Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Exaudi, Exposure 2011, Kings Place


Having 'completely missed' the Boulez love-in at the Southbank this weekend, I thought I might try Exaudi's premiere-heavy programme of contemporary choral music at Kings Place. I have to say that it has been some of the best money I have spent on a concert all year. The group manage the wild frontiers of avant garde choral music with a mix of good singing, fearsome musicianship and (very English, this one) wit - if the music fails to stun or seduce then the audience laughs with the musicians, not at them. There is no chance of being bored.

For example: the group took to the stage carrying bits of the backstage plumbing. Well alright, not exactly, but the tube and can arrangement through which they sang Hugo Maorales Murguia's opener Toques doubled as a typically knowing stunt. It's a good piece too; having hit on the simple acoustic effect of singing wordlessly into this contraption - which becomes kazoo-like with a coin held against the base of the metal bell - Murguia explores it comprehensively without trying anything excessive to overplay it.

If Murguia's hive of sound was a warm welcome, then Salvatore Sciarrino's 3 Madrigali (from a book of more) was almost the main event. Setting Italian aphorisms in a sustained, diaphanous haze of sound, the music is alive to the sonic possibilities of the language. The juxtaposition of voices using different vowels spotlights the harmonics, and the sotto voce cadential flourishes of text grab the attention out of a Mediterranean haze. Introducing the work, conductor James Weeks suggested figures 'scurrying in and out of the shadows'. I was reminded of the so-called spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone where indeterminate figures appear through the mirage or behind the buildings in a shoot out, often caught in the melodramatic snap zoom or jump cut of Leone's camera lens.

EXAUDI © David Jensen 2010
The heat continued with Yuko Ohara's Semi-Shigure, a programmtic approximation of cicadas at dusk. This familiar chirruping is a sound others have tried to paint in music, most notably perhaps Benjamin Britten in the high harp figures of The Rape Of Lucretia. Like Britten's approximation, Ohara's guttural flares cannot directly replicate the sound the insects actually make. I felt that the important and effective part of this observational composition was more in the dialogue between the voices, with the spacing of the chirruping creating a communicative tension characteristic of the insects.

The first half finished with a New Work by Matthew Shlomowitz. Apparently conceived as an orchestral work realised vocally, the second part of the piece involved an indeterminate replication of various orchestral sections. The real showpiece was in the first section though, a scat-style composition which sounded rather like a hyper-realist choral arrangement of Conlon Nancarrow. This is the sort of material in which the group shines, playful but precise, going beyond stylistic pastiche in pursuit of something original: it also produced a stretch of almost supernatural sotto voce singing.

After the interval... well, almost afterwards as the performance of Nicholas Peters' Used Promises started as the audience were still returning to their seats. It's a vaguely aleatoric piece performed by the group arranged around the audience and probably requires more concentration than the emphemeral, fragmented nature of the music might suggest.

Ryan Molloy's Mise √Čire might be said to have been the most conventional piece of the evening with its Gaelic text rendered comparatively intact and gravitating towards diatonicism. It's light on its feet though, shifting its tonality against the camber of expectation and demanding faultless tuning from the ensemble.

To conclude, the group gave the choral excerpts from Stefano Gervasoni's suite In dir. Clearly programmed to function as an overview of the various styles and techniques that had preceded it in the concert, the multi-movement work played with harmonics in overlaid lines, muting voices with hands and curious spatial arrangements (a movement performed with the high voices facing away from the conductor). There was also the intriguing addition of whistling - fixed pitches that, even quietly rendered, completely whitewashed the rest of the sound, highlighting the overtone complexity of the sung music. The third movement was the most impressive, a evanescent swirl of pitch and dynamic glissandi in which the fork-wielding group were clearly sticking to the score, although individual starting and ending pitches were fascinatingly impossible to identify.

I think part of the appeal of this concert was watching the group perform: the discreet clatter of tuning forks in particularly awkward chicanes; sideways glances, usually for synchronisation, occasionally in fear or fun; the rigorous beat of James Weeks maintaining the structure. It must surely be a very different experience simply hearing the music on record or in broadcast. Either way the singing would be just as fine. Whilst it's neither proper nor possible to single out particular voices in such an outfit I did leave the event bouncing around in recollection of the first soprano bubbling over the top of Shlomowitz's cartoon-manic New Work scat. So, stunned, seduced and laughing along with them.

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