RTÉ Living Music Festival 2004

The weekend of 20-22 February saw the RTÉ Living Music Festival 2004 at the Helix in Dublin. Last year's very successful Berio-centred event appears to have set the pattern for the festival. This year some major works by Boulez were highlighted, but a number of Irish composers and ensembles were able to show their wares alongside their French contemporaries.

Festivals. You come out of a seminar trying to hang onto a few intriguing notions that have been dangled in front of you, but you also need to grab a sandwich, find the friend who said he mightn’t quite make it for this one but would definitely be around after the concert, which in fact is starting right away according to the public announcer (so you look for the magic moment of balance between the organisers’ wish to see you seated well in time and your wish to – just a moment – get another bite of that sandwich), and there’s no sign of your friend and you have to leave part of the sandwich – BLT? salad? cheese and ham? what are you eating anyway? – and get a look at the programme (is that Irish premiere second or third?) before you ease into the half-light of the small venue, from which – with four separate but related listening experiences to mull over – you emerge into the bright lights of the foyer and the chatter of the audience gathering for the main concert of the day, and what exactly is your friend doing over there talking to…

Boulez highlights
As the normal rhythms of life assert themselves after the rapidly alternating concentration and release of the festival weekend, the key moments stand out more clearly. From the reaction on the night and from various comments and conversations over the following day, it seems that for many, including quite a few composers, the performance of Boulez’s Sur Incises on Saturday night (with the Ensemble Intercontemporain conducted by Pierre-André Valade) was the highlight of the weekend. As spectacle, certainly, nothing came near it.

Three grand pianos from left to right across the stage, a harp behind each piano, and behind each harp an array of percussion: before the musicians appeared at all, there was a sense of anticipation and drama. With only nine players at work here, and the composer having everything from a delicate ping to the massed crashing of pianos and percussion at his disposal, not to mention multiple spatial effects as sound criss-crossed the stage, the audience could almost see the invisible hand of the master-colourist and follow every flick and slap of his brush.

But isn’t there a little too much of the display-piece about Sur Incises, and a hint of the lushness that irritates in Messiaen’s Turangalila symphony? Ultimately, isn’t the best of Boulez to be found in the cumulative power of the note-by-note, second-by-second micro-dramas in the harder, brighter sound-worlds of Le marteau sans maître (the first half of the same concert, with contralto Hilary Summers and conductor Daniel Kawka) or Pli selon pli (three sections of which were the climax of the closing concert on Sunday night, Valade conducting, with Valdine Anderson in the soprano part)? Boulez is one of the key figures of the last half-century, as composer, as conductor, as general (or faction leader) in the musical wars. To see the Ensemble Intercontemporain at work on these pieces was inspirational for many on the contemporary scene in Ireland. This is what festivals are about.

One way of reading Boulez is as inheritor of the high priesthood of musical modernism from Schoenberg. By programming Boulez amid several generations of French or French-based composers, festival artistic director Raymond Deane set Boulez in the chain of French composition from Debussy to the young composers of today, emphasising the lyrical and textural aspect of the music over the rigorously theoretical.

On the Friday night, coming after Dukas’ Fanfare, Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant and a Xenakis piece that somehow failed to ignite, Satie’s Socrate (sung by soprano Isabelle Philippe, with the RTÉ Concert Orchestra under Jacques Mercier) was probably the surprise of the festival, one that concealed a mystery: how such an unflamboyant, unclimactic, lightly textured work could so successfully hold the attention? If it could not easily be defined, the buoyancy of the seemingly simple vocal line could be felt. Afterwards, one happy audience member compared this aspect of Socrate to a Bach cantata.

In the earlier Friday concert, given by the National Chamber Choir (with a guest instrumental ensemble) under Celso Antunes, we had heard another selection of French composers: first, Varèse’s Octandre, then beautifully detailed performances of Messiaen’s Cinq rechants, Denys Bouliane’s Dessiner l’écoulement du temps (1997) (in which, as its title suggests, the gliding, sliding, layered voices evoke the flow or passage of time) and Pascal Dusapin’s absorbing near-requiem, Dona Eis (1998).

