Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel

Tuesday 28 June 2016

As with Cage, so with Stockhausen: composers who upset the musical establishment are told their music will not survive them. On Sunday I was at the new production of Stockhausen’s opera Donnerstag aus Licht in Basel. This version featured many performers from a new generation who brought out the depth and feeling within Stockhausen’s score and made the many technical demands seem natural to them. Stockhausen’s legacy continues to propagate without his physical presence.

As the first opera written in the Licht cycle Donnerstag is the most conventional, although already straining at the limitations of the opera hall. It foreshadows how later parts open out into the world while also immersing the audience deeper into a less compromising insistence on his idiosyncratic cosmology. It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the opera is a work of transformation. In unison with Michael’s emergence from the appearance of a relatable, if not typical, childhood into a spiritual presence in the universe, the matter of the opera steadily leads us from drama to religious contemplation. The music moves from drama to symbolic explication and meditation. Stockhausen’s later music has a remarkable ability to convey elements commonly associated with minimal music – timelessness, communion – while still generous and abundant with activity and detail. The soloists, chorus and orchestra in Basel all carried this duality beautifully.

Tragically, the staging of this production was incapable of escaping its earthbound origins, in conception and in execution. At critical points it betrayed a failure of nerve, with fatal consequences. The Greeting in the foyer and the first act started with intrigue and promise, establishing the material foundations of Michael’s first appearance (even though the Greeting’s 70s lounge suits didn’t connect with the Act I’s tracht and dirndl). Things go horribly wrong during Michael’s examinations at the end of the first act, which here were perversely interpreted as medical examinations as Michael succumbs to madness, same as his mother. The second act, Michael’s Journey Around the World, is thus set in a mental hospital; or rather, a 1970s caricature of a mental hospital. The ensuing antics are hackneyed and the use of mental illness to explain away Michael’s journeys and encounters is the middlebrow version of the tired old fallback of “it was all just a dream”. The whole second act becomes something of a bummer, which I’m pretty sure should never be the desired affect in a Stockhausen opera.

Throughout the opera, the scene returns to a dumbshow repetition of Michael’s childhood. Even in the third act Michael cannot move on from this display, and so the transformative essence of the opera is lost. This failure of Michael’s becomes a failure of this production. The director has taken a 1970s religious opera and regressed it to a 1930s expressionist psychodrama.

To honestly address Stockhausen’s operatic vision, one must fully commit to it – however bizarre it may be – if it is to work at all. Time after time this staging pulled its punches, retreating to a comfort zone of irony and psychology instead of grappling with the thornier issue of how to present a 21st century mystery play and the difficult implications of taking the text seriously. In Act II and the first half of the third act the action often becomes muddled, fussy and fidgety, as though to distract from the music. Michael’s homecoming in Act III is undermined by prolonged stage business which resorts to simply disregarding what is being sung.

Things on stage improve greatly when genuine conflict is introduced on stage through Stockhausen’s own libretto, as Michael confronts various manifestations of Luzifer. Finally, the action on stage returns to illuminating the music. The concluding scene is also handled very well, at last allowing the audience to focus in stillness on what has gone before. By this time the production has almost redeemed itself. Even here, though, the various personifications of Michael appear as in youth, from the first act. The director just cannot move on.

You can set the New Testament in a bowling alley in space for all I care, but if you present the Gospel as the story of one man’s journey to overcome obstacles in search of self-fulfilment then it will seem worse than strange, it will seem shallow and ignorant. No new light is shed.

So often in the Licht cycle Stockhausen takes banal and simplistic scenarios and somehow manages to elevate them through his music and his sense of experience shared through an audience. Too often this staging in Basel took elements of the mystical and fantastic and beat them down into the banal.

Composing or improvising, or… (II)

Thursday 16 June 2016

For the last fifty-odd years there’s been a grey area between what is composed and what is improvised. At home, I’ve been listening to some more new CDs from Another Timbre. Goldmsiths is a neat collection of four pieces for an ensemble of exceptional musicians equally adept at playing from a score or making it up. Everything is new, from last year: a piece each by Jürg Frey, Sarah Hughes and John Lely, and an improvisation. The pieces here alternate from being governed by a relatively strict, reductive principle of organisation (Frey, Lely) to music which opens up room for wider interpretation (Hughes). The improvisation is, theoretically, entirely free, but here the situation is not so simple.

The musicians take the same “hazardous course” described by John Tilbury in yesterday’s post (and Tilbury is the pianist on this disc.) They respond to the immediate circumstances of the musical situation with keen awareness of mood and a sureness of touch. Their performances of Frey’s Circular Music No. 6 and Lely’s First Page for Five are subtly coloured with a sustained sense of atmosphere.

Although it is more diverse in its material, the improvisation could easily be taken as a composed work, of a piece with the rest of the programme. This feeling is compounded by the opening work, Sarah Hughes’ A Reward is given for the Best Inframammary Fold No. 4, which sounds as though it may be a companion improvisation. The piece is in fact composed, with a determined structure, contrasts, gestures and harmonic material all specified. How the contents of this structure are to be presented is left to the musicians. Here, the music flows and ebbs as though through a spontaneous collective activity, even though these elements and overall scheme were determined in advance by the composer.

