Pretty special night on Saturday, at the Round Chapel in Clapton. Tim Parkinson and a host of other muscian/composers including folks from Sonic Arts Research in Oxford playing music by Michael Pisaro and Makiko Nishikaze.
Punters sat in the gallery that encircled the long, high hall, looking down on the performers below. Pisaro’s Ricefall, a piece previously created by studio overdubbing, was here realised by a small orchestra of sixteen musicians allowing grains of rice to fall at different rates onto various objects and surfaces: paper, metal, plastic, leaves, ceramics, wood, stone. The blend of soft sounds were unamplified and rose up into the gallery. The gradations in the type of sound and the varying textures as the flow of grains ebbed and flowed became more and more distinct. In some respects little more than an exercise in listening, the work took a more substantial presence when performed as a live, group activity.
This piece and the rest of the evening fit perfectly into some of my current musical preoccupations, which I recently discussed: “contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight”. Parkinson’s performance of Nishikaze’s very beautiful Piano in Person I dealt with similar matters. With no logic, argument, theme or linear development apparent to the listener, for maybe half an hour took on qualities more reminiscent of painting, questions of touch, surface, shading, balance, contrast. The same questions, addressed differently, in Morton Feldman’s early and middle-period piano music, before patterns became discernible. Again, there was that other preoccupation, of music undirected and undifferentiated.
The third and final piece brought back the small orchestra for Pisaro’s July Mountain. A tape that wove together field recordings into an unbroken skein of sound played through the hall. Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name provides the key to the way these recordings are blended, but this underlying structure is not evident to the listener. Snare drums are rubbed, drums and vibraphones are bowed, small speakers agitate loose objects on tympani and amplified surfaces. These live sounds somehow blend in seamlessly with the recordings of wind, birds and traffic. Unusually for electroacoustic music, the technology is used for the sake of the acoustic sounds, and yet the electronically-reproduced field recordings are enhanced and augmented, made hyperreal, by the acoustic sounds. It’s a remarkable relationship, both symbiotic and paradoxical. The music is impressively monumental but thrillingly restless.
In a different space it would be an overwhelming, engulfing experience – as it has been in previous performances. In the chapel the sound was softer and less aggressive, like a passing natural phenomenon that fascinates, consuming your attention without demanding or expecting it.
I just mentioned that I keep playing with the idea of multiples and redundancy in my music. I’m interested in using the idea of excess as an aesthetic tool, even though I’m conscious of it being a blunt instrument. At the other extreme, there is the use of silence – an excess of absence, as it were.
For many years I’ve been playing with how much of the “music” stuff can be taken out of music, whether it be content, context, structure or purpose. This is the latest from a series I’ve been working on the use of absence as material, titled Against Music. I finished this one last night.
My last few posts here have been going on about the vice and virtue in giving either too much or not enough. These posts were ostensible concert reviews, but they reflect concepts that have been bugging me in the music I’ve been making lately. That last post started contrasting excess against abundance in art. I’ve been trying to understand the distinction between the two in my own work. What is it about the use of multiples that I find so seductive, yet so difficult to justify? This problem becomes the source material for yet more new work. These are the sorts of things I consider most when I write music. Issues around harmony, pitch, instrumentation are simply not a concern.
Last weekend I went to see the London Sinfonietta play Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and two contemporaneous works by Luigi Nono. As mentioned before, Gruppen is a work of abundance but not excess. Like its source of inspiration, its effect is like that of a dramatic landscape: a complex but immediate image containing almost inexhaustible detail. Stockhausen wanted to put himself on the cutting edge of musical thinking at the time: a vast expansion of the use of the series and pitch-rows to coordinate harmonic, rhythmic, dynamic, timbral and spatial relationships. This intricate focus on the manipulation of pitch, and its extrapolation to corresponding aspects of sound, create music in which pitch has little immediately obvious effect on the listener. The audience was blown away by the contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight.
