Ensemble in focus – The Hermes Experiment
This is the first in a series of blogs where I introduce OCA composers (or, indeed, anybody else who might be interested) to UK-based ensembles, particularly those that are young, exciting, and focus on performing newly composed music.
The Hermes experiment is a pretty weird ensemble, and being pretty weird is an advantage when it comes to the contemporary classical music scene! The line-up is one of the things that makes them so unique; soprano singer, clarinet, double bass, and harp. As you can imagine there is scant pre-existing repertoire for this combination of instruments, thus The Hermes Experiment have been busy commissioning new works, working with over 35 composers in only a few years. And many of these pieces are fantastic; imaginative, colourful, and always performed with musicality and panache:
Another feature of The Hermes Experiment is their willingness to improvise; something they do very well indeed. Many composers find improvisation a useful to skill to practice, as it can develop one’s ability to craft unpredictable gestures and create unusual timbres. Similarly, it can be an exciting experience to write for performers who are confident improvisers; they tend to be open and willing to collaborate:
My favourite moment occurs at 1:14, when both the double bass and harp dissipate, allowing for a beautiful dialogue to emerge between the voice and clarinet. Another exciting event occurs at 1:40, whispering followed by a hand clap, which appears to trigger a series of sonically interesting gestures. This portion of the improvisation is worth noting for a couple of reasons:
- Firstly, it demonstrates a number of ‘extended techniques’; these are sounds generated by interacting with the instrument in an unusual way (e.g. the way in which the performer strikes the wood of her harp). These sounds are not limited to improvised material, but can be incorporated into conventionally notated music too. Although used more commonly in recently-composed music, these extended techniques are not necessarily a recent innovation – Heinrich Biber’s Battalia (which was composed in 1673) contains some adventurous string instrument writing; col legno (striking strings with the wood of the bow), paper threaded between strings to imitate the sound of a snare drum, and left-hand pizzicato. If you are a composer, do not be scared to use some of these techniques in your own work.
- Secondly, it illustrates how instrumental parts can have ‘relationships’. They can be harmonious, or in conflict. They can be agreeing, or discussing, or debating, or arguing. One idea performed on one instrument can spark off another idea performed on another instrument. Considering the various possible interactions between two or more instruments is an exciting way to compose.
The Hermes Experiment have already achieved remarkable success; they won the Nonclassical Battle of the Bands in 2014, and were selected to be Park Lane Young Group Artists for the 2015/16 season. Details of their upcoming tour to Scotland can be viewed here.