BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17

BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Reviewfor-the-full-flickr-of-pics-click-here-sfwfollow-birmingham-review-on-300x26facebook-f-square-rounded-with-colour-5cm-hightwitter-t-square-rounded-with-colour-5cm-highinstagram-logo-webcolours-rgb



Words by Ed King / Pics by Michelle Martin

I am unfashionably late. It’s a Friday, at the sharp end of January, and Emulsion has brought its fifth annual showcase to mac in Birmingham. It’s also five minutes to six and I’ve missed the first event – a curiously nondescript ‘panel discussion’.BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Review

But with White Rabbit enthusiasm I am throwing myself down (what’s left and what’s explained of) this half day programme – chocked to the Conservatoire gills with both ‘Pop Ups’ and staged performances.

Even as I arrive I hear music, eventually finding it nestled in the alcove between the Arena Bar and mac’s downstairs gallery; a small man plucks a double bass, accompanied by a tall blonde operatic singer. Unamplified and confident. We are immediately surrounded by music. Plus I warm to anything that makes me feel like I’m in a David Lynch film.

The Hans Koller Quartet is playing in… two and half minutes, oh my ears and whiskers, and I make my way into an emptier mac Theatre than I’d have hoped. (I’ve promoted events since I was seventeen and I know the difficulties in dragging out a Birmingham audience. But with Emulsion’s strong tie to Birmingham Conservatoire I would have expected a few more scholarly bums on seats.)

BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham ReviewJoe Wright sits at the front right of a busy yet empty stage, in front of an infantry of mic and music sheet stands. Wright is alone and playing his sax across his lap, distorted though a maze of wires and speakers I don’t fully understand. Again it’s a brave exploration – a creative use of a player’s well known instrument, with Wright firmly engrossed in teasing out the sounds and masked melodies through a variety of techniques and intrusions. But beyond that I’m a little lost. As are both the children to my left and the older man I talk to in the Arena Bar afterwards.

A simple introduction to Wright’s performance (which would continue before the second show) might have helped ‘different audiences’ find this ‘exciting not daunting.’ And I don’t buy the premise that it’s weak to say I don’t understand, or that as the audience are mostly from Birmingham Conservatoire why should the organisers try to engage with anyone else – as someone suggested. The emperor is just a rich fool with his knob out and I’m too old for bullies, no matter how they throw their punches.

(I would later catch up with Joe Wright; a kindly human who would elaborate on his aim to “not just play the instrument, but to be part of something it plays through me”. He was clear and effusive. I am paraphrasing and a sucker for context. I think I see a way out of this…)BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Review

Eventually Fiona Talkington and Trish Clowes take to the stage, giving thanks to Joe Wright, the audience and a litany of funders/partners that have helped Emulsion become a reality. Boxes get ticked as if there was an election brewing.

Set up by Trish Clowes back in 2012, and now run along with Tom Harrison, Emulsion has to date generated several new commissions and held annual showcase events each year since inception. It’s a formidable vehicle, championing the diversity and power of contemporary classical and jazz composers and musicians; a cross section of genres Birmingham is blessed with. Plus this year’s event, Emulsion V, is being broadcast across BBC 3’s Late Junction, Hear & Now and Jazz Now programmes – hence Fiona Talkington. This is a significant score, in media terms, and generates an almost garrulous excitement about where this event could go next. But in a word, kudos.

BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham ReviewTrish Clowes introduces the Hans Koller Quartet, with John O’Gallagher taking both the literal and figurative centre stage. Percy Pursglove picks up his first instrument of the day, a double bass, as Jeff Williams slides in behind his drum kit – shoulders, wrists and brushes at the ready. The eponymous band leader sits behind a beautiful Bösendorfer concert grand piano, as I try to think of a Thomas Crown caper that could get the beast into my living room. I’m also a sucker for ivory.

Playing “three arrangements by John” then three pieces from the quartet itself, the alto saxophonist takes an almost immediate lead – ushered along with firm bass, brushed percussion and soft keys. A moderate piano walks us out of the first movement, as the sax take our other hand and pulls us excitedly into the second. The ensemble reaches a crescendo then steps back as Williams sends soft rolls falling like rain on sloping glass, whilst Hans and his hot footed spiders dance forward to take us into the third movement.

