Kammer Klang: John Wall and Michael Finnissy

Saturday 23 April 2016

Managed to make it to the latest Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto (it’s available in streaming audio for the next few weeks). For years they’ve been putting on regular nights featuring a clash of eclectic genres, mixing High Art Modern Music with improvisation, live electronic performance, pop etc. It’s a neat combination which manages to avoid labouring a theoretical point or trying to force one genre to somehow validate another. The big events this evening were the performance of Michael Finnissy’s chamber violin concerto “above earth’s shadow…” and a live electronic set by John Wall.

I just read a statement by Peter Rehberg that “laptop music stopped being interesting when the computers stopped crashing”. It’s a stupid, sentimental thing to say, up there with saying Hendrix wasn’t so great because he used effects pedals. I’ve been to a number of Wall’s gigs now, all improvised sets with his laptop and superb examples of what a devastating sonic and compositional tool the small computer can be when in the right hands. I’ve always been impressed by the way he holds in suspense the conflicting demands his music makes: the free-ranging spontaneity of sounds, an intense technical focus on details and a constant awareness of an overall compositional shape.

The Kammer Klang night was unusual in that Wall started with one of his ‘fixed’ compositions, Cphon from 2005, followed immediately by an improvisation. (The two are played separately in the radio broadcast.) In Cphon the sounds leak out as though under some pressurised constraint, with isolated sounds in narrow frequency ranges – often very high – and occasional brief activity slipping through thin, sustained pitches. This sound-world steadily mutates over time, revealing more depth and detail but still with everything kept on a short leash throughout, allowing the sounds to be intimately revealed without ever being fully released to let rip in a sensory outburst.

The following improvisation was immediately noticeable for the change in sonic materials but with no easily noticeable enlargement of possibilities permitted by the intervening decade of technological advances. The sounds became wider in range, producing an inexhaustible variety of tones and colours throughout the piece. Seemingly influenced by Cphon, a similar attitude of restraint was applied, extending and elaborating on the previous work instead of drawing an obvious contrast.

Making music live is always very different from working with a recording, whether on paper or on tape. There’s a theatrical element, and a social element which must always be addressed to be sure that the music has gotten over with the punters. Wall perhaps minimises this by typically sitting behind the audience and focusing on the music coming from the PA. In any case, listening back to the radio broadcast I’m surprised at how well it works as a recording, with its own musical internal logic and free of the unspoken dictates of entertaining a room full of people with booze.

Earlier in the night, violinist Oscar Perks with an ensemble conducted by Mark Knoop did justice to Michael Finnissy’s “above earth’s shadow…”. Finnissy is one of Britain’s foremost living composers; he turns 70 this year so the performance was a fitting tribute. Although the piece is now over 30 years old, this seems to have been only the third time it has been played in the UK, so it may as well be new to us. In 2012 the Proms held a matinee concert in Cadogan Hall which included the British premiere of his 2nd Piano Concerto, written some 35 years earlier. I think Finnissy has had one piece played at the Proms since then. For this year, the usually anniversary-happy Proms have programmed sweet F. A.

Australia Now and Then

Monday 18 April 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of music which I should talk about, both live and on CD. The CDs will come up later; for starters I’ve been thinking about this concert at the BBC Studios in Maida Vale a couple of weeks ago.

Brett Dean was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a programme of modern Australian composers. It’s the type of programme I’d normally shy away from – because of, not despite, being Australian and having heard concerts organised on the same premise back home. When a large institution is involved – an orchestra, a national broadcaster – things usually attempt to be overly safe and overly “representative”. The latter principle manifests itself in trying to cram in a number of slighter, lesser works by a broad variety of composers which don’t really gel together. Like new music in the UK, Australian music in Australia still needs to defend its own small space.

Regardless of any national slant, Dean’s programme of works was beautifully focussed, illuminating a particular thread of musical thought found in a group of diverse Australian composers working today. The introduction to the programme notes made this intent clear, to look beyond the customary identification of Australian art with the unique nature and landscape it inhabits. More importantly, the concert portrayed Australian music as being distinguished by an engagement with the rest of the world, building an increasingly complex dialogue with other cultures.

For a long time, the question of identity in Australian art was often framed as a debate between two sides, pro- and anti-. On one side, “internationalists” would deride parochialism (and imitate any new avant-garde trends in Europe and America) while “nationalists” would chauvinistically promote a local vernacular (and imitate one particular trend in Europe and America). It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake off, particularly if you make decisions for a funding body.

The concert opened with one older work, Richard Meale’s Clouds Now and Then from 1969. It’s a significant work, with its musical language derived from Messiaen and its static, contemplative form inspired by Basho’s poetry. Incorporating ideas from Europe and Japan, it floats between worlds rather than seeking dependence on one or the other. This give-and-take continued through the concert, both musically and biographically. Some of the composers – Thomas Meadowcroft, Anthony Pateras, Lisa Ilean – now live in London or Germany, while Georges Lentz was born in Luxembourg and moved to Australia in his twenties.

Ilean’s Land’s End drew upon a similar sound-world to Meale, enhanced with microtones. Meadowcroft’s Peacemaker Tattoo and Dean’s own Engelsflügel confronted European composers directly, Mahler and Brahms respectively. With Dean, it was a passionate exploration of musical ideas; with Meadowcroft, a modest, somewhat deflating side-step, equal parts deference and aversion. Lentz’s Caeli enarrant… III is an eclectic procession of disparate elements unified by the composer’s personal spiritual vision, combining Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, serialism, chance and silence.

Both Meadowcroft and Pateras in his violin concerto Immediata appeared as performers, using an open-reel tape deck to record, play back and manipulate sounds in real time. (I’m an old friend of Pateras so I’ll try not to get too enthusiastic.) Immediata was built out of an eclectic, disruptive improvisation, elaborated by divergent combinations of instruments. Pateras recorded soloist Thomas Gould’s amplified violin and proceeded to speed, slow, warp and distort the sounds, at times going off into cadenzas of his own, in a manner reminiscent of the electronic interpolations of Varèse’s Déserts. There’s a tension between the music that’s fixed and that’s ephemeral, between the notated and improvised both in origin and performance, and of preservation and loss where, perversely, the tape recording is discarded and the piece must persist through performance of the written score.

I think BBC Radio 3 expects to broadcast this concert in August this year.

Tony Conrad

Sunday 10 April 2016

Tony Conrad died yesterday. It’s hard to disentangle his importance as an inspiration, a personal example to other musicians and artists, from his music so I’ll start by quoting something I wrote about his musicianship, when at its best. “Not just an unerring sense of what sounds good, but a sense of structure, of a meaning that goes beyond its own craft.”

I saw him play live on four occasions and was once accidentally invited to dinner with him at the Supper Inn in Melbourne. You couldn’t help but be aware that you were in the presence of a living figure from history and it was hard not to consider him an accessible ambassador from a particular mythology. Conrad’s real importance and influence on those mourning him today comes from what came after. In the last 20 years so many musicians have taken on ideas they learned from him.

That there’s always another side to the story, waiting to be revealed. That the “minimal” in music can have its rough edges and expressiveness. That there’s more than one way to learn from the past. That persistence pays. That received wisdom can be challenged. That constant work and honing your craft is essential. That it’s not too late.