Apocalypse now

29 December 2016

3:00 PM

29 December 2016

3:00 PM

Gerald Barry loved playing organ for Protestants as they allowed him a lie in. Then they found out he wasn’t Protestant and sacked him. When he moved to a Catholic church, he was forced up at the crack of dawn, so he punished the congregation by not giving them the chance to breathe between verses.

He has a similarly cruel approach to the singers in his latest opera Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, whose voices he puts through the wringer, compelling them to squawk or chunter — or recite the ‘Jabberwocky’ in German. Barry has to be one of the most enjoyably contrary composers alive, but he is also, I fear, a sociopath, and I’m not sure the two things are entirely unrelated.

It was almost painful to watch/listen to the great Barbara Hannigan as Alice, yelping her way through Wonderland. But then in this world of unbirthdays, it perhaps made perfect sense that the singers were being forced to unsing.

Lewis Carroll’s text is unforgiving. The curiosity of most of those who’ve attempted to set it has gone unrewarded. It has a tendency to suck composers in and spit them out, the rabbit-hole resembling not so much a freeing portal into a dreamscape as the debilitating gravitational pull of a black hole — too chaotic a place for anyone to do anything but be chewed up.

But in Gerald Barry, Carroll has found a kindred spirit — maybe even met his match. Anything you can subvert, I can subvert better. Carroll’s nonsense verse is translated into Russian then set to ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’. A game of croquet is accompanied by everyone shouting the rules of piano technique in French. The chorus of daisies becomes a shouty male quartet, the sleepy dormouse a female Brian Blessed.

It’s nonsense to the power of nonsense: dazzling but also dizzying. A hall of mirrors version of Alice where everything is squeezed, cut up and collapsed till it’s almost completely indecipherable. That said, the music is frequently thrilling, with lots of swagger from trumpets, tuba and percussion, a terrifying vision of a mad world.

Ugly, thuggish, regicidal: the post-Brexity vibes were palpable. There’s even a cameo for the EU anthem, sung by Humpty-Dumpty, which ends up being consumed by the tumultuous trembling orchestra. Apocalypse was in the air.

At the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, apocalypse is always in the air. I sat in a Merrie England, eating a toasted tea cake, watching a drunk old man attempt to juggle the three quite separate disciplines of eating a meat pie (mostly using his tongue), having a coughing fit and sneezing. As if to prove his versatility he then started a fight. This was a good vernacular example, in fact, of something called the New Discipline, a term coined by composer Jennifer Walshe to describe the turn to the multi-disciplinary by a twitchier new generation of composers.

What would survive if there were a nuclear wipeout? Danny Dyer’s Twitter feed, shampoo bottles, Philip Glass …Walshe’s terrific, strangely moving new work EVERYTHING IS IMPORTANT, which premièred in Britain at HCMF, felt like someone scrabbling around in the detritus of the apocalypse, attempting to piece together a past blown apart. In the spirit of the New Discipline, she threw everything at it including her own demonic vocalising (more possessed than ever), the great Arditti String Quartet, mime, dance and an accompanying film that looked like Joyce using Facebook.

Both Barry and Walshe exhibit signs of a creeping Martianism in music, a weirding of sound. One of the first Martianists was the American hobo Harry Partch, whose otherworldly homemade instruments were huddled together in a cold Huddersfield warehouse, being delicately, beautifully, coaxed into voice by Ensemble Musikfabrik in Claudia Molitor’s Walking with Partch. Elsewhere, aliens with fireworks: from the explosive sax of Peter Brötzmann (a dead ringer for a Wonderland walrus) in Michael Wertmüller’s antagonisme contrôlé to the virtuosic trombone of Bruce Collings in George Lewis’s Oraculum.

London is a hotbed of Martianism. In a boxy basement in Hoxton, a great new music series called Weisslich has been operating re-education classes — where CDs are bowed and beads poured into banjos and instruments, and instrumentalists, generally misused and abused. One of the discoveries of 2016.

The best concert of the past year, however, was at the Wigmore Hall: Apartment House’s quiet wander through the work of some less well known experimentalists, demonstrating the polar opposite tendency in new music away from theatricality towards absorption. All building up from the most humble beginnings, circling territory that felt familiar but not quite, the evening’s music had the still, concentrated feel of a day of beachcombing: things of strangeness and beauty being discovered, while the musical winds rolled around us and sea lapped distantly.

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