Jhe structure of the PRS Foundation’s New Music Biennial now seems firmly established. A weekend featuring 20 mostly new works, each with a nominal running time of just 15 minutes, and each performed twice in an hour-long slot, separated by a discussion board with the composer and possibly be the interpreters. The last biennale took place in Hull and London in 2019; Coventry, the UK’s current cultural city, hosted the news, which will be repeated at the Southbank Center in July.
This year’s program celebrates the program’s 10th anniversary by including some works from previous biennales, so there are 10 new scores and 10 revivals, with the usual broad-minded mix of genres and styles. So on opening night there were two premieres, alongside pieces originally heard in 2014 and 2017. The new works, both performed in Coventry Cathedral, provided the setting. Paul Purgas’ thrilling exploration of the past, present and future of analog recording techniques, complete with a light show, ended an evening that had started off rather unpromising with Toby Young’s Breathlines, which nearly of 25 minutes easily overstayed its welcome.
Written for saxophonist Amy Dickson and the choir and ensemble of the Armonico Consort, and described as something between a concerto and a meditation, Breathlines alternates excerpts from a pre-recorded lecture on breathing techniques with innocuous soliloquies by saxophone accompanied by baroque strings and wordless vocals and occasional halos of electronic sound. It is meant to create space for contemplation and invoke positive change; instead, there was only impatience at its lack of real musical substance.
In between, the HMV Empire hosted Philip Venables and David Hoyle’s gruesome, chilling and hilarious performance piece, first seen in Hull in 2017. And in Drapers’ Hall, pianists Xenia Pestova Bennett, Sarah Nicolls and Eliza McCarthy came back. at Urban Birds by Arlene Sierra from 2014. Sierra layers samples of the songs of three familiar British birds – the blackcap, the skylark and the cuckoo – with the sounds of the three pianos, with percussion and a disklavier additional, so that the birds become part of the fabric musical in a totally unassuming and ultimately quite touching way.
Recordings from the New Music Biennial will be included on BBC Radio 3’s New Music Show from 30 April, and the whole event will be repeated at the Southbank Centre, London, from 1-3 July.