Dusapin, Xenakis and Le Monde
Dusapin, whose curious duo for violin and viola, Ohimé, was perhaps the highlight of ensemble L’Itinéraire’s concert on Saturday, was to be disembodiedly centre-stage on Sunday afternoon, in a telephone interview with musicologist Gerald Bennett and Raymond Deane. Dusapin said that study with Xenakis had been a school of freedom, with no dogma or ideology being forced on him. He considered himself a true son in that he had grown up to be different from his musical father. Xenakis had offered him insight into ways of organising material as well as the example of his dramatic force and compression.

After Raymond Deane had commented on the darkness of Dusapin’s imagination (as in Apex, which featured in the Sunday night concert), reference was made to an article in Le Monde in which… At this point the more reflective Dusapin of recent times suddenly became more volcanic and Xenakis-like. Breaking in on Deane, he announced that he had been furious with the journalist in question – fury that he could express only in French. He had spoken of 25- to 35-year-old composers whose work he followed ‘with great interest and passion’, but his reference to the emergence of others with no sense of the history of contemporary music had been turned against him. He hadn’t at all wanted to insult a generation. Another quotation – ‘the only reality I know is fourteen hours’ work a day’ – was the only true thing in that article. Whereupon good humour was restored and the interview concluded.

Boulez versus the spectralists
Gerald Bennett – whose passion for his subject and gift of expression made his seminars a pleasure to follow – and Raymond Deane were then joined by Donnacha Dennehy as they explored the internal politics of French composition – the school of Boulez versus the spectralists.

(On the same day, the Crash Ensemble and Vox 21 gave us a taste of the latter. For whatever reason – incipient festival fatigue, personal shortcomings, though not the quality of the playing – this listener was only half-engaged by, for example, the music of Murail and his juniors, whereas Saariaho’s NoaNoa (with Susan Doyle in commanding form on flute and electronics) lingers in the memory.)

Dennehy appreciated certain compositions by Grisey and others of the spectral school, but he was critical of younger composers who were satisfied with a patina of modernism; he thought it would be ‘pointless for anyone in the year 2004 to write spectral music in the classical way.’ Siobhán Cleary, who had done her thesis on the music of this school, said that in her own work she did not wish to be bound by ‘a load of precepts’; Scelsi (the independent-minded and reclusive Italian who had pioneered music based around a single note) had had a deeper influence on her thinking.

Irish premieres
Cleary was one of three Irish composers whose RTÉ-commissioned works were premiered during the festival. Fergus Shiel conducted the Crash Ensemble in Morphine. This strikingly conceived piece was introduced by and interspersed with some (ultimately superfluous?) spoken text. Each of five strongly individualised solo instruments (from mournful, almost stately, cello to vigorous, almost exasperated, violin) seemed to enter into debate with its own electronic shadow before morphing towards, if not quite into, the next. Ian Wilson’s Arbres d’alignement (performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra) came across as tenser and more tough-minded than some of his writing for quartet. Jürgen Simpson’s Lycanth was performed by the National Chamber Choir. This piece may well have been a victim of the very qualities that made the rest of the concert such a delight. Wouldn’t the animalist, mythological dimension of the material have been better served by a rawer, less controlled approach?

Sitting in a hall listening to taped electronic music can be a disconcerting experience, and clapping after the pieces even more so. However, in a ‘Soirée Acousmatique’, Roger Doyle was able to put us at ease (and to offer a focus for our clapping) as his life in music was presented through electronic works that have been personally significant to him over the decades.

This is the second RTÉ Living Music Festival to be directed by Raymond Deane. Having set a high standard for the future, he is now handing over to Kevin O’Connell. The enthusiasm and hard work of the whole RTÉ team – led by RTÉ Director of Music Niall Doyle and Festival Manager Gareth Costello – are to be saluted. Their generous commitment to the future of a contemporary art-form is most unique in the current economic and cultural climate. Let our off-shore multi-millionaires be cajoled into supporting nineteenth-century opera – it is to creative initiatives like the Living Music Festival that RTÉ should dedicate itself.

Published on 1 March 2004

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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