New Dots is a new initiative devoted to supporting emerging composers and performers in contemporary music, and this was its second-ever concert, at The Forge in Camden. Four world premières and one UK première – all New Dots commissions – plus a bonus performance of a recent piece by Mark Simpson were performed by members of the Atéa Wind Quintet and pianist Richard Uttley, in various instrumental combinations. They formed a pleasingly varied programme, all taking inspiration from a non-musical source, and yet each using this inspiration in profoundly different ways.

Yuko Ohara and Joshua Batty © Cathy Pyle
Yuko Ohara and Joshua Batty
© Cathy Pyle

Piers Tattersall’s At a Distance of Less than a Yard… was a strong opening which stood out for the sharpness with which it characterised its three instrumental parts. Based around the plot of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel Jealousy, this trio tells the story of a man (piano) whose wife (clarinet) is having an affair (with a French horn). Perhaps understandably, the piano spends most of the piece going slightly nuts, and prompts a shrill response from the clarinet. The horn begins as an apparently rather confused bystander, but gradually unites with his lover, perhaps in opposition to the barrage of unreasonable outbursts coming from the piano. A slower coda sees the piano, feeling sorry for itself, slip into a rather self-indulgent light jazz style and reluctantly take on the role of accompanist to the two soloists. It’s easy for compositions like this to slip into unintelligibility, but Tattersall’s was full of wit and enjoyable to try and interpret.

The following piece, Emma-Ruth Richards’ Caught on the Corner for flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon, was less of a laugh. Though a standalone composition, it draws on the dramatic themes of an opera she is writing about sex trafficking. This gritty subject clearly provokes harsh music from Richards, who uses mutiphonics (multiple notes played at once on the same wind instrument) to create some extraordinarily piercing dissonances. This felt like a very effective illustration of the grim themes being tackled – especially in the third movements, with its sinister hints of something lurid – but I missed an actual dramatic element: as an abstract work with no narrative, its unrelenting grimness lacked context.

Yuko Ohara’s Double Helix for solo flute, on the other hand, is an intellectual rather than emotional response to its subject matter, using every technical trick in the book to represent the structure of a double-stranded molecule. Compelling in its virtuosity, Double Helix was superbly realised by Joshua Batty.

When the world is puddle-wonderful for clarinet, flute and piano by Michael Cutting had a rather vaguer relationship to its inspirational source, E.E. Cummings’ poem in Just (from which the title is taken). There’s an air of quiet joy to the poem, which vividly depicts a spring day, and something of this carries through into Cutting’s contemplative, smiling, whispered composition. This provocative piece stood out for its softness, answering few questions but asking quite a lot.

Aaron Holloway-Nahum was the only commissioned composer not to be present – he was on safari – but in place of a brief verbal introduction to his wind quintet How to Avoid Huge Ships, we were treated to a remarkably well-made short film which explained a few of the ideas behind it. It was presented as the “journey” of a melody through “positive” and “negative space” – terms from architecture, as the film explained. The idea that a composition concerns the development and manipulation of one thematic idea is not a new one, of course – this was the most traditional number on the bill in most respects – but the piece itself was an entertaining abstract composition, even if it didn’t lead me down the same paths as the video seemed to intend. The title remains a mystery – though I haven’t collided with any huge ships since I heard this piece, so presumably the advice is good.

An interlude to all the commissions came in the form of Mark Simpson’s slightly older piano work Barkham Fantasy, performed with breathtaking sensitivity by Richard Uttley. It’s a remarkable miniature, full of sinister textures, extremes of pitch and capricious changes of mood, reminiscent of Thomas Adès’ solo piano works but never distractingly so. This concert wasn’t meant to be about Mark Simpson, but this did come fairly close to stealing the show.

With Uttley, the Atéa Wind Quintet – Joshua Batty (flute), Philip Haworth (oboe), Anna Hashimoto (clarinet), Christopher Beagles (horn) and Ashley Myall (bassoon) – performed excellently in whatever combination was required, eloquently proving the benefits of close relationships between composers and performers. It’s wonderful that contemporary music has another champion in London – especially one so committed to commissioning – and New Dots has found an effective formula for presenting its new works. I look forward to seeing how it develops, and keeping up with the many new dots (and sounds) ahead.