Saturday 8 May 2010

Sorry for the delay – volcanic ash in the computer.

Before the concert, Frederic Rzewski announced that he was trying to write music that didn’t make sense. He also said that his piano playing was getting worse with age, which was Nature’s way of telling him to start practicing. He played us the latest instalment of his series of Nano Sonatas – exercises in compressing as much musical content and variety into as little time as possible. Despite drawing their inspiration from nanotechnology, the sonatas’ freeform weirdness of apparently disjointed ideas spilling out over each other were reminiscent of Beethoven’s late bagatelles. As the bagatelles have been the boundary marker for the limits of musical meaning for 150 years, it seems that Rzewski’s campaign for nonsense is making progress.

This was all part of the London Sinfonietta’s series of concerts last week of ‘experimental’ music, somewhat inappropriately titled EXPERIMENT! and rather oddly divided up into Americans one night, British the next. The American gig was uniformly excellent, the highlights being Rzewski’s performance, the chance to hear some more of Christian Wolff’s music, and one of Morton Feldman’s lesser-known works. The programme said the Sinfonietta would be playing Feldman’s Four Instruments (1975) but the musicians goofed and played the 1965 piece with the same title by mistake. It’s strange how music which seemed so abstract and remote from emotional expression at the time, is now played with an umistakeable mood, a sense of introspective melancholy.

I’m wondering if a lot of Wolff’s music can only be appreciated live, with the listener there in the presence of the musicians interpreting the score on the spot with a combination of individual decisions and group consensus. The Sinfonietta’s performances made sense to both the head and the heart, with Exercise 16, played on violin and cello, sounding even beguiling. That’s an adjective I’ve never applied to Wolff’s music before.

That first night ended with Rzewski’s old warhorse Coming Together, which still packs a musical and dramatic wallop. My only quibble was that the reciter’s performance was a little ripe for my taste, with some minor but distracting miming of writing activity. Perhaps he was employing histrionics as a test of the reactions of others. I suppose he gave a vivid portrait of an incarcerated thespian.

By contrast, the second concert lived up to the usual stereotypes of the British being more reserved, modest, and using self-deprecating humour to undermine the seriousness of their intent – a trait which can be both good and bad. A more telling contrast, unmentioned by the programme notes, was a greater presence of more recent pieces by the British composers. It’s great to have newer music by living composers, but it revealed the fallacy of the concert’s presumed theme of “the experimental tradition”. The worst example was the choice of a section from Michael Nyman’s 2003 piece Exit No Exit to end the gig. Nyman’s written some interesting – and experimental – music, along with hours and hours of forgettable aural wallpaper like this piece. It was (perhaps inevitably?) a spinoff from an occasional piece, which may explain why it sounded less like music and more like a branding exercise, for composer and commissioner alike.

British self-effacement is all very well when it’s applied thoughtfully (as with Howard Skempton, whose Clarinet Quintet was played) but at other times it produces music which seems compromised, as though the composer didn’t have enough faith in the music’s premise and began pulling punches. The result thus often sounds derivative. John Lely’s All About The Piano had an interesting idea – piano playing recorded in real time then played back over various recording devices – white-anted by a couple of factors.

First, the title, with the sort of naff wordplay that seems strangely endemic amongst composers and real ale brewers, rendering both equally unappealing to normal members of the public. Secondly, the music itself wasn’t distinctive enough to make itself heard above the theatrical business with the various recording media. To be fair, I doubt that anything could upstage the acoustic, hand-cranked cylinder recorder that occupied front centre stage.

The British evening’s highlights were a small-scale production of Gavin Bryars’ classic The Sinking of the Titanic, and Cornelius Cardew’s Autumn ’60. Bryars’ piece is extremely effective in the disarmingly naive way it becomes both a memorial and an evocation of the event it commemorates, through its focus on the musical and sonic aspects of the tragedy. I’d never heard Autumn ’60 before, and this was a grand performance, with John Tilbury conducting the Sinfonietta and Howard Skempton sitting in on accordion. Cardew’s piece showed it’s affinities with the music of Christian Wolff and Earle Brown, but struck its own path in achieving an openness of interpretation that the New York School had advocated but taken years to get the hang of. Autumn ’60 makes its variety of textures, dynamics and colours seem effortless, while guiding the musicians through a coherent structure that still allows great flexibility. If the British concert concentrated on older pieces like these, it may have been as strong as the American programme.