Been listening a lot to two new CDs on Another Timbre: a new album of Jürg Frey’s piano music played by Philip Thomas, and a collection of pieces by Joseph Kudirka played by Apartment House. I need to talk about these soon but I’ve got left over business from the London Contemporary Music Festival last month. It was an incredible programme that mixed old and new, familiar and obscure in a way that took risks simply by being such an eclectic jumble of different practices and backgrounds: a true portrait of the state of “contemporary music” at the start of a century that still hasn’t a defined identity.
A long blog post by Lawrence Dunn gives an excellent analysis of many events from the LCMF, as well as the La Monte Young and other gigs at Huddersfield. (Dunn also discusses Philip Thomas playing Frey’s piano music live.) The latter part of his post goes into detail about the LCMF night “To a new definition of opera”, which still strikes me as the stand-out event in the programme. The first half of Tim Parkinson’s Time With People, which I’ve talked about before, re-appeared and its stage detritus persisted amongst the audience throughout the whole programme.
The evening ended with Stockhausen’s Pietà finally getting played in this country – a prime example of his later music being quite mad and quite wonderful. It began by plunging the audience into the verbal and visual assault of Ryan Trecartin’s video Center Jenny. Dunn’s blog links to the video and makes the excellent observation that this work connects to the legacy of Robert Ashley’s operas, in a deep and disturbing way. I can’t really agree with Dunn’s feeling that it’s the work of “the worst sort of antifeminist”. It seemed more to me that the video is about misogyny than of it, or worse, that it dispassionately picks up one unsavoury aspect of current social anxieties which, salvaged as a remnant in a post-apocalyptic future, is arbitrarily selected as the model for a future society. It could have been racism, but that’s too heavy now. The gender and social roles depicted in US sorority life are still presented as cheerfully benign, and exist in a curious cultural vacuum: through movies and TV they are familiar to everyone around the world, but unlike McDonald’s or basketball they remain utterly alien to even the most pro-American Anglophone. The average age of the audience on this night was noticeably older, and they generally seemed to find Center Jenny amusing.
I presume the older people were an equal mix of Stockhausen fans and Pound fans. The night was my chance to hear Ezra Pound’s music played live, with a potted version of his opera Le Testament de Villon played for the first time in the UK in its “un-revised” phrasing. Pound’s music is seldom heard and even when scholars of Pound the poet bring it up there’s much lip service and little critical discussion. It tends to get pigeonholed as a passing phase, one of the less harmful of his many eccentricities. On paper, it has often been dismissed as crude and amateurish: irregular meters and phrasing, no pauses, introductions or conclusions, any polyphony usually an accompanying instrument moving in parallel with the voice. It’s clear he set Villon’s words line by line to melody, determined by the intonation of a speaking voice. Pound himself suggested that the opera was instigated by the impossibility of satisfactorily translating Villon into English.
One critic has sniffed that the opera is “less a foray into modernism and more a half-baked retreat into pre-operatic archaism” and so misses the point. It’s of a piece with much of Pound’s poetry to that time, of reclaiming and revitalising old cultural forms, “making it new”. “Early music” as it is appreciated now was barely known in 1920s and Pound had advocated for it before (going as far as to buy a clavichord from Arnold Dolmetsch in 1915, despite not knowing how to play it) and after (microfilming unpublished Vivaldi manuscripts in the 1930s).
Those strange, meandering vocal lines of irregular length are now familiar to audiences through the resemblance to plainchant, albeit with a minimal accompaniment (often just solo violin) and a strange, not-quite-modal intonation. The baritone Robert Gildon and mezzo Lore Lixenberg sang without the vibrato that would have been hard to expunge in Pound’s lifetime. The piece begins with an overture on solo cornet de dessus (think a valveless trumpet the size of an alphorn), the interludes are brief, spare taps on a kettle drum. When Virgil Thomson heard it he presciently noted that “it bore family resemblances unmistakable to the Socrate of Satie” – another overlooked masterwork by a composer yet to be appreciated. The pared-down simplicity of the opera recalls John Cage’s reduction of Socrate, but his Cheap Imitation was written over 40 years later. The haunting motet at the end of the opera carries the same blurring of familiar and strange, in the same manner of Cage’s arrangements of 18th Century American hymns – achieved, again, by erasing. Cage’s last operas also reduce the elements of opera to the barest essentials. I haven’t read anything that suggests Cage was knowledgeable about Pound as a composer.
The LCMF programme specifically links the Pound and the Stockhausen Pietà as “two neglected masterpieces of modernism”. When Stockhausen died I connected him to Pound in terms of how much their work remains misunderstood and will probably stay that way. The LCMF concert felt like a first step for treating Pound’s music as more than a curiosity.