Frontiers Festival Birmingham


(Andy Ingamells pictured with the remains of the day)

So we’ve all just about recovered from two weeks of Frontiers at Birmingham Conservatoire, which has been the most ambitious and extensive festival to date and in the space of two weeks we had a host of events written and performed by our fantastic students, my incredible colleagues as well as such American luminaries like Pauline Oliveros, Elliott Sharp, Carl Stone and Object Collection. The festival culminated in a special concert dedicated to the late great Robert Ashley which also highlighted the brilliant work of my colleagues Joe Cutler, Michael Wolters, Ed Bennett & Andrew Hamilton performed by Trojan workers Decibel.

So much has happened in the past two weeks that it’s kick-off two weeks ago seemed like an ocean away; nevertheless, I’ll try to recount the festival for those unlucky enough to have missed some of these incredible events.

Sarah Farmer got proceedings underway with an incredibly dedicated response to Laurie Anderson’s As:if where she performed solidified in ice skates encased in blocks of ice for around three hours on a wet and windy Birmingham Afternoon, such dedication is hard to find and we are fortunate to have such amazing performers studying at Birmingham Conservatoire. At the same time Ryan Probert’s 36 views of Mount Fuji were given a beautiful and delicate performance by the Vickers-Bovey Guitar Duo, both composer and performers are ones to watch. In addition, in Birmingham’s new state of the art library Joe Scarffe & Beth Derbyshire curated a fantastic exhibition of graphic scores through the ages which were complimented by thought-provoking performances of Andy Ingamells & Beth Derbyshire’s Ringing Out. This exhibition continued throughout the festival and was enhanced by a graphic score performance at 3pm every day in the new Library of Birmingham by students at Birmingham Conservatoire. These library events were further enhanced by events such as Little Composers in a Day and Kirsty Devaney‘s Young Composers Project encouraging school children to experiment with their own music making producing startling wonderful effects.

On 25th of March we were treated to James Oldham‘s Waste Paper Opera Production of Bastien und Bastienne. James has sifted the original material through centuries of baggage and his own unique mind whilst bringing it kicking and screaming into the 21st century in one of the most imaginative uses of space and resources I’ve seen in a very long time. The following night standards remained high with Luke Iveson‘s Dorothy Hale: Oratorio which amplified Dorothy Hale’s life, through her own voice and through the people who knew her using a variety of sources which was sensitively set with some strikingly poignant music.

Due to other commitments I missed out on events from the 27th-29th of March but I returned to Birmingham on the 30th to hear Vicky Bonham perform wonderfully in a concert featuring stunning performances of Henry Cowell, John Zorn and a new piece by myself which was given a delicate and sensitive performance by Vicky for which I’m very grateful. This event was followed by the wonderfully imaginative Crimson Pangolin Private Collection: Artefacts of Contemporary Music which saw many priceless artefacts being auctioned off to the public. The day continued with a fantastic performance of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint performed by Daniel Bovey and diffused by Matthew O’malley as well as really stunning pieces from Conservatoire students Ryan Probert & Sam Taylor. The evening concluded with a fantastic concert by Apartment House which featured an incredibly intimate performance of Lou Reed‘s poignant Songs for Drella with Leo Chadburn as well as stunning performance of Phill Niblock‘s incredible drone music (one of my festival highlights!)

Monday began for me with an acrobatic and concentrated performance of Robert Ashley’s Maneuvers for Small Hands performed by Reinier van Houdt which saw pianist as gymnast cum trapeze artist as he balanced, danced, fell and jumped to execute the smallest of sounds and gestures. Something I won’t forget in a hurry. This concert was followed by Pauline Oliveros in conversation which was later followed by a fantastic concert of the ever imaginative Maya VerlaakJohn Cage, Morton Feldman and Earl Brown. This concert was very special not only because it was directed by a clearly delighted Howard Skempton (I don’t think I have seen someone smiling so much than Howard after directing the European premiere of Feldman’s The Swallows of Salangan), but both Howard and Michael Wolters gave the most beautiful performance of Cage’s Variations I & IV I have ever seen. Imagination knows no boundaries. The evening concluded with the Conservatoire’s Thallein Ensemble joined by members of BCMG and soloist Jack McNeill for a most striking and controlled performance of my old mentor David Lang’s The Passing Measures which is truly one of the great pieces written.

Tuesday was taken up with two very special events. Pauline Oliveros performed via the internet, a quartet with players from 3 other countries (Quartto Telematico) whilst Decibel rose to the challenge of not only performing an entire programme of incredibly exposed and difficult early Philip Glass pieces, but did so with great style, energy and fastidiousness. Most performing groups perform one, sometimes two early Philip Glass compositions in a single programme, but Decibel did several! Moreover, this programme also featured the fantastic work of four of our 3rd year composers which showcased the wealth of student talent we have. Decibel deserved a day off after this programme, but the continued on to give another concert on Wednesday!

