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Emulsion Festival VI, Day Two, Gateway Arts & Education Centre, Shrewsbury, 16/06/2018.


by Ian Mann

June 19, 2018

Ian Mann enjoys this cross genre Festival founded by saxophonist Trish Clowes and featuring newly commissioned music from Nikki Iles and Robert Mitchell.

Day Two, Emulsion VI Festival, The Gateway Arts & Education Centre, Shrewsbury, 16/06/2018.

Now in its sixth year the Emulsion Festival is the brainchild of London based saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes.

As befits a former BBC Radio 3 New Generations Artist Clowes is a musician with a foot in both the jazz and classical music camps. During her studies on the Jazz Course at the Royal Academy of Music she regularly associated and played with students on the classical courses. Her recordings, “Tangent” (2010), “and in the night time she is there (2012), “Pocket Compass” (2014) and “My Iris” (2017) have all contained elements of both genres, with Clowes collaborating with a range of musicians drawn from both the jazz and classical fields.

Clowes conceived the Emulsion project as a means of bringing adventurous musicians from the jazz and classical worlds together in a spirit of mutual collaboration. She describes it as “a new music Festival that celebrates the adventurous spirit and the open mind”, and “an experiment featuring a group of like-minded musicians”. She emphasises the cross-genre nature of the Festival and its role as “a platform for new music and improvisation”.

The First Emulsion Festival took place at the Vortex Jazz Club in Dalston before moving on to two other London venues, Kings Place and the Village Underground. In 2017 Clowes took the Festival on the road, moving to the Midlands Arts Centre (mac) in Birmingham. 2018 saw a further change of location with Clowes bringing the Festival to her original home town of Shrewsbury, and to a venue where she has performed several times before with her jazz quartet.

Emulsion is more than just a series of festivals. Clowes has described it as “an evolving concept”, a movement if you will, which actively encourages and commissions new music from both jazz and contemporary classical composers. The outlet for these works is the Emulsion Sinfonietta, an ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical musicians assembled by Clowes.

In 2015 I witnessed a performance by the Sinfonietta at the 2015 Cheltenham Music Festival. The core ensemble was augmented by the celebrated Anglo-Norwegian duo Food, consisting of saxophonist Iain Ballamy and drummer/percussionist Thomas Stronen. The programme at Cheltenham included new pieces by both Ballamy and Stronen in addition to new commissions from the contemporary classical composers Luke Styles, Joe Cutler and Christopher Mayo. Compositions from Clowes and from bassist Calum Gourlay were also featured. My review of that performance can be viewed here;

The 2018 Emulsion Festival was funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign and also received support from Birmingham City University, where Clowes holds a part time teaching post.  In previous years the Festival has received assistance from other bodies including the PRS for Music Foundation, the Jerwood Charitable Foundation and Arts Council England.

Emulsion VI took place over the course of two evenings at the Gateway Arts & Education Centre and featured new commissions from two celebrated jazz composers, the pianists Robert Mitchell and Nikki Iles.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend the second of the two nights. The Friday evening had featured a solo piano performance by Mitchell that included material from his 2013 solo piano album “The Glimpse”, a series of compositions for the pianist’s left hand only. My review of that recording can be read here;
Laurie Grey of Shrewsbury Jazz Network, who had attended on the Friday evening, described Mitchell’s performance as being “intense but brilliant”, everything that you would expect from one of the UK’s most intelligent and inventive pianists.

Mitchell’s solo recital was preceded by a series of “Emulsion Miniatures”, a series of improvised duets featuring members of the Emulsion Sinfonietta and their guests these featuring;
Melinda Maxwell (oboe) and Percy Pursglove (trumpet)
Trish Clowes (saxophone) and Ross Stanley (keyboards)
Robert Mitchell (piano) and Tom Harrison (alto sax)
James Maddren (drums) and Chris Montague (guitar)
I was sorry to have missed this intriguing series of musical conversations.

The Friday evening concluded with “Emulsify”, an interactive piece by Clowes featuring the members of the Sinfonietta with a graphic score that invited the active participation of the audience members. Reports and photographs suggest that this part of the event was great fun and a welcome contrast to the seriousness of some of the earlier music making.

