The Telegraph NOVEMBER 17, 2010 - by Ivan Hewett


What are men with berets doing making sound collages in a Yorkshire mill town?

Every year, something wonderfully improbable and exotic takes place in and around the Northern mill town of Huddersfield. You come across it in the oddest places - disused mills, Huddersfield railway station, Yorkshire sculpture park. It can be glimpsed in ordinary places, too, like the bar of the George Hotel - birthplace of rugby league in 1895 - where groups of musicians with goatee beards and berets can be heard conversing in a babel of European languages, next to ruddy-faced Yorkshiremen with their dogs.

In the city's art gallery and in the Town Hall, a newly restored gleaming green-and-white monument to Victorian civic pride, strange sounds can be heard.

You see odd sights - one year it was people wearing big old-fashioned headphones walking slowly through the streets, heads on one side. It turned out they were listening to the electromagnetic "noise" generated by the city, as gathered and sifted by a German sound artist.

These are all signs of the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, an unlikely bloom that flowers in the dreariest days of November. It was founded thirty-two years ago with a simple aim - to provide a window into a world of high-modernist music that we in Britain knew little about.

Why Huddersfield? Because its director Richard Steinitz taught at the lively music faculty at the university, which provided expertise, venues and office space, and still provides the background of the festival's resources.

From very modest beginnings, it soon became eminent. Top-flight ensembles such as the London Sinfonietta and Ensemble Modern were regular visitors, as well as leading composers. One astonishing photograph in the archive shows three gurus of post-war music - Pierre Boulez, Olivier Messiaen and John Cage - together at the festival, perhaps the only time they were ever in the same place at the same moment.

Since Graham McKenzie took over as artistic director in 2005, the festival has taken a new turn. McKenzie comes from the art world, having run an art gallery in Glasgow for some years, and he brings the outsider's fascination with sound to the festival. Sound installations, improvisation and multimedia events rub shoulders with more conventional concerts, much to the alarm of some of the festival's old fans who felt the high ground of modern music was being abandoned.

But far from being some hot-headed innovator, McKenzie was simply following a long-standing insight of modern music, which is that the border between noise and music is actually porous.

Almost a century ago the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo demonstrated his noise-machines at the London Coliseum and ever since composers have been enlarging music's empire by bringing all kinds of sounds - natural, machine-made, urban - into music. The huge advance in sound technology has facilitated this, and samplers, keyboards, mixers and microphones have been much in evidence in Huddersfield.

But this year, McKenzie is approaching sound-as-music from a different angle. "Installations are fine, but there's a danger of losing the intensity of the listening experience," he says. "The freedom to wander in and out can induce a mindset like the channel-hopping television viewer, who doesn't commit to anything for more than ten seconds."

So where is this intensity to be found? "Well, we have these wonderful things called concert halls! People say they're too formal and chilly, but they offer an opportunity to really listen to something without distractions."

This year The Low Frequency Orchestra will bring its extraordinary palette of low sounds to a disused mill ("like listening to a concert in an underground cave", says McKenzie.) The same space will host a new version of Brian Eno's classic of ambient music, Discreet Music.

On the final Saturday, English composer Rebecca Saunders presents a collage of twenty different sound sources dispersed through the Town Hall, in a new version of a piece originally unveiled at Tate Modern.

And alongside these are concerts by the score, where you can listen undisturbed to the alchemy of contemporary music, which takes the humblest sounds and turns them into music.