Alien Landscapes: Contemporary Music from CoMA Bristol

CoMA Bristol is the local wing of a larger group of ensembles that spans the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands. On Wednesday, the Bristolian branch of this contemporary music organisation gave a concert at the University of Bristol’s Victoria Rooms recital hall. The group consists of 11 instrumentalists conducted, for the most part, by Mark Lawrence.

In near-symmetry, the evening kicked off with Alexander Campkin’s Counting My Numberless Fingers, a companion version of which, Counting My Numbered Fingers, would be played as the penultimate piece.

Amoret Abis’ When was led by solo cello, inspired by the composer’s grandfather, an amateur cellist who lost much of his hearing. The cello leads with a wavering, intentionally detuned low voice, while the other instruments slowly phase into and out of harmonic coherence, almost as if being ‘taught’ or ‘shown’ the way by the cello, but not quite managing to follow.

Gradually, the cello begins to lose control over the rest of the ensemble, eventually deviating itself from any traditional musical structure. This feeling of loss is further reinforced as the other instruments finally begin to ‘learn’ and follow the cello’s former coherence too late. Heather Gibbard’s performance as the soloist exposed the deepest vibrations of her instrument, and afforded a pallette of upper-harmonic colours to those in the audience who were open-minded enough to hear it.

New musical feelings

Brandon Stewart’s The Break on Foreign Shores was inspired by the challenge of uprooting lives and moving a new places: the trials pitched against the successes, and the hopes against the failures. This, of all the pieces played, is the most easy to identify as ‘contemporary’ – tonalism it was not. Stewart conducted the ensemble with a vigour well-illustrated by his knocking the score off its stand. Given the contemporary theme of the evening, it could have been excused as intentional.

A solo flute performance then came from Ceri Lewis, playing an unaccompanied piece by Paul Hart. City Life is a collection of jazzy flute pieces, tinged with blue notes and upbeat rhythms. Flawlessly executed.

Images of sound

By its title, Eleanor Alberga’s Glacier may well put one in mind of sustained, polished, high-treble harmony, but it surprised, manifesting as a comparative rush of mid-tempo, syncopated staccato imagery. Another piece more on the ‘cutting edge’ of contemporary musical style.

Holland Park Avenue Study takes inspiration from its namesake, a painting currently hanging in Tate Liverpool. Karen Tanaka took the visual artwork as a primer for this fundamentally great piece of minimalism that brought to mind both Reich and Glass, while still sounding refreshingly modern.

The audience was then treated to a bass clarinet and piano improvisation from Mark Langford – the former – and Vyv Hope-Scott, one of CoMA Bristol’s two pianists, before student composer David Lemus’ piece Canvas was played. This piece brought the mood back to the strictly ‘contemporary’, more atonal setting of the start, and was a second illuminating example of how music can abandon traditional forms and structures while still remaining discernibly impressive.

Alien Landscapes


Brandon Stewart now returned to the stage to conduct 1.6 Hours, a piece created through the translation of the movements of his hand on a desk over that period of time, while creating another, different piece of music. The piece was played twice, with Stewart encouraging the audience to join in for the second run – feet were stamped and papers rustled adding to the one-time uniqueness that can often be the ‘other meaning’ in these sorts of compositions.

After the variation on Alexander Campkin’s programme opener, the final composition was one of the 21 ‘fanfares’ commissioned for CoMA’s 21st anniversary celebrations last year – Dead Cat Bounce, a piece by popular modern composer Stephen Montague. Gradually amassing staccato signals issued from the assembled instruments, phasing in and out of each other at different rates, a fitting end to the evening.