Live | Bangor New Music Festival

Steph Power travelled to the Bangor New Music Festival to witness a trio of of performances celebrating a new generation of musical voices.


Bangor New Music Ensemble, 12 March, Powis Hall, Bangor University

Electroacoustic Wales, 13 March, Powis Hall, Bangor University

Psappha, 14 March, Penrhyn Hall, Bangor City Centre

The Bangor New Music Festival is the only festival dedicated to new music in North Wales. It takes place annually over a week or so in early spring and, from its inception in 2000, has been run by volunteers working in collaboration with Bangor University’s School of Music under the Artistic Directorship of composer Guto Pryderi Puw. This year, the Bangor New Music Festival began and ended with two very different sorts of folk music, kicking off with a popular music showcase by celebrated harpist Catrin Finch, and ending with a performance of Luciano Berio’s Folk Songs (1964) by Psappha; one of the UK’s most renowned new music ensembles, whose inspiring concert was in part an homage to Berio (1925-2003) as a major force of post-war modernism, ten years after his death.

In between these events, there were concerts, workshops and talks exploring a number of other themes, from a poetry and percussion event led by Eurig Salisbury and Dewi Ellis Jones, to the final three concerts of the Festival which form the subject of this report. But, throughout, a folk theme could be said to have been present in a social sense, as every concert – not just token, specific events – contained a strong element of education work involving the programming of pieces written and/or performed by students and/or local school children alongside professional performances of music by established composers. Puw sees education at all levels as a key component of the Festival and, in conversation, told me that he considers it crucial to the success, not just of future performers and composers on an individual basis, but to the well-being of new music itself: ‘it’s one way of reaching out to newer audiences, but also, between composing, performing and listening to new music in what is, for them, probably a large concert hall, it becomes a whole package of experience for school children and their parents – as well as for students – which will hopefully lead to a greater future involvement in new music.’

Bangor New Music Festival review
Bangor New Music Ensemble
Photo: Katherine Betteridge

The notion of games and play could be seen as an ideal entry point for an exploration of new music and this just happened to be the theme of a concert given by the Bangor New Music Ensemble on March 12th in the context of experimental and multimedia pieces utilising graphic scores. The ensemble comprises a floating group of undergraduate and postgraduate performers and composers (on this occasion playing various combinations of two flutes, clarinets, violin, keyboards, percussion and a Chinese guzheng). Works by three students – Christine Poon, Damien Vadgama and Francesca Reader – sat surprisingly well alongside pieces by more established composers Randy Raine-Reusch, David Pocknee and Juan María Solare, and it was enlightening to see the graphic scores projected onto a screen above the ensemble whilst they played. This was especially so with Bruno Maderna’s Serenata per un satellite, (1969, conducted by Hans Kretz), the oldest, best known work on the programme.

Bangor New Music Festival

The concert was a little on the short side but, hopefully, the ensemble will have gained the confidence to attempt longer interpretations of graphic scores in future, as the players generated an engaging chemistry; moving in a choreographed way from piece to piece with an easy-going but considered sense of theatre, and creating a convincing event in a genre too readily consigned to a kind of hippy historical past – partly, perhaps, in reaction to guru-like figures such as John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen who, at times, resorted to publicity-seeking antics which appeared to belie the deadly seriousness of their art.

Perhaps too, as Puw further noted in our conversation, it is the increasing trend throughout new music towards multimedia performances that offers some of the most exciting possibilities for composers today and which, in part, might serve to connect the experimentalism of the past with technological and other developments of the future. With that thought in mind, it was interesting that the following evening’s presentation by Electroacoustic Wales (March 13th) featured not just acousmatic compositions, but also works with video (by the Festival’s Resident Composer Peiman Khosravi and Richard Nelmes) and an intriguing piece in which electronic sounds were triggered live by the movements of a dancer (by Kimon Emmananouil Grigoriadis) – as well as a composition by primary school pupils from Ysgol y Graig, Llangefni, which was diffused live by the children themselves (assisted by Ed Wright), taking it in turns at the mixing desk.

Electroacoustic Wales is an organisation directed by composer and Bangor University Professor Andrew Lewis which, as he wrote in the programme, ‘exists to promote and encourage the creation and dissemination of electroacoustic music within Wales and beyond’. Four of the composers showcased tonight – Gregoriadis, Nelmes, Roy Woods and Steven Tunnicliffe – are current postgraduate students of Lewis’s. But this was by no means a purely academic display despite the clear technological literacy of the composers, evident to varying degrees. Of the works by Bangor composers, Tunnicliffe’s Sandy was the most successful in creating a distinctive sound-world with dexterous pacing and changes of texture, though all showed a vitality of palette and sense of structural purpose, and Nelmes’s Hiraeth was very poignant. Khosravi’s music, though, was outstanding; born in Tehran in 1982 and having recently completed his PhD with Denis Smalley at City University, he is on track to become a major voice of the future. All three of his pieces presented here (Convergences, an audio counterpart to filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s powerful Dog Star Man Part II and Vertex) were rich in subtle nuance and sheer musicality of expression; the acousmatic Vertex offering the profoundest insight into a compelling and finely-honed sonic architecture.

