However quickly its necessarily online incarnation was assembled, there was plenty of evidence that the composers and players featured in this year’s Sound Festival from Aberdeen had thought deeply about the predicament in which they found themselves.
That was most immediately obvious is Ben Lunn’s profound Th’forst munth is th’wurst iv awl, a contemporary spoken-word oratorio in which the composer conducted a trio from the Red Note Ensemble and narrator Tayo Aluko appeared on screen above the musicians. The Nigerian actor was a compelling absent presence, even when he was not speaking, and the words he had to say, culled from the letters of political prisoners, made his every utterance essential listening.
Lunn’s selection of those will surely prove controversial if this work goes on to have the further performances it deserves. IRA hunger-strikers Bobby Sands and Patsy O’Hara sit alongside Ernst Toller and Antonio Gramsci and figures whose persecution is more contemporary. Their words are given proper musical treatment, and Aluko had some very precise cadences in his contribution, all scored to a highly listenable, but still demanding, mix of electronics and live instrumentation.
The three players, flautist Richard Craig, Jessica Beetson on viola and guitarist Sasha Savaloni, also had to turn their skills to intricate percussion as well as being experts on their own instruments. Lunn’s work is beautifully structured: nine movements in three groups of three, with an Overture and two Electronic Interludes, and it builds its smaller elements into an impressive edifice.
That very specific form of isolation from society found a much more abstract echo in the programme EXAUDI pianist James Weeks assembled for himself and singers Lucy Goddard and David de Winter.
lonesingness took its lower-case title from the short work for male voice by Greek composer Zesses Seglias, but the recital was a seamless sequence of ten works, three of them piano interludes written by Weeks. He also took vocal part in Michael Pisaro’s setting of Getrude Stein, A Bird in the Beast, in which many decisions are made by the performers, and which sat well with the choice of Cage’s 1983 call-and-response Ear for EAR to open. In more conventional art-song mode, but each very different, were the world premiere of Lisa Robertson’s Almost, Linda Catlin Smith’s setting of Shakepeare’s Sonnet No.65, In Black Ink, and the concluding miniature by Rodney Lister, using the words of Robert Frost, Devotion.
Robertson also had a work, Archipelago, among the six new pieces played by the North East’s New Music Ensemble, Any Enemy. Founded by violinist Guera Maunder and bassoonist Lesley Wilson, it was a ten-piece group in this incarnation, conducted by composer and festival co-director Pete Stollery. His own Social D(ist)ancing made instrumental play of present restrictions, as, in its own way, did Ups and Downs by former Sound composer-in-residence John de Simone, which is destined to become the opening of a larger work.
Image: Composer and conductor Ben Lunn