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Emulsion Festival VII, Day One, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre, Birmingham, 02/11/2018.


by Ian Mann

November 05, 2018

An intriguing evening of music making that once again mixed genres at a whim. Ian Mann on the latest edition of Trish Clowes' Emulsion Festival, w. guest musicians Alexander Hawkins & Percy Pursglove.

Emulsion Festival VII, Day One, Hexagon Theatre, Midlands Arts Centre (mac), Cannon Hill Park, Birmingham, 02/11/2018.

Emulsion Festival is the brainchild of London based saxophonist and composer Trish Clowes. This seventh edition of the event was the second such of 2018, Emulsion VI having taken place at the Gateway Arts Centre in Clowes’ native Shrewsbury in June. Review here;

This was also the Festival’s second visit to the mac, with Emulsion V having taken place at the venue in 2017.

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 first to Birmingham, then on to Shrewsbury, and now back to Birmingham again.

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 primarily outlet for these works is the Emulsion Sinfonietta, an ensemble featuring a mix of jazz and classical musicians personally selected by Clowes.

Every Emulsion event is different with the Sinfonietta regularly augmented by guest musicians and composers, these regularly bringing freshly composed music to the ensemble. At Shrewsbury the guests included jazz pianist/composers Robert Mitchell and Nikki Iles. Meanwhile Emulsion VII featured the talents of the innovative pianist, composer and improviser Alexander Hawkins.

As in previous years the Festival extended over the course of two days. Again I was only able to attend one of these, in this instance the Friday evening performance featuring a scaled down nine piece ensemble playing an eclectic and adventurous mix of primarily new music from a range of composers including Clowes and Hawkins plus other members of the ensemble, among them Percy Pursglove, Donald Grant and Louise McMonagle. Outside material came from Anthony Braxton, Bela Bartok and Ross Edwards.

Tonight’s ensemble lined up as follows;

Trish Clowes – tenor & soprano saxes, voice
Alexander Hawkins – piano, voice
Mandhira de Saram – violin, voice
Donald Grant – violin, voice
Lauren Weavers – oboe, cor anglais, voice
Louise McMonagle – cello, voice
Percy Pursglove – trumpet, double bass, voice
Chris Montague – guitar, voice
James Maddren – drums, voice

Sharp eyed readers will note that everybody sings, despite the fact that none of the members of the ensemble is primarily known as a vocalist. This was because the programme included two pieces by Percy Pursglove for “Emoji Choir”, compositions with a graphic score comprised of emoji characters, each one depicting a specific, mostly vocal, noise such as hisses, intakes of breath, whistling, humming, finger snaps etc. The so called “Noise Choir” i.e. the Emulsion Ensemble provided the vocal accompaniment to Pursglove’s emotive solo trumpeting on the opening “Tinker, Innovator, Plagiarist, Spy”. All the members of the ensemble were involved, with the blend of male and female voices particularly effective and with certain recognisable phrases distinguishable among the myriad of vocal sounds, finger snaps and hand claps, among them “Emojis are omnipresent in our lives”. In the intimate confines of the mac’s Hexagon Theatre this proved to be an unusual, intriguing, and highly effective beginning to the night’s music making.

During the course of the evening the ensemble was frequently broken down into smaller groups, beginning with the quartet that played the first of Hawkins’ compositions. The Oxford based musician was playing an upright piano as he lined up alongside Clowes on soprano sax, Weavers on oboe, Maddren at the drums and Pursglove now on pizzicato double bass. Rather like a classical concert Emulsion VII came with a printed programme of events, although the running order was rather more fluid. By a process of elimination I assume that this was the pianist’s “Assemble/Melancholy”. Again the performance included unconventional sounds as the fingers of both Clowes and Weavers fluttered over the key pads of their instruments on a piece that combined the sonorous solemnity of church music with the gnarled knottiness of intense jazz improvisation.

McMonagle’s “Beep Beep Beep” brought another combination of instruments to the stage as the original nonet became even more fragmented. The cellist was teamed with Hawkins at the piano and Pursglove on double bass, with the trio again deploying extended techniques as Hawkins dampened the piano strings and both string players played percussively, including some vigorous bowing below the bridges of their respective instruments. By way of contrast McMonagle also offered some astonishing, virtuosic, high register bowing on a piece that was exciting, invigorating and enjoyable, despite its embrace of the avant garde.

The cross genre nature of the Festival was acknowledged with a lively performance of Bartok’s “Cushion Dance” by a quartet featuring the violins of Grant and de Saram alongside the reeds of Weavers (oboe) and Clowes (soprano sax). 

The folk inspired melodies of the Bartok piece provided scope for some excellent playing from the two violinists and this was a theme that continued into the next composition, Grant’s own “Gorm Shuil”, the title a Gaelic phrase meaning “Blue Eyes”. Grant, from the village of Roybridge in the Scottish Highlands is the embodiment of the Emulsion ethos, equally at home playing traditional British folk music with the likes of singer Kate Rusby as he is playing classical violin with the Elias String Quartet or freely improvising with Clowes and the rest of the Emulsion crew.  Steeped in Gaelic culture his tune told the mythical tale of a Scottish witch and was played by a trio featuring himself with de Saram and McMonagle, the first section of the piece featuring the composer playing haunting violin melodies underscored by McMonagle’s melancholy cello drone in the manner of an air or lament. The addition of de Saram on second violin saw the music pick up pace and head into jigs and reels territory with Grant stamping his foot in time to the beat as the music continued to gather momentum. There was even an element of audience participation as Grant taught the audience a couple of Gaelic phrases, including the tune title, and encouraged us to sing along. I don’t think I’ve sung along in Gaelic since the last time I went to a Julie Fowlis concert.

