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!