New Music Dublin returns this weekend, mixing premieres, installations, walking tours, alongside, of course, performances. After last year’s climate-induced washout, the festival enjoyed a far more conventional weekend, with the damp snow of Sunday afternoon offering a final teasing memory of the chaos of 2018. Depending on your point of view, this year’s un-themed programme either liberates it from—or denies it—an immersive focus, and instead it simply draws together a range of mostly new music in an accessible way. The model seemed to work well, with good audiences, and a decent mix of people coming along. We slip into the concerts on Saturday afternoon and evening.

The Crash Ensemble’s Free State concerts are all about new writing from Irish and Irish-based composers, and this afternoon sees Free State 11. As festival director John Harris explains at the start, this is an opportunity to experience emerging voices, with each of the six composers having developed today’s pieces through a mentoring process with composer Gráinne Mulvey.

The Crash Ensemble players gather around the piano for Maria Minguella’s Smack, a gesture of domesticity that is soon subverted in the work’s fanfare-like exploration of time and the physicality of sound. The instruments draw out the resonant possibilities of the piano case itself, bristling intensity making way for a gathering lightness. Ideas of texture inform the multi-layered dynamics of Chris McCormack’s Like Elastic, and the excellent ensemble-playing continues in David Bremner’s Permanent ritornello, with its panoply of gestural effects and spiralling questions.

The Pliant Occupy a Higher Place by Elis Czerniak establishes a gentle sonic environment, like a temporary installation, an exploration of instrumental timbre played out through its unstable, abbreviated ideas, suggesting uncertain beginnings and premature endings. Guillaume Auvray, the only composer to incorporate video art and electronic tape with his Dark Fluid, posits an interstellar contemplation, an exchange of energy and form that focuses attention on the drama of the moment. Unafraid of drama, the closing work by Anselm McDonnell, Engines of Babel, showed an emerging composer with a great deal of confidence and promise. With its monumental opening, this engaging piece bristles with energy, the playing interspersed with the hisses and cries of the musicians as the sonic textures build.

Programme 1:
Maria Minguella: Smack
Chris McCormack: Like Elastic
David Bremner: Permanent ritornello
Elis Czerniak: The Pliant Occupy a Higher Place
Guillaume Auvray: Dark Fluid
Anselm McDonnell: Engines of Babel
Crash Ensemble

Peter Brötzmann (saxophone)

After experiencing the best of local new music, the evening’s focus shifts outwards, with the presence of two major international ensembles. With its jazz/rock big-band sound Ensemble Musikfabrik is not a group that goes in for small gestures. Dominating the main stage of the NCH, this 17-piece ensemble is supplemented by six extra solo players (shared between the two halves) and conductor Christian Eggen for the opening number, antagonisme contrôlé by Michael Wertmüller. Looking to bring together experimental free jazz with notated music (the composer’s note speaks of bringing the ‘coherence and precision of classical/romantic/serial composition into harmony with the free spirit of jazz that is poured into it’), the effect is relentless. Veteran saxophonist Peter Brötzmann stars, with his angry rasping bursts of sound blasting out over the ensemble, to which it responds with frenetic energy. This reliance on sheer rapidity, mixed with occasional moments of repose, and ambivalent gestures recalling Stravinsky, Zappa, and other modernist reliables, gives an uneven impression, the material stretched out to give solos to trumpet, electric bass, oboe, drum-kit, and more saxophone. For all the talk of inter-species contact, the ensemble’s strings and woodwinds are mostly lost in the sound-mix, leaving one to wonder what the point of all the amplification actually was. The visceral power is nevertheless stunning, and the audience responds in kind.

This narrow dynamic range, and the uncertain crossover between loose jam-session and the density of ‘organised music’, continues in the Frank Zappa material that follows. Beginning with the rippling rhythmic complexity of The Black Page (heard in its three variants), the set-list recalls Zappa programmes of the 1970s, all presided over by the brilliant Dirk Rothbrust leading from the drum-kit centre stage. The ensemble meets the demands of this virtuosic material head-on, with tight playing throughout, and percussion playing that approaches performance art, bringing the audience to its feet in rapture at the end.

Programme 2:
Michael Wertmüller: antagonisme contrôlé
Frank Zappa: The Black Page; The Black Page #1; The Black Page #2; Revised Music for Low Budget Orchestra; Lemme Take You To The Beach; RDNZL; Echidna’s Art (of You); Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?
Ensemble Musikfabrik

Samuel Favre (percussion), Emmanuele Orphèle (flute)

By contrast, the 30-piece Ensemble intercontemporain is represented by just three soloists, Hae Sun Kang (violin), Emmanuele Orphèle (flute) and Samuel Favre (percussion), who give a late-evening recital in the NCH Studio. The programme is similarly pared-down, though between them the six pieces cover a wide expressive range. Wolfgang Rihm’s Drei Vospiele zu einer Insel (Three Preludes to an Island, 2003) brings the three instrumentalists together in a delicate and precise communion. Percussionist Favre shows brilliant technique in the shifting rhythmic patterning of Louis Andriessen’s Woodpecker (1999), working between tuned woodblocks and marimba with superb clarity. Dolce Tormento (for solo piccolo, 2004) by Kaija Saariaho similarly showcases the virtuoso technique of Orphèle. Making brilliant use of extended technique, including whispered words by the player, this dream-like piece is beautifully interpreted.

Jean-Pascal Chaigne’s Hymne V (for piccolo and xylophone, 2013) is tonight given its world premiere; a brilliant, yet strangely intimate, piece, a tour-de-force for the two players, with its frantic and rapid lines of detail. The three players re-unite for Air-Ré (1992) by Philippe Leroux, a synthesis of different sonorities, keenly calibrated in this sensitive and concentrated performance. Orphèle remains on stage alone for Yoshihisa Taïra’s piece for solo bass flute, Maya (1972), which is almost theatrical in its intensity, calling on the player to incorporate breathing, vocalising and shouting as well as conventional playing, developing into a stark meditation between cultures. This idea is developed in a different direction again in the closing piece, Temazcal (1984) by Javier Álvarez. Scored for electronic tape and maracas, its propulsive exploration of Latin American rhythms, with space for improvisation by the percussionist, brings the recital to a close on a witty and jubilant note. As ever, the playing is delicate and precise, reflecting an exquisite focus and preparation—and made one wish to have heard the rest of the ensemble as well. Next time perhaps?

Programme 3:
Wolfgang Rihm: Drei Vorspiele zu einer Insel
Louis Andriessen: Woodpecker
Kaija Saariaho: Dolce Tormento
Jean-Pascal Chaigne: Hymne V
Philippe Leroux: Air-Ré
Yoshihisa Taïra: Maya
Javier Álvarez: Temazcal
Soloists of Ensemble intercontemporain (Hae Sun Kang (violin), Emmanuele Orphèle (flute), Samuel Favre (percussion).