Talea Ensemble perform a programme of eight of Hurtado's recent works, except that four of these are the same work, Parametrical Counterpoint from 2015.

The apparent complexity of Hurtado's music, and it is complex, masks the fact that he gives performers a great deal of freedom. So that on the disc, Parametrical Counterpoint is performed in four different versions, each one different. For Hurtado, that is the point, he refers to the work as never having a fixed surface but always changing, always presenting a different facet. Yet the work is written down, via a graphical score with written instructions; what Hurtado chooses to write down and what he leaves out is what helps define his music.

Hurtado studied piano performance and composition at Conservatorio de las Rosas ( Morelia, Mexico), composition at Universidad Veracruzana ( Xalapa, Mexico ) took a Ph.D. at Harvard University where he studied under Mario Davidovsky, Chaya Czernowin, Magnus Lindberg, Brian Ferneyhough and Helmut Lachenmann. The names of his teachers give some indication of the aural background to Hurtado's work.

But he also says in his illuminating booklet essay that he has been experimenting with compositional strategies where the interpreter is an essential part of the creative process, "developing the characteristics of the original proposal and at the same time printing their personal stamp without any inhibition and thus, building the final personality of the work". These are scores which invite "the player to focus on the spirit, intention and general energy of the work rather than the mechanics and precision of the details." This, I think, is a key phrase. In all this music, Hurtado is interested in this spirit, intention and general energy.

We open with Hurtado playing his 2018 piano solo, The caged, the immured. Except that it is not just a piano solo, there is also a two piano work where the second piano part is the same as the first but read upside down (though, alas we do not hear that here). This is something that Bach's might do, but here Hurtado leaves a lot to the performer. It is a vivid, at times angry work commissioned by the National Autonomous University of Mexico ( UNAM ), to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Tlatelolco massacre, where hundreds of students peacefully protesting lost their lives at the hands of government military forces. It deserves to sit alongside some of Frederic Rzewski's music. The work uses a graphical score to coordinate the performers response to three different types of material, clusters, glissandi and isolated tones. There is a lot of freedom for the performer, but Hurtado controls details of the relationships and the densities of the material. Hearing the composer himself perform it here is, perhaps, a dangerous precedent and you feel a young performer would have to be strong minded indeed to take the score a different way.

Retour is a 2013 work for mixed ensemble of seven instruments, 1 wind, 1 brass, 1 percussionist, 1 keyboard instrument, and 2 bowed strings played in absolutely any combination. The work combines repeating blocks of material with improvised solos, resulting in a piece which at the same time has cyclical structure yet is never the same. The result is a work which, whilst having moments of anger, has passages of surprising beauty and delicacy.

Parametrical Counterpoint from 2015 extends these ideas further, taking two instrumental groups, each with their own conductor, and each uses material based on seven different module whose order is decided by each conductor, and other decisions related to the grouping of the modules, the pulse and whether to play predominantly high or low. The result, as heard on this disc, is intriguingly disparate yet for the composer the essentials of the piece remain the same; rather than being worried about particular notes played at a particular speed, Hurtado is interested in their relationship, their density. For all the number of instruments performing, the music in these versions feels transparent and sometimes weightless, yet weaving a complex texture. It is an interesting game for the listener, to study these four versions and contemplate the commonalities, to consider what exactly defines a piece of music.

He cites as his inspirations mid-20th century visual artists such as Alexander Calder or Zimoun, the idea of the mobile and unstable circular movement, the importance of relationship between "discourse and perspective, distance and space, the use of light as a source of distortion, and the elegance found in frankness and simplicity." If you think about it, many of my descriptions above could be taken to refer to one of Calder's more complex mobiles, yet we might also think of the complex orchestral scores of Sir Harrison Birtwistle where the same material is reworked and presented, as if we are looking a particular structure from different perspectives.

The Parametrical Counterpoint versions are separated into two pairs by another 2015 work, Incandescent which is for a twelve member amplified ensemble. Again, the work repeats material but the cyclical elements of its structure simply result in a fascinating sequence of varied surfaces with the amplification bringing not loudness but subtlety, we can hear lots of intriguing detail. Much of the material is strictly controlled, yet the result has a remarkable freedom and luminosity.

For the final work on the disc we return to Hurtado himself. Besides being a composer he is highly active as a performer, being the pianist of the Low Frequency Trio (bass clarinet, double bass and piano), artistic director of the Music from the Americas Concert Series at the University of New Mexico, and former director of The Harvard Group for New Music.

Here we hear him performing Le Stelle, a 2015 work for piano and fixed media. Again there is remarkable freedom in the complexity, as the apart from the opening the piano and the electronics are free to go their own way with their relationship emerging spontaneously. This is a slowly unfolding work, intriguing in the way the elements of the piece combine and separate.

The performances from Hurtado and from Talea Ensemble are superb, translation graphical notation and intention in to something luminous. The ensemble clearly takes to Hurtado's musical landscape with a will. Hurtado's music is such that we could have this disc over again, and all the works would 'sound different' yet for the composer the essentials remain the same. Partly this comes down to how we listen to the music, the notes or the spaces in between.

José Luis Hurtado (born 1975) - The caged, the immured (2018) [11:30]
José Luis Hurtado - Retour (2013) [7:10]
José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Version 1 (2015) [5:15]
José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Version 2 (2015) [3:40]
José Luis Hurtado - Incandescent (2015) [6:10]
José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Version 3 (2015) [4:30]
José Luis Hurtado - Parametrical Counterpoint Version 4 (2015) [4:00]
José Luis Hurtado - Le Stelle (2015)
José Luis Hurtado (piano, conductor)
Talea Ensemble (Barry Crawford, flute, Stuart Breczinski, oboe, Marianne Gythfeldt, bass clarinet, Adrian Morejon, bassoon, Jeffrey Missal, trumpet, David Nelson, trombone, Sunghae Anna Lim, violin, Ben Russell, violin, Chris Gross, cello, John Popham, cello, Brian Ellingsen, double bass, Stephen Gosling, piano, Alex Lipowski, percussion)
Recorded 14 June 2019, 19-20 May 2015, Oktaven Audio, Mount Vernon, New York / USA
KAIROS 0015093kai 1CD

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