A late review of the year

Tuesday 24 December 2013

I’ve got wind and rain lashing against my leaky window, but still it’s been a quiet end to the year. I’m thinking back on what I’ve seen and heard this year – not too hard, just enough to see what’s stuck with me – and it’s the quiet, contemplative, introspective works that have defined the year for me. 2011 and 2012 were each dominated by the euphoric spectacle of seeing Stockhausen’s Sonntag and Mittwoch aus Licht. This year, the events which were epic in scale were far more modest in immediate presence, audience, venue, and sound world.

Hearing Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston live for the first time in winter early this year seemed to set the tone. Not the best performance imaginable, but the experience of sitting in a smallish room with the musicians, in the back of an art gallery in Camden, for four hours was invaluable. A small crowd came and went throughout the afternoon; a few stayed.

I mentioned more recently that amongst the usual dazzle and complexity of featured composers at Huddersfield this year (Alberto Posadas’ elegant, Hèctor Parra’s slightly clumsy) three oases of stillness stood out. Firstly, Antoine Beuger’s en una noche oscura sort of pleased me because I didn’t like it. Another four-hour stretch of stillness and near-silence, it showed me that I’m not an indiscriminate sucker for anything sufficiently hushed and conceived on a sufficiently expansive scale. It felt stilted and precious, disappointingly inert. Unlike other punters there, I did not experience any transformative effect as the piece progressed into the small hours.

Anton Lukoszevieze’s arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum, on the other hand, took on a strange new life. Originally collaged from repeating fragments played on an organ to soundtrack the film of a Joseph Beuys performance, this chamber arrangement for a small ensemble of winds and strings revealed a different character, somewhere between Satie and late Feldman in its cross between the naive and the gnomic. The episodic series of repeating patterns could be taken as either forbidding or beguiling.

One of the two biggest highlights of the year was Jakob Ullmann’s Son Imaginaire III. Successfully performed at last, after three attempts in nearly 25 years, this concert had everything Beuger’s piece lacked. Again, a piece that hovered on the threshold of audibility, but in Ullmann’s case the music contained a faint but indelible richness, a mystery in how the sounds blended together in ways that couldn’t be understood, from one musician to the next and with ambient sounds in and outside St Paul’s Hall. Sitting there, attention focused on perceiving the music, you could lose yourself, your concentration on a sound so diffuse that your attention becomes a sort of dream state. Over a hundred years ago painters really started to pull apart the idea of what it meant to see something; we still don’t know what it means when we say we’ve heard something.
The crowd for the Ullmann gig was small, but maybe not as small as I remember.

All of this is leading back to my real defining musical experience of the year – hearing R. Andrew Lee play Dennis Johnson’s November at Cafe Oto. It was a satisfying culmination of many things, but also the start of many more.

in vain and outside of taste

Monday 9 December 2013

I had the good fortune to hear Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony live in concert a few months before the famous recording of it was released and quickly became ubiquitous. This made it a musical work I could hear as itself, not as a media phenomenon, but more important was the fact that I, and my friends and family seated beside me, and most of the audience were taken by it completely unexpectedly. Even having heard two or three other Gorecki pieces before, I wasn’t prepared for a piece simultaneously so monumental and so direct. Those two qualities combined can be used equally effectively to praise and to damn, and so a queasy ambivalence has settled in when discussing Gorecki’s hit. Unless you set out to be an iconoclast, any critique of the Symphony starts to lurch between defensive shrugging about the effect it has on listeners, and barbed apologies for its simpleness.

That same ambivalence reared up again after Friday night’s performance by the London Sinfonietta of Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain. One review after another struggled over whether the piece is really as great as it’s been made out to be. in vain definitely fits the criteria of monumental and direct: an unbroken 70-minute span of music for chamber orchestra, who soon leave off their intricate flurry of notes to become caught up in repeated runs of notes that sometimes rise, sometimes fall. There’s a hook, too: at certain, prolonged moments the hall lights go out, the audience listens and the orchestra plays in pitch darkness.

Possibly coincidentally, I was unprepared when I first heard in vain, as a recording several years ago. It was a Kairos CD so I was expecting something typically spiky and recondite. In that frame of mind, the unexpected emergence of naked harmonics, sliding tones and unmotivated dramatic gestures was entirely disarming. It gave a definite sense of a longstanding consensus being broken, a work turning Caliban-like upon the culture that both created and confined it.

Having now witnessed it performed live it feels like, as with Gorecki’s Third, I no longer need or want to hear it again. Once it’s done, it’s done; and you can argue endlessly over whether that makes it less or more effective as a work of art.

