Christoph Schiller & Morgan Evans-Weiler: spinet and violin

Thursday 20 July 2017

It describes itself as “an extended improvisation” but I don’t believe it. A few years back Another Timbre put out a solo album by Christoph Schiller titled Variations – a strange hybrid of improvisation and composition. Schiller worked inside an amplified spinet and piano with various objects to compose a canon out of improvisations of predetermined length. His working methods were inspired, producing evocative sounds that only occasionally betrayed their origins.

Someone could carelessly say that improvisation is about spontaneity, but that only goes some way towards a satisfying musical experience. When away from the club, the theatre, the sense of community, the bravado, the booze and only the sound remains. As Schiller said, “A recorded improvisation is as fixed (or even more fixed) as a written piece.” Improvisation is about heightened senses of judgement, knowing when and how to act, even if only on a subconscious level.

This new duet by Schiller and violinist Morgan Evans-Weiler, titled simply spinet and violin, exercises such a fine judgement over such a long time that it’s difficult to believe that, as Evans-Weiler confirms in the accompanying interview that the music was completely improvised, or that they haven’t been playing together for years:

It was clear from the second that we started playing what direction it was going to go. I think we have both become increasingly interested in pitch and so the focus was very much on permutations of pitch sets and working through these sets over time.

The focus on pitch yields a fascinating study in timbre and texture. Carefully choosing when to deploy each new note creates a beautifully paced slow arc of sound that builds up ominously before dying away to almost complete silence halfway through. Strangely, this stillness and subsequent stirring into activity again feels like a natural progression than a break or a structural argument. The shifts in dynamics throughout the piece are all the more striking and effective for being confined to a relatively narrow range.

Both musicians hover in a state halfway between definite pitch of ‘proper’ playing and the indeterminate sound of ‘extended’ techniques. The piece begins with Schiller plucking muted spinet strings against Evans-Weiler’s frail violin drones. Any tendency to pursue a particular gesture or sound gets reined in by an emphasis on pitch, yet the pitch itself remains a nebulous ideal which may be approached but never possessed. This ambiguous haze persists throughout, like a familiar image that preys on memory but never quite resolves into recognisable focus. Sustained double-stops float microtonally, the strings from both instruments rasp and buzz, a rare plucked note dropped like a pebble into a pond. The spinet rattles and echoes – at times it seems like there are electronics involved, with lower pitched sounds welling up in the background. It’s all hard to tell. I haven’t heard many pieces this year composed as well as this improvisation.

Late Feldman live and on record

Monday 17 July 2017

Last September Mark Knoop, Aisha Orazbayeva, Bridget Carey and Anton Lukoszevieze played Morton Feldman’s last piece, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello at Cafe Oto. I’ve written before about the playing conditions at Cafe Oto in hot weather, particularly when playing Feldman. Watching the musicians wilt in the airless heat, a sense of solidarity builds between the players and the punters, the understanding of dedication to a common interest.

In these circumstances, rough edges inevitably appear, attention can wander, but the sense of occasion gives an insightful edge. The exposed seams in how a piece is made, how it is played, helps the listener to understand more about what goes into the music. After the September gig, one of the players described it as “a nice run-through” of the Feldman. Another Timbre has now released a recording made by the same musicians in the more sedate climate of Henry Wood Hall in January. The differences are striking.

Yes, it’s more polished. Of course it is. The performance here is different in other ways. The four musicians, superb under pressure, now bring a new coherence and focus to the sound. The polish isn’t a layer of gloss, but a new surface, as simultaneously opaque and transparent as a late Rothko canvas. Compared to my memories of the Oto night, this new version is more sombre but also more settled. Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello seemed to mark an advance from Feldman’s other last pieces, in that it seemed more organic, even relaxed in its unhurried traversal of 74 minutes. In this recording, that more discursive aspect has diminished – presumably the musicians were able to pay more attention to each other. It’s replaced by a unified sound, closer in feeling to the more commercially celebrated Piano and String Quartet.

