Memory, Forgetting

Tuesday 26 June 2018

When I wrote about that new recording of John Cage’s Two², I tried to link to my recent review of some of Cage’s other piano music on Another Timbre. And then remembered that it wasn’t here on the blog. It got published in the previous issue of Tempo, with reviews of Lost Daylight, the collection of Terry Jennings’ piano music, and a large work for solo piano by Jürg Frey. You can read a large chunk of the review on the preview page, which pretty much gets to what I was saying about Cage’s new approaches to piano writing in the 1950s and how it reset understanding of later piano music, both by him and by others.

I ended up describing Frey’s La présence, les silences as Hammerklavier, or, more appropriately, his Concord Sonata. His use of silence, long considered by listeners to be the signature foreground material of Frey and other Wandelweiser composers, has receded but still remains a vital force behind the sounds. Here, it takes musical traits from tradition – continuity, harmony, teleology – and transforms them into something familiar but not yet known. It’s part of his album Collection Gustave Roud, dedicated to the poet who “wandered through the landscape as a flâneur, observer…. For me his work constitutes a kind of “field recording”, not with a microphone and sounds, but with his soul and body, recording his environment in the broadest sense”.

I didn’t have space to discuss the other large work in this collection, Farblose Wolken, Glück, Wind for soprano, trumpet, cello, percussion and tape. The unusual combination of instruments at first evokes a kind of procession, with a slowly building drone made of high, bowed sounds. Towards the end, a slow drum-beat underpins the voice. The sense of wandering, of landscape, pervades the music; but this is not idle wandering, although there is no destination. It is travel for the sake of travel, a dérive to render the participant susceptible to enlightenment – in the sense of Cage’s “purposeful purposelessness” more than the Situationists’ political awareness. Once again, the listener finds music predicated on the transcendental in art. Voice and trumpet harmonise in unison, or each wanders alone but connected. It’s still one of the most satisfying recordings I’ve heard in the past year.

A Portrait of Frank Denyer

Thursday 21 June 2018

An all-too-rare chance last weekend to hear live music by Frank Denyer, an English composer treated like a guilty secret in his home country. Not that a gala evening at The Proms would show him to best advantage – the dim, confined theatre of The Print Room at The Coronet in Notting Hill was well suited to his intimate music. It’s heard best when experienced close: that intimacy can be confronting at times, almost painful, in a way that leaves the audience privately exhilarated.

I’m not going back to read what I wrote when first encountering Denyer’s music on a CD released by Another Timbre but I remember it as a raw and challenging experience. In most cases, such descriptions would refer to a music of extremes – whether of volume, pitch or emotions – but not here. If listeners find an emotional power in Denyer’s music, it comes from within themselves in response to the strangeness of the sounds he finds, a strangeness that is yet entirely natural. There is nothing outlandish, after all, in a yearning violin solo played against a rattle of bones and the faint echo of a viola, or in the blowing of ocarinas against the thud of sticks beating canvas. It still leaves an uncanny impression in the memory.

The concert was staged by the Octandre Ensemble, who played Denyer’s After the Rain so baeutifully at Principal Sound a couple of years ago. So good to hear them expand this into a dedicated evening. As composition, Denyer’s music lives by instinct. We heard how secure his instincts are in the early works from the 1970s played at the start of the concert. The focus is on melody, a single line set against silence. Heard offstage in darkness, Unsion I left the audience to wonder how flute, violin, viola and voice were blended into one iridescent colour. In Quick, quick, the Tamberan is coming, the melody is played across four bass flutes, each with elision and elaborations so that the four voices intertwine. The Hanged Fiddler set the soloist against viola and percussion, as described above.

In the late works, melody is dissolved into frail, isolated sounds shared between instruments and voices. In Two Voices with Axe, male and female voices (Juliet Fraser and Denyer himself) vocalise in the same register against flute and string instruments. Percussion consists of small, carefully chosen sounds, and a player splitting wood with an axe. A sound pallette comparable to Morton Feldman in the Sixties is torqued into a fraught tension by the axe’s harsh, uncontrolled sounds (after each blow, the flying fragments of wood ricochet and roll across the floor). The concert ended with the premiere of a new work, Screens. Again, there was theatre in the presence of the musicians, who stepped back and forth behind folding dressing screens as they played. The screens act as subtle mutes, enhancing the sense of remoteness for which the objects were designed. Denyer walked onstage to comment on the music, as written into the score. The words reflect on the music, the stage, his presence and his own commentary; “Some sounds are words”. The piece has an elemental simplicity, which makes its oblique self-reflexiveness all the more enigmatic as an artistic statement. “Occasionally, perhaps, some sounds are gates…. Oddly intermittent.”

