PRS Foundation for Music New Music Biennial, Southbank Centre

Helen Wallace reports from the two-day celebration of new music

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PRS Foundation for Music New Music Biennial, Southbank Centre
Composer Samuel Bordoli (photo: Bill Bankes-Jones)
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‘Wh- wh- wh- wh- where are they?’ sang the Roundhouse Choir in the concrete undercroft of the Hayward Gallery car park, fighting to be heard over the roar of an air-conditioning vent. Where were they indeed? This was Grind, Samuel Bordoli’s (pictured above) new piece for community choir and skateboarders. The idea had been for the latter to be carving their way through a shared acoustic space, but the Waterloo posse voted with their Nikes, and stayed away, leaving a static choir to use boards as intermittent percussion.

Grind was one of the 20 new works being performed at the PRS New Music Biennial this weekend. Commissioned by Tête à Tête with a text by its director Bill Bankes-Smith, it was one of those bright ideas that proved underwhelming in practice. To be fair, watching the video of its premiere in an indoor skate-park in Aberdeen brings Bordoli’s concept comes to life, with boarders swooping and slicing around the choir, whose song heralds and responds to them.  But sense of dare-devil recklessness never ignited a tame, tonal score, which surfed antiphonal waves and cheerfully stuttering vowels but never gave us the musical equivalent of a show-stopping McTwist or a varial kick-flip.

One can’t accuse the PRS Foundation for New Music of choosing the usual suspects in a line-up that reflects  Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games of which they’ll form a part in August. Yann Seznec created a work from hundreds of fans controlled by real-time weather, while soundtrack composer Niraj Chag’s You run on tracks not roads was inspired by the building of a railroad in East Africa and I gather that Stephen Montague’s work for children Tales from the Commonwealth delighted many. What little I could hear on-line of Arlene Sierra’s work Urban birds for three pianos, sampled birdsong and percussion was intriguing  – she’s a name to watch – as was a sample of Dobrinka Tabakova’s Pulse using gamelan with a powerful film by Ruth Paxton.

The event, focused on cross-genre couplings, was infused with a sense of free-wheeling creativity with none of the perfectionism and high seriousness associated with contemporary classical music, but a likeable vibe of work-in-progress, a fizz of ideas which may not have delivered on their promises but made for good stories. 

One such was from the digital darling of the moment, sound artist Matthew Herbert (pictured below), whose 20 Pianos was performed on a MIDI keyboard on which he’d sampled 20 instruments, from a twanging upright used during the Blitz in a Shoreditch church to the piano on which John Lennon composed ‘Imagine’, now standing, broken, in an Arizona museum to one in Wormwood Scrubs. The work begins slyly with 20 wildly varying middle Cs, and goes on to explore the pianos, and their environments, singly and in groups. Herbert, in the discussion between two performances, confessed to having written only ‘a fragment’ for each of the 7 sections. Fortunately, Sam Beste is pretty good improviser and made an effective, touching, if rather limited performance from these. It felt like the first step in a process. Herbert is an original artist and thinker, but a composer he’s not (as his recent opera The Crackle at the Linbury proved). If he could be persuaded to hand over his MIDI keyboard to someone who could draw out the ghosts of the music, players and acoustics to which these wonky instruments had borne witness, one feels something deeper and more evocative would follow.

Sound artist Matthew Herbert (photo: Chris Friel)

 

A case of two musical worlds colliding and meshing was folk trio Lau’s The Bell that never rang created with the Elysian String Quartet (pictured below). They were determined not to use the strings as ‘a pretty accompaniment to a folk tune’, in guitarist Kris Dreever’s words, but had mined the group’s virtuosity to create gritty, complex textures, both sampled and acoustic, from aggressive pizzicato to glassy harmonics. Centred by a song, there was something peculiarly moving about the classically-trained string players grinding against O’Rourke’s viscerally intuitive folk fiddling, a momentary melding otherness retained. Organised jamming it may be, but with a brain and a heart.

Lau perform with the Elysian String Quartet (photo: Elliott Franks)

 

Tune in to BBC Radio 3’s Hear and Now on Saturday 12 July and 9 August to hear highlights from the New Music Biennial. Downloads will be available from NMC from 21 July

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