One of the benefits of having the Conservatoire in town, as a fan of contemporary music, is that composers and musicians from around the world are drawn to our city to give lectures and concerts.
Last week, the Canadian composer Michael Oesterle was in residence, giving talks and master classes to students. On a nippy November evening at the CBSO Centre, the week was brought to a close with the Conservatoire’s contemporary music group, the Thallein Ensemble, performing two Oesterle works, as well as a number of homegrown pieces.
One of the Oesterles opened the night; named for the composer’s relationship with America’s Golden State, ‘California’ was a kaleidoscope of a piece. Constantly shifting shapes and patterns, somehow always giving the same overall effect. However, the upshot of this is that despite the lack of obvious repetition on a larger scale, the piece began to feel a little same-y towards the end. Nevertheless, a unique sonic landscape.
Next up was the first of two world premières on the bill: ‘Navigations’ by Peter Bell. Accompanied by a rather cryptic programme note that touched on (but didn’t fully explain) Aboriginal Australian melodies and musical cartography, the piece began simply, with a little claves duet from the percussionists, sat either side of the conductor. Quickly gaining in complexity, this was a fantastically colourful piece, full of counterpoint and clever ensemble writing.
As a composer myself, I know it can be hard to title a piece of music. You have spent so long crafting every aspect of the work that condensing all those abstract ideas into one or two words can be tough. However, when a composer opts to name their music ‘Untitled’ or, as in the case of Patrick Ellis’ work on tonight’s programme, ‘Unnamed Ensemble Piece’, it feels like something of a cop out – the equivalent of naming your pub quiz team ‘Insert Quiz Team Here’. Having said that, Ellis’ piece (another world première) was brilliant. A series of sentences and punctuation that gradually turned in on itself until the punctuation became the content and the sentences the punctuation.
If ‘Unnamed Ensemble Piece’ wasn’t literal enough a title for you, then perhaps Seán Clancy’s ‘Five to Forty Seconds’ will hit the mark? Original research by the composer (sitting in an art gallery for eight hours) turned up that most punters spend between five and forty seconds looking at each piece of art in a gallery. Clancy’s piece, for violin and piano, takes this idea and applies it faithfully, with each segment lasting between, you guessed it, five and forty seconds.
When a piece wears its process on its sleeve like this, it is hard not to sit and count the seconds instead immersing yourself in the material. Fortunately, the material was interesting, and did indeed feel something like a walk through a gallery. Different styles and mediums connected by a curator, drawing you in a particular direction, linking ideas together in unexpected ways.
Closing the night was the second Oesterle piece, ‘Babbitt’. Written for a slightly larger ensemble than the other works on the programme, the orchestration and colour the composer uses made it sound almost orchestral, despite there being only a dozen or so players on stage. Enormously colourful, the piece gave each musician a turn in the spotlight, each having their own say in the overarching narrative of the work.
It is interesting to me that the main difference between the works by students and those by their professional counterparts was not in the polish of the pieces – in fact, I was impressed by the calibre of music from everyone – but in the presentation.
The programme notes for the pieces by Clancy and Oesterle were far more engaging and added something to their pieces, without having to spell everything out. It is easy to say that an artist’s work should speak for itself, but perhaps an artist ought to be able to speak too.
Words by Ed King
At the end of a side street is a simple piece of magic. The CBSO Centre: nestled between the city’s fabrications and dreams, between Broad Street and the Registry Office, this purpose built centre of learning and expertise is a gift to us all. And you’re OK to wear trainers. I should remember that.
Tonight we have a guest composer from Canada, Michael Oesterle, presenting two original pieces – alongside new work from a Conservatoire triptych: Peter Bell, Patrick Ellis, Seán Clancy. Oesterle has been visiting the Conservatoire all week and tonight’s concert is his goodbye gift to the city, conducted by Richard Baker and performed by the Thallein Ensemble.
I’m late, of course, and make it through the frustratingly revolving doors just in time not to be noticed. As we settle into our seats I look around through the corners of my eyes, feeling slightly naked without a student card or season ticket. The room is half full and inviting; I question why I’ve sat in this audience only a handful of times before.