I’ve read very little on the circumstances of how the Gorecki and the Haas were composed and I don’t plan to research it now, but both seem to share a quality of compulsion, a persistent image that had to purge from their systems, as something outside of, and indifferent to, their tastes. (Another parallel: both works contain indelible moments, but on reacquaintance also conceal forgotten longueurs, unfortunate adjuncts to supporting the overall image.)

Taste, both good and bad, has plagued Western art since the late seventeenth century. In his book The Counterfeiters Hugh Kenner describes the strange, sudden emergence of this scourge, as it applied to English poetry when the Metaphysicals gave way to the Augustan era.

Analogies have no inherent decorum, their efficacy is a function of detailed judgement. For poet and reader alike are now men of Judgement, collaborating in that strange attempt to rear a whole civilization upon taste. Fine shades of congruity and incongruity must be distinguished with an instinctive sureness. There is literally nothing that will not help sustain a poem, precisely as a satellite is maintained in orbit by forces whose intent, unbalanced, is to plunge it off into the infinite abyss forever.

The contemporaneous emergence of science as a discipline of knowledge had its own destabilising effect:

Registration, not discourse: the most profound innovation of Royal Society Prose was this, that the relation of subject to predicate was no longer something affirmed, by a speaker, but something verified, by an observer…. In a virtually new language, stylistic principles had to be rediscovered from scratch. It is not surprising that many experiments were unlucky.

in vain, just thirteen years old, seems to have been a beneficiary and then victim of taste. It was elevated so quickly as a masterpiece, but by its British premiere in Huddersfield last month it had already started to cause embarrassment. The novelty of its exterior is wearing through, and any persistent interest in its craft may be quickly exhausted. The audience on Friday night, however, was mostly enraptured, a significant minority moved to stand for their applause. Are they just a little bit behind in their taste, or have they latched onto an element of the work where taste played no part?

I keep thinking of that poetic chestnut “Trees” – more particularly of Guy Davenport’s essay on the poem. “It is, Lord knows, a vulnerable poem,” he writes, conscious of how its many flaws – mixed metaphors, simplistic pieties, infelicities of diction – may be observed by readers of Judgement. It is a poor imitator of the commercialised Art Nouveau aesthetic from which it derives, and yet those errors in imitation have pushed it beyond the pale of the correct tastes of its time, and allowed it so survive on its own terms when hundreds of more technically (tastefully) accomplished poems have been forgotten.

And yet there is a silvery, spare beauty about it that has not dated. Its six couplets have an inexplicable integrity, and a pleasant, old-fashioned music. It soothes, and it seems to speak of verities.

The crudity and inarticulacy that emerges from in vain may be its saving grace. It is too soon to tell what the music’s fate may be. It will probably join the thousands of pieces of the nominal but unplayed repertoire of the past hundred years or so. It may persist, equally adored and derided, or it may even be effaced as a cultural signifier, as inaudible as Orff’s O Fortuna or Barber’s Adagio. Immortality always comes at a price.

Brief Update (old European dudes edition)

Tuesday 3 December 2013

First of all, Antisonata now has its own web page.

I spent a weekend in Brighton and heard Dieter Schnebel talk about his music, and the premiere of his Liebe–Leid. I went to Huddersfield for a few days. The highlight there was hearing the first (uninterrupted) performance of Jakob Ullmann’s Son Imaginaire III, preceded by a brief talk by Ullmann himself. On Sunday I was fortunate enough to see György and Márta Kurtág performing selections from Játékok. (This review pretty much sums up my experience of the concert.)

It feels like I’m turning into a sort of collector, grabbing on to whatever remains of the living tradition of postwar European modernism. Maybe that categorisation doesn’t apply to Ullmann so much, but at this point it’s really too early to be certain. Ullmann’s music may be the end of one era or the beginning of another. Right now I’m going to see these guys for no real reason other than simply because I can, like an indecisive heathen making as many pilgrimages as possible, just in case.

Seeing them all in person is a useful reminder that the mythology of a monolithic “movement” of 1950s European avant-garde is more a hindrance than a help in understanding what’s been happening in music since, well, forever.

Thinking back on everything I heard at Huddersfield, three things in particular stand out. Besides the Ullmann, there was the performance of Antoine Beuger’s en una noche oscura and Apartment House’s chamber music arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum. All three were very different, but shared a quality of blankness, or emptiness, that’s intrigued me for some time. Both John Cage and Morton Feldman shared an interest in this type of music (not just their own, but predecessors like Satie’s Socrate) but I don’t recall them ever articulating an exact understanding of what this quality might be.