As part of its educational remit, the Bangor New Music Festival hosts and, this year, administered the biennial William Mathias Composition Prize in honour of the celebrated Welsh composer, who was Professor at Bangor University from 1970 to 1988. The competition is open to any composer to submit works within the particular requirements of that year’s festival; in Puw’s words, ‘we’re promoting Welsh composers, but we’re also aiming to promote any composer who’s good!’ For 2013, those requirements involved writing a piece between six and ten minutes in length for flute, viola, ‘cello and piano, to be performed by members of Psappha; not, perhaps, the most immediately inspiring combination of instruments, but one at least likely, therefore, to expose any lack of imagination on the part of the composer. As it transpired, the excellent winning piece, Aller-mümsige Burggoven by Tom Coult, chosen from fifteen anonymously submitted scores, was full of wit and colour. Moreover, the fact that Coult had travelled all the way from his base in London for Psappha’s superb Mathias Prize workshop and ensuing evening concert (March 14th) gives grounds for optimism in terms of Puw’s assertion that: ‘one of the reasons we decided to set up the Festival here in Bangor was to give a sense of the kind of lively scene and networking opportunities that you would otherwise have to go to a big city like Manchester to experience – if only for one weekend in the year!’ The Prize itself is most generous thanks to the Mathias family (who presented £500 to the winner) and Coult headed home with the satisfying further promise of a commission worth up to £1000 for next year’s Festival.

The evening concert by Psappha at which Coult’s piece was subsequently premièred as the winner of this year’s Prize, was a highly successful conclusion to the Festival and demonstrated the trade-mark excellence of the Manchester-based ensemble. Psappha are themselves renowned for their pioneering education work and the combination here of two pieces from the ‘softer’ side of Berio’s output with three pieces by Bangor composers – two, overtly Berio-inspired – and a piece jointly involving Psappha members and pupils from Ysgolion Brynaerau and Talysarn, was a winning one. The pupils were both delighted and delightful, performing the story of a little girl who becomes a fairy but decides after all that she would rather stay a little girl and, in the process, has adventures with such wondrous creatures as a fire-breathing tortoise. The piece was directed in touching, unassuming fashion by Bangor postgraduate composer Katherine Betteridge, following the successful première of her own piece, Belovodia, inspired by Mongolian shamanism and full of its own magical textures and sonorities, from prepared piano to bowed vibraphone and breathy woodwind effects.

Two university staff members had premières at the concert; Patricia Alessandrini with a UK première of Black is the Colour…(Omaggio à Berio) and Lewis with a world première of Il re lunaire – also a tribute to Berio and, jointly in this case, Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire (which iconic work was one hundred years old last October). The title of Alessandrini’s piece is taken from the first of Berio’s Folk Songs and especially sought to celebrate his announcement in 1981 that ‘the future of new music is theater music’. The drama here was understated and largely effective, with performers at times vocalising and playing into the open piano; coping admirably, as in the Betteridge, with Penrhyn Hall’s unfortunately physically tiny, timbrally ineffective instrument to nonetheless capture different kinds of instrumental resonance in a piece that had a gently fluid, improvisatory feel. Lewis’s Il re lunaire focused on sound and its transformation through timbral and textural as well as pitch-derived means, weaving together repeated fragments from Berio’s O King with the opening of the Schoenberg and utilising many, subtly moving sonorities. Both works complemented Psappha’s eloquent performances of O King (1968) itself and the Folk Songs, which were written for his first wife and long-term artistic partner Cathy Berberian and which, on this occasion, were beautifully sung by mezzo Kate Symonds-Joy, who brought a rich sensuality to Berio’s simple but deceptively emotive settings..

Berio’s music was always highly personal and embraced at various times throughout his career not just new developments in theatre and instrumental sonority, but also new techniques in the use of language and electronics. In 1993 he was asked what kind of music interested him, to which he replied: ‘In principle, all musics that have roots in our history, in our experience. They carry traces of the past, but they have a vision of the future too.’ In that sense, he made a poignant dedicatee for this year’s Bangor New Music Festival with its emphasis on inclusion, looking to the future and the importance of musical curiosity. The atmosphere surrounding the final three concerts was one of active listening and a mutual support between performers, composers and audience that was far from the sometimes cynical posturing of less personal new music events. But audience – or rather the small size of the audience – remains an issue here as with so many new music concerts and festivals. Just how the Bangor New Music Festival builds on the success of its education outreach programme to encourage more people to come along remains the million dollar question. So, in that regard, it seemed a pity that the BBC National Orchestra of Wales concert which took place in Bangor the day after the Festival finished (March 15th) was not incorporated into the programme with some contemporary works; after all, this was successfully accomplished in the Festival’s tenth anniversary year, for example (2010), when the orchestra gave a Bangor New Music Festival concert which included music by Puw (then BBCNOW Resident Composer). Hopefully, future years might see further such collaborations now that the Festival has secured Arts Council of Wales funding for the next three year period. In the meanwhile, the organisers and participants should be congratulated for the artistic success of these final three days of the Festival in 2013.

Bangor New Music Festival – Banner photo by Twila Bakker