The first piece tonight is ‘California’, our introduction to the guest composer. With an immediate string lead, a playful dissonance jumps in and around itself. I’m not musically trained so there may be much that I miss, but I have ears, a heart, sometimes purple prose and an oddly continuous apology. Not that these help me distinguish a violin from a viola. But the well natured cacophony, from Oesterle’s homage to a state that ‘felt like possibility’, reminds me of things busy and beautiful. A carnival in daytime, a street lost under maple leaves, the emotions on a train station concourse – all full of colour and confusion. The ensemble dances through itself and back over the top, possibly like California although I’ve never been.
Peter Bell’s ‘Navigations’ is presented next, with a staggered introduction from opposing claves. The stings and woodwind build a wall of brooding intent, like a slow horror, before the brass duo – trumpet and trombone – punch out a warning on the horizon. I’m intrigued by Peter Bell’s work and (alongside Patrick Ellis’s) have been keen to explore his composition tonight. I am not disappointed, even though this dark introduction feels like it misses its mark at its finale. I will be back though, Mr Bell.
Then it’s Patrick Ellis, with an unnamed piece that throws out immediate confidence and challenges. I don’t know precisely why, but I’m quickly hooked: the marimbas enter into a cat and mouse struggle with the smaller string section, whilst the flute runs across the fractured ice surface. And although it feels a little lost at points, like a fish struggling to chew through its own cheek I find an acute pleasure in the freedom of it all. With silence as its final member the ensemble sound like their having fun too. I know I am.
Seán Clancy’s ‘Five to Forty Seconds’ is the penultimate piece tonight, stripping the ensemble back to a Steinway piano and violin. The composition’s name is taken from the premise that ‘people spend between five and forty observing each piece of art in a gallery space’, with Clancy penning a series of passionate bursts for his duet. But I’m not thinking about the dethatched appreciation of static images; this is a fight or a fuck. An argument and agreement, delivered in awesome unison – yet goading each other with extreme violence and intent. At least it is to me, and despite a fade out that feels little like short change… awesome.
And finally, ‘Babbit’ – Michael Oesterle’s ‘narrative in search of a protagonist’. Which is precisely what it is. A wider ensemble take their places, with a rhythm guitar brought in for the first time tonight, and jump into the composition like shattering glass. There is no lead, no set, just immediate relationships – picked up and lost with aggression and whim.
Not being a musician I have no idea the challenges this piece brings, but there is a palpable step up as each member of the ensemble spits out notes that battle each other for prominence. The guitar plucks its way to the forefront, before the marimbas turn from subtle to inescapable. A glorious war is unfurling. The brass instruments take the first real charge, using their louder voices to stamp out a short authority. But they soon step back; the ensemble acquiesces to their tantrum and embraces them once more. Now it’s the string section’s turn, as a violin manages to break through and fly like a broken bird – screaming and singing, higher and higher, before the enviable fall back to earth.
Then oddly, and almost too contrarily, a warm wave passes over us – exposing it’s colder waters, but still soft and inviting. Is this the end, is this an end; have I blackout out and fallen into another composition? But no, one last aggressive stand from the battling brass and the dream is broken. Babbit concludes.
I am quicker to leave the CBSO Centre that I was to arrive, cocooning myself in cotton before heading out into the disturbing winter that seems to be stealing our days. It’s always cold. But on the walk home I feel strangely buoyant. I heard some beautiful music tonight, not just from the man on the front of the programme but from some of our city’s home grown composers – whose contributions were amongst the most pertinent reasons to go. And even without a Grade 8 in my lunchbox, I was allowed to play too.
New territories can be odd and isolating to explore from the fringes, but often that’s only perception. I consider myself a confident man but I’ve had this before, talking jazz standards or rock classics. But Birmingham has a horde of musical talent and precocity, with their endevours being showcased right there in the centre of town. Plus the wine’s reasonably priced and there are no bouncers or dress code. All you have to do is turn up. Just preferably on time.
For more on Michael Oesterle, visit www.michaeloesterle.com
For more from Peter Bell, visit www.thepeterbell.co.uk
For more from Patrick Ellis, visit www.soundcloud.com/patrickelliscomposer
For more from Seán Clancy, visit www.seanlclancy.wordpress.com
To follow Richard Baker, visit www.twitter.com/rchrdbkrmuso
For more from the CBSO Centre, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit www.cbso.co.uk