Mystery Play

Saturday 28 August 2010

Like all you mortals I get inappropriate junk mail, such as the flyer offering me discounts on entire sheep and teatowels for Ramadan. This one threw me for a second:

What do you think this pamphlet was trying to sell me? I’ve blanked out the last bit, because when I first saw this ad all the signals – amateurish layout, the word “passion”, the attempt to emulate the look of Facebook, the rainbow, the passive-aggressive use of imperative tense, the big old building, the ascending stairs, the open door, and (to be perfectly frank) the clean-cut young black man – made me assume this was yet another flyer from one of the hundreds of charismatic churches in the East End, and that the final word would be “salvation”.

I was wrong. Was this confusion intentional? Is pretending to be a god-botherer a way to get people’s attention now, or have I slipped into a parallel universe?

The One Prom of the Year: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldman

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.

The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.

The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.

Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.

A conceptual bird in a perspex cage

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Jodru at ANABlog has visited that 639-year performance of John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP in Halberstadt so you don’t have to.

A few years ago I wrote about this slow-motion stunt, saying that it reinforced

… Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. More than any composer Cage wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.

An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along.

Jodru walks you through the laborious process of actually getting to see the organ in action, and offers his verdict on whether it’s all worth the effort. Two telling points: first, that the church is kept locked to spare attendants from having to be on-site listening to the music all day. Second:

The organ is quite small, but it is encased in acrylic to dampen the sound.

To quote a noted antipodean oenologist, “This is not a wine for drinking; this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”

Better on Vinyl

Friday 13 August 2010

What is the lingering appeal of the vinyl record? Classical music store Harold Moores Records is refurbishing for the next two weeks, and has been making room in the basement by clearing out all the second-hand LPs and dumping them in a skip in Great Marlborough Street. The result:

I was alerted to this feeding frenzy when a friend sent me a frantic text ordering me down to Soho. By the time I arrived the skip was only one-third full. Luckily for me they were still bringing out fresh stock/trash, from some of the more insteresting racks. More importantly I was able to grab an empty box everyone else was ignoring, so I could actually lug the lot home.

There were, of course, people who came up to the skip, poked around a bit, and then left once they had determined that there were only classical records. Despite this, some people were content simply to grab a record or two and then leave. A couple of guys were about to leave when they decided that the records were appealing enough as objects to make it worth their time to make a large and varied selection.

Vinyl records and gramophones are the steam engines of music: impressive and elegant works of engineering, advanced in technical and industrial development yet still obvious enough in its means of operation for the everyday mind to intuitively grasp and appreciate. Subsequent recording technology is too efficient to be impressive, too inscrutable in its technology to admire on an aesthetic level.

I found myself picking up a couple of records which I already have on CD; not for any retro-chic appeal they might possess, but because the old LPs are clearly “newer” than the CD reissues. They are artifacts of the time when the recording was newly-recorded and released, and so still an unknown quantity – far different from the “classics” preserved on CD.

Despite whatever protest Harold Moores’ staff may have made, at least at first, the records had obviously been kept in stock for some perceived monetary value as objects, not as recordings. That album of Henze’s El Cimarrón was priced at £36. You can get the same recording on CD at Amazon for at least 10 quid less, and without the scratches, dust and surface noise. No wonder no-one bought it.

Back from his recent illness.

Thursday 12 August 2010

This is going to take longer than I thought.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

No computer, no broadband. Let’s give it another week.