Composer: Mayke Nas
Musicians: Nieuw Amsterdams Peil
Director: Ria Marks
Lighting: Floriaan Ganzevoort
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival didn’t get its international reputation by being solemn all the time and the afternoon concert on the second Saturday of the ten-day festival was witty, idiosyncratic, sometimes absurd and now and again laugh-out-loud funny.
Even the programme note predicted that Dutch composer Mayke Nas’ The Arsenal of Unlived Things, receiving its UK premiere, would “incite a laugh riot or a network of deep existential crises.” Well, maybe that’s overstating it, but you can see the point.
The Arsenal of Unlived Things employed seven musicians from Nieuw Amsterdams Peil and a series of finely-judged visual effects to create fragments of imaginary parallel universes – sounds pretentious, doesn’t it? In fact, with the musicians pitching into all kinds of bizarre scenarios and apparently enjoying it mightily, it was anything but.
The lights came up on two groups of three musicians each at the front of the stage, with the trombone buzzing like a bee and gradually joined by the tuba opposite in an apiarist’s dream of a duet, with the other musicians supplying a steadily growing background hum on percussion instruments of the scraping and whirring variety. In fact unlikely percussion was probably the dominant musical feature throughout the hour-long performance, a “drum solo” for hand-held high-heeled shoes particularly impressive.
As the buzzing ended, the lights came up on the whole stage area – and there, in front of an attractively indeterminate empty landscape on screen, an extremely tall, elaborately uniformed military bandsman slumped against his bass drum which contained a large hole. Eventually he rose and marched up and down in almost imperceptible movements, bashing his cymbal, the beat of the bass drum provided by his stamping and that of the other musicians.
So far, so absurd, but it was in the next two episodes that we knew we were allowed to laugh. The trombonist entered on a sort of fairground horse, snorting and whinnying (yes, a trombone can snort and whinny) and parading round the stage, before the viola player soloed before a blank screen on which an increasingly comic shadow play appeared, dividing her into two separate images.
And so it went on, solo turns and elaborate ensemble scenes, the music sometimes more like sound effects, but the percussion in particular intricately patterned. Human shrieks, laughter and even coughing fits were all part of the mix – the members of Nieuw Amsterdams Peil clearly don’t take a precious approach to their music! One brief item was just a smart visual gag: a picturesque moonlit scene with dark houses, a pyjama-clad tuba player, after a while awful noises from the instrument (probably very difficult to achieve), lights came on, tuba player stopped, lights went out…then the moon went out!
Increasingly one was drawn into the absurd world and the surprisingly beautiful finale was totally magical. On the screen was a luminously lit forest, then six lumberjacks brought on a tree each and hid behind them to make the noises of the forest while the head forester surveyed the horizon. Then he went back to his keyboard and two of the lumberjacks brought out saws – not, of course, to chop drawn trees with, but to play. So the piece ended with the other lumberjacks sitting on tree stumps entranced by the haunting sounds of musical saws while changing lighting played over the scene.
Reviewed on November 23, 2019 | Image: Contributed