Preview: Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival

The prestigious music festival returns, with its traditional focus on composed pieces – even though there’s an improvisational imposter in its midst. By Antonia Charlesworth

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Audiences from as far as Japan, New Zealand and North America will visit Huddersfield this month as it sets the stage for the thirty-eighth edition of its contemporary music festival.

Since its beginnings in 1978 as an alternative to the early music festival in York, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival has grown into one of the largest festivals of new music in Europe, and the largest in the UK.

From noise music to orchestral the multi-venue event, taking place over 10 days, presents a vast programme of new and experimental non-mainstream music.
Taking responsibility for every note played is artistic director Graham McKenzie, who celebrates his tenth festival this year.

“I always simply say that I’ll do the next one and I’ve been saying that for 10 years,” he explains. “There’s always another concert you want to do so I’m motivated by thinking, actually, that would be a really good project – and you’re always working ahead.”
McKenzie has in-depth involvement with each of the pieces created for the festival, which often provides a world premiere for music before it is put out on to the international circuit.

“All of the great composers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries – from John Cage to Stockhausen and Messiaen – have been here at some point,” he says. “There’s a huge responsibility to make sure we bring the best to Huddersfield each year and to make sure when we do present an artist at the festival that it’s the right moment for them.”
Over the years HCMF has built partnerships with cultural institutions across Europe, including Norway, Denmark and Spain. This year, there is a strong programme of Polish music supported by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Polish Cultural Institute London.

“At the moment there’s a really interesting young group of Polish composers,” explains McKenzie, pointing to the British Riot Ensemble’s multimedia portrait concert of Jagoda Szmytka as a personal highlight. “Then there’s Agata Zubel, who’s a composer and soprano, who’ll perform her own piece with an Austrian ensemble, and much more besides. Next year we’re hoping to produce an opera with another Polish composer.”

McKenzie believes profiling contemporary music from other countries in this way helps shape positive cultural perceptions but he is also focused on maintaining Huddersfield’s international reputation.

As well as bolstering the local economy – £1.2 million over its 10 days, according to an independent impact report – the festival does much for local talent. This year it presents Naomi Pinnock, a Huddersfield-born composer, now based in Berlin, and Huddersfield pianist Richard Uttley. Simon Fell, the Yorkshire bassist and musician best known for his work in improvisation and experimental jazz, will present the fruits of his studies on pioneering Sheffield-born improviser Derek Bailey, part of his PhD at Huddersfield University.

“Derek consistently set out to challenge lazy, habitual or comfortable assumptions about how music might be made, why it should be made, and what both performer and listener might derive from the process,” explains Fell, who, conversely, will be presenting composed pieces disregarded by Bailey once he decided to focus on improvisation in the 1960s.

“HCMF is an interesting and in some ways provocative event to present this music,” says Fell. “The festival has traditionally a very strong bias towards exactly the type of compositional activity which Derek Bailey emphatically rejected and, despite now having a much more inclusive brief today, HCMF remains a festival based on composed music in the contemporary classical tradition.

“This adds a layer of paradox and irony to the presentation at the festival of composed work by a master improviser – who ultimately rejected composition and all its trappings.”

HCMF is at various venues, Huddersfield on 20-29 Nov. Simon Fell’s world premiere of Derek Bailey’s Plus-Minus will be performed at Bates Mill, 20 Nov

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