My memories of the AMM gig at Conway Hall are a lot more positive than my thoughts on it at the time, or so it seems. Reading that blog entry again was a small shock. Even now that I’m puzzling over it, my bemusement is not over what caused my memories of it to change, but what caused me to write about it that way in the first place.
It may well be that the music really didn’t make much of an impact on me, and what has really stuck in my head was the experience of being at the concert, which I am inclined to remember more fondly. (Incidentally there’s a photo of it on Wikipedia, but I didn’t know that until today.)
At the same time I am certain that my opinion on Sunday’s concert won’t change.
“Celebration” was in the title of the concert, but as celebrations go it was a muted and introspective affair. Perhaps this was to be expected. For the past 30 years Cardew has remained unfinished business. His last years were consumed by his dedication to a wrongheaded political project that squandered his talent and energy, and his early, unexpected death left the new music world a strangely inconsistent, unresolved body of work. British musicians have chosen, largely, to ignore him while a rump of the avant-garde treated him as a semi-legendary figure and unsuccessfully tried to reconcile the conflicting tendencies that pulled his music in such contradictory directions.
Sunday’s concert in the Purcell Room got us no closer to perceiving a distinct outline of Cardew’s oeuvre, although it presented one piece of the puzzle. In the first half John Tilbury played several of Cardew’s piano pieces, from the Sixties and early Seventies. The three February Pieces and Material felt like an early historical attempt to both accommodate and escape from the prevailing avant-garde dogmas of the Fifties. A sonic delicacy reminiscent of Webern would alternate with passages of stasis, spiky contrapuntal discord and isolated tones, sometimes romantic, otherwise remote, disrupted by a wilful discontinuity, tempered by a reliance on the performer’s instinct to find a form in the score’s aleatory structure. (At times you could see Tilbury flipping both forwards and backwards through the pages.) Overall, the mood was elegiac.
The brief Unintended Piano Music from either 1970 or 1971 was a strange, brooding piece; a series of chords articulated by a repeated triad ascending in the bass. Its lulling, nagging repetitions and pensive mood illustrated why Morton Feldman felt so at home amongst the British avant-garde of the time. The Croppy Boy was the sole acknowledgement in the programme of Cardew’s later dedication to founding a new People’s Music for the Marxist-Leninist revolution that never came. In this context, it came across as overly sentimental and slightly insincere.
After the interval, Tilbury was joined by percussionist Eddie Prévost. Together they performed as the improvisation group AMM, of which Cardew was an early, key member. Prévost’s programme note takes some pains to detail the numerous personnel changes over the years. “One suspects AMM will somehow continue after those who first thought of it have long since departed,” he concludes, yet the preceding history feels more rueful than triumphant. It can’t help but echo the unending splits and factions amongst the various communist parties with which Cardew was involved in the Seventies.
I saw an expanded version of AMM play two years ago. Tonight, the duo’s sound is understandably sparser, with long pauses, and culminating in a lingering uncertainty between them over when exactly they’ve finished. Prévost is preoccupied with a technique, as if he’s rehearsing alone. He spends most of his time bowing a cymbal, a tam-tam, some small gongs, shifting his equipment about casually, almost sloppy. Tilbury slips between foreground and background, but much of the time can add little more to this monomania than slow, chromatic scales, sometimes ascending, sometimes… It’s less a celebration, more resignation, exhaustion.
Richard Berry, “Oh Oh, Get Out Of The Car” (1955).
(3’01″, 2.1 MB, mp3)
Make sounds with stones, draw sounds out of stones, using a number of sizes and kinds (and colours); for the most part discretely; sometimes in rapid sequences. For the most part striking stones with stones, but also stones on other surfaces (inside the open head of a drum, for instance) or other than struck (bowed, for instance, or amplified). Do not break anything.
Wandelweiser’s approach to this piece is to determine in advance that the performance will last an hour, and that each of their seven performers will devise 10 to 20 “events” of a type, duration and timing of their own choosing. This seemed like an intriguing idea. How did it manage to come across so wrong?
The room didn’t help. The performance was supposed to be very quiet, with long silences allowed to emerge between sounds. Unfortunately, in the ICA theatre everything sounded muffled and dull, with the silences drawing attention to the hum of the airconditioner. For some unexplained reason, a recording of some sort of faint rustling (pebbles? water?) played intermittently. This sound was curiously uninteresting, and its recurrence became something of a nuisance.
The performers played with a deliberation which drew attention away from the sounds they made, and the sounds produced were insufficiently rewarding to make the act of listening anything more than I chore. I really expected to like this more than I did. On the surface, the interpretation was very similar to John Cage’s Number Pieces, which I love.
A friend in the audience afterwards remarked that it had provided a good opportunity to observe the psychological profiles of the performers. He also made an important point. So much of Wolff’s musical career has been spent in the shadow of Cage; and when Wandelweiser devoted a concert to Wolff, all they did was shove him back under Cage’s shadow again. Wandelweiser’s interpretation could easily be mistaken for a realisation of Cage’s Four4 or Four6. Worse still, they emulated the wrong idea of John Cage – a conceptualist, a philosopher – and not John Cage the musician. Christian Wolff the musician was not present.
Charles Hamm, “Canto” (1963). Helen Hamm, soprano; Elizabeth Hiller, speaker; The Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Illinois /Jack McKenzie.
(6’13″, 6.8 MB, mp3)
I’ve seen him play twice before. The last time was an improvised duet with Jennifer Walshe which turned out to be a bit of a mess, like they were trying out lots of ideas without ever getting settled. The first time was him just sawing away on his violin over a tape, or a drone, I forget. It was that kind of capital-M Musicianship that I can admire without really getting into, sort of like Terry Riley at the keyboard. It’s great that they know how to spiel like that, but I wish I knew in advance which bits were going to be worth paying attention to.
This time, however, it all came together. Playing violin in his typical harsh, strident tone over looped samples of himself that he could cue in an out as needed, or a low drone created by striking a monochord with a piano hammer, he traversed the set of harmonies that resonated above the drone’s bass frequency. Occasionally, he would cut away the drone and break the comfortable sense of continuity. The tone changed and a new structural point in the piece would emerged – this was aided by his ability to select passages of his own playing to be looped as a base on which to build a new section. As he progressed he moved towards the smaller, more discordant intervals in the upper reaches of the harmonic series and the music’s tension built accordingly.
After another shift in attitude, bowing pedal tones on loose strings hanging off his instrument’s bridge, he returned to bowing in a different intonation. His tuning became more esoteric, playing unfamiliar scales further away from conventional harmony. By the end of his piece he had moved us away into a strange, bittersweet territory of tones that required us to readjust our hearing to a new order of harmonic relationships above the recurring drone. This is what I want to hear when I hear someone who can spiel: not just an unerring sense of what sounds good, but a sense of structure, of a meaning that goes beyond its own craft.