For the audience the participation wasn’t over yet. The first half closed with another of Pursglove’s Emoji Choir pieces, this one variously known as “#49 Years” or “Sing a Song for the Silenced” or “Alas, Work Bringeth Not Freedom”. The instrumentalists here were Pursglove on breathy trumpet and Montague on scratchy guitar, these two accompanied by the furtive rustle of Maddren’s drums, but the real focus was on the Emoji Choir, i.e. the rest of the ensemble plus us, the audience members. Spectator involvement is becoming more and more of a feature of Emulsion events and for this piece each audience member was provided with a graphic score featuring a dozen different emojis, each depicting a different noise, plus approximate timings at which make the appropriate sound as everybody tried to hang in there along with the trio and the rest of the ensemble. Not all the graphic scores laid out on the seats were exactly the same, which only served to add to the randomness of a delicious chaos. Emulsion may have serious aims, but as this mass performance showed it can also be great fun, with all the spectators seeming to enjoy the sense of involvement.

The shorter second set was rather more formal and commenced with the virtuoso solo cor anglais (I think) playing of Lauren Weavers on “Ulpirra”, a piece written by the Australian contemporary classical composer Ross Edwards and based upon an Aboriginal myth. The piece has also been played by solo performers on instruments ranging from recorders through flutes and oboes to soprano saxophone.

Clowes’ own “Song for Saariaho”, written for the inspirational Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho, brought the trio of herself, McMonagle and Maddren to the stage. Originally written for bass clarinet Clowes successfully transferred the woody timbres to her tenor sax as McMonagle added effective cello counter-melodies and Maddren provided appropriate drum punctuation. Clowes’ tenor solo represented one of the few ‘conventional’ jazz solos of the entire evening.

Maddren remained on stage to be joined in a spontaneous improvisation by guitarist Chris Montague, the latter manipulating his sound by jamming objects under the strings and making convincing use of a range of pedal generated effects. Exploring territory between jazz and rock this productive and well received collaboration brought new musical elements to the Emulsion mix.

Guest performer Alexander Hawkins presided over the next section of the evening. Hawkins is one of the many contemporary improvising musicians to be influenced by the great Chicago based saxophonist and composer Anthony Braxton (others include the American musicians Taylor Ho Bynum and Mary Halvorson). Influenced in turn by Karl-Heinz Stockhausen Braxton is reluctant to describe himself as a jazz musician and his pieces habitually have numbers rather than names as titles. Hawkins brought Braxton’s “Composition 142” to Emulsion, its tricky contours traversing the hinterland between jazz and contemporary classical composition with solos from Pursglove on trumpet and Clowes on soprano sax.

Influenced by the music of the baroque Hawkins’ own “Sun(g)” also featured the entire ensemble and was a mesh of intertwining melodic and rhythmic lines.

Finally we heard Clowes’ “Master & Margarita”, a piece sourced from her début album “Tangent” but here re-arranged specifically for this ensemble, “revisited”, as its creator described it. Again audience participation was encouraged, with the crowd encouraged to make ‘thunder noises’ in keeping with Clowes’ source of inspiration for the piece, the fantastical writings of the Russian author  Mikhail Bulgakov.  Following the avant garde leanings of Hawkins and Braxton this was rather more conventional, almost ‘straightahead’, by comparison and included solos from Pursglove on trumpet, Clowes on tenor, and even Maddren at the drums.

This was an enjoyable end to an intriguing evening of music making that once again mixed genres at a whim and offset any accusations of ‘seriousness’ or solemnity’ with a welcome sense of fun. Ths included involving the audience as well as the musicians, but not in the rote and tedious ‘put your hands together’ manner of the average rock concert.

Such is Clowes’ commitment to audience participation that she is currently undertaking a PhD study into the subject, with audience members filling out questionnaires that were handed in at the merch desk (yes! CDs, T shirts, tote bags, badges) at the end of tonight’s performance.

The second day of the Festival was due to take place on the afternoon of Saturday 3rd November with an extended line up including Ross Stanley on keyboards and Catriona McDermid on bassoon. The programme was scheduled to include a solo performance by McDermid of Nicola Lefanu’s “Sir Harlequin” plus “Prelude III from ‘Trois Prelude et Fugues’” by Marcel Dupre, played by the duo of Clowes and Stanley, presumably on saxophone and organ respectively.

Emulsion VI at Shrewsbury had introduced the concept of ‘Emulsify’, compositions involving both the ensemble and the audience. The Saturday was due to revisit this on a larger scale than tonight with two new pieces , “Everyone plus everyone” by Pursglove and “I.F.” by Clowes.

I’d be interested to hear from anybody who went on the Saturday. The Friday was never less than interesting and the constant mutations between line ups and musical styles ensured that the evening was like a live version of “Late Junction”, the BBC Radio 3 programme that has championed Clowes and Emulsion and which broadcast performances from Emulsion V, also held at the mac.

Such exposure might have been useful this time, the Friday night attendance was frankly disappointing, possibly due to a combination of half term holidays and the impending Bonfire Night. Clowes, however seemed defiantly undeterred. She had clearly had a ball playing this challenging, but fun, material with a group of hand picked friends. My thanks to Tom Harrison, Clowes’ collaborator on the Emulsion project for inviting my wife and I to the Festival.

Clowes is a born creator and a willing risk taker and it will take more than this to knock her off her stride. Look out for Emulsion VIII in 2018. The mission continues.

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