A Post-Cage World: Antoine Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets

Wednesday 28 June 2017

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets last week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Each page of the score contains two lines of four tones. The tones are all to be played long and softly. Four of the musicians play one line of tones, each in their own time, and the four others play the second line. This recording realises twenty-five of the fifty pages of the score.

There’s a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to Ockeghem and Beuger observes that each page of the score “constitutes a kind of double canon”. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Firstly, Cage wasn’t one to think in terms of canons. Each page is circumscribed as a miniature, self-contained piece. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and soft notes throughout – those ‘lines’ of four tones take, in this recording, 2-3 minutes each. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (flute, alto flute, melodica, concertina, harmonium, accordion, cello, e-bow zither) divide differently between the two lines on each page, producing strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here, combining “high” and “low” cultures, brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.