Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough, and Kurtág; or Francesconi, Kurtág, Ferneyhough, and Dusapin; or Kurtág, Dusapin, Fransesconi, and Ferneyhough.

Wednesday 31 January 2007

After the interval, Irvine Arditti addressed the audience. “I gather that many of you haven’t the faintest idea what it is we’re playing.” He then added, “We often feel the same way.”

The program for the Arditti Quartet’s gig at Wigmore Hall last week claimed we would be hearing Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough, and Kurtág, in that order. Then, before the concert began, a silver-haired gentleman mounted the stage and announced that in fact we would be hearing the second piece first, the last piece second, the third piece where it was, and the first piece last. He then added, as an attempt at clarification, that this meant the running order was now Kurtág, Dusapin, Francesconi, and Ferneyhough. No, we said, after checking this against our programs, but the gentleman had already disappeared, leaving us to our confusion.

Interestingly, out of all the composers’ names, the one the locals had the most trouble pronouncing correctly was the Coventry-born Brian Ferneyhough.

I was glad I was too cheap to pay £3 for the program, seeing as it was useless for finding out what was playing when, and because I later learned that the notes for these compositions, by the composers themselves, were similarly confusing and unhelpful. They were in the much-parodied academic-speak beloved of the institutional avant-garde, who write everything as though it were a conference abstract.

Ferneyhough’s Fifth String Quartet is a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities”; completely unlike his Second Quartet, which “realizes the projected possibility of a gradual coming together between objective coherence and receptive spontaneity”. Chalk and cheese, really. Both are significant advances over his earlier Sonatas for String Quartet, with its “dialectical tension between the elements with a deliberately rationalizing character and others of a more spontaneous gesture”.

I wonder if these types of program notes in today’s intellectual climate seem more quaint than alienating. This sort of hyperintellectual analysis doesn’t upset me as much as it does others: just about every artist is intellectually beholden to some personal philosophy that, on contact with the outside world, proves to be more or less bogus. Whether it’s poststructuralist discourse or catholicism, I don’t have to buy into the ideas that make a piece of music I enjoy listening to.

Oh yeah, the music was really nice. Contemporary classical music is alive and well etc. As Ferneyhough put it himself when discussing his Third String Quartet, “the multiplicity of values in the text rests on a coherent structuring procedure regulated by the relation between silence and eloquence. Such a postulate of art for art’s sake gives birth to a work that can only be conceived by self-reference: first in a metaphorical sense, but finally in a literal sense.” Which I take to be a particularly thorough way of saying: it is what it is.

What’s big in composition right now: sustained passages of rapid movement, played very quietly. Every new piece these days has to have at least one, it seems.

Wigmore Hall is Rock’n’Roll!

  • One punter reeks of piss!
  • Another punter reeks of stale booze!
  • Yet another is swigging straight from their single-serve bottle of wine without using the glass provided!

Filler by Proxy XLV: Grapple With It

Monday 29 January 2007

If there’s a reason my compulsive CD buying has stopped over the past 12 months, it’s because of sites like UbuWeb, the Other Minds Archive, WFMU and ANABlog making available all sorts of wild stuff I’d heard about, but never actually heard.
Lately ANABlog has been working through mini-retrospectives of music by underrated composers of the 20th Century (their latest project, Ben Johnston, is definitely worth a listen) but amongst all this they have uploaded George Harrison’s much maligned second solo album, Electronic Sound.
This is the album he made (or didn’t make, depending who you ask) entirely on his shiny new Moog synthesiser in a couple of days. I don’t know which is more surprising, that someone has bothered to upload an MP3 of this record, or that it was once issued as an 8-track cartridge.
If you’re at all curious, get it soon, because it won’t stay around for too long. (Short, shameful confession: I haven’t downloaded it because I bought a slightly battered 2nd-hand LP of it some 15 years ago.)
Also: Forget the Beatle! I just checked UbuWeb and they now have a collection of readings by Jas H. Duke. This is the guy who would have changed the history of poetry, if only (a) he wasn’t Australian, (b) the cultural custodians acknowledged his existence, and (c) he didn’t fall down the Melbourne General Post Office steps in 1992.

Dalston Kingsland, North London Line, 6.00pm

Saturday 27 January 2007

You all racist, all of you, but you don’t know nothing! You not even white! You know the name they got for you? Caucus Asians! That’s what you are, you all Asians man. You ain’t even real Asian, you all dead man, you’re all caucuses, you’re dead bodies. You ain’t white, you dead. Caucus Asians!