In the improvisation, with no hierarchy, the musicians must find their own constraints. They do a remarkable job of falling into the background when needed, providing tiny but essential shading that gives the music life. This becomes particularly clear in the strange, affecting coda.

Marek Poliks’ new CD hull treader sounds, at first, like another type of electroacoustic improvisation. There are two pieces, separated by a minute’s silence. In each, the sounds are amplified or entirely electronic. Music appears as large blocks of timbre; typically moving from one block to the next in sequence. The sounds are complex, verging on noise; extended techniques prevail. In an interview, Poliks talks about his interest in industrial goth, dark ambient.

Strangely, closer investigation reveals the situation to be more complicated. Firstly, it’s significant that Poliks himself doesn’t play on this disc: the performers are the ensemble Distractfold the duet of John Pickford Richards and Beth Weisser on violas(!?) and electronics. I haven’t seen the score for these pieces, but others I have seen suggest that these works are fully notated, at least down to details of techniques motifs and finer points of phrasing.

Despite the often harsh and unfamiliar sounds we’ve returned, in a roundabout way, to a type of composition from the classical era, where notation sought to preserve and then mimic the spontaneous flow of improvised music. The techniques, means and materials are however very different, after the intervention of a century or so of new thinking. Poliks’ music takes some unexpected twists and turns, as though following some internal logic beyond the knowledge of the performers. There are sudden, decisive shifts in tone, like the ominous rumble that suddenly appears a third of the way through the viola duet treader always in station and then refuses to leave. It’s like taking in a landscape – industrial, or post-industrial, in this case – only to discover the scene is in fact a vast organism with a mind of its own.

Composing or improvising, or… (I)

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Each composition is built upon a computer program governing interaction between performers and the system, and creates situations rather than set pieces. The performers have options rather than instructions, and the exploration of each situation as it unfolds is up to them.

— notes for David Behrman’s Interspecies Smalltalk

When it comes to a theoretical approach to music, the one thing I’ve taken away from Morton Feldman is how he worked within contradictions. He kept setting up mutually exclusive expectations of what he wanted his music to do; from there, composing became an act of constant negotiation with paradoxes. He made concessions, then made new demands, never reached a settlement.

A few weeks ago I went to the David Behrman residency at Cafe Oto; two nights of pieces ranging from early 1970s to more recent. He played duets and trios with fiddler Cleek Schrey and cellist Anton Lukoszevieze. These were pieces composed for live musicians performing with computer-controlled electronics – the computer interacts with the musicians as much as, if not more than, the reverse. What impressed most was that there was no flashy display of technical or technological virtuosity. On both nights, the music could have been comfortably plugged by a promoter as “ambient”. Lukoszevieze and Schrey listened and responded; Behrman’s computer was equally sympathetic. They were making music together.

(“Nobody’s trying to impress me with how difficult it is to do whatever it is they’re doing.” Something I don’t remember writing, about I gig I don’t remember going to.)

We’re back at that famous quote from Barthes’ The Grain of the Voice, “that the harpsichord playing of Wanda Landowska comes from her inner body and not from the petty digital scramble of so many harpsichordists.” John Tilbury picks up on this quote when talking about playing Feldman’s piano music.

Tudor and Cardew were virtuosi, which has nothing to do with velocity or petty digital scramble (Barthes), by virtue of the extraordinary sounds they drew from the piano. Their performances steered a hazardous course generating risk and excitement: the phrasing and articulation ‘situational’, determined spontaneously by the idiosyncrasies of individual sounds at particular moments, by ambience and acoustics, by the imperfections in the instrument and the dimensions of the room.

I’ve been listening to a lot of this type of hazardous music-making lately, both in composed and improvised situations, live and on record. A week or so after hearing it at the Behrman residency, I was back at Oto listening to Ora Clementi play. This duo work with what is almost the standard mix of devices for improvisers these days: stray instruments, found objects, cheap electronics, raw voice. With very different means and material, they achieved an effect similar to Behrman et al., of sounds blended together, alternately revealing small details or combining in complex ways. Very different music, but they shared a focus on using their instruments to achieve a particular end – not even a type of sound, but a particular way of listening. If Ora Clementi pushed the sounds, it was just a little bit, and only to see which way they might go.

The next night I was at St John’s in Hackney to hear what was apparently the penultimate performance by Marginal Consort. Their improvisations work on a larger scale, in time (three hours), in space (four musicians, each at their own corner of the church nave) and in equipment at their disposal. Their aesthetic approach was also writ on a larger scale: both regard to themselves and to each other a kind of thoughtful thoughtlessness prevailed. At various times each performer would drown out another, fade to near-silence, draw attention to themselves or withdraw, dwell on a particular sound of pursue a particular activity. Things came together by chance while some events were evidently planned. Overall, it was as though a number of smaller, self-contained compositions were presented serially and simultaneously to produce one hyper-work. Contradictions arose throughout and were always resolved by a seeming indifference to them. It was reminiscent of an enlightening interpretation of Cage’s Cartridge Music played a few years ago, which leaped back and forth from delicate to abrasive through a virtuosically disinterested performance by Marginal Consort mentor Takehisa Kosugi and… David Behrman.

This post is too long already, so now I’ve closed the loop I’ll post the rest separately tomorrow.