The Richter Variations – II

Saturday 15 December 2012

Morton Feldman’s early piano music at Cafe Oto

Thursday 13 December 2012

I’ve complained about the piano at Cafe Oto before. Just about everybody has, particularly John Tilbury, who refused to come back until it was replaced. The new piano’s been there for a while now; there’s just the question of paying for it.

Tuesday night’s Tilbury concert was intended as a fundraiser for the instrument. Instead of angling for broad, populist appeal, the programme consisted entirely of Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s early solo music. With the exception of his last piano piece, Palais de Maris, and an arrangement of Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety, all of the music was from the Fifties. Before playing, Tilbury announced he would be playing the entire programme without a break and requested no applause between pieces. The chairs had all been gathered around closer than usual, in a tight huddle around the piano and away from the bar. This was a Serious Concert.

Amazingly, for a freezing, foggy December night in London, no-one in the audience had a cough. It was like the end of the John Cage Prom all over again.

At the start of the evening Tilbury said something that I’m sure a lot of us were thinking: that Feldman is still an overlooked composer in that attention is focused almost entirely on those long, late works from the last decade of his life. He added that “early” Feldman was where he started with this music and mentioned ruefully that “you can’t make a career out of playing early Feldman.”

Cafe Oto is not the best place for concentration, but everyone knew that they needed to give full attention for this music to be heard properly (even the punter in front of me who fell asleep during Palais de Maris.) The first piece began abruptly – short notes, isolated, no pedal, so that it sounded accidental – inconsequential but obtrusive all the same. Hearing Feldman’s early music is a reminder of the idea in the air at the time, as expressed by Cage, that this music existed in the now-moment alone, where all you can do is suddenly listen.

The sounds are simple in themselves, but the effect they produce is complex – both reasons working against this music as a career vehicle. So much of the music’s affect comes from the placement of the sounds in a given place and time, instead of the usual uninterrupted flow of musical rhetoric that tries to shut out its surroundings.

I’ve heard Tilbury play the last two pieces on this programme before. This night’s performances were very different; more restrained, less variable, less… not less romantic, less demonstrative. Interpretations can change over six years, but it seems likely that this is music to which the performer intuitively responds and allows to emerge differently, as clear as possible in consideration of its surroundings.

MIDI: a Pyrrhic victory for idealism

Tuesday 11 December 2012

When I woke up last week to hear on the radio that it was MIDI’s 30th birthday I couldn’t help but wonder (a) if it really was thirty years to the very day, and (b) if some beardy geek had a free MOTU wall calendar next to his framed photograph of Peter Zinovieff with the date circled and “1 sleep till MIDI’s birthday!” scrawled on it.

The first time I heard about MIDI was on a radio show 20-odd years ago when some guy from Severed Heads or something was complaining about how you couldn’t do dick with it, and for this flimsy reason I’ve always been a bit suspicious of MIDI. I’m sure there’s a whole subculture of MIDI Malcontents out there but I don’t want any contact with them because I’d prefer working with what I have then complaining about what I don’t have. For me, MIDI is a useful way of sending controller messages between different devices. Just don’t ask me what synching means; that whole concept is beyond me.

What I really dislike about MIDI is that it’s too precise, too specific, especially the way so many people use it as a sequencer. Every note comes out the same, same pitch, same intonation, on the same beat at the same time, all the instruments moving in lock step. It’s boring. You have do a whole lot of extra work and fiddling about to vary all these attributes just a little bit, to make it halfway interesting. It is, in effect, the absolute reverse of every other musical technology that preceded it. When you learn any other instrument you start of very uncoordinated and inaccurate and have to put a lot of practice into getting things somewhat precise. My ideal MIDI system would be very vague about what it did and when it did it, requiring plenty of tweaking and coding to rein it in.

When I do use MIDI as a sequencer, it’s to take advantage of the two things it does well: giving precise control over pitch and rhythm. This is a big reason why a lot of my music involves microtonality and impossible rhythms.