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Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Huddersfield, UK, November 18, 2011

Duncan Heining By
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Evan Parker Electro-Acoustic Ensemble
Bates Mill
Huddersfield, UK
November 18, 2011

From tiny sextets do mighty 18-piece chamber ensembles grow. 21 years ago, improvising saxophonist Evan Parker first put together his original Electro-Acoustic Ensemble. Five ECM CD's later—not to mention Set on Parker's own psi label—the Evan-expanding EPEAE premiered Tesserae, its next release, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

This was Parker's third Huddersfield commission, itself a mark of his stature across a range of musical genres. And just as the ensemble has grown in size, so its music has developed exponentially too. Where its immediate predecessors, The Eleventh Hour (ECM, 2005) and Memory/Vision (ECM, 2004), extended its potential orchestrally, Tesserae draws upon its resources more as a never-ending succession of smaller partnerships and groupings, more like a piece of theatre perhaps. Like its title, the music builds a mosaic from tiny fragments of glistening tiles, each one a token of exchange for something larger and more powerful.

The success story that is the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival speaks for itself. Now 30 years old, it has pioneered all forms of cutting-edge, contemporary music and dance and launched many a new career. Earlier that evening, Norway's Trondheim Soloists had performed four new pieces in the beautiful church setting of St. Paul's Hall, including Bent Sørensen's somber, elegiac It is pain flowing down slowly on a white wall with accordionist Frode Haltli as principle soloist. In a way, Haltli embodied the festival's vision of music as collaborative adventure and exploration. Attention to detail, and attention to matching performance to venue is another key to Huddersfield's survival. St. Paul's was built in 1829. Bates Mill, seven decades younger, provided an equally appropriate post-industrial location for the organically processed music of Parker's ensemble.

Still owned by the Bates family, the Mill is now a space for music and the arts. Hearing and seeing Tesserae in this setting was rather like observing blades of grass appear through cracks in concrete, the organic taking over from the artificial—mutatis mutandis. Hearing and seeing—because this spectacle is visual as well as aural, with a theatricality that compliments its musical pictures perfectly. Banks of laptops contrast with ancient stringed instruments, with Peter van Bergen's gigantic contra-bass clarinet, with Paul Lytton's tympani and percussion and, most of all, with Aleks Kolkowski's stroh viola, electro-saw and phonogram. It is the instruments that inhabited the stage. The musicians were merely their props for the comedic drama that would unfold.

And these instruments drew from their musicians moments of beauty and sadness, alongside interludes of melodrama and slapstick. Peter Evans' trumpet echoed with Caliban-like mimicry to be followed later by baying horns and strings, as if an entire farmyard had been let loose. On this showing, the electronic and acoustic elements of the music were more integrated. The step from John Russell's fine guitar-playing to computer processing was but a small one, whilst Augustí Fernández recalled simultaneously the music of Conlon Nancarrow and silent movie piano accompaniment. The music swirled like a Victorian pea-souper, or fog across a windswept Gothic moor. At times it resonated with sounds that might have come from Markus Stockhausen, Varèse, Xenakis or Penderecki—but only because it passed over similar terrain. For this is music of change and exchange, as it has grown, so it will continue to do so.

Reeds and brass, strings and percussion, melded into computerized sounds and re-emerged as themselves. The organic can be processed but without loss of individuality. Is there a message here? If so, one wonders if it's that we have less to fear from technology than we have to be afraid of ourselves. Nature and technology in a state of organically harmonious equilibrium—now there is a frightening thought!

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