New Music Biennial, Hull

The New Music Biennial festival, funded by the PRS for Music foundation, claims to push ‘the boundaries of new music’. It provides an opportunity for ‘new’ musical works to be showcased across the UK and on BBC Radio 3. The term ‘new’ in this instance is to be taken literally: these works were very recently written (some were world premieres) and drew on music history, existing practices, and the musical techniques of a variety of cultures. The festival, initially presented in Hull, the 2017 City of Culture, was repeated at London’s Southbank Centre and follows the previous models of this festival to present a variety of eclectic genres of music being written today.

The idea of being a composer of a specific musical category seems now to be outdated with composers describing their own work as ‘uncategorisable’, ‘falling under no category’ or of a kind ‘in-between’ genres. A more accurate way of putting this would be to say that the music presented in this festival, at the very least, alluded to, invoked, or directly quoted a multitude of existing music practices and techniques. New Work for Orchestra, written by film composer Mica Levi, at times incorporated variations on a four-note theme. It was a well-managed blend of orchestral timbres, with a harmonic and melodic framework that recalled Impressionism and Minimalism. At the same time, it was very much of the present day in the way it freely exploited a variety of compositional approaches while trying not to be defined by any of them. Also adopting a tapestry of other musical genres were Hannah Peel’s Journey to Cassiopeia, performed by the composer and Tubular Brass; Anna Meredith’s Concerto for Beatboxer and Orchestra, performed by Southbank Sinfonia; and GoGo Penguin’s As Above So Below. Peel’s piece blended brass, voice, and 70s analogue synths while Meredith’s composition contrasted beat boxing with orchestral sounds. GoGo Penguin’s offering incorporated myriad compositional techniques including electronica, jazz, and what they described as ‘contemporary classical’.

What made the New Music Biennial festival unique (a point iterated before every concert) was the way in which it presented the pieces: each concert focused on one work, which was played twice with an interview with the composer inserted between the performances. This offered an insight into these new pieces that one rarely experiences in other ‘new music’ festivals. In some cases, the music was strikingly different on second hearing and even, as with Brian Irvine’s and Jennifer Walshe’s 13 Vices¸ went as far as to incorporate different text, melodies, and to change the order of compositional sections.

It must be said that the ‘new’ works in the New Music Biennial festival earned the title ‘new’ in the ways in which they engaged with the present: as well as a multitude of genres and styles, current affairs and identities were tackled. A particularly striking piece in this vein was Illusions by composer Philip Venables and performance artist David Hoyle. This hard-hitting piece provided a passionate voice for LGBT+ rights. It was performed with aplomb by Hoyle and the London Sinfonietta, who managed to match Venable’s startling music precisely with an edited video of Hoyle’s performance. Anyone who heard this piece (no matter their political ideology) encountered an intense experience where absurdity, oppression, exploitation, and domination reflected the composer’s thoughts on society today. Hoyle’s politically-fuelled, brutally honest (and sometimes humorous) curse-filled oratory could not fail to stir an audience in some way.

Errollyn Wallen’s Mighty River touched on themes of slavery and freedom (freedom, incidentally, being the current ‘Hull UK City of Culture’ theme). Performed by Ensemble X, this orchestral piece mixed spirituals with ‘contemporary classical techniques’ in a moto perpetuo that recalled the relentlessness of water. During her interview, Wallen talked about her reputation as a ‘black female composer’ and how she feels that, now that she has tackled the orchestral medium, it was fate that she would take on the issue of her identity.

Culture and identity were also tackled by Jason Singh’s and Anne Martin’s Ceumannan – Footsteps. 2. This piece synthesised North Indian Raga with traditional Gaelic song, employing a mixture of Western and Eastern instruments and performance techniques, and also incorporated beat boxing (which seems to be an ‘on trend’ genre!). Singh and Martin expressed a commonality between their two cultural roots (a struggle for land) that renders the term ‘fusion’ inapplicable to their compositional approach: their piece is not merely a fusion of styles, but the expression of a commonality, a single compositional approach.

The New Music Biennial festival did not stop its all-inclusivity at cultures, but incorporated performances from children, adult amateurs, and even the audience, who all had the opportunity to interact with professionals. Emily Hall’s (composer) and Toby Litt’s (author) short opera Itch Witch was successfully written with and performed by 8-11 year olds. Similarly, in a segment called ‘The Residency Supergroup’, composers Errollyn Wallen, Jason Singh, Brian Irvine, Sam Lee, and Eliza Carthy had the opportunity to show off their compositional skills by creating pieces for school children and/or adult amateurs to perform. A particularly notable employment of this medium took the form of Jason Singh’s piece. We only heard an extract of this sophisticated performance, but it proved to be a calming blend of breath sounds, vocalisations, and pre-recorded monologues that even had a role for the audience.

Audience interaction was not the only way in which this festival challenged the standard ‘classical music’ concert hall etiquette. The festival also featured installations, an example being sound artist Ray Lee’s Ring Out, which he described as a 16-channel composition performed on eight stereo bells. The audience could walk round Zebedee’s Yard in Hull as a choreography of giant bells, emitting various electronic sounds, swung like colossal pendulums at pre-defined rates and angles.

In terms of this event’s wider context and agenda, it seems the New Music Biennial festival strived for ‘newness’ not only through challenging the boundaries between musical genres, but also in its attempt to tackle those boundaries amidst cultures, politics, gender, sexual orientation, and education. Whether it achieved this within a broader context of contemporary musical practice is a matter for further debate: due to its inclusivity of a multitude of ages, musical abilities, and genres, one might argue that much of the music was not as challenging as it could have been because it worked with compositional techniques that were familiar to audiences, albeit in unfamiliar ways. Its performance-audience structure (perhaps unavoidably) enforced the spectator-spectacle relationship that normally underpins the traditional consumption of artworks. Despite this, there was a clear attempt to make the creation of ‘new’ music accessible to amateurs of all ages as well as professionals throughout the festival. One might argue that, because of the festival’s inclusivity of many styles and genres, that the music was accessible to an audience of varied musical knowledge whilst, at the same time, it introduced this audience to ‘new’ ways of treating those styles and genres. In addition to this, all concerts were free and this probably went a considerable way to creating a ‘new music’ festival where children and non-specialists were present in the audience as well as on the stage.

If readers wish to explore the pieces further, all of the 20 commissions are available to download from NMC Recordings’ website.

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