In playing together more closely, the strings produce a more otherworldly sound. The piano balances this tone beautifully, as though outlining a pattern visible within the surface of the strings. Heard in this way, Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello now incorporates and resolves the monadic mysteriousness of preceding works like Coptic Light and For Samuel Beckett, allowing both the stillness of contemplation and an invitation to breathe again.

John Cage’s ‘Concert For Piano and Orchestra’

Monday 10 July 2017

The programme notes for the St John At Hackney gig last Thursday admitted that Cage’s Concert For Piano and Orchestra is a work more often seen than heard. Its spectre haunts all music that aspires to the condition of art as surely and as silently as his more notorious 4’33”. The score for the piano part acts as a signal, here be dragons. It’s a visual manifesto for Cage’s aesthetics of chance and indeterminacy, as forbidding as it is liberating. Critics worry, often without having heard it, that the music is random, meaningless. The meaning of, say, Haydn is a question that has never troubled them.

Live, the first performances I heard of the Concert were sparse and bracing, with that quality of openness that so often distinguished Cage’s music from other atonal composers of the Fifties. Years later, I heard a much more raucous, impetuous performance, with a larger orchestra. The comic qualities of the Concert have come under greater focus in recent years. The score itself conveys its own mischievous humour for the performer, the notation allows scope for an uncommon exuberance, the conductor has their own, independent part which may be safely ignored. For a “random, meaningless” work, it carries a lot of signs that it is a Concert of Misrule.

There’s too much precise working out of details to consider the work as a Dadaist stunt. Critics could, of course, complain that Cage’s anarchism isn’t anarchic enough. Despite all attempts to dismiss it – as a joke, as conceptual art, as a philosophical statement – the Concert persists as a discomfiting presence in music. Describing the music as ‘abstract’ or non-referential is not enough to diminish its power – this should be obvious to anyone who can hear. How, as a piece of music, does the Concert continue to exert such force on the imagination, nearly sixty years after its premiere?

At St John At Hackney last Thursday night, pianist Philip Thomas joined conductor Jack Sheen and ten musicians from Apartment House for a performance of the Concert. The piece has always sounded protean, a mass of competing forces that never find equilibrium, always on the verge of becoming identifiable but never resolving into a fixed state at any time. Cage often talked about observing and imitating nature’s methods of operation and, in this piece, nature seems always on the verge of exceeding its bounds.

Thomas had scrupulously devised a new realisation of the piano part. In this incarnation the solo, often pointillistic in other interpretations, frequently assumed a studied fury, with extended loud phrases in restricted registers, elaborate figures and, every now and then, sudden interruptions of added colouration through extended techniques and objects. The orchestra members, scattered to various points around the church, called out to no-one, expecting no reply. As the sun set and the church darkened, quieter moments felt more like fatigue than rest; silences, always unnervingly unpredictable, opened up in the music like chasms.

Cage expressed the belief that any meaning to found in music comes from within the listener. This is not a renunciation of meaning in art, but a more complex understanding of how meaning may be found. After Cage’s death, a clear trend emerged in performing his work in a heightened state of quiescence, embracing the accidental harmonies found in his late work. This attitude carried over into new realisations of pieces from the Fifties and Sixties, which typically received more abrupt, abrasive performances at the time. The Apartment House performance of Concert opened up a new way of hearing this music. As the discordant voices rose, coalesced, fell apart and were silenced, the piece became an ominous, unreadable symbol for the times, refusing to explain itself but portending dark times ahead. I’ve never heard a more powerful performance of the piece, live or on record.

It’s fitting that the companion work on the night was a new piece by Christian Wolff, titled Resistance. Written for the same forces, it was premiered by Apartment House in Leeds the weekend before. Wolff’s resistance is not obstructionist; the piece synthesises several different approaches he has used to composition over the years. At times fully notated, at others partially or completely open, the conductor gives direction as needed, marks time when required, or stands aside. In contrast to much of Wolff’s recent music, the sense of a shaping force was present, allowing greater contrast and affective shading to emerge while still not compromising the ‘consensual’ working of the musicians. It worked backwards through allusions to Cage’s Music For ______ series, Cardew’s ensemble music of the early Sixties, and Wolff’s own, earliest rule-based works, drawing upon them as principles to be maintained into the next century.