The Quartet originals follow a similar play, with the baton being passed between Koller and O’Gallagher, as Pursglove and Williams keep it moving like a John Travolta strut or a James Bond tuxedo. It’s all excellent, but I could watch the double bass and drums for the rest of the day; as the third and final piece steps up the pace we get a Williams solo that makes me want to laugh with pleasure.BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Review

Back into the bar, as an absurdly long and well mannered queue discuss the events of the day. So far. It’s a short turnaround until the next performance – a showcase of Trish Clowes’ new album, My Iris, by the event organiser herself. More Birmingham Conservatoire students are playing, both in the Arena Bar and the aforementioned alcove, but little is done to send us their way. It feels a touch awkward and ancillary, with most polite chatter finding somewhere out of earshot to stand.

The bell rings. Round Two. Trish Clowes, on saxophone, is joined by Chris Montague on guitar, Ross Stanley on piano/Hammond organ and James Maddren on drums. The stage is set for the Birmingham showcase of My Iris, which the ensemble has been touring since its launch at Pizza Express on Dean Street earlier in the month. Ah, Dean Street… with all your parallel and perpendicular wonders. Moseley doesn’t stand a chance.

Opening with ‘One Hour’, a salute to the “extra dreaming time” you get when the clocks go back, an ambient cloud breaks with Clowes’ (I think…) soprano sax, before a guitar fueled jazz rhythm makes it across stage to the frenetic fingers at the Bösendorfer. Immediate and engaging. Next up is ‘Blue Calm’, which opens with a playful sax and brushed percussion, before dropping back into a small ivory dream and, finally, a clearer sax led state of mind.

BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Review‘I Can’t Find My Other Brush’ opens with a punchy staccato, whilst ‘In Between the Moss & Ivy’ follows with a stripped back, softer pace, before squeezing out a cadenza from the soprano sax, a guitar led lullaby, then giving away completely to the concert piano. All eyes, on stage and off, turn to Ross Stanley. The set pretty much mirrors the My Iris track list, with only ‘A Cat Called Behemoth’ getting nudged – allowing the remaining two album tracks to be played later by the Emulsion Sinfonietta.

By the close of the set I am in creative awe. It’s simply that good. Trish Clowes is ambitious, composed, multi-talented and magnanimous – with her fourth album being showcased in front of me. An eclectic with unflinching vision; in both her music and her patter, Clowes is arguably the embodiment of the principles Emulsion was formed to uphold. Which, in less purple prose, is probably why she set it up.

More coffee, a thick chocolate slab, and even a beer – for (by my watch) it was a respectable time to start drinking at the end of the first performance. The Arena Bar and mac foyer is a bustle of enthusiasm, with music again being played at one end or another. I don’t know who’s on or where, but I’m irritated at myself for not spending more time in front of the Birmingham Conservatoire students who have been providing the ‘Pop-Ups’. Peter Bell has been walking around with the threat of performance in his eyes and he’s always worth checking out.BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Review

Back in for the last hurrah, as the Emulsion Sinfonietta cradles the front of the stage in a proud semi circle. The army advances. Roll Call: Trish Clowes (saxophones), Chris Montague (guitar), Ross Stanley (piano/Hammond organ), Calum Gorlay (bass), Rachel Lander (cello), James Maddren (drums), Percy Pursglove (trumpet), Hans Koller (euphonium), Anna Olsson (violin), Melinda Maxwell (oboe/cor anglais), Max Wellford (clarinets).

The Sinfonietta is the ‘happy byproduct of several Emulsion festivals’ and includes ‘a colouful line up’ of previous performers, collaborators or peers. Tonight they are performing a selection of pieces from guest composers, including Iain Ballamy, Hans Koller, Percy Pursglove, Anna Olsson, Bobbie Gardner, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and Joe Cutler – opening with ‘Beamish’, where Chris Montague’s relentless guitar underpins a beautiful cello lead from Rachel Lander.

BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham ReviewNext is an original composition from violinist, Anna Olsson – a recent Birmingham Conservatoire graduate and cake maker. Even amidst my fervent note taking I miss the title of this piece, but its small frenetic pockets, blanketed by a lullaby of stings and keys, is one of the most beautiful moments of the evening. I am not classically trained. I am not a musician. I was brought into this world by Erik Satie, Nils Frahm and Ólafur Arnalds. But I have a head and a heart, alongside a deep rooted love for the right combination of ivory and bow. And I simply stopped writing.

Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian presents ‘Muted Lines’ next, a new commission from the London Symphony Orchestra composer-in-residence. Exploring the themes of migration and forced exile, a topic with absurd pertinence, the piece was also constructed to help Trish Clowes progress her vocals – as she sings, at one point a capella, during the performance. ‘Muted Lines’ is well comprised, restrained, yet unabashed and melodic; even to a lay person you can feel confidence of the composition, caressed by saxophone and cradled by percussion.

