Apartment House at Wigmore Hall

Monday 29 February 2016

You get a funny crowd at Wigmore Hall on a Saturday night. Some punters come just because it’s am awfully nice venue and they fancy an evening of refined entertainment. There was a slight but steady rate of attrition throughout Apartment House’s programme. The visiting American and her English hosts in my row were bemused at first but in the end seemed to enjoy it enough.

At least they didn’t have to deal with any stereotypical “ugly modern music”; nor did they have to appreciate any efforts by “accessible” contemporary composers which they could say were nice enough but not as good as the real 19th century thing. The gig started in a puzzling enough fashion, with the première of Luiz Henrique Yudo’s 2007 piece A QUARTET FOR CLAUDE MOLLET. Like the Yudo piece I heard at the last Apartment House gig, it’s a grid of not-quite-exactly-repeating figures. This time, a string-quartet see-sawed back and forth between notes, gently but obstinately. The patterns seemed to change a bit between pauses. Probably. Later in the evening, another Yudo piece, A QUARTET FOR FRANÇOIS MORELLET from 2012, apparently made use of chance and presented a smoothly shifting web of overlapping chords.

This is why I keep writing about these guys; they play stuff I’m interested in hearing for myself. There’s the emphasis on music as an artform, in which technique (both in composition and performance) is not an end in itself but a means to eliciting a profound response in the listener without appeals to literature or drama. There is the element of discovery and of rediscovery. Apart from giving first hearings to the two Yudo pieces, each several years old, the programme included three other world premières and a couple of older, obscure works. The older pieces, by Henning Christiansen and John White, were redolent of the cultural context in which they were created, Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra, respectively. Both represent schools of composition too often dismissed today as historical relics, fit for discussion but not to be experienced.

Christiansen’s Modeller were written in the mid-1960s but not performed in Britain until now. They seem strangely ahead of their time: short fragments, provocatively simple. Mostly performed by a solo pianist, with occasional interruptions from the strings, harmonium and percussion near the end. One part, of unadorned oscillating thirds, effectively anticipated Philip Glass’ piano music by 20 years. The familiarity was an odd sensation, but that didn’t last long. The Modeller never stayed around long enough for the listener to get fully comfortable. At the end, the ensemble repeated an ascending arpeggio in unison, whether by accident or design imitating the beginning of the Blue Danube Waltz without ever progressing, with an increasing sense of finality.

White’s Newspaper Reading Machine (circa 1971) amused my neighbours, being pretty much what the title implies. Any sense of the piece being a dadaist stunt was tempered by a musical system clearly underpinning the performance. They also liked Egidija Medekšaitė’s Pratiksha. The new works all suggested a common heritage of assimilating the more vital musical philosophies from the last century and synthesising them into something different. The use of systems, of chance, awareness of visual arts, of music as a social activity, the rejection of dogmatic allegiance to a particular system of organising pitch and harmony, all appeared in various guises.

I’d never heard anything by Martin Arnold before. The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.

Bryan Eubanks: The Bornholmer Suite

Monday 22 February 2016

Looking very Goth, something else I received in the swag from Nueni Records. I’ve only heard a couple of pieces by Bryan Eubanks before, both at last year’s Cut And Splice festival. Both were kind of reminiscent of Alvin Lucier. This is not.

The Bornholmer Suite is a set of 50 pieces, each one minute long. The music is made from electronic feedback on a circuit board. According to Eubanks, each configuration of the circuit is left alone to sound for one minute, with “slight changes” made between each piece. As a composer who has worked a lot with feedback circuits of different types over the years, the types of sound were immediately familiar. I’m too close to this type of music so I can’t review it dispassionately; it just flags up all sorts of problems I have when working with this medium.