Saturday Drones Club, Part 2: Stockhausen

Saturday 27 January 2007

“This piece goes for 70 minutes!” my friend groaned, looking through the program. After an hour or so of Phil Niblock’s drones at Sketch earlier in the day, we were at another free concert: a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1968 composition Stimmung, in which six singers hold a single chord based on overtones of a low B-flat for the duration.
The piece is an excellent example of the combination of rigorous logic and loony inspiration that comprises much of Stockhausen’s music; its esoteric and irrational material harnessed by a meticulous design. Names of the days of the week, gods from religions around the world, and slightly goofy self-penned erotic poetry, are given means to be incorporated into designated rhythmic patterns at times decided upon by the singers, which in turn generate subtle harmonic combinations as these patterns are imitated or diverged from amongst the other singers.
Unlike the Niblock performance, there were no couches, drinks, or quiet conversation. The singers, three male, three female, sat around a table, facing each other, with microphones to provide slight amplification to better bring out the harmonics in the drones. We sat surrounding them, in hard plastic seats arranged in rings around the cavernous room. A small speaker in the centre of the floor softly played the low drone, to keep the singers in tune. Clearly this would have to be a meditative experience.
My only worry about going to this gig was whether the singers – a group called Intimate Voices, who all have non-music related day jobs – would be any good. Singing softly and holding the same pitch for long periods of time is not at all easy, and excessive deviations in intonation or loudness, or confusion in moving from one pattern to the next, could make the experience interminable. The performers have to learn a new singing style, and jointly work out their own structure for a coherent interpretation. It wasn’t surprising to learn this night was the culmination of 18 months of rehearsals.
I’ve heard the Singcircle recording of Stimmung, and this performance was a bit rougher, as you’d expect in a live setting. However, Intimate Voices gave an interpretation that showed more variety in atmosphere and attitude from one section to the next, unlike Singcircle’s consistently unruffled approach, even during the dirty poems. Intimate Voices’ interpretation was more episodic, with more pauses and breaks between sections: I’m not sure how acceptable this is to the composer. The electronic drone could still be faintly heard throughout the concert, which both filled the gaps in the singing and revealed when singers began to stray from correct intonation.
Despite these small issues, the singers in Intimate Voices made a subtly beautiful, flowing and well-shaped interpretation of Stockhausen’s score. The open form of the work meant that hearing other performances did nothing to prepare me for how the work would unfold, so it was very satisfying hearing the familiar elements arranged into a new form with its own dramatic sense. The visual aspects helped: watching the singers signalling to each other when they were introducing new material, and hearing how it was incorporated into the music.
My friend, who has taken singing lessons and sung in a number of choirs, appreciated the difficulties of the piece and liked the way the six singers kept it together, adding her own statement of approval: “That felt like only 50 minutes!”
A reproduction of the score, and a more detailed analysis of how it is constructed, is available here.

Everybody thinks Tubby the Tuba; nobody ever thinks Ludwig the Tuba.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

In the bit of my Gubaidulina review where I ranted about how so many composers don’t know how to write music for certain instruments, so they just copy what some famous composer did before them (and so everything written for that instrument ends up sounding the same, and so everyone thinks that instrument always sounds the same…), I was referring to something Morton Feldman used to complain about. I forgot to mention it.
Kyle Gann has been discussing Feldman again on his blog, with two anecdotes I’d not heard before, regarding the need to be aware of how complicit you are in acceding to convention, be it social, historical, or personal. He doesn’t mention whether there is an intentional subtext about Jewish minds thinking alike.

Morton Feldman used to have a standard assignment that he gave his students: “Write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” He found that his students wrote their best pieces denying all their usual reflexes. (Sort of like the Seinfeld episode in which he decides, since everything he does turns out badly, that he’ll do the opposite of his reflex habits from now on – and it works.) Feldman also had a standing offer to buy dinner for the student who could come up with the worst orchestration – and no one ever won, because the more they worked to come up with bizarre instrument combinations, the more interesting the results.

