nmdLast week saw the return of Dublin’s favourite Contemporary music festival New Music Dublin, taking place in the National Concert Hall over four days. This year’s line-up was nothing short of fantastic, as the GoldenPlec Classical team were to find out. Here’s what they thought of the shows on offer on Thursday and Friday of the festival:

Arditti Quartet

New Music Dublin opens on a high with two concerts by the Arditti Quartet, to whom we owe the lion’s share of the well known string quartet repertoire written over the last forty years. As evidence of this, the Arditti Quartet originally premiered all three works included in the opening concert. The highlight of the first concert was Georg Friedrich Haas’ String Quartet No. 1, a spellbinding spectral work involving radically unusual tunings for each of the quartet’s sixteen strings. This scordatura technique is one of the stock moves utilized by novelty-obsessed composers, but this work uses the beating effects and pure intervals it produces in an extraordinarily beautiful manner, producing masses of sound unlike anything a quartet can produce under normal conditions: novelty, but not for its own sake. The quartet’s performances are beyond belief, with a scintillating sound and commitment to the music.

The audience leave knowing that the Arditti Quartet understand the music the play, something glaringly absent with most quartets performing contemporary music. Haas’ other quartet (ticketed as a separate concert), String Quartet No. 3 in iij. Noct, was sold to the audience over and over again as being played “completely in the dark”. It is extremely disappointing then, that there is enough light in the John Field Room during the performance to read audience members’ ironic t-shirts. Whether this darkness deficit is for legal reasons or not, it is a complete cop-out from the festival and seems to fly in the face of the composer’s intentions. – A. Brooks.

Birtwistle in Dublin

Hearing a composer talk through their work doesn’t always add much to the experience. By eschewing the potentially interesting, but often dry, approach of giving a detailed explanation of the music, and talking a bit instead his methods and his influences, Harrison Birtwhistle brought an added layer of interest to the experience of his music.

Birtwhistle talked of how he thinks of his works as being layered, of composed of different strata that combine to make the whole. The work in question today is his 1986 composition Earth Dances. Those layered strata combine in this case to create a kind of monumental work – the opening low, throaty rumbles set the stage for the grand scale of the piece. Each of the parts, from those deep sounds to the flighty jumps of the woodwind that comes later, adds to the sense of a bigger picture developing. Those melodic lines seem at times to wander, but seem always to coalesce back into the whole.

The music is at times ominous, at others light, but it’s never still. Birtwhistle said at the outset that ‘complexity interests’ him, but ‘not confusion’. That seems to sum up the work as a whole –though the orchestra are made to work hard and conductor Nicholas Cleobury is always in motion, there is never a point where the ceaseless movement of the music risks descending into chaos. – J. Millar.

RTÉ ConTempo Quartet and Paul Roe

Under the hanging chandelier of the John Field Room in the National Concert Hall, the RTÉ ConTempo Quartet and Paul Roe take their places in front of the blacked-out grand staircase. Alex Dowling’s Yah-Ya-Yah-Ya is a pulsating work that takes advantage of the instrumentation given. The clarinet’s attributes were used to full advantage, with a constant woc-woc-woc from key clicking joining the yah-ya rhythm that gives the piece its name.

David Brophy took to a makeshift podium to help in conducting Birtwistle’s Clarinet Quintet. While there will always be something awkward about having a conductor for such a small group, Brophy took the weight of the complexity and allowed the performers to connect with the music. Amanda Feery’s Walk Backwards Across China is a beautiful piece that eschews the harshness of much contemporary, but somewhat neglects the possibilities offered by the clarinet, instead leaving Roe on bass clarinet joining the cello in unison melodies.

The highlight of the evening is undoubtedly Golijov’s The Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind. With an impressively authentic sound, the entire ensemble pulls us through a whirlwind experience of exquisite Jewish life and music. Roe is unleashed to express himself in every twisting, bending, ornamented note. From frenzied to funereal, the piece shows both Contempo and Roe off to their best. – C. Graham.

Michael Gordon/Ligeti Double Portrait

The almost industrial space of the National Concert Hall’s Engineering Library is well suited to the first piece of the Crash Ensemble’s programme, Michael Gordon’s XY. A solo work for five tuned drums, percussionist Alex Petcu has the physically demanding task of performing it.

He takes the stage, the crowd settles, and he’s off. The piece is quick, Petcu’s sticks bouncing off the skins as he builds layers of shifting rhythms. As the music develops, a blend of tones and tightly controlled dynamic variation, the piece creates a hypnotic sense of movement. Tonight’s programme is all about shifting textures. Gordon’s DRY, commissioned for the Crash Ensemble last year, makes full use of the various shades possible with this amplified group. From the low throb of the bass, gentle oscillations and rippling guitar, to the cello lines seeming to rise from the deep, the result is hypnotic.

The second half is all Ligeti. Andrew Zolinsky takes the stage alone first, for a selection of Piano Etudes. Der Zauberlehrling, with its overlapping figures and disintegrating, descending runs and fragmented melodies is dark and lyric. Automne a Varsovie, the last of four, is equally unsettling, or at least unsettled, the bass ceaselessly moving until, at the last, it lands with a thud. Conductor Alan Pierson keeps us happy with a bit of a chat about Ligeti while some technical difficulties are resolved, then we’re onto the final piece of the night. Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto is otherworldly – space-age music from the past. The vaguely chilling sound of the harpsichord, almost angry exchanges in the strings and wind, the classic woozy sound of the Hammond organ here and there – across the four movements, Ligeti’s music is brought to life, stark and beautiful. – J. Millar.

Stockhausen: Oktophonie

Stockhausen’s Oktophonie is a seventy-minute eight channel tape piece. It is apparently intended to be played on the moon as part of a 29-hour-long opera called Licht. It is also very, very boring.

It sounds like seventy minutes of an atmospheric introduction to a cheesy 70’s power ballad, minus the drumbeat. It would have been excusable had this piece been written in the early days of electronic music, but this piece dates from 1991. The work consists mainly of very low (loud, rumbly) notes sustained for minutes on end, with a seemingly random array of sound effects laid on top of it. There is presumably a highly convoluted structure and meaning involved here, but the effect is that of a pointless jumble of derivative scraps of sound design. The impression is of mediocre, cheesy video game music. The majority of the audience are, understandably, extremely restless, although it must be said that there is a portion who seem to enjoy it. At least one member of the audience left (long before the end); another was spotted googling “How long is Oktophonie”. One wonders whether Stockhausen wanted this work to be played on the moon so that no one on earth would ever hear it…  – A. Brooks.