Composer/promoter Matthew Whiteside’s strategy of presenting cutting edge new music in venues with none of the austerity often associated with that endeavour has never seemed as bold as it did on Saturday night, where the upstairs room was accessed through a pub/restaurant packed with folk who had probably been more concerned with sport that afternoon, and who were never inaudible.
If that meant the audience had to focus their ears more carefully as they quaffed the craft brewery’s ale, it was an exercise well worth the effort. Opening with Meredith Monk’s wordless call-to-attention, Offering, sung solo by Anna Snow, the vocal trio’s first set was completed by two world premieres, the second by Whiteside himself with an electronic underscore triggered from a laptop by himself. And This Too Shall Pass was a lockdown project full of signals of the passing on time – bells and metronomes, breathing and babble – which made considerable demands on the singers’ vocabulary of vocal effects, closely integrated with the instrumental soundtrack.
It was in contrast to the even newer work, by Royal Conservatoire of Scotland composition student Amy Stewart, Mountain High. Completed in workshops with the group, Stewart’s heartfelt lament for the stolen youth of the children caught up in the present conflict in Ukraine married the Kyrie from the Latin Mass with a Ukrainian folk song, There Stands a High Mountain.
Thereafter, the tone lightened, even if the music itself was often complex, three of the following four pieces being specifically concerned with the goddess Venus. Elizabeth Bernholz, a.k.a. Gazelle Twin, and the Afrofuturist Nwando Ebizie both start from the same point with their pieces Goddess Awake and The Birth of Venus, but travel in very different directions. With a looping soprano figure, sampled mezzo and narration, the precision-engineered performance of the former was the easier to appreciate, while the non-singing vocal techniques and pre-language story of the latter was a dense and complex climax to the programme.
The work of French-born sound artist Olivia Louvel has visited the 16th century before, and specifically the story of Mary Queen of Scots. Her composition Not a Creature of Paper draws on the Venusian love sonnets of Renaissance French feminist Louise Labe in a collage of overlapping text and tunes and fireworks in the electronic underscore.
With the rich alto tones of Steph Connor replacing Kerry Andrew in the line-up, these three works were perhaps the building blocks of a future Juice Ensemble album, the exception being Croatian composer Mirela Ivicevic’s Orgy of References, another solo – this one performed by soprano Sarah Dacey. An absolutely hilarious setting of the notional biography/curriculum vitae of a young musician, it plays with all the cliches in a jumble of showstopping moments and academic earnestness, and required huge amounts of skill and panache to pull off as successfully as Dacey did.
Picture: Sarah Dacey