Feedback can produce a wealth of detailed sounds, but it’s hard to figure out what to do with them. It gets too easy to turn out sound and become too absorbed in the process of making it, or just get caught up in a bunch of different timbres without considering them as part of a coherent musical experience for the listener. With The Bornholmer Suite Eubanks seems to be attempting a way out of this dilemma by presenting the set of pieces as an objective, experimental process. Each configuration gets one minute, with no privileging of material. Each piece is presumably a modification of the preceding circuit. It carries a type of logic, but it does feel a bit like Eubanks is dodging the whole question of how the Suite may be considered as music.

Most of the feedback circuits produce a sound that remains fairly constant, with little sense that they would show any greater variation, instability or mutability if left for a longer period of time. This kills any feeling of momentum as the number of pieces rack up. My personal prejudices kicked in a few times when certain sounds cropped up that I’d produced in the past and instinctively rejected. I’d like to know more about how simple the circuit is. The CD really presents a dilemma. Do you hear it as a disconnected catalogue of technical exercises, or as a suite of etudes elaborating on a common theme?

Manfred Werder: 2015/3

Thursday 11 February 2016

More text scores and more original Wandelweiser, from Manfred Werder. For the past ten years Werder has been composing music in which the score consists of a found text object, a quote from a poem or from philosophy. Nueni Records from Bilbao has just released a first recording of one of the most recent in the series, 2015/3. The music is actualized by Regler, the duo of Mattin and Anders Bryngelsson. It seems that Werder composed the piece for them.

The text is from Walter Benjamin’s essay “One-way Street, Halt For Not More Than Three Cabs”:

through excessive fatigue i had thrown myself on my bed in my clothes in the brightly-lit room, and had at once, for a few seconds, fallen asleep

The CD comes with no sleeve notes, but the quote (and thus the score) is printed on the front cover. We get as much information as the musicians did, with no post-facto explanation. Already, we’re dealing with appropriation as art: a common enough practice in visual art but still unfamiliar to music. (Sampling and quotation are forms of collage and a different matter.) We’ve all heard music inspired by philosophy but Werder’s piece is philosophy, even though it might be through some strange, cannibalistic understanding of the concept.

I’ve heard a couple of other pieces from Werder’s series, as part of the cryptic Rosetta Stone Wandelweiser und so weiter released by Another Timbre. There’s an excerpt from 2011/4 on Youtube. There’s the foregrounding of silence and ambient sound, with the musicians adding light and shade.

Apparently art is supposed to make us perceive things differently, but then there is art where we have to change our ways of perception before we can recognise it for what it is. This situation isn’t the exclusive preserve of the avant-garde. We can’t look at, for example, mediaeval woodcuts and see what their creators and intended audience saw in them, except through intellectual exertion. Regler’s actualisation of 2015/3 is something we almost cannot hear, even if we listen, even if we register the sounds.

The two photos inside the CD cover, once again, reveal everything and explain nothing. They reinforce the unmistakeable impression you get when you first play the CD. Mattin and Bryngelsson take a nakedly literal approach to the score: they set up their equipment in their studio then fall, or try to fall, asleep. Any unintentional sounds that can be heard sound truly accidental. The musicians may be engaging with the score but they are evidently, resolutely refusing to engage with the listener.

The CD is ostensibly silent, in the way that a performance of Cage’s 4’33” is. But there are disruptions (the dynamic range on this recording is very wide) and any musical silence here is obviously the result of necessary activity in actualising the score. The extreme quiet in this performance is harsh, and a provocation. Are we listening to it the right way if we feel provoked?

Mattin, at least, has a reputation for provocation. In 2004 I witnessed him give one of the best silent concerts I’ve heard.

I thought I’d heard the piece after playing it once. Then I played it again and realised I’d been listening to something else. The distant, muffled sound of sawing wasn’t there. It must have been a neighbour doing some repairs. The very faint sound of stacking dishes is, I think, on the disc but I’d rather play the disc again another time than rewind to find out.

This piece can’t be listened to as a field recording or a version of 4’33”. It’s a performance with an uncompromising objectivity, much in the way that recordings of avant-garde music from the 1950s and 60s sound forcefully radical today when compared to more polished recent performances, which can often seem too aestheticised in comparison.