Saturday Drones Club, Part 1: Phill Niblock

Wednesday 24 January 2007

I swear that scoring free drinks at Sketch was only an afterthought when I went to the opening of Phill Niblock’s The Movement of People Working. The main reason was hearing and watching live performances of his music.
As far as anyone is concerned, Niblock does two things. First, he writes music which requires a solo musician to hold one note for as long as possible, over and over again, and then overdub that with more of the same, over and over again. A loud, dense drone, rich with shifting overtones, is produced.
Secondly, and this comes as a surprise to music-oriented people when going to see a performance of his music, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. At Sketch we were surrounded by people repairing boats, harvesting seaweed, dismembering carcases, making noodles, ploughing earth, flaying hides, winnowing grain, scavenging garbage.
The films are open to political, social and economic interpretations, but these considerations are subsumed within the prosaic documentation of people performing practiced, necessary actions, devoid of aesthetic artifice. If the juxtaposition of sound and image comment on each other, it is through the musician’s playing, stripped of expressive subjectivity, performing a disciplined series of tasks. The necessity of the work shown on film, however, is missing from the music. Largely, it appears that both appear together because they’re the two things Niblock does. The incompatibly impersonal approaches to the two media make film and music oddly neutral accompaniments to each other.
The square, high-ceilinged gallery at Sketch showed three videos projected high on each wall, showing randomly-selected sections from the hours of film Niblock has shot over two decades, above a pit of fashionable bohemian types busily networking and quaffing free pinot grigio. (“I’ve seen your website,” was the first piece of overheard conversation upon entering the room.) There was a palpable irony in the disconnect between the scenes in the lower and upper halves of the room; yet amongst the milling crowd – the muddled conversations, the drinking, the social climbing, the little group of small children, one wearing a strikingly painted helmet, who ran around and occasionally butted into the small bar, sending glasses flying – there were people at work: a couple of flustered drinks waiters trying to clear tables and keep the glasses intact, and in one corner a flautist and a guitarist alternately playing Niblock’s music, which filled up all available aural space in and around the crowd noise. They were doing their job, mostly ignored, and hopefully getting properly paid for it.
Later that day I went to a performance at Goldsmiths College of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, a large work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for seventy minutes. Like the Niblock gig, it was free! But no booze. The write-up will have to wait until part 2, tomorrow.

Will I regret not spending an hour travelling out to Croydon last night to pay 28 pounds to see Steven Seagal play guitar with his blues band?

Monday 22 January 2007


Gubaidulina at the Barbican, Wolfie Adams at the Lakeside

Sunday 21 January 2007

The year has begun in its traditional way, with the confluence of darts finals on the telly and the Barbican’s annual weekend with a not-quite-dead composer. It seems I missed a nailbiting final, as this review describes in satisfying detail what makes watching people watching darts so enjoyable (“That’s the brilliant thing about darts – the honesty.”)
This year’s composer was Sofia Gubaidulina, whose music I’m not sure about. I’d heard a few pieces, which ranged from great (Offertorium) to tedious and pedantic (Sieben Worte), so this seemed like a good time to skip the darts and find out which of these works was the exception to the rule.
The big Friday night concert presented all of Gubaidulina’s orchestral ‘Nadeyka’ Triptych for the first time. The first piece, a violin concerto called The Lyre of Orpheus, contained some of the attributes that makes Offertorium such a strong piece – a sombre capital-B Beauty, and an imaginative use of tonal colour, such as the combination of violin and percussion instruments – on a more limited and modest scale. This law of diminishing returns continued to assert itself as the evening wore on.
After the performance of the second piece, ‘…The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair’, one reviewer called the solo flautist “mannered”, because he didn’t have enough space to print “evil wind-up Bridget Fonda doll who thinks she’s the conductor”. The music didn’t help, giving her lots of free time to mince around on stage in between aping the opening gesture of Varèse’s Density 21.5 over and over again. This is a problem that recurs with the lesser, academically-acceptable composers: they don’t know what to do with instruments less familiar than piano and strings, so they all tend to write for the same instruments in the same way. Gubaidulina is not the only composer to copping flute gestures from Varèse’s piece and generally faking along with other flute clichés like trills and whirling chromatic runs, strung together into the semblance of real flute music.
In case the title of the previous piece wasn’t portentous enough for you, the final work, for large orchestra and tape, was called A Feast During the Plague. For the better part of half an hour the orchestra heaved and groaned through a sludgy, turgid, overbearing score that played like a parody of Serious Modern Music. The tape (deliberately incongruous techno breaks interrupting the orchestra) was poorly executed and carelessly played through speakers either side of the stage. Combined with the orchestra’s bombast, it left everyone in the audience feeling bemused, belaboured and mildly embarassed.
I can more or less agree with the start of this review:

The more one listens to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, the less one likes it. Such disenchantment comes, it should be added, from hearing it in quantity. Performed in isolation, her works often give the impression of stark originality. However, placed end to end in this year’s BBC composer weekend, they revealed startling limitations of emotional range.

