Counterpoint in the Cloud

Another excellent release from Ensemble 0, the French contemporary group who are taking it on themselves to deliver fresh and exciting takes on modern classics, with their very fluid membership and highly selective repertoire. We very much enjoyed their version of Julius Eastman’s Femenine (from 2020), where the group found a way into the music through proposing a somewhat informal interpretation of the composer’s intentions. Ensemble 0 are here today with Musica Nuvolosa (SUB ROSA SR528), on which they apply their attention to the music of Pauline Oliveros, and then György Ligeti, on two fine performances recorded in France.

‘Horse Sings From Cloud’ was composed by Oliveros in 1975, and recorded for the Lovely Music label on the 1982 LP Accordion & Voice. It employed a microtonal tuning and, as you can guess, was originally performed by Oliveros using just her accordion and voice, but Ensemble 0 have rethought it as a chamber piece, with strings, woodwinds, and percussion. It’s hard to articulate how they’ve done it, but the instruments achieve a perfect blend – playing as a single organism, almost, all the parts locked together in a common meditational moment. The musicians also find much rich detail and layers within the sublime droning form. Often-times the music of Oliveros was based on the principles of breathing, which is how she arrived at a very natural rhythm in her works; Ensemble 0 seem to understand this intuitively, and one can process the flute and clarinet parts as contributing an authentic rendition of breathing, and the human voice. The spare notes from marimba and vibraphone act as punctuation points, structuring the work. A gorgeous 19:12 minutes of “cloud-riding chamber music” (selon the press note) is the result.

In contrast to that, we have the choppy and restless percussive forms of Musica Ricercata from my beloved Ligeti. A relatively early composition from 1951-53, this isn’t a work I’m intimately familiar with, and it somewhat stands apart from the large-scale microtonal orchestral works that we know and love so well. It’s in eleven parts, and was originally scored for the piano, although I see that six of the movements were rescored by the composer for woodwinds. Here, Ensemble 0 deploy the same players and the same instrumentation as for the Oliveros, although founder member Stephane Garin is showcased on xylophone, tubular bells, marimba, and gong; Aurelien Hadyniak also plays percussion including the glockenspiel and snare drum. Quite different to the semi-structured drones above; this is rapid-fire music which keeps changing its attack, suggesting dances and marches in its modernistic shapes, and weaves many a potent, odd melody with its interlocking segments.

This was written at a time when Ligeti’s native Hungary was still under Communist rule, and he knew full well this particular piece wouldn’t stand a chance of being performed then; in fact it didn’t premiere until 1969. But it represents a personal bid for artistic freedom; the title can be interpreted as something to do with “research”, or “seeking”, and could refer to Ligeti’s attempt to create something entirely new and entirely his own in the field of contemporary composition. That said, a ricercata is also a classical form, a very elaborate form of fugue with much counterpoint. I lack the musicologist skills to decode all of Ligeti’s nuances here, but I hear a perfect balance of complexity and directness, expressed with elegance and poise – qualities which are only furthered by this superb interpretation by our French friends. Excellent. From 11 March 2022.