Walking into the room in which the British Music Collection is currently housed at the University of Huddersfield is quite awe inspiring. If I had a spare three months I could quite happily be left in there to explore and listen to the wealth of music in the collection. In the end my shortlist was reduced to two scores: the first was the Keyboard Anthology published by the Experimental Music Catalogue comprising beautiful piano miniatures from the early 1970s by Howard Skempton, Gavin Bryars and Hugh Shrapnel amongst others; the second was Papalotl for piano and tape by Javier Alvarez. In the end Papalotl won out - simply because of the vivid memory I have of a truly virtuoso performance of this work by Philip Mead.
Although Mexican by birth, Alvarez worked in London throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Papalotl, composed in 1987, is characteristic of Alvarez' highly rhythmic and effervescent musical idiom. As a student in Birmingham in the early 1990s I was surrounded by acousmatic music. Much as I loved the long crafted evolving lines and attention to minute detail found in this music, I was immediately drawn to the raw elemental drive of Alvarez' score.
The opening section constantly shifts the rhythmic focus - the continually changing time signature producing a cascade of juddering pulses. The synchronisation with the tape is ferociously difficult as the piano and sampled piano-sounds of the electronics ricochet off one another like an out of control pin ball machine. Although there are two tape 'solos' the pace of the work is relentless. The piano plays fast homophonic mid-high chords throughout most of the work adding to the sense of lightness and speed. When I sat looking at this score again in the Huddersfield library a few days ago it struck me how simple this work looks on the page. Yes, there are a lot of notes, but they are mostly no more complicated than patterns of (dotted) semiquavers, quavers and crochets. However, Alvarez' real skill is in the evolution and development of these patterns. Rhythm is not only the surface driving force in this score it is what articulates its formal development and its structure. That Alvarez can maintain such a high level of rhythmic activity and musical intensity across the work's 14 minute span and keep the listener gripped throughout is a testament to his compositional craft. Even though this work is now twenty-five years old, for me, it is still fresh, vibrant and demonstrates the one of the best examples of what can be done when combining instruments and electronics.
Monty Adkins is a composer, performer and professor in experimental electronic music at the University of Huddersfield. His recent work is published on the Sheffield-based label Audiobulb.