Recently, I spent several days at the London Ear Festival. I’d not attended before, but knew of composers and performers who’d been involved in previous years. I assumed it would be a small-scale contemporary music festival like most others: interesting enough but patchily programmed owing to the huge costs associated with performers and music hire. I was wrong. Established by composers Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari back in 2013, London Ear has carved a unique place for itself in the festival landscape.

Stepping Out of the London Madness

Performers of extraordinary calibre filed into sleepy Georgian streets a mere stone’s-throw away from the perpetual chaos of Waterloo. Even during the most arresting performances, that inexplicable oasis of calm – seriously, how can such a prime slice of land be so quiet and undeveloped? – remained a wonderfully chilled-out place to be.

Tickets for admittance to the whole festival were available online for £50. Everything kicked off with a reception one Wednesday evening and continued from Thursday night right through to the end of Sunday. I could only be there from Friday evening onwards (and was too exhausted by a week at work to drag myself to the Saturday morning percussion workshop), but even so I never felt like I’d wasted my £50. I got to see three pre-concert talks (by Chris Fox, Sam Hayden and Tim Rutherford-Johnson), seven concerts and as many open rehearsals as I fancied, not to mention Sunday brunch (more on that later).

As I sit here now, flicking through my festival programme, I’m struck by the wealth of performers I could see for such a small amount of money. I actually feel compelled to list them all:

  • Soprano Silje Aker Johnsen
  • Harpist Ganriella dall’Olio
  • Swiss percussion group DeciBells XXL
  • Pianist Mary Duella
  • Flautists Roberto Fabbriciani and Carin Levine
  • Violinist Mieko Kanno
  • Vocalist (and inimitable physical dynamo) Alwynne Pritchard
  • Cellist Rohan de Saram
  • Electronics by Thorolf Thuestad
  • Ensemble Platypus
  • Uroboros Ensemble

There was also a concert in association with the London Sinfonietta, a career-enhancing opportunity for violinist and Featured Young Performer Jian Ren, an education project with a local primary school and an art exhibition.

On the compositional front, there was a good mix of new, under-represented music (including four competition finalists) and music from big names, including Birtwistle, Carter, Holliger and a delightful world premiere from Michael Finnissy in his 70th birthday year.

This was not a small undertaking.

Discovering Silje Aker Johnsen

It would be foolhardy to review every piece, even every performance, so I won’t even try. One of the standout moments for me was the all-Nono event on Friday night, the climax of which was his monumental work for tape and soprano La fabbrica illuminata. I’ll confess I’d never heard the piece before. Acquaintances claimed only to have heard it on CD. I’m delighted that my first exposure to it was here. The Warehouse was transformed into a shuddering, erratic beast, by turns a poised and seductive soundscape, by others a terrifying sarcophagus of sound. Silje Aker Johnsen was captivating and held her own above the sometimes crushing noise thundering from the loudspeakers. The dynamic range of the tape diffusion was extreme. Hushed ripples swelled into destructive tsunamis on the brink of causing real physical discomfort. Some would say that such volume is taking things too far, that it resulted in balance problems here and there. Perhaps. But I value the experience of music above all else, and my experience of La fabbrica illuminata was deeply visceral and somewhat terrifying, perfectly matching Nono’s message in that piece. What could be more perfect?

Another standout event for me was the Saturday lunchtime concert, in which Johnsen was joined by Carin Levine and Rohan de Saram – a fantastic grouping of musicians. Lachenmann’s seminal temA is arguably over performed, but lost none of its charm here. In fact, the performance was every bit as playful as you would hope. Beat Furrer’s auf tönernen füssen was a fantastic pairing.

Life in the Cello Factory

For all its plus points, the London Ear Festival is not without its downsides. The Cello Factory, a fabulous venue, proved to be uncomfortably small on occasion. Often you felt as though you were sitting on top of the performers. Wine glasses were definitely smashed when nine percussionists, a piano, a bar and a whole audience tried to squeeze in for the late concert on Friday. Spacing out events midweek at the beginning of the festival also precluded those who aren’t within striking distance of London from attending those events. That’s largely unavoidable, what with funding restraints, venue availability and all. It’s just a bit of a shame (and partly explains why I’ve not made it to the festival prior to living in London).

As a composer, I was quite shocked to see a composition competition had been held. Several other composers were surprised by this too. We’d heard nothing about it. But, this is a festival with big ambitions run by a small team on a tight budget. We can’t expect everything and I’m very grateful for the work that the team clearly puts in. It pays off.

Nevertheless, the Cello Factory certainly has its plus points. The festival includes a ‘club’ – a rather grandiose term for inviting everyone back to the Cornwall Road venue between performances. There you can stock up on home-cooked food, ply yourself with alcohol, peruse music for sale and catch rehearsals in action (not to mention grabbing a seat in time for the next gig). It’s a nice touch, and one often seen at new music festivals in some form or another. However, London Ear also provided Sunday brunch, complete with Bloody Mary and a mug full of your chosen caffeinated vice. And it was fantastic! Other festivals, take note. After several days of music and drinking everyone could do with a hangover-curing brunch. And why not pair that brunch with a typically animated performance by Alwynne Pritchard? Why not indeed. Vigorously energetic (to the point of accidentally firing a shoe across the venue), Pritchard provided wonderful entertainment, perfectly pitched for the time of day.

One of the Family

And so we arrive at what I consider to be London Ear’s main selling point. The value for money is a delight, and the great performances are all well and good, but the festival had something that no amount of money can buy: a fantastic, welcoming atmosphere. An unmistakable familial mood permeated the entire festival, due in part to the industrious Pritchards who among them supplied artistic direction, composition, performance, front-of-house duties and kitchen expertise. As impressive as that is, the family atmosphere extended much further. I’m well into cliché territory here, but it all rings true. At London Ear everyone piles in together. World class performers, seasoned festival veterans, newbies, the curious, the young and the old all rubbed shoulders, passed around wine and discussed the virtues of Andrea Cavallari’s egg-cooking skills. How often do you see a festival’s artistic director offering eggs to the punters? Admittedly, he wasn’t doing it at the height of the mayhem, but the point still stands. At most events like this all you see between performances is a tedious display of networking, people hawking themselves at maximum intensity. Sure, there was networking, but not the kind that risks inducing nosebleeds and/or homicidal rage. We had nice fresh eggs. You can keep your unnecessarily stressful brown-nosing. Eggs win every time.

Perhaps 2016 was the sweet spot – the year when Pritchard and Cavallari could cram their programme with world-class musicians and the year the festival was still small enough to feel like hanging out with your closest friends. Perhaps as the enterprise grows some of its unique charm will wane. I’m sure HCMF, Musica and other big festivals had their more intimate days. Likewise, I’m sure their old audiences treasure the memories they have. I’ll certainly remember this year’s London Ear for a long time. I want more people to be able to enjoy its bounties too. But, on the other hand, I don’t want it to get much bigger. It’s pretty much perfect the way it is.

The London Ear Festival 2016 ran from 9 – 13 March