Breathing New Life Into Experimental Practice — Immix Ensemble

Launching with Ex Easter Island Head and composer Joseph Hillyard, Jon Davies finds a new ensemble loaded with openness and charm… 

Although Liverpool’s performing music calendar can never be accused of a lack of eclecticism throughout the year, it has become fairly noticeable that trying to host a modern classical night that extends beyond university lecturers and composers-in-waiting has become a tough sell.

However, unlike many before, leader (and sax player) Dan Thorne’s inaugural Immix Ensemble event (the Bluecoat 7 May) had an air of openness and charm that others sorely missed; this was evident in the works on show. Drawing on the talents of some of the North-West’s “finest instrumentalists”, the aim is to commission composers, songwriters, bands and electronic artists to work together, sometimes for the first time.

Instead of plumping for difficult noise and introverted wit that handicaps the accessibility of modern classical music, invited composer Joseph Hillyard and avant-garde ensemble Ex-Easter Island Head (who compose and perform music for electric guitar) allow those not used to chamber music environments to experience compositional innovations in a more relaxed setting than entering a festival hall.

“Wirral-bred composer Joseph Hillyard’s short pieces present a quietly confident and studied approach”

Wirral-bred composer Joseph Hillyard’s short pieces present a quietly confident and studied approach, with a tasteful utilitarian use of instrumental textures and technique. His first half of presentation had an almost wistful feel, coming from an individual who had left West Kirby for Cardiff to study, with A Second View Across the Estuary representing a look back to Wales from his hometown. With the almost aleatoric harmonics of the cello and violin reflecting the aeolic tones that rustle through the sparse beach greenery, Hillyard direction is impressionistic and allows his music to trickle rather than stab.

The references Hillyard makes with his music to artists such as Rene Magritte and Pablo Picasso are more than justified as his work is decidedly playful, focusing on the rearranging and reprisal of shapes within. Much like Hillyard’s first piece, The Flavour of Tears’ aural accompaniment to Magritte’s painting, are programmatic and make a clear representation of each character he represents, expertly diverting from sounding like a radiophonic catalogue of character motfis.

Also vital to Hillyard’s work is his trust in the performers’ ability to interpret. In You Get the Gist, based on The Bluecoat’s accompanying Negligent Eye exhibition, Hillyard invites the performers to scan a melody line and approach it in their own terms. Although autonomy is an oft-used technique in modern composition, Hillyard’s use feels lovingly patchwork and much like his other work on show — weightless.

“His homage to Ex-Easter Island Head’s compositional techniques was a nice touch… supplemented by a rhythmic urgency and sharp percussive techniques to great effect”

Finishing with Helix in Contrary Motion into Small Acoustic Ensemble, Hillyard presented two approaches: the former piece felt a little arbitrary, where a lack of narrative in comparison to the rest of his music was exposed; however, his homage to Ex-Easter Island Head’s compositional techniques was a nice touch, as the fleeting melodic motifs of his previous works were supplemented by a rhythmic urgency and sharp percussive techniques to great effect.

Ex-Easter Island Head’s contribution to the night displayed the vast difference in compositional approach compared to their contemporary classical counterparts. In contrast to Hillyard’s compositions demanding focus, the ensemble make large gestures, with well tempered harmonies coming into play at times that are gratifying to the audience. Augmenting the bed of polyrhythmic patterns from malleted guitars, the trio added Gamelan-inspired cowbell patterns that sharply cut above the resonating strings and percussion from Jon Hering, that had gave a Neu!esque propulsion to the first piece.

Twenty Two Strings is another very solid piece from Ex Easter Island Head’s idiosyncratic compositions; however, those who are looking for perhaps a glimpse into what the ensemble could be composing beyond the restrain of mallet guitars, Viral Landscape was a surprising addition to their repertory. In collaboration with Immix, Ex-Easter Island Head explored deeper thematic depths of Helen Chadwick’s celebrated pieces meditating on cancerous decay. The piece portrayed an emotional nuance seen rarely in minimalism, with the ensemble giving Ex-Easter a challenging uncertainty that may not be seen as confident and assured as their usual works, but the intrigue and self-initiated experimentalism is surely worth commending. Harmonic blocks drifted in and out of consciousness, reminiscent of passing Doppler effect tones, along a steady bed of wind and accented string motifs, with the composition disintegrating at times and then calmly stabilising itself with quiet precision.

The inaugural Immix night was a very positive stride to bringing together classical and experimental fans together, with leader Dan Thorne clearly displaying his gratitude to everyone who came and those who helped facilitate his work. It felt as though not since the aPAtT Orchestra’s scratch ensemble series has there been such a high profile event for contemporary classical music; if Immix can keep delivering a high quality of performance, it could well breathe new life into experimental practice in the city.

Jon Davies

Images courtesy Wes Storey

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Posted on 15/05/2014 by thedoublenegative