An Evening with Christian Wolff

Monday 19 May 2014

Last Monday, on the way back from the Tectonics festival in Glasgow, Christian Wolff gave a talk in London about his music. After his talk, members of Apartment House played a selection of his recent music (recent as in from the last 25 years, out of a 60+ year career).

I’ve discussed performances of Wolff’s music a couple of times before, one with Wolff’s participation and one without. A few of my thoughts about Wolff have persisted over the past five years. There is still a lot of lip service paid to the knowledge that Wolff is an important composer, much as there was to John Cage in his lifetime (and still, to a lesser extent, today). Even on the rare occasions that Wolff’s music is played, it seems to be presented so often as an historical or theoretical specimen. The Wandelweiser performance I saw repeated the received idea of Wolff as a conceptualist working in Cage’s shadow. After the talk, a punter asked Wolff about the effectiveness of different interpretations of his music. Wolff replied that he hadn’t heard enough repeat performances to find out.

When previously describing Wolff’s music I wrote that “the material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself”, and noted how well it embodied Cage’s wish for sounds to be heard just as themselves, for themselves. Listening again now, this redirection toward the intrinsic qualities of unadorned sounds is also reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music. Wolff’s music seems to achieve the aesthetic ideals his New York School colleagues aspired to but could never quite meet.

The music appears deceptively easy to play but requires both concentration and attentiveness to the other musicians, which must nevertheless be worn lightly, to play successfully. The Apartment House musicians made the discontinuities sound playful, even beguiling, rather than haphazard – particularly in the trio Emma, with its occasional echoes of popular tunes.

Wolff spoke mostly in a general, autobiographical way about his work. Of particular interest was his recollection of studying music with Cage, an education which consisted mostly of analysing Webern’s Symphony, writing pieces with as few notes as possible, and studying lots of counterpoint. The main point was to learn discipline and when Cage decided that Wolff had it, the lessons ended.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2014 Edition

Thursday 8 May 2014

I didn’t even notice that the Eurovision Song Contest is this week, and I’ll miss the Grand Final on Saturday. That’s a shame, because it’s been a while and I’d like to see it again.

The rules of the Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game were more or less perfected years ago and stay largely unchanged. The latest edition makes minor amendments for this particular year’s contest, mostly in Phase II and the wildcards.

The voting process (now a 50/50 split between phone voting and a jury) and the announcement of results have both changed since the original rules were established, but they still broadly apply and by Phase II nobody’s really paying much attention anyway.

Yes these things have all happened, in case you’re wondering.


A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussians (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.


I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it; and you’ll know it again when you see it again, and again…


II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece gives twelve points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so just try to catch what you can.

II.6 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.7 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.8 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.9 The Master of Suspense. It looks like everyone’s figured it out now, so this hasn’t happened for a few years, but just in case: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.


II.10 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all give each other twelve points, or a former Soviet republic gives Russia twelve points. Do not attempt without medical supervision.


W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why Italy isn’t in it; or
W1.c where the hell is Moldova?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Greece/Germany, Ukraine/Russia, Armenia/Azerbaijan.

W3 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W4 A toast to Bosnia and Herzegovina if they change the spelling of their country again from last year.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

After “Vessels”

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Last night I got to see Philip Thomas play Bryn Harrison’s Vessels live, at Cafe Oto. As implied last time, I hadn’t re-listened to the piece on CD prior to the gig. I now need to make some additional comments.

The first surprise, before the piece started, was that the piece is more thoroughly notated than I thought: a dense hedge of changing meters, irregular rhythms and tuplets, all on a single treble stave throughout. No wonder the pianist finds it disorientating. As in Feldman’s later scores, Vessels uses precise notation to produce ambiguous results, so that events seems to drift by without any sense of a rhythmic pulse underneath. The comparisons to Feldman’s music keep coming up, so here are some more important differences. Feldman used irregular rhythms to set his sounds in surrounding silence; his music is episodic, switching arbitrarily between contrasting sets of sounds. Harrison’s piece allows for no breathing space and never deviates from its initial palette of sounds and texture, which seems even more exhausting than a Feldman work of comparable scale. (The very late works for orchestra are a significant exception.) The entire work barely covers more than three octaves of the piano’s range.