Music not being sentient, I don’t care about its perceived emotional range, be it limited or not. Xenakis stuck to one level of expression for pretty much his entire life and I don’t have a problem with his music the way I do with Gubaidulina’s. It’s not that perpetually pained religiosity, that has helped so many eastern European composers find favour with western critics, which I find objectionable; just that it is used to sustain poorly-constructed, numbingly literal music.
The afternoon concerts at St Giles at Cripplegate of Gubaidulina’s string quartets showed both her strengths and her weaknesses as a composer in a better light. Quartets allow less room for bombast, and these pieces were allowed by the composer to relate to listeners on musical terms alone, rather than asked to bear a heavy, ungainly spiritual message that neither the medium nor the composer could sustain. The musical ideas were interesting and quite unusual, but each successful passage seemed to hang around a little too long: she always seemed too intrigued by the effects to properly integrate them into a cohesive composition.
Finally, by way of a wholly gratuitous and unenlightening anecdote, I feel compelled to observe that Gubaidulina, present at all the concerts, wore the same damn shirt on each of the three days.

Leo Sayer’s quest for acolytes continues unfulfilled, for now.

Wednesday 17 January 2007

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I last wrote about Leo Sayer. Someone, equally incredulous, just wrote to me to say, “I can’t believe you haven’t posted about Celebrity Big Brother yet,” as if I’m the sort of person who watches much TV besides darts. I had no idea what the anonymous well-wisher was driving at, until I remembered who one of this year’s contestants was: the former pop star who moved to Australia with the immortal words…

I don’t know how much luck he’s had inspiring the youth of Australia, but he’s been back in the UK trying to engender veneration from the likes of Ken Russell and Face from The A Team. Sadly, it seems Australia is still a more enlightened place than Borehamwood, because he’s already quit the show, “after knocking down a door with a shovel.” And he’d run out of clean underpants. Paul McCartney was right about saints. Happy now, Anonymous?

Your primitive earth minds cannot possibly comprehend our scientific superiority

Tuesday 16 January 2007

For a while there it looked like my computer had had the dick: the thing was struggling with any task more extensive than editing a text file, gasping and panting and frantically scrabbling for disk space. At the very least, a new hard drive might have eked another year of life out the poor old heap.
Also, my camera kept shutting off at random intervals, and the problem had been gradually getting worse.
When confronted by tragedy, the mean and cheap-arse side of my personality takes over. So, I told myself the computer was probably just overheating and that pulling the laptop apart and fiddling with the fan attached to the CPU would solve all my problems.
To undertake the operation I prepared extensively, by reading through the first search result on Google and digging out an old precision screwdriver from a $2 shop that had previously been used as a nail punch. Inside the fan, the heat sink was covered with a fuzzy mat of lint, which I pulled out. My laptop now works perfectly.
Also, I found that the hinge of the lens cover on my camera had a small piece of lint wedged in it, which I pulled out. My camera now works perfectly.
I can repair any piece of modern consumer technology! As long as it involves lint. Which it probably will.
This is what I get for living in a yurt.

Doing it for Gerald Ford! Three and a half more observations from Budapest

Thursday 11 January 2007

  • The in-flight magazine on Malev Airlines contained a full-page ad from the Budapest Olympic Committee with the headline, “It is time to bring the OLYMPIC GAMES to BUDAPEST! So we can be proud ourselves again.” [sic]
  • Lots of stuff named after Liszt, Bartók, and Kodály. Nothing named after Ligeti or Kurtág. That last link is as good a sketch of Budapest as it is of Kurtág.
  • While only half a block is fenced off around the British Embassy, the American Embassy gets its entire block fenced off.
  • – Look, they’ve lowered the flag to half-mast for James Brown!
    – Actually, they probably did it for Gerald Ford.
    – Oh yeah. Probably.

Filler by Proxy XLIV: Party Like It’s 2003!

Tuesday 9 January 2007

Just when my hard drive is about to die: The 365 Days Project is back for another year. I’ve already plugged this remarkable collection of audio anomalies, first uploaded one file a day throughout 2003. Four years later, WFMU has decided to repeat the exercise, compiling another 365 songs, radio broadcasts, advertisements, and home recordings that struggle to justify their existence in consensus reality.
In fact, this time around there’ll be more than 365 semi-classifiable sounds to enjoy: on some days they’re posting more than just one file. A lot more. So far they’ve given us obscure chocolate jingles, the Leif Garrett Fan Club record, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s The L.S. Bumble Bee, and the jaw-dropping concept that is Play It Safe, Vol.4. Get in early before it overwhelms you.