Saturday’s programme varied from the one published on the Festival website but still featured an absorbing selection of eclectic and adventurous music performed over the course of two sets. The repertoire included new commissions from Mitchell and Iles with the latter also performing alongside the Sinfonietta whose line up tonight featured;

Trish Clowes – tenor & soprano saxophones
Mandhira de Saram – violin
Louise McMonagle – cello
Catriona McDermid - bassoon
Melinda Maxwell – oboe, cor anglais
Max Welford – clarinet, bass clarinet
Tom Harrison – alto saxophone
Freddie Gavita – trumpet
Chris Montague – guitar
Ross Stanley – piano, Hammond organ
Calum Gourlay – double bass
James Maddren – drums

I have to confess that at the 2015 Cheltenham performance I found the mix of jazz and contemporary classical music somewhat difficult and hard to digest. This time round I found the music much more to my taste and was consistently absorbed by the richly varied musical fare on offer. There was even an Emulsion festival beer brewed by the local Chapel Brewery to wash it down – and very good it was too!

Perhaps the beer helped, but so did the more intimate location, the atmosphere of the whole event was much more relaxed and informal than it had been in the theatre setting at Cheltenham. It also helped that in one of several changes to the printed programme Clowes decided to kick things off with a jazz piece, her own “Sister Bernadette”, an accessible, swinging item that saw the composer stating the theme on tenor sax and later soloing at length in between similarly engaging excursions from Stanley on organ and Montague on guitar. These two, together with Maddren, form part of the core quartet on Clowes’ most recent (and, arguably, best to date) album “My Iris”. It was particularly pleasing to see Stanley deploying “the Beast”, an original Hammond B3 complete with Leslie speaker cabinet. This, combined, with the quality of Clowes’ writing and the skills of the other musicians, was guaranteed to get me onside from the start. Suitably enlivened by the invigorating opener (and maybe also the Emulsion ale) I was now fully receptive to the more challenging music that was to follow and found myself wholly engaged throughout.

By way of contrast the next performance was a display of improvised solo violin from de Saram that saw her coaxing a stunning array of noises from her instrument, ranging from high pitched, birdsong like sounds to harsh, aggressive scraping of the strings. Here was a young, classically trained musician deploying extended techniques and improvising with the skill and fearlessness of a seasoned free jazzer. It was totally spell binding and very impressive but in retrospect not as surprising as it first appeared. A brief internet search revealed that as well as being a founder member of the Ligeti String Quartet de Saram has quite a pedigree in the field of experimental and improvised music and that among her many collaborators are pianists Steve Beresford and Benoit Dalbecq plus the venerable trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith, all names that will be familiar to adventurous listeners of jazz and improvised music. With a pedigree like that de Saram is a perfect fit for the genre stretching Emulsion project.

The 2016 Emulsion Festival commissioned a piece from the contemporary classical composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian. Based in Suffolk the Anglo-Armenian composer’s work was inspired by the flight of her own family from eastern Turkey a century ago during the genocide that saw the murder of 1.5 million Armenians..  The resultant piece, “Muted Lines”, was subsequently recorded by Clowes for the “My Iris” release.

In her album notes Clowes explains the inspiration behind the piece as follows;
“When trying to express this with sound all she could think of was silence. The silence of generations unable to speak of the death marches, the slavery and beheadings because they were silenced by political pressure, or by the sheer horror. This silence grows louder as it is passed down family lines, leaving a void in cultures, in language, in relationships” 

Horrocks-Hopayian took inspiration from the words of the poet Nahapet Kuchak “Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs” and explored this as a reductive exercise asking the question; “how does the meaning of a sentence change, when, bit by bit, its words are forgotten?”.  By omitting words she arrived at the song’s lyric;

Sing, although the exile’s heart fills with such unsingable songs,
Sing! The exile’s heart fills with unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s heart with unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s unsingable songs,
Sing the exile’s songs,
Sing unsingable songs,
Sing songs.

Clowes continues;
“While much was lost, the feeling remained, and by setting this line to music the silence could be filled with new meaning. The melody repeats because history repeats. The 16th century text shows how the experience is universal, across time and geography.”
The song is dedicated to “all exiles and their descendants, 100 years from now”.

The album version was recorded by the quartet of Clowes, Montague, Stanley and Maddren who all played tonight alongside additional strings (de Saram, McMonagle)  and reeds (McDermid, Maxwell, Whitlock) with Clowes singing/reciting the words before soloing briefly on tenor sax as part of an arrangement in which Montague’s guitar was particularly prominent. Compared to much of the other material heard this evening the piece was almost disarmingly simple but its theme of forced migration ensured that it packed a powerful emotional impact.