The scale of the piece has an insidious effect on the listener. After a while you get used to it, become immersed in it, like an aural bath, but through sheer persistence it unnerves and captures your attention again, as you try to figure out if it has changed.

It’s remarkable how short many of the repeated passages are. The piece frequently loops on itself for a while, but the harmonic ambiguity and unfocused rhythms make it very difficult to detect where each loop begins and ends, if in fact it is repeating at all. With further analysis the ingenious construction would become more intelligible, but by that time the indelible impression of its first hearing has already been made.

Witnessing Thomas perform the piece in person, as beautifully and seemingly effortless as on record, impressed on me further what an achievement it is. Strangely, it seemed to be over too soon.

Bryn Harrison’s “Vessels”

Thursday 1 May 2014

I’ve been working my way through that bundle of CDs from Another Timbre and so far the highlight has been the recording of Vessels for solo piano by Bryn Harrison. It began as a 20-odd minute piece in 2012 and was expanded into a 75-minute piece last year.

Ultimately, what amazes me the most about this piece is how I feel like I’m hearing something completely new, even though it all seems so familiar. Everyone compares it to Morton Feldman’s late music, understandably, and Harrison himself cites Howard Skempton’s music as an inspiration. The subtle contrast between these two composers is revealing. Both composers work with relatively unvarying dynamics and (near) repetitions, the stock in trade of “holy minimalists” like Pärt, Górecki et. al, but to very different effect. Feldman and Skempton’s music avoids conscious expressiveness, but is all the more richly evocative of complex moods through a focus on the presentation of the musical material itself. On the surface, Skempton’s music seems more conventional than Feldman’s, being often more familiar in terms of melody, harmony and scale, but its greater self-effacement achieves a type of “anonymous beauty” which Feldman admired. I once made a crude analogy that if Feldman is like Rothko, then Skempton is like Morandi.

Where does Vessels fit in this? It’s a long, seemingly undifferentiated span of chords that unfurl at a roughly constant pace. Philip Thomas, who plays this piece superbly, “said that when he plays Feldman, he always feels that the music is moving somewhere; through all the repetitions and varying patterns you end up achieving some kind of resolution. But with your piece Philip says that he is almost disturbingly disoriented because the music doesn’t seem to move anywhere at all. Playing it he feels that – for all the notes – he’s still circulating around the same place where he started after 5, 15 or even 50 minutes. Philip was arguing that in that sense Vessels is more radical formally than Feldman.” I heard echoes of Ustvolskaya’s chorales, and the cyclical directionlessness of Hauer’s music.

Harrison himself describes the piece as “disorientating to play” and it is also disorientating to listen to, for several reasons. Vessels messes with your sense of familiarity, the repetitions and recurring chord progressions pass by with the same reassuring presence that trees have in reminding you that you’re still lost in the forest. Have we been here before? Is the music moving somewhere else now, or is my mind playing tricks on me? I’m writing this from memory after hearing it again last night, and I’m starting to wonder whether I actually heard some of the things I want to describe now. If I play it again now I’ll be up all night.

It’s also disorientating if you’re used to Feldman or repetitive minimalist music. The uncertain sense of the music cycling around you has a vertiginous effect. Instead of the sensation of looping, drawing you into the music, the effect is more of a spiralling, equally drawing you in and pushing away. There is no sense of progression or return, only of inexorable drift. This is like one of Hauer’s musical labyrinths blown up to a massive scale. It’s a worthy addition alongside piano works like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Dennis Johnson’s November.

Philip Thomas shows tremendous stamina, playing through this maze for 76 minutes as though it all just came to him naturally. I’m really looking forward to hearing him play it live next Monday.