In which we repent a season of overindulgence

Tuesday 9 January 2007

I saw in the new year in Budapest, running around in the Vörösmarty tér setting off bottle rockets, drinking plastic cups of glühwein and shouting in Italian. The city is full of Italians: it seems the locals were more likely to understand Italian than German, and were probably better at both than English. I counted down into the new year in Italian, after a cod-English community singalong amongst the entire crowd of “Twist and Shout”, which I don’t think is the national anthem of either Hungary or Italy.
The Hungarians had a democratic, do-it-yourself approach to fireworks. As far as I could see there was no organised display anywhere in the city, but the council had cleared a space at either end of the square for anyone who wanted to bring their own fireworks and toss them about. Which they did, insistently, all night. I almost spilled my glühwein when a stray rocket spiralled under my bench: about half a second later I saw a youth briskly swept away into the night by a pair of large men in day-glo coveralls.
Budapest is not an entirely cruisy city to hang out in. I almost got myself arrested the night before, during a little misunderstanding with some ticket inspectors on the Metro (my fault for not buying a ticket, but not entirely my fault for displaying a healthy skepticism that they were real inspectors). Then, earlier on New Year’s Eve my friends and I got into an argument on the street with the proprietor of a restaurant who had kept us waiting the better part of an hour before repeatedly attempting to serve us the wrong food.
We stormed off feeling all empowered and assertive, not realising that on this day all the cafes, bistros and restuarants in town close at 6pm. Ha! Who wants to enjoy a meal out on New Year’s Eve? Certainly not tourists! We spotted a few clumps of forlorn revellers wandering the streets from one darkened door to another, before we finally got lucky at a bar that was booked out (funny that) but who scrounged up a little table for us, bless ’em.
A lot of bars did open up later on, including the wonderfully-named Beckett’s Irish Pub. Yes, the walls were decorated with a few drawings of the titular Nobel laureate. Doesn’t that sound like a fun place for a cheery drink and friendly conversation? I was going to stop in, but the dustbins were all occupied.

I had planned to spend New Year’s Day at the Statue Park, which is somewhere on the outskirts of town, inspecting the detritus from the years of Soviet rule. After 1989 it was decided that all the less-securely attached monuments shouldn’t be destroyed, but all corralled together in some out-of-the-way place – sort of like a communist version of Monster Island. Unfortunately, you have to change buses at least once from the centre of town to get out there, and a lot of buses in Budapest use the same route numbers, but the numbers can mean very different things depending on what colour they are. So I spent most of the day ruminating upon another legacy of the communist era: riding around block after block of drab apartment towers until it got dark.
Even without the communist trappings, Budapest is still crammed with monuments and statues from different regimes. I was very reluctant to photograph them because most of the time I had no idea what they were, and the ones I did know about all seemed to have been used at one time or another as a rallying point for some nationalist, fascist, or Stalinist group or other. What with all the rioting lately, I became paranoid about being seen as some sort of sympathiser and getting into yet another street altercation. At least at Statue Park I would have been safely classified as a tourist.
As well as the Mystery Bar that fed us on New Year’s Eve, I have to thank Café Eklektika for giving me shelter on the first, after I’d finally found my way back into the city. Apart from being the only bar in Hungary to have sufficiently gotten over the heady days of liberation to move their record collection on beyond 1990, they let me loll for as long as I wanted in a comfy couch drinking Mitteleuropan pilsner before stuffing myself with a New Year Stew of smoked pork and lentils. It made me realise how much I miss the cafés of Melbourne.

A substantial part of any European vacation is properly spent watching TV. The whole time I was there, the Italian channel (of course) on the little telly in my communist-era hostel-turned-hotel obsessed over Saddam Hussein’s execution. They really miss Mussolini, don’t they? Meanwhile, the German telly was showing the 2006 German Comedy Award [sic]. They didn’t even spell “Comedypreis” with a K – pathetic! I switched on for a bit and saw a bloke in a rubber nose. The Hungarian stations all seemed to be showing karaoke at a local bar.

“Our new barbarity is acquisitive – it collects anything and everything.”

Wednesday 3 January 2007

The accolades are coming thick and fast. Having only just recovered from the shock of being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2006, I’ve returned home to find that The National Library of Australia has decided that a blog devoted to gratuitous references to Jeremy Bentham is an “electronic publication of lasting cultural and research value of national significance”. So they’re archiving Boring Like A Drill on a server somewhere in Fyshwick, I guess. A winner is me!
These things come in threes, so I expect an envelope from Reader’s Digest any day now.