The second of this evening’s “Miniatures” featured a duet between bassoonist McDermid and cellist McMonagle, a deeply sonorous but pleasingly sprightly dialogue inspired by the “notes inégales” ( unequal notes) of the French Baroque. Announcing the piece McDermid explained the similarities between this style and the jazz of later centuries – and for me the name of that club in Euston too!

Tom Harrison, Clowes’ fellow co-ordinator of the Emulsion project, took over the announcer’s mic to introduce “Elegy For The Unknown Leader”, Mitchell’s Festival commission. The piece takes as its theme the subject of unlocking potential with Mitchell explaining; “We have great leaders walking among us who have never been given the chance to develop their talents to the fullest”. In his programme notes he goes on to criticise career politicians and to question the democratic process itself, suggesting the little known Greek practice of “sortition” as an alternative, the selection of political officials at random which would allow some to realise their hitherto untapped potential. He goes on to praise Clowes, Harrison and the Sinfonietta for their work while questioning the ongoing reduction of funding for the arts.
The music itself appeared to be inspired by minimalism with Stanley’s recurring piano motif a constant almost throughout the piece, silenced only by a double bass feature from Gourlay. Elsewhere Stanley’s piano was augmented by the muted textures of strings and reeds and the shimmering of Maddren’s brushed cymbals in a nonet performance that saw co-ordinators Clowes and Harrison sitting out. de Saram’s use of pizzicato strings provided a counterpoint to Stanley’s piano motif and added a second ‘minimalistic’ layer in a piece that unfolded gradually and organically while continuing to maintain the listener’s attention. It was altogether less busy than much of Mitchell’s other work but was still possessed of a quiet, simmering intensity.

Clowes then welcomed composer Nikki Iles to the stage to introduce her piece “Negomi”. This wasn’t actually the Festival commission but instead a piece written for Issie Barratt’s Interchange project, a celebration of female jazz musicians and composers that was recently premièred at the 2018 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. The piece was performed there with a very different, all female, line up.
Iles explained that the piece was inspired by the plight of refugee children in the camps at Calais (that theme of forced migration again) but that the title was derived from the name of her own daughter, Imogen. “Negomi” was what the late, great Kenny Wheeler used to call the little girl in a typical piece of Wheeler wordplay. Moving to the piano Iles introduced the piece with a passage of unaccompanied playing, this leading into a ballad section featuring the trio of the composer with Gourlay on double bass and Maddren on brushed drums. These two later combined to create a powerful groove as the music gained momentum and a more obvious jazz feel with cogent solos coming from Iles on piano,  Montague on guitar, Clowes on tenor and Gavita on trumpet, the last named impressing on his first solo excursion through the incisive purity of his tone and the fluency of his improvising.

With the World Cup currently in full swing it was highly appropriate that the second half should kick off with composer Joe Cutler’s piece “Karembeu’s Guide to the Complete Defensive Midfielder”. This work was originally commissioned by Cheltenham Music Festival in conjunction with the Norwegian Embassy and was first performed at Cheltenham in 2015.

Cutler is a composer with the kind of broad outlook that is right in tune with the Emulsion aesthetic and he has written music across a variety of genres. He is currently Head of Composition at Birmingham Conservatoire where Clowes also has a part time teaching post. Cutler is also part of Nozferatu, a contemporary music collective that includes jazz saxophonist Finn Peters and percussionist Dave Price.

“Karembeu’s Guide To The Complete Defensive Midfielder” references the former Real Madrid and France midfielder Christian Karembeu and his feature of the same name on the UEFA coaching website. Cutler, also a table tennis fanatic, likens the roles of players in a football team with musicians in an orchestra.

Tonight’s performance commenced with the spacey drone of Stanley’s Hammond allied to Maddren’s eerie cymbal scrapes. The piece developed to incorporate the whole ensemble (other than Harrison, who was sitting out) and included features for Clowes on soprano sax, Gavita on trumpet and Welford on bass clarinet. Although essentially playful the piece incorporated an element of wilful dissonance that hinted at the ugly side of the beautiful game, the kind of unseen and often uncredited ‘nuts and bolts’ of the game routinely undertaken by hard grafting ‘holding midfielders’ such as Karambeu. The piece resolved itself with the deep sonics of Stanley’s Hammond and Gourlay’s bowed bass, an extended musical final whistle at which point Cutler, who was present in the audience, acknowledged the applause of the crowd.

A second “Miniature” then featured a solo oboe performance from Maxwell, whose improvisation was based on a movement from “Octandre”,  Edgar Varese’s three part composition for small orchestra, written in 1923. The piece allowed Maxwell to demonstrate her versatility on her chosen instrument. Elsewhere during the concert she also impressed on the larger cor anglais.

