REVIEW: Emulsion Festival at mac, Birmingham

The Emulsion Sinfonietta - full lists of personnel and works played below


Emulsion Festival
(mac, Birmingham, 27 January 2017. Review by Peter Bacon and Tony Dudley-Evans)


Trish Clowes, with the help of Tom Harrison, held the fifth incarnation of her Emulsion Festival in Birmingham. The name encapsulates the idea of combining different styles of music in to a cohesive whole which nevertheless maintains the integrity of those different elements. Reviewers Peter Bacon and Tony Dudley-Evans attempt to honour that spirit with their own reflective emulsion.

Peter Bacon: Does something that happens over one evening, albeit with a late-afternoon discussion session, really deserve the label “festival”? I was cynical before I went along on Friday but the fairly strict timetable - hour-long sets in the theatre with musical duos and trios playing in the foyer - did provide those festival elements of the indigestion-inducing snatched snack and a non-stop hubbub. The mac did feel akin to Shakespeare’s isle in "The Tempest": “full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight”. Are you happy with the word festival?

Tony Dudley-Evans: I wasn’t able to attend in the afternoon, but on arrival at 7pm I was impressed with the fact of music being heard round various corners of mac. I particularly liked singer Georgia Denham with bass player Sam Ingvorsen near the entrance to the theatre. So I am satisfied that the day merits the title of “festival”. I believe that the overarching theme of links between contemporary jazz and contemporary classical music also justifies the word.

PB: The flagship of Emulsion is surely the Emulsion Sinfonietta and the commissioned compositions and other works arranged for it, so although it formed the festival finale let’s start there. Did you feel there was a cohesive feel and sound about the band? And what about the range of the compositions? Did you have a favourite?

TDE: I really enjoyed the hour and the variety and range of the short commissions. I think the number of commissions and the fact of their being written by some composers with a jazz background and some with a classical background made for interesting contrasts.

Percy Purglove’s piece, He, Whose Dreams Will Never Unfold had a very likeable edgy brassy feel led by Percy on the trumpet and reinforced by Hans Koller’s presence on euphonium, and veered towards a jazz feel with an excellent solo from Iain Ballamy.

Hans Koller’s piece Happy Mountain also featured a solo from Ballamy and had a feel of Gil Evans’ writing for large ensembles. On the other hand, Muted Lines by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian featuring vocals by Trish Clowes was much more structured. Joe Cutler’s piece Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder, which was premiered at Emulsion IV, at the Cheltenham Music Festival last year, had the constant rapid movement from one musical idea to another that strikes me as characteristic of much contemporary classical music writing, but rather less so of contemporary jazz writing.

I did have a favourite: Trish Clowes’ Tap Dance (For Baby Dodds). This clearly drew, as Trish described in her introduction, on early jazz styles and featured a brilliant solo by drummer James Maddren drawing on Baby Dodds’ style.

So there were interesting differences between the various compositions, but there was nonetheless much in common in the textures and harmonies of the pieces. Moreover it was great to hear use of the sounds of the saxophone, the archetypical jazz instrument, in the more classically oriented writing.

PB: I agree, I thought the Sinfonietta’s programme was of a consistently high standard, and were all works I’d love to hear again. "Tap Dance" was also one of my favourites. It sounds lovely on the My Iris album (just released on Basho Records) but really benefited here from the expanded instrumentation. I also loved Iain Ballamy’s short but really moving "Chantries". He had explained at the discussion event chaired by Fiona Talkington which had opened the festival how the piece (it first appeared on his late ‘90s album "Acme") took its title from the Pilgrims’ Way, which runs from Winchester to Canterbury, passing through Iain’s home town of Guildford along the way. He also said the music he liked generally had one thing in common: it was “devotional” music. “It’s worshipful of something rather than egotistical about the performer,” he expanded. That made full sense listening the simple but compelling "Chantries."

The bands that played sets beforehand were emulsions of sorts as well, though with the different musical influences much more embedded within the distinct jazz styles of the Hans Koller Quartet and Trish Clowes’ My Iris quartet.

I was fascinated with the way the two Schoenberg pieces and one by Webern, all arranged by alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher, moved so naturally into the three originals from pianist Hans Koller which completed the band’s set. They felt very much “of a piece” which says as much for O’Gallagher’s ability to bring out the jazz in the Second Viennese School composers as it does for Koller’s way of incorporating harmonies and melodic twists and turns that are not so commonly found in jazz. What did you think of Trish Clowes’ My Iris?

TDE: I thought this was a very strong set. This was very much a jazz set with its standard instruments of saxophones, piano/keys, guitar and drums, but, interestingly, no double bass, in the quartet. The set focused on attractive, slightly quirky tunes with the jazz format of head – solos – head and Trish’s saxophone solos outstanding with a strong narrative thread in each one.

The feel of the music, however, was very different from a straight-ahead jazz set with textures and harmonies similar to those of contemporary classical music, and in this sense the set fitted well with the concept and philosophy of the Emulsion Festival. My lasting impression, however, was that the set had the looseness and confidence to take risks that arises from the organic development of the music over a series of consecutive dates, which is very much a feature and a strength of the jazz approach.

Performing at Emulsion V were: Trish Clowes, saxophones; Chris Montague, guitar; Ross Stanley, piano and Hammond organ; James Maddren, drums; Hans Koller, piano and euphonium; John O’Gallagher, saxophone; Percy Pursglove, double bass and trumpet; Jeff Williams, drums; Joe Wright, saxophone and electronics; Calum Gourlay, double bass; Rachael Lander, cello; Anna Olsson, violin; Melinda Maxwell, oboe and cor anglais; Max Welford, clarinets; Iain Ballamy, saxophone; various duos and trios of students from Birmingham Conservatoire.

The Emulsion Sinfonietta played: Beamish by Chris Montague; The Woodcarver by Anna Olsson; Muted Lines by Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian; Tap Dance (for Baby Dodds) by Trish Clowes; Tapeworm by Bobbie Gardner; Karembeu’s Guide To The Complete Defensive Midfielder by Joe Cutler; He, Whose Dreams Will Never Unfold by Percy Pursglove; Happy Mountain by Hans Koller; and Chantries by Iain Ballamy.

LINKS: http://emulsionmusic.org
Trish Clowes' preview of the event

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