Wednesday saw our Marathon Festival in a Day programme which had many, many highlights. Pauline Oliveros got proceedings underway with a Deep Listening Meditation at the IKON Gallery whilst the Recital Hall was set up for the world premiere of Robert Ashley’s remarkable String Quartet Describing the Motions of Large Real Bodies. I ended up being an electronic performer in this piece and it was incredibly exciting to be involved with a realisation of  such a subtle, delicate and beautiful piece. also included in this concert were Pauline Oiveros’ remarkably beautiful 70 Chords for Terry and Elliott Sharp’s energetic and complex Occam’s Razor excitingly performed by the Elysian Quartet and Nuntempa. Excitement grew for what was potentially my festival highlight in the guise of Andy Ingamells Piano Recital. It is the second time I have seen this piece and it is as close to a perfect gesamtkunstwerk as I have seen. A meditation on contemporary composition, piano recitals, video diaries, social media and narcissism. Next, Howard Skempton led Via Nova (conducted by Daniel Galbreath) in Robert Ashley’s striking piece She Was a Visitor and Pauline Oliveros’ Sound Patterns. Next came two concerts by Decibel & Noszferatu highlighting the diverse range of talent and interests amongst our students at Birmingham Conservatoire of which I am very proud. These concerts were followed by another of my festival highlights; Elliott Sharp’s solo performance of Momentum Anomaly which displayed the composer as performer blistering through a set highlighting Elliott’s concern with structure, improvisation and sound in a truly breathtaking performance which had everyone’s jaw on the floor. The evening concluded with computer music pioneer Carl Stone’s Fujiken which blended filed recordings made throughout Japan and Southeast Asia.

Due to teaching commitments I missed some events on the Thursday, but I managed to catch Object Collection’s imaginative interpretation of Robert Ashley’s Automatic Writing staging something which for many (including Ashley himself!) was considered impossible. This was followed by a big band performance of Elliott Sharp’s immensely complex and graphically beautiful Foliage a tour de force in interpretation, group dynamic and sound.

The real highlights came for me with events taking place on Friday. The day began with a resoundingly positive and uplifting performance of Terry Riley’s In C led by one of the most fantastic musicians I know Sid Peacock. This event was followed by a concert which I programmed and performed in which saw two of my students Anthony Leung & Sam Taylor performing a spectacularly creative response to a call for ‘a drone piece’ as well as my dear friends and colleagues Andrew Hamilton and Howard Skepmton performing their wonderful music on their own instruments. I was honoured to also be able to write a short piece for Howard, which he performed brilliantly. The concert concluded with me performing the premiere of my own piece Thirty Minutes of Music on the Subject of Soap Operas for piano & electronics which seemed to have been positively received. This concert was very special for me as highlighted three generations of Birmingham composers. My own teacher Howard, myself and my students, as well as our most recent member of staff Andrew.

The festival culminated in a very special concert given by Decibel conducted by Daniele Rosina in which the fantastic music of Joe Cutler (Extended Play), Michael Wolters (The Lady Plays Rachmaninov), Andrew Hamilton (Product No. 1) and Artistic Director Ed Bennett (Sometimes Everything Falls Apart, Heavy Western) were programmed alongside Robert Ashley’s Outcome Inevitable, Quartet and Hidden Similarities. This concert had an immense degree of sadness and poignancy attached to it owing to the recent death of Robert Ashley who was meant to attend to receive an honorary doctorate from Birmingham City University. In his place, emotive video tributes were paid by those who loved and knew him best adding a degree of pathos to what is usually the most joyous event in frontiers. Nevertheless, Decibel were stunning and played brilliantly all works with energy, sophistication, delicacy and beauty concluding their residency in which they performed some 30 works in the space of a single week.

This account was just the live music aspect of the festival and there was so much more on including talks, exhibitions, readings and film screenings. Moreover, there is much more to come in June which sees another week of extraordinary music from Birmingham, New York and beyond.

Each year Frontiers festival is the highlight of our composition department calendar and we all love getting involved (both staff and students) in welcoming visiting composers and visiting ensembles and putting things on. This year the festival happened on an unparalleled scale and magnitude and it in no way would have been possible without the tireless work of the festival director Ed McKeon whose vision and execution of the festival was incredible. This was matched in trumps by staff and students of Birmingham Conservatoire from the concert office staff Emily Bartlett, Libby Hall and Mark Scott (and their team) to student volunteers Rosie Clements, Christine Cornwell and Ed Denham (and their team) to tech support, Simon Hall, Matthew O’malley, James Dooley Jamie Bullock and Richard Cornock (and their team), our composition department administrator Lynsey Satchell and Orchestral manager Zoe Poyser. Not to mention all of the students that met and greeted visitors, documented every aspect of the festival and performed in a multiplicity of incredible events.

This year’s festival involved every single facet of the conservatoire and highlighted what a vibrant, dynamic, active, dedicated and talented conservatoire we have and what can be achieved by masses working together. I have wonderful students who always surprise me with their resourcefulness, creativity and imagination and I have heroic colleagues who go above and beyond what is asked of them in making things happen and fostering the attributes of our students. I am immensely proud and privileged to be part of such a community of musicians and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens in the second part of Frontiers in June!



Published by seanlclancy

Irish Composer living between Dublin, Ireland & Birmingham, UK