Transit: new combinations but also modesty

Transit, the annual festival of contemporary classical music, was all about movement this year. Three different venues in Leuven offered an overview of new classical work, with highlights including a concerto for harpsichord and violin alongside new pieces by Daan Janssens and Annelies van Parys. Of the 14 pieces heard by this reviewer, 13 began in pianissimo. New modesty?

An example of a perfectly matched combination turned out to be Goska Isphording (harpsichord) and Alicja Pilarczyk (violin). Especially in the composition Minimum Movement by Polish composer Anna Sowa, Isphording took the listener into unsuspected uses of the harpsichord: toneless passages, surprising rhythms, strumming the strings with a ribbon, knocking on the sound box. Added to this were ingenious uses of electronics that extended and warmed the instrument’s otherwise dry sonority. And all this in refreshing dialogue with the violin, with movements reduced to the bare minimum.
In (…presque pas.) by Daan Janssens, Isphording was given the opportunity to measure her virtuosity widely. This piece (2015) explores the possibilities of the harpsichord in five short pieces ranging from contrapuntal polyphony (part 1), through a waterfall of notes (part 4) to a recognisable arpeggio (part 5). A short, but clenched and convincingly delivered work.
Violinist Alicja Pilarczyck performed Swedish composer Jetty Hettne’s solo piece While she was dreaming (2012) with feeling and variation. The composition is built around a Swedish folk tune (polska) using contemporary techniques such as ring modulation. Trills, whether in double grip or not, dry pizzicati and long-drawn-out harmonies formed a dreamy interpretation of dark Scandinavian winter nights.

Acoustics

This edition of Transit took place at various locations in Leuven because the regular venue, the STUK, is in the middle of a renovation project. We therefore had to move to Studio Manhattan, a former mega-disco that now mainly serves as a TV studio. The renowned Italian string ensemble Quartetto Maurice had to experience that the acoustic capabilities of Studio Manhattan fall significantly short of the subtleties that can give a string quartet eternal value. Even the electronics in British composer Jonathan Harvey’s String Quartet No. 4 (2003) were only casually able to balance his piece. The quiet parts, for instance when all the musicians strummed the edges of their instruments, did not get beyond the first row. True, most of the nuances were provided with effective echoes via live electronics, but ultimately the story remained flat and occasionally even drawn-out.
This also meant that the world creation of Daan Janssens’ Nymphes des bois did not carry the conviction it deserved. His piece was the only one performed in this concert without electronics, and this is when the acoustic malcontents make themselves felt extra. Nevertheless, the solo pieces of the viola came through beautifully, but the voice of the first violin remained somewhat in the background. Fortunately, the quotes and references to music history, as written by Josquin Desprez, proved recognisable and functional.

Séverine Ballon

A surprise was the performance by French cellist and composer Séverine Ballon. She kicked off with the world creation Shades of light by Belgian composer Annelies van Parys. In this piece, electronics take centre stage. As a result, the cello is transformed into a new instrument through distortion and spatial expansion. In this way, an insight is given into the relationship between man and his digital environment. After a pianissimo beginning, the piece develops into a rousing series of harmonic motifs, with the electronics increasingly taking up space. Popping pizzicati still mark some resistance but gradually the cello sounds disappear into friendly but compelling bell sounds. An inevitable outcome of a well-constructed tension arc.
The delicate balance between pitch and noise was the theme of world creation instabilités by British composer Sam Hayden, a specialist in computer-assisted composition techniques. The piece, written especially for Ballon, aims to expand the timbres specific to the cello such as harmonies, tremolos, extreme leaps, whiplashes, glissandi and scales based on microtones. Notable was the close connection the composer wanted to maintain between the cello and the computer-generated extensions. Instead of far-reaching sampling techniques, the composer took care to keep the origins of electronics close to home, namely the familiar acoustic cello.
Séverine Ballon closed her concert with the world creation Temps étendus for cello and electronics, in which she explores the interplay between singing and speaking. Through short descending and ascending motifs with austere harmonies, the piece lands in a sound world with flutes and horns, ending in a fierce cadenza towards a toneless ending. A short but muscular story.

Electronics

Transit ended this year with a joint concert by HERMESensemble and ChampdAction conducted by Koen Kessels. Surprisingly, it opened with Lichtbogen, a piece from the last century (1986) by Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho. Lichtbogen was inspired by the northern lights of the Arctic Circle, in which Saariaho uses the computer as a full part of instrumental music. Two different computer programmes for harmony and rhythm come into play. The mystery of the northern lights is visualised with a range of trills, complemented by dancing dots of light from the piccolo. The electronics are limited to a supporting role, like a rarefied floating underlay. The piece sounds particularly convincing in the pianissimo motifs, with an oppressively beautiful flute. Due to lack of space, the percussion was partly hidden away behind sound boxes, and it was noticeable.

A third composition by Daan Janssens was performed: (…sans rien dire…) for cello, five instruments and electronics. With Janssens, too, the electronics emancipate themselves from a neutral underlay to an independent entity. The piece begins with a confrontation between the cello on the one hand and a group of low registers such as the bass clarinet, bass flute, viola, piano and percussion on the other. As the piece progresses, the high registers take over and the cello fades into the background, giving way to more and more electronics. Towards the end, the electronics have the lead role firmly in place, with flute and piano providing cautious support. But the last note of the piece is ultimately for the cello again, completing the circle.

Les Nymphéas digitales by Belgian composer Serge Verstockt was the stern finale of this Transit festival. This relatively long composition (40′) aims to capture the tension between rationality and natural urges. Quotes from German philosopher Immanuel Kant and French children’s songs alternate but it does not become clear whether this is a potpourri or a parody. Mezzo Mireille Capelle has opted for a dated style, with lots of theatrical outbursts and vibes that make the listener feel like they are around World War I. The impressionistic clouds of sound and some quotes from Debussy at the end tie in with this but the relationship with the digital world was far from it. All in all, the listening experience was much like visiting a flea market, charming but not very exciting.

WHAT: Transit – the sound of tomorrow
WHERE: Leuven, various locations
WHEN: 28 – 30 October 2022
PHOTOS: Evy Ottermans

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