I got to see two nights of the London Contemporary Music Festival, up at the top of that multistorey car park in Peckham. (I was also there on Sunday afternoon but ended up spending more time bumping into friends and drinking on the roof than paying attention to music, so I can’t make fair comment on that day.)
After that little kerfuffle about the piano’s demise at the end of the festival, it’s interesting to look back at the other pieces played on it in those preceding nights. One of the festival organisers mentioned that the instrument had taken too much of a beating over the two weeks to be much more use to anyone. I can believe that, after seeing Mark Knoop and Anthony Pateras respectively work it over on Friday night. The evening began with Knoop’s blistering performance of selections from Michael Finnissy’s English Country Tunes. At times the amplification used in the car park scarcely seemed necessary, although the passing trains did intrude during one rare moment of repose.
This was the “New Complexity” night, which took the predictable mix of Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough, mixed it up a little with the very different complexity of Aaron Cassidy‘s music, then mixed it up a lot by throwing in improvisations by Pateras, Steve Noble and Russell Haswell. When Pateras’ solo set followed Knoop’s it felt like the gig was turning into a piano duel, with Pateras’ explosive improv style challenging the ferocity of Finnissy’s exacting notation.
Right from the start it was clear that the combination of the PA and the low, cavernous concrete space were contributing to bass-heavy overtones that lurked ominously behind much of the music played. This worked best with Haswell’s shattering electronic set at the end of the night, every bit as visceral and confrontational as his superb gig in Bexhill but with an added precision to the beat that both enticed and defied the possibility of a rave breaking out.
The venue naturally served Haswell’s music best, and the softer, more introverted pieces by Ferneyhough and Cassidy worst. The piano and percussion works seemed strangely appropriate, particularly with the urban brutalism adding another point of cognitive tension to Finnissy’s Country Tunes. The night before, the small bar at one end of the car park was used as a makeshift stage set. This was “Immersive Opera” night, with the singers planted amongst the punters milling around at the bar and the tables. Writing that made me cringe a little as I recalled how easy it is for this type of approach to feel forced and awkward, so it’s amazing to me (and my low threshold for vicarious embarrassment) that the whole thing came off naturally and effectively. The low-road, straightforward approach to the production and the obviously temporary venue helped the staging from drawing attention to itself.
The other factor was the strength of the music and the performers. The baritone Charles Rice, sweating in his light suit as he slumped over the bar in midsummer London, ensured he became the centre of attention as he prowled around spouting cod-philosophy in the premiere of Kate Whitley’s Roma, a setting of the bar-room soliloquy at the start of Glengarry Glen Ross. I only wished the immersion and the duplicitous undertone extended into Rice’s singing seguing into a sales pitch on some unsuspecting ticket holder.
Some punters had in fact taken up the offer to be served dinner, only to find themselves cast as extra’s for Allison Bell’s turn as Madame X in Gerald Barry’s monodrama La Plus Forte. Confronted by an unresponsive rival, innocent diners, curious onlookers and hipsters looking for a drink, Bell’s Madame X led us through her emotional crisis by the strength of her voice and physical presence in the crowd. The (pickup?) orchestra conducted by Chris Stark sounded pretty damn fine too. I think the low-end boost of the space helped bring out the menace of the wind section.