Why do I feel the need to rationalise wanting to go see the Pierre Boulez gigs this weekend? I think it’s partly the fact that, after all these years, he’s still described as an avant-garde figurehead yada yada yada, so help me he even gets billed as a technological pioneer, by people who should know better. People who must have twigged that the composer has spent the past 30-odd years trying to turn into Debussy, yet still peddle the lies that (a) he’s still some kind of firebrand and – perversely peculiar to modern music – (b) his music’s not particularly pleasant to listen to.
All this nonsense would be easier to ignore if Boulez himself didn’t appear to be so complacent. John Cage’s portrayal of the Frenchman puttering around his plush hotel room in a tailored smoking jacket waving his cigarette holder dismissively as he pronounces Charles Ives an amateur lurks behind all his later career. Well, that and his George Lucas-like obsession with tinkering with his legacy, smothering the vital core of his earlier music with revision after revision in the name of technical finesse and an insulated sense of “good taste”.
I’m going to see him conduct Pli selon pli partly out of morbid curiosity to hear what changes he’s wreaked on it over the past quarter-century, having heard no version more recent than the Phyllis Bryn-Julson recording from the mid-80s. I’ve also got a ticket for the evening with Domaines and Rituel, two pieces I think he’s left well alone and won’t be conducting. I’m wary of committing to anything further than that.
Bo Diddley, “Power House” (1970).
(2’50”, 3.9 MB, mp3)
I’d never heard Feldman’s Clarinet and String Quartet before, let alone Voices and Cello, so I had to go to Southbank last night to hear Endymion and Exaudi play these two pieces, along with two premieres by British composers. Damn, this stuff’s got to be hard to play. Besides the singing in the first half of the gig, the string players did a particularly remarkable job, particularly in achieving a sustained evenness of tone over the 45 minutes or so of Clarinet and String Quartet. Mark van de Wiel’s clarinet playing would occasionally break free of the undisturbed surface of Feldman’s music, which the composer strove so hard to maintain, but this was when playing his instrument in its higher regions. To keep a clarinet playing high at Feldman’s prescribed volume over more than a few notes would take a superhuman effort. He didn’t write much for the solo clarinet, partly because of this reason and the instrument’s variety of rich tones (“wallowing in timbre”), so it was educational to hear how he limited himself to an alternating sequence of near-octave leaps and slow, microtonal trills.
What really fascinated is the readiness with which dedicated musicians today can make this music sound almost effortless, approaching a platonic ideal of sound suggested, and thwarted, by Feldman’s beguiling notation. Equally fascinating was how the evening became a validation of Feldman’s sidewalk lesson in orchestration from Edgard Varèse. “Don’t forget the time it takes for the sound to reach the audience” sounds like an arty koan, but the two new works in the concert, both for vocal and string quartet, found it hard to speak clearly. It often felt like the voices and instruments were talking over each other, getting in each other’s way, getting lost in awkward rhythms and timbral transitions. The deceptively simple sounds in Feldman’s music would at one moment combine clarinet and cello into a single mysterious instrument, then at the next set each one apart.
Working on a sequel to String Quartet No. 2 (Canon In Beta) – this is made from offcuts of the source material I’m preparing.
Sadly, I had to miss the John Cage concert on Southbank last Tuesday (I had a perfect excuse) but I did remember to see the exhibition it accompanied. This was the first opportunity I’d had, after all these years, to see some of Cage’s visual art directly.
I have to admit I felt a twinge of disappointment when I read the promo blurb which promised an exhibition “inspired by Cage’s use of chance-determined scores”, i.e. the artworks were arranged scattered high and low over the walls, their positions determined by chance. In other words, an imitation of Cage’s Rolywholyover A Circus exhibition in 1992. There’s a difference between being inspired by someone and imitating them.
Rolywholyover A Circus presented a changing mix of artworks and objects from a variety of sources. Every Day is a Good Day was supposed to be an exhibition of Cage’s art. The two shows had different aims and purposes. As a survey of Cage’s prints and drawings, the presentation did him a disservice, treating his work as so many props as part of a greater installation. Just because Cage did it once doesn’t mean you have to do the same thing to show that you “get it”. If you think his art is worth exhibiting, display it at least as well as you would any other artist and give the punters a chance to assess it on its merits by giving them a good look at it.
Speaking of which, the lighting: was that chance-determined too? If so, it appeared a bit too uniform to meet the Cageian aesthetic. If not, it was crap. I know Cage admired the idea of a painting that would not be disturbed by the action of shadows on its surface but that didn’t mean that shadows were mandatory, any more than he hoped there’d be one punter in the audience struggling with a bag of crisps at every performance of 4’33”. While I’m complaining, why was just the first part of his String Quartet in Four Parts playing on a loop the whole time I was there? If you’re playing just one piece, could you make it a complete one? Wouldn’t Ryoanji be a much more appropriate choice?
OK, enough whingeing. It was great that someone in the UK brought together a large collection of Cage’s art for display. The catalogue was worth it alone, as it can be tricky to find even reproductions of many of these pieces in one location. To stand in one room surrounded by works made over nearly 20 years was a wonderful immersion into his aesthetic sensibility, and even gave a partial sense of how the sometimes disparate tendencies of his music related to each other. Cage largely made these pieces as objects for contemplation, and no matter how beautiful they may look in reproduction, their lack of any conventional “content” draws attention to the subtleties otherwise barely perceptible when viewed at first hand: the texture of the paper, the impressions of the printing plate left on the surface, a stray trace of smoke.
Given that it’s so overshadowed by his music, the show was a useful start for assessing the strengths and weaknesses of Cage’s art. A few pieces seemed facile, little more than school art-class exercises that present ordinary found objects as “beautiful” or “artistic”. More often, they used the same methods – traced rocks, smoked and scorched paper, washes of colour, lines and accidents – as a means to explore the materials and techniques of printing in unusual but sympathetic ways (Cage was never a confrontational “anti-artist”.) The methods I mentioned above are one and the same as the subject matter, for want of a better term. This unified approach succeeds in meeting Cage’s long-stated aesthetic of imitating nature in its manner of operation, creating beauty which is unintentional, but not accidental.
Dieter Schnebel, “Poem für 4 Köpfe” (1987-89). Other Minds Ensemble.
(9’17”, 11.0 MB, mp3)
Yes it’s short notice but I just found out myself. Dear Reader, you are always the first to know about these things, because I care about you.
Still full of myself after the gig at ABJECT BLOC in July, I’ve agreed to play as part of no.w.here and Other Film’s Unconscious archives #2. If you missed the Limehouse gig, this is another chance to hear the Mock Tudor live analogue electronic feedback loops, made from small amplifiers, mixers and modulators. Connected into circuits these gadgets start to oscillate and interact with each other in unpredictable ways.
I’ll be supporting Korean filmmaker and performer Hangjun Lee, with local musician, poet, performer, filmmaker and legend Hugh Metcalfe. Tuesday 13th September, Apiary Studios, 458 Hackney Rd, London, E2 9EG. It’s a £4 donation and you can – nay, must – bring your own booze. Don’t worry, there are plenty of offies in the steret. 8pm onwards.
If I remember to go to Cafe Oto tomorrow night I get to hear Phill Niblock’s Five More String Quartets performed live by Apartment House. This is the piece that started the whole six-year-and-counting journey of my own String Quartet No. 2 (Canon in Beta).
Incidentally, the latest iteration of SQ2(CB) is still on display at Monash University Museum of Art until 1 October.