All of these latter attributes are the sort of stuff I want to handle in my music; directly, not mediated through traditional compositional technique. Did Stockhausen accidentally create music with implications far beyond what he intended? I’m back to thinking about John Cage and Morton Feldman again. They both worked hard on putting compositional method, the matter of getting from one sound to the next, outside of their conscious concern, favouring problems of art over those of craft.
In between the two performances of Gruppen the Sinfonietta played Nono’s Canti per 13 and Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica. The punters generally though the Nono suffered in comparison, hidden between the dazzling peaks of Stockhausen – particularly Canti per 13. I found Canti per 13 intriguing perhaps as much for its unfortunate context as for its own merits. Its apparent drabness became an obstinate rebuke to the tour-de-force that preceded it. Cage and Feldman also shared an admiration of music that was determinedly plain, undifferentiated, blank, undemonstrative, anonymous (with Satie’s Vexations as perhaps it’s ultimate expression). Again, I share this same fascination. It was interesting to notice how Nono, steeped in the same musical teachings as Stockhausen, could produce music so unvaried and homogeneous, and how it presaged the bleak expanses of his extraordinary late works. I also liked the way Canti per 13 is played fairly loud throughout, at a time when so many composers these days would write music like this to be as soft as possible, thanks to an unfortunate confluence of Feldman and the holy minimalists. That’s another one of my compositional hang-ups right now.
I just remembered I never got around to talking about seeing Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham last year. That needs to change soon. What sticks in my mind the most about it was the ending, the aftermath. Despite a very different opera with a very different approach to production, both Mittwoch and Sonntag – premiered the year before in Cologne – left the audience in a common state of euphoria. The punters and the performers mingled about long afterwards, everybody just beaming.
Since then I’ve wondered how much of this effect on the listener was down to the music and how much to theatre, the spectacle, the sense of occasion. One of the Proms concerts this year gave me a chance to find out, by repeating Ex Cathedra’s performance of Welt-Parlament in a concert setting. As part of Mittwoch, this scene is one of the highlights. As a stand-alone work on the stage (as opposed to surrounding and wandering through the audience) it’s equally effective, holding attention throughout it’s babel of languages and small dramas, the individual voices united by a common musical and ideological resolution. Ex Cathedra nailed it both times, and they sold Stockhausen’s requisite moments of pantomime without being arch.
More Stockhausen: August at the Roundhouse, with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Four selections from the Klang cycle, including Cosmic Pulses, the extraordinary electronic work for 24-channel surround sound that’s ideally suited to circular spaces. When I first heard it in the Albert Hall in 2008 it was one of the rare pieces that actually sounded good in the venue, and it was just as overwhelming in the Roundhouse.
Cosmic Pulses was the last piece in a long night that ended late. The gig started with the premiere of the 8-track version of Paradies, with two works for live musicians to follow: the string trio Hoffnung and the wind trio Balance. I’ve heard a recording of Hoffnung and wasn’t impressed – Stockhausen’s writing for solo strings always seems a bit wan compared to his other music. The trio from the LCO make a much better case for it. Balance is better still, and came with the added theatrical aspect of watching the bass clarinettist play while wearing a pretty cruel pair of platform heels.
I don’t think the heels were Stockhausen’s idea. As frequently noted in all the publicity for the gig, the musicians’ costumes were designed by Vivienne Westwood. Punters were issued coloured glasses to match the colours Stockhausen associated with each piece, and there was a slightly precious dégustation menu selling hors d’oeuvres before each piece. By coincidence, Conrad Shawcross’ kinetic light sculpture Timepiece was installed in the space, which should have ideally suited the music. It was all a great idea, in keeping with Stockhausen’s ideas of sensory immersion. Unfortunately the more opulent trappings sat uneasily with the stripped, seatless space of the Roundhouse, and the designer namedropping grated against the overtly devotional aspects of the music. The swinging of the sculpture’s lights overhead started to become an annoying distraction, the breaks between each piece made the evening drag. Also, Cosmic Pulses aside, the music wasn’t Stockhausen’s A-grade material.
Still more Stockhausen: last weekend, the London Sinfonietta with a killer performance of the landmark work Gruppen. This was a different kind of sensory overload, one which shows the difference between excess and abundance.