Some years ago whilst at university, I attended a terrific (and rather liquid) dinner party at which the music of Frank Sinatra was played without respite. Eventually, a wonderful Bavarian lady in attendance stood up and declared "That’s it! I must go home. I just cannot listen to any more Frank Sinatra.....I must listen to some Beethoven". Some of those attending the New Dots concert of new classical music, may well have felt they needed to do the same after such angular and often dissonant compositions.
But hang on, I reckon these New Dots folk are onto something....
We heard five new pieces from already accomplished young composers, performed by excellent young musicians at the start of their own careers. Added to this, an audience willing to take the plunge into this often strange sound world (mainstream classical audiences please take note: new music doesn’t bite).
We started with Piers Tattersall's "At a distance of less than a yard…" performed for horn, clarinet and piano. A feisty tale of marital angst based on a theme of jealousy, with the 'bit on the side' represented musically by the French horn (keep it clean). A long, languid clarinet introduction led to a more frenetic ensemble in which one could picture the fur-flying antics of an arguing couple. As the pieced moved on, the wife (clarinettist Anna Hashimoto) led us back to a calmer section; did the wife have some resilience; some strength underlying the unhappiness? The piece continued through some dissonant pairings between horn and clarinet, eventually leading to a calmer section and finally a move into the major key with a quiet sustained final chord. Arguments over, one suspected. Jealousy remains but maybe each learning to live with it.
Moving from the sad to the positively sombre, the composition "caught on the corner" by Emma-Ruth Richards. This dark tale of an immigrant woman forced into sex work was never going to have a happy ending. Yet the wind quartet taking us through this ordeal began with a Roma-themed folk sound, complete with slurred tonality, pointing to the ethnic origins of the main character. Underlying the piece we had a near-constant pulse which had the effect of moving the story on or possibly simply representing the inexorable path of the poor woman in question. Dissonant fanfare-like moments could have been her cries for help. Difficult scoring and syncopated rhythms seemed not to phase this excellent quartet of players.
Moving next to a solo piece by flute "double helix" (composer Yuko Ohara), we entered a more scientific phase with the sounds aimed at representing the evolving complexities of DNA. A composer would struggle to do that with a full orchestra, much less with the typically sweet-voiced flute. More sound than music; more experimentation than exposition, never did I think the flute could be classed as a percussion instrument. Yet the accomplished technical skills of Joshua Batty took us on a journey of staccato, breathy and alien sounds combined with shrill attacks right throughout the range. If the audience were left bereft of any sense of musical line or direction from this piece, we were certainly left in no doubt as to how these sounds reflected the chaotic and complex nature of DNA itself.
Next we had “Barkham fantasy” by Mark Simpson, performed by Richard Uttley which offered a more familiar and shapely music line. Less adventurous maybe, but a welcoming and warm sound nonetheless. A slow alberti bass-style accompaniment underpinning a calming rain-like ornamentation in the right hand, provided quite the atmospheric opening. Increased movement and volume provided this short piece a natural arc of sound, before building to a fierce crescendo at the top range of the instrument, and then a return to the original theme. Uttley knew exactly where this music was going and took us with him.
The penultimate piece was “when the world is puddle-wonderful” by Michael Cutting which offered a view into the sense of playfulness encapsulated within the text of In Just by E.E. Cummings. This mischievous theme was captured immediately with pianist Richard Uttley placing an impromptu mute in the form of a scarf no less, over the strings within the piano... almost as if the game of hide and seek was already underway. From then we had interlinked mysterious snippets from piano, flute and clarinet: breathy sounds; sharp jolts and surprise flourishes of sound. Lighter moments did convey a sense of children in their games, whispering and causing merry mayhem. No children’s playtime would be complete without some tantrum or other, and an aggressive crescendo from the trio certainly made their point known. What fun.
Finally, we had the bustling and cosmopolitan melee of “How to avoid huge ships” by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, which began with a neatly conceived, but possibly overpowering, musicology class outlining harmonic and rhythmic intentions. As with wine tasting, sometimes you just want to skip the theory and get stuck into the practical. Yet, once it did start, this piece for wind quintet brilliantly portrayed the pulse of a busy city; people swept along in the same direction yet each with their own voice and intention. The players kept a tight grip on complex and syncopated entries with occasional moments of bassoon and clarinet breaking away as if to re-establish their own place in this busy cityscape. The frenetic soundwaves from this city-scape suddenly gave way to a quiet, almost nonchalant final motif.
Mainstream classical music venues in London are often seen as the heartbeat of the genre. Yet the important work that New Dots and others are doing to champion new music and its next generation of performers is, like those stimulating flute sounds we heard in Double Helix, part of music’s very DNA.