I first heard Richard Ayres’ music in the 1999 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (two years before I took over the directorship from Richard Steinitz) in a beautiful programme by Apartment House of works by Richard Rijnvos (another important first encounter for me), Christopher Fox, and Richard. On the programme was Richard’s piece no.24 (NONcerto for Alto Trombone) for soloist, small ensemble and “at least 3 untrained male voices” (supplied to fit the brief by members of the Music Department). I was blown away by the music I heard, which shocked me, made me laugh out loud, and touched me deeply all within one piece – and was totally unlike anything I had previously come across. I also met Richard himself, and discovered that we had a past history in common as members of the Cornwall Youth Orchestra. Suddenly I remembered the trombonist from near Wadebridge who composed and who was constantly getting into trouble for his complete disregard for normal ways of doing things. We became friends and to this day I am a fierce admirer of his strange, unhinged, beautiful music.
The Collection is well stocked with Richard’s works and there is also a very pleasing CD available on NMC records, which includes the work I have chosen to spotlight – his NONcerto for trumpet, no.31 (composed in 1998), in an impeccable performance by soloist Marco Blaauw and Musikfabrik. As it happens, I programmed this work in 2003 with these performers in Huddersfield as part of an all-Ayres concert and wider feature on him and his music, just after they had spent 9 days (sadly a very un-British length of time) working on the recording. The work falls into three movements: a Burlesque (with long scale); Elegy for Alfred Schnittke; Rhapsody. As so often with Richard’s work, the listener senses an entirely private psychodrama playing out underneath the three very contrasting movements. The idea of the NONcerto itself already sets out a relationship between soloist and ensemble in which the one subverts the other – the soloist often engaged in what feels like an increasingly desperate struggle with the ensemble, yet one in which we catch ourselves, shamefully, laughing at the straining, posturing and vulnerabilities of the individual. I have heard Richard describe his fascination for those things which are ignored or cast aside; for the uncomfortable and neglected. This is not comfortable music to listen to. But it can be beautiful, epic and direct.