Gildas Quartet

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  • George Crumb
  • Ben Hackbarth
Open Circuit Festival @ Waterhouse Café 4/3/16

This was advertised as a string quartet gig. So why are there gongs and tables of half-full wine glasses? Is that the word “quadrophonic” being bandied about in the lobby? Fortunately, this reviewer is an optimist, and can’t wait to hear how the various accoutrements are used.

The first work tonight is by someone who, though Arizonan, lives and works on Merseyside. BEN HACKBARTH is head of composition at the University of Liverpool, and his Liquid Study 1 begins with the avant garde. The GILDAS QUARTET are slapping and tapping their instruments while the composer sits at his laptop processing the sound in real time. It’s pretty out there, and almost tantric in delaying gratification. After five minutes they raise their bows, but it’s a long time yet until anyone plays a definite pitch. In the best possible way, it’s like being in the toilet of a train (on the move, of course. You’re not allowed to go when it’s stopped at a station). While you’re cocooned, dull external sounds feed through, a constant hum and rattle underpinning the whole womblike experience.

Hackbarth describes his mixture of electronic and acoustic sounds as “oil and water. Two distinct entities which share a… boundary… responsive to each other, yet stubbornly separate and divisible.” This is certainly applicable as the gaps in sound get fewer and shorter, but there are moments of liquid suspension too. This is not music composed in an ivory tower. In the more abrasive moments, the violins snarl like the dogs who beset Schubert’s Leiermann, and there’s a moment towards the end sounding like Johnny Greenwood (via Xenakis) as rogue tones slide down to earth from one long note.

The second half of this concert is a performance of the suite Black Angels by American musician GEORGE CRUMB, one of David Bowie’s favourite pieces of music. This is where the additional instruments come in. Starting with the cry of the furies – the Gildas players practically attack their fingerboards – the audience is set upon by a horrible flock of featherless wings. Though not an electronic composer, Crumb’s work does amplify the stringed instruments, hence the quadrophonic set-up. Over the hellish opening, one violinist breaks free for a bar or so, playing a syrupy little melody. It’s reminiscent of the claustrophobic filmmaking of Peter Strickland – after an hour or so of oppressive, frequently scatological torture, you are granted (or taunted by) a glimpse of the English countryside and the bleating of sheep.

Black Angels is more concerned with goats, however. This postmodern piece tells the story of a soul via its fall and redemption, with thirteen titled movements full of diabolic imagery (Threnody, Danse Macabre, Sarabanda De La Muerte Oscura) and numerology that is also in the music, but so deeply buried it’s hard to identify by ear. Like in grindcore (for example), here the most disturbing parts of music, which are usually the means to an (imaginative, phobic) end, are left on show after dispensing with the obligatory structures of rhythm and melody, resulting in genuinely frightening sounds.

Stuart Miles O’Hara / @ohasm1

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