Sunday 22 January 2023

Aural Adventures: Colin Currie Quartet and Liam Byrne at Kings Place

Liam Byrne at Kings Place (Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel)
Liam Byrne at Kings Place (Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel)

Dark Full Ride:
 John Luther Adams, Rolf Wallin, David Lang, Steve Reich, Connor Shafran, Julia Wolfe; Colin Currie Quartet; Kings Place
Reconstructing Resonance: Picforth, Alex Mills, Maddalena Casulana, Nico Muhly; Liam Byrne; Kings Place
Reviewed 20 January 2023

The launch of Sound Unwrapped included two contrasting explorations, four percussionists surrounding the audience, and a single viola da gamba made modern via electronics and sound installation 

Kings Place's new season, Sound Unwrapped, launched on Friday 20 January 2023 with an evening of concerts exploring the season's themes of sound art and ways of listening. In Hall One, the Colin Currie Quartet gave us Dark Ride with John Luther Adams' Qilyaun, Rolf Wallin's Twine, David Lang's the so-called laws of nature, part II, Steve Reich's Drumming, part I, Connor Shafran's Continental Divide and Julia Wolfe's Dark Full Ride. Then later in the evening in Hall Two, Liam Byrne's Reconstructing Resonance combined his viola da gamba with computer software to explore the full range of resonance offered by Hall Two's new Soundscape system installed by d&b audiotechnik, with music by Picforth, Alex Mills, Maddalena Casulana and Nico Muhly providing the starting point.

The Colin Currie Quartet at Kings Place (Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel)
The Colin Currie Quartet at Kings Place (Photo: Viktor Erik Emanuel)

The Colin Currie Quartet (Colin Currie, Owen Gunnell, Adrian Spillett, Sam Walton) based their programme around pieces where all four percussionists play near-identical instruments. They began with John Luther Adams' 1998 work Qilyaun based on four wooden frame drums; Qilyaun is the name of the drum in the language of the Inupiat people of North East Alaska, where Adams lived between 1978 and 2014. The four percussionists were placed at the four corners of the balcony, thus placing the audience at the centre of the sound. It was a thrilling yet subtle piece, with remarkable changes of timbre and texture. Whether loud or soft, the sound rolled around the hall and at the end as the rhythmic drumming got faster and faster, the results almost approached orgasmic. An observation I made about a number of the pieces in the programme! 

Rolf Wallin's Twine from 1995 used just two players, Colin Currie and Owen Gunnell playing two similar but different instruments, a marimba and a xylophone. The two are subtly different in sound and the material played with the way the two players performed music that was similar yet different. Whether using just two different pitches or many, the results had a seductive shimmer about them. Yes, there was an element of 'anything you can do' about it too, but it was the proximity of timbre and material that was intriguing. Also, the players' physical gestures accompanying the notes, particularly Gunnell, were equally striking, but I had to admit that by the end of the piece I felt that Wallin too had been seduced by his material and that the work could have done with being more concise.

The first half ended with David Lang's the so-called laws of nature, part II from 2002, which uses four near-identical sets ups, each mixing drums with tuned metal pipes (made by the musicians). The four players stood in a line, giving an element of factory production line, but like the Wallin piece, each player did something subtly different.  The title comes from Wittgenstein, and is Lang exploring similar ideas, the subtle differences between each player's gestures, something emphasised because the placing of the players meant that visual cues between them were tricky.

The result was fascinating for the way players' individual gestures combined into something greater, so that we did not have the sense of four polyphonic lines, but the players' right hand notes coalescing into a single high bell-like line.  At times, the sound world felt like a demented Gamelan, though as the piece developed and grew in strength, violence took over. As with the Wallin, Lang seemed to have been seduced by his material and the working out thereof seemed to go on rather too long.

The first half opened with Steve Reich's iconic 1970/71 work Drumming, Part I, where the four players shared the same set of tuned bongos, the four creating a single synthetic texture. Fast and intense, with an intriguing hocket-like texture as the multiple drummings combined into one idea. There was an intense physicality to the result, thrilling but mesmerising.

Connor Shafran's Continental Divide from 2016 uses sets of chimes which are both struck and bowed, the four players again at the four corners of the balcony. This used repeated notes and gestures to create a hypnotic throbbing that completely filled the hall, surround-sound indeed. We ended with the programme's title work, Julia Wolfe's 2002 piece, Dark Full Ride with the four players using four drum kits, demonstrating what can be achieved with four hi-hats and silence! This used multiple sets of timbres to create something that was highly rhythmic and yes, reached orgasm at the end.

A quick dash across the foyer took us to Hall Two, where Liam Byrne hooked his viola da gamba up to a microphone and his computer, using a wide variety of live electronics. With the exception of the Casulana, everything we heard was produced by Byrne as the computer sampled and altered his live performance, multi-layering and utilising d&b's new sound system (which uses well over a dozen speakers placed around the hall) to effectively bathe us in sound.

Byrne started with Picforth's In Nomine written in the 1580s by someone of whom we know little. Byrne started from a single line and out of this built a remarkable rich and dark polyphonic structure. As polyphony the results lacked clarity, but as a sound installation it was fabulous, dark and dramatic and bathing around us. Alex Mills' Suspensions and Solutions was written for Byrne in 2017 and we heard Byrne performing it in 2018 at the Baroque at the Edge Festival [see my review]. There was no sense of a period instrument here, instead Mills and Byrne created a rich and seductive aural environment from just a few chords. Textures became intense and vivid, full of contrast and fluidity. Next came a small piece by the 16th century composer Maddalena Casulana; Byrne's original intention had been to improvise over an electronic creation of her madrigal, but in fact we heard it simply as a sorbet. 

The final work was Nico Mulhy's Long Phrases for the Wilton Diptych, originally created in 2015 for a sound installation around the Wilton Diptych in the National Gallery. Muhly's piece has undergone various transformations since, including being a dance piece for the Stephen Petronio Company, and here we had just viol and live electronics, to create a substantial highly meditative piece yet with a remarkable strength too. It provided a fine conclusion to a fascinating evening exploring sound, sound-art and ways of listening.

A word about the visual element at the concerts. In Hall One, the Colin Currie Quartet were lit dramatically which meant the audience was sometimes in darkness and the light level was never sufficient to read the programme notes, entailing a few 'what on earth are they playing' moments. In Hall Two, drama really took over with everyone almost in the dark, except for a few strong lights which rather dazzled if you were in the wrong place!

The evening had started with Moonbathing, an immersive sound experience in Hall Two which used music by Anna Meredith, Oliver Coates, Rival Consoles and more, to demonstrate the capabilities of the new Soundscape system installed in Hall Two, and throughout the season at Kings Place, performers will be taking advantage of the system's flexibilities to take audiences on aural adventures.

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