The [email protected] (Music @ St Hilda's) Marathon is an annual festival of contemporary music, designed for those tough enough to set out on a 5-hour journey through the darkest recesses of new music-making. As the acoustic equivalent of swimming the Channel, lots of people set out unprepared and are forced retire before they even sight the other end. For the Vikings that stick it out, the Marathon promises a fantastic experience and the cutting edge of new music in Oxford.
In a curiously traditional opening to this unusual event, St Anne's Camerata performed two new works: Richard English's Flight and Deborah Pritchard's Skyspace. Written for the trumpeter Simon Desbruslais, a frequent collaborator and advocate of new brass music, Skyspace presented a more conventional approach to contemporary music. With angular and sporadic phrasing (and a delightfully arrogant jazz-influenced 2nd movement), Pritchard is following composers like Hindemith quite closely, a style well-suited to Desbruslais's accurate baroque style.
Dog Fourier, a noise duo made up of Tom Stafford and Joseph Currie brought the mandatory avant garde element to the night. Their two performances - DTI-MAD and CD0-0EC - combined live electroacoustic virtuosity and innovative direction to establish distinctive and memorable works. Although inaccessible (if trying to find a distinct message or meaning), the duo were absorbing, passionate and wild, their 'noise' physical and commanding.
Perhaps the structural centrepiece for the evening was a selection from Martyn Harry's new CD, Exercise Book. Composed to accompany the event in Reading, Harry's work is designed to complement running and exercise, the different sections written at the various paces common to runners. Over the course of [email protected]'s Marathon we heard three pieces: Twist, Auditorium and Mortal Coil. The outer sections were both pre-recorded electroacoustic works; energetic, twisting and frantic. Auditorium, the live parts played by the RNCM Sax Ensemble and conducted by the composer, was a stronger showpiece. Augmented by recordings (as is often favoured by elecroacoustic composers), the live element acted as a showcase for the more traditional elements of Harry's writing. While following the Reichian tendency to pulsating saxophones, the more technical aspects of the counterpoint and refined texture made excellent use of the underused medium of the sax ensemble. Set against an expansive and reflective electroacoustic section (apparently exploring the theme of emptiness) the piece led the audience on an unexpected, but enjoyable, journey.
Amid other performances from Miriam Chapman-Rosenfeld and the OXUS Quartet, Maki Sekiya's three sets shone as polished jewels of pianistic skill. Choosing pieces that require incredible speed, Sekiya's accuracy transformed the piano into a sea of different timbres, relying on an effortless continuous sound. With Servey Pavlenko's La Musique à bis and two Somei Satoh pieces, Yume no kagami and Incarnation II, Sekiya was an island of calm and respite in the lengthy and challenging festival.
Five hours later, four people had stuck it through (only a reviewer's honour had held me true); those noble finishers had braved storms of static, waves of warbling and scorching sonic wastelands. With such a long event it was impossible to maintain a traditional level of concentration; my mind wandered in and out of itself, meandering between layers of sonic-fuelled contemplation. Some of the performances were intensely challenging, others immersive and overwhelming, but the delicate curation ensured a constantly shifting experiential tapestry. Being so relentlessly pelted with music allowed me to engage more with its effect and explore it through varying levels of personal coherence. Nevertheless, the performances were uncompromisingly stellar, especially for those that played throughout the evening and the [email protected] Marathon remains a key platform for new music in Oxford.