Bobbie Gardner, another Conservatoire post graduate, has her work performed next – delivered in partnerships of staccato and dissonance, like half an orchestra falling down a spiral staircase. Before Joe Cutler presents his award BREVIEW: Emulsion Festival @ mac 27.01.17 / Michelle Martin © Birmingham Reviewwinning composition – ‘Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder’. Percy Pursglove’s despondently titled ‘He Whose Dreams Will Never Unfold’ sets up the final triptych, followed by Han Koller’s ‘Happy Mountain’ and a piece from Iain Ballamy.

Emulsion V ends as it was presented, without fanfare or fuss and quickly to the bar. It has been an exceptional evening, with challenges and comfort zones thrown around a programme of rich talent and diversity. Trish Clowes’ original endeavour – namely a cross genre celebration and a place to nurture new work – was alive and well on stage tonight, flying past so simply that Derren Brown may have been working the lights. Five hours has seldom seemed so short.

My one gripe is that not more people were there to see it. Birmingham has a lustrous bed of talent, with home spun composers working to evolve an exciting musical landscape, and showcases need to be seen. Emulsion isn’t the only one, there are other events – independently organised or institute affiliated. But us, the audience, the ticket buying public, it takes all of us to make this wheel turn fully.

Oh, and all that stuff about introducing Joe Wright…. Left alone to fend for his creative honour with nothing but feedback and blank faces. Poor bastard. Still, he seemed happy enough. And I guess heated discussions have to start somewhere.

For more on Emulsion Festival, visit


For more from Trish Clowes, visit

For more from Tom Harrison, visit

For more from mac, including full event listing and online ticket sales, visit





BREVIEW: Michael Oesterle @ CBSO Centre 18.11.16

Michael Oesterle @ CBSO Centre 18.11.16 / By Reuben Penny © Birmingham Review




Words by Sam James / Pics by Reuben Penny

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 Michael Oesterle @ CBSO Centre 18.11.16 / By Reuben Penny © Birmingham Reviewstyles 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.

cbso-logo-transSeán 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

For more from Peter Bell, visit

For more from Patrick Ellis, visit

For more from Seán Clancy, visit

To follow Richard Baker, visit

For more from the CBSO Centre, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit 


BPREVIEW: Michael Oesterle @ CBSO 18.11.16

Michael Oesterle @ CBSO 18.11.16




Words by Ed King

On Friday 18th November, Michael Oesterle performs at the CBSO alongside new compositions from Peter Bell, Patrick Ellis, Seán Clancy – as presented by Frontiers. The conductor will be Richard Baker with the Thallein Ensemble.birm_prev-logo-main-lr

Doors open at 7:30pm, with standard tickets charged at £10 (advance) and £12 (otd). For direct gig info & online ticket sales, click here.

Born in Germany, but living and working from Canada since 1982, Michael Oesterle studied composition at the University of British Columbia. Later he earned his doctorate from Princeton University – under the supervision of American composer Paul Lansky and Dutch composer Louis Andriessen.

Post PHD, Michael Oesterle established himself internationally; alongside a significant portfolio in Canada, Oesterle’s music has been performed across Europe and North America by ensembles including Julliard New Music Ensemble (New York, US), Continuum (London, UK) and Les Percussions de Strasbourg (Strasbourg, France) and the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (Montreal, Canada).

Described by Simon Bertrand at as ‘reminiscent of the music of some American minimalist composers (e.g., John Adams or Terry Riley)’ Michael Oesterle’s work explores ‘varied sonorities, sophisticated use of timbres, and postmodern techniques’.

In residence at Birmingham Conservatoire for the week, this Frontiers programmed/CBSO hosted event on Friday 18th November will be a chance for the general public to see Michael Oesterle perform two original compositions: ‘California’, ‘Babbitt’.

The composition featured below, titled ‘Carrousel’, was written by Oesterle as a quartet for Glockenspiel, Vibraphone, Marimba, and Piano. It was premièred at Koerner Hall, Toronto in 2013 – performed by Haruka Fujii, Rika Fujii, Gregory Oh, Ryan Scott.

‘Carrousel’ – Michael Oesterle

Michael Oesterle performs at the CBSO on Friday 18th November, alongside new compositions from Peter Bell, Patrick Ellis, Seán Clancy – as presented by Frontiers. For direct gig info & online ticket sales, click here.

For more on Michael Oesterle, visit

For more from Frontiers, including their ongoing programme of events, visit

For more from CBSO, including full event listings and online ticket sales, visit