The final “Miniature” featured McMonagle who performed “Sol-itude”, a composition for solo cello written by the Tokyo born, Paris based composer Noriko Baba. One of the most notable aspects of this evening’s event was the humour that Clowes and her colleagues brought to it, a very real sense of fun contrasting well with the seriousness of some of the music. Not that the music itself lacked humour with “Sol-itude” proving to be a particularly playful piece with McMonagle deploying extended techniques on her cello, striking the strings with the bow and inserting what looked like knitting needles between the strings to alter the pitch, the kind of methods normally associated with free jazz bassists. She also sang along wordlessly with the melodies she played, adding an impish, childlike charm to the proceedings. The audience loved it.

Nikki Iles returned to the stage to play piano as the ensemble performed her composition “Awakening”, the piece commissioned for Emulsion VI. Introducing Iles Clowes recalled seeing the pianist at the Gateway fifteen years previously, leading a trio featuring former Loose Tubes bassist Steve Berry. Iles then explained that her piece was inspired by the theme of renewal and “the first eagerly awaited spring day after a never ending winter – an annual miracle that, more then ever this year, has inspired me”. The piece was divided into three sections, the first depicting “the bleakness of winter” before moving into the “inevitable Awakening of spring” and culminating in a ritualistic or “mating” dance.

The first (winter) movement featured chilly, but still surprisingly lush, textures featuring strings, reeds and brass before Maddren established a drum groove that ushered in the brighter sounds of spring with its soaring melodies and forceful, rock influenced rhythms. Clowes’ tenor and Montague’s guitar were particularly prominent in the arrangement with the latter sharing soloing duties alongside Gavita’s trumpet before the music morphed into the final ‘dance’ section, featuring the entire ensemble.

Things got a little confusing when Clowes and Harrison attempted to reprise the previous evening’s “Emulsify” piece with graphic scores and placards exhorting audience members to make vocal noises (whistling, hissing) etc. given out to members of the crowd. As the Sinfonietta improvised we were encouraged to dance, sing and generally join in but this was only a partial success; this turn of events had been totally unexpected and most people didn’t seem to have a clue what was going on. All good fun though and very much in keeping with the overall spirit of the event.

Following on from this, in another change from the published programme, we heard Clowes’ composition “Tap Dance (for Baby Dodds”. This piece was written as a response to the earlier “Muted Lines”  and addresses the theme of jazz, the music that Clowes loves, and her guilt in the knowledge that the music owes its very existence to the brutal horrors of the Atlantic Slave Trade that “enslaved, transported and killed many millions of African people”. While reflecting on this Clowes decided to celebrate the evolution of the drum kit and the role that it still plays in the music of the African diaspora. One of the pioneers of early jazz drumming was Warren ‘Baby’ Dodds (1898 - 1959) and this piece has its origins in Clowes’ transcription of a Baby Dodds drum solo, a “Tap Dance”. Clowes took fragments of Dodds’ rhythms and implied pitches from his cow bell sounds to create a composition of her own.

Tonight’s performance commenced with a solo drum introduction from Maddren, who was clearly relishing the opportunity to put a contemporary slant on Dodds’ New Orleans rhythms as de Saram and McMonagle struck the strings of their instruments in highly percussive fashion with their bows. Stanley’s rollicking, ‘Nawlins’ style piano solo was technically brilliant and terrific fun, as was Harrison’s exuberant alto solo. Members of the audience continued to dance, sing and generally make a noise as Emulsion VI ended on a pleasingly upbeat note.

I was pleasantly surprised by just how much I enjoyed this evening of contemporary music making. Humorous at times, but emotive and thought provoking at others, the performances covered a wide stylistic range, juxtaposing genres with a will and embracing elements of jazz, classical, rock, improv and poetry. The playing from a supremely flexible ensemble of musicians was uniformly excellent throughout with the jazz and classical players interacting seamlessly.

Inevitably it was Clowes herself who emerged as the star of the show, hosting the evening with wit and charm and contributing several excellent solos on tenor and soprano saxes. Iles also made a huge contribution via her compositional and pianistic skills and the individual members of the Sinfonietta all impressed with their individual solos and set pieces. The ensemble playing was equally convincing and overall the event represented something of a triumph for Clowes and Harrison and their colleagues.

This was my first visit to an Emulsion Festival, mainly thanks to the move to Shrewsbury, but it’s an event that I’d be very keen to attend again in subsequent years, location permitting.

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