Review: M@SH Marathon

This was the fifth year that the Jacqueline du Pré Building hosted a M@SH Marathon, an increasingly entrenched tradition that provides an intriguing snapshot of Oxford’s new music scene. The format is an appealing one, but perhaps some of the quality of the audience experience might have been improved by a little less quantity; clocking in at four hours straight of new music without a single interval, they aren’t kidding when they call it a ‘marathon’. Perhaps inevitably this admirable ambition – and technical hiccups – resulted in many refigurings of the event’s printed programme, although in some ways this added to the event’s semi-informal charm. Regardless, given the strenuous, but usually rewarding, demands placed on the listener, some breaks would have been welcome, even if this meant cutting down a little on the sheer amount of music heard.

M@SH Marathon 2015
M@SH Marathon 2015

That said, co-convenors Martyn Harry and John Traill (both established composers holding teaching posts at Oxford) put together an impressive programme that featured both student composers and more established figures. Much of the first half of the evening was centred around performances by the St Anne’s Camerata, a string orchestra conducted by Traill himself. Based on the make-up of a traditional Oxbridge choir, this unique ensemble places professional musicians alongside both student scholars and school-age ‘Exhibitioners’. This is a clever idea that fits neatly with the ‘Beyond the Dots’ project, a collaboration between St Anne’s College and Oxfordshire County Music Service. As well as performing works by Martyn Harry and Chris Ferebee, the Camerata gave the premiere of Traill’s ‘Equale’ for horn and strings. This piece was very effective in its staging of an interesting historical dialogue, where the sombre rhythms of a distinctively eighteenth-century tradition were revisited in a modern context. Even accounting for the fact that some of the playing was understandably slightly rough around the edges, the facility with which the ensemble’s youngest members in particular tackled this complex new music was undoubtedly impressive.

Alongside such more ‘traditional’ performance practice, there was also a great focus upon music making use of electronic technology. The intense industrial soundscape of Kelcey Swain’s Heart of Light took full advantage of the spatial effects facilitated by the array of speakers situated around the building, while Sophie Sparkes’s Blue Shift provided a thought-provoking means of reflecting on the relationship between the visual and the musical in its use of video projection. (It was a shame though that, apart from Sparkes, there was only one other female composer, Dobromila Jaskot, on the programme.) Others explored the ways in which these new technologies might be explored by live performers. In Joseph Currie’s Paraphresis, for example, members of OxLork (the Oxford Laptop Orchestra) manipulated an electronic soundscape by using string-like controllers originally created for a computer game designed to help you improve your golf swing. There was a sense of disconnection here, as it was typically not possible to tell clearly how the strange movements on stage related to the resulting sound. Unified with the manner in which the accompanying video project blurred the human and the mechanical in its imagery, this unsettling effect was an effective way of thematising the technological resources with which the music was constructed. A totally different avenue for fusing electronic technology with live performance was suggested by the work of James Telford. Here, Telford’s own voice and keyboard playing were combined with layered synthesised textures, rumbling basslines and the thumping sounds of a distance drum machine. Although both of the pieces here might have made a stronger impression through greater concision, at least in this more-or-less traditional concert setting, this was a clear demonstration of a distinctive musical voice that showed how blurred the boundaries between electroacoustic composition and genres such as IDM can become.

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A debt to dance music was also acknowledged by Chris Garrard in his I have all the words I need, performed by pianist Jonathan Powell. If not immediately obvious in the medium of a solo piano work, this influence could clearly be heard in the gradual manipulation of a few basic elements over an extended span. Powell also performed a range of works more typical of what we might perhaps expect from ‘contemporary classical music’. The music of Morgan Hayes, James Erber, Dobromila Jaskot, Dominik Karski and Powell himself certainly appeared to suggest a greater investment in a modernist aesthetic of dense intellectual complexity than was evident in the work of the younger generation. Indeed, programming such pieces alongside some of the electronic experiments heard here might have seemed incongruous, bizarre even, at any other event. Here, though, it was a fitting way of celebrating the dazzling diversity of ways in which new music continues to thrive in Oxford.

G. Masters

For more information about the M@SH Marathons, please visit the M@SH website.

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