John Cage: Two²

Friday 15 June 2018

Great art takes time and, as Cage observed in his Lecture on Something, art should not be something that comes from within, but that goes within. Being fond of the piece, I’ve been looking forward to hearing this new recording of Cage’s late piano duet Two² for several reasons and yet it still managed to take me by surprise. First reason: I really like Philip Thomas’ and Mark Knoop’s interpretations of Cage, both jointly as part of projects like Another Timbre’s recording of Winter Music, and their solo interpretations on works ranging from the solo from Concert for Piano and Orchestra and Etudes Boreales, respectively.

Second reason: I’d always had a soft spot for Two²; partly as a rare anomaly amongst Cage’s “number pieces”, moreso for its use of subjective time, placing shared responsibility for the movement of one passage to the next entirely on the performers. (It’s an idea I’ve adapted for some of my own music.) The scope for variation in the density of events from moment to moment added a pleasing amount of upheaval to the usual, even continuum. Third reason: Philip Thomas hated it.

The inner sleeve of the CD, unusually for Another Timbre releases, quotes a substantial chunk of the interview with Thomas posted on their website, explaining his antipathy (“too many notes”) and his conversion. Other recordings I’ve heard of this piece range from about 45 to 75 minutes. Until I opened the package I hadn’t realised this new version took up two discs and extended a little past two hours. Was this a cop-out, grinding the pace down to something tastefully undisturbed; slow, soft and inoffensive?

These days, it’s almost too easy to reduce your sound palette to quiescence, for that superficial impression of beauty and profundity. When things become easy, it gets much harder to do those things with distinction. In Two², each pianist plays in their own time but cannot move to the next measure until the other player has also completed the current measure. Thomas compares Cage’s score to those of Antoine Beuger, for its elegant simplicity, but the technique of interdependent interpretation recalls Christian Wolff’s music. There’s a similar balance here that gently sways between disjointedness and continuity, in a way I haven’t heard in other recordings of this piece. It also feels like perhaps the only Cage composition predicated on the idea of the musician’s “inner clock” that really works as intended, without requiring almost impossibly ideal conditions.

Thomas and Knoop agreed on their instincts that Cage’s score for Two² needed a more generous pacing, and with this extra time comes the greater revelation of details, both in Cage’s composition and the musicians’ playing. As Thomas says, with their slower pacing “the sounds seem to have a poise and stillness about them.” The dramatic contrasts in register can often come with perceptible changes in dynamics, although here the pianists honour Cage’s instruction for an evenness of tone, “quietly but equally”. Thomas and Knoop bring out a beautiful quality where each sound has a distinct character, with its own brilliance or softness, a subtle difference in attack that sets each note or chord in low relief. It’s something I haven’t heard in other recordings.

Another unsual aspect of Two² is the way Cage allowed sounds to reappear. Cage skillfully used chance in a way that enabled chords to be repeated from time to time, creating a hazy sense of memory, variation and even harmony, as the listener hears remembered chords in new contexts. This mysterious sense of patterns is most evident in Thomas and Knoop’s interpretation. In his interview, Thomas attributes this to the slowness allowing each chord more time to resonate in the memory. It also allows each chord to be heard in isolation, so that it may be better recognised should it be played again.

Despite liking other versions of Two², this new interpretation reveals so much more about what makes this piece beautiful. By removing the complexity from the surface, Thomas and Knoop have found a more accomplished complexity within the music.

Unfocused Notes on Obscurity

Monday 11 June 2018

Dieter Schnebel died a couple of weeks ago. I saw him once, maybe five years ago, in a small church in Brighton for a matinee concert dedicated to his music, including a premiere. It was a small show. Other than LCMF featuring some of his Maulwerke a while back, it’s the only time I’ve heard Schnebel’s music played live. Later that week, Ian Pace included a bagatelle by Schnebel in his recital at City University. The programme included two pieces by Betsy Jolas, including the first performance in the UK of her B for Sonata, composed in 1973.

In a field of music where a raging success is defined by sales figures cracking four digits, it seems petty to talk about obscurity. People’s attention may now be able to range wider than ever before, but in doing so it gets spread thin. Holes open up and someone can fall through without being able to identify the point where they were marginalised. Perhaps they will be paid the backhanded compliment of having a mythology grow around them so they can be ‘rediscovered’, hopefully before they’re dead. Maybe it’s just a local thing, but there is no self-evident reason why an artist may have greater recognition in one foreign country over another.

The final gig in the Kammer Klang season was on Tuesday. They ended with a set of short chamber works by Laurie Spiegel, composed in the 1980s and 2000s: string trio, piano, banjo, pieces that remain almost unknown and unheard. The web site is illustrated with a 1970s photograph of Spiegel in Bell Labs, bringing home Fitzgerald’s observation that there are no second acts in American lives. Spiegel withdrew from the electronic new music scene in the 1980s, but for the punters left behind it’s hard not to feel like everything that follows is an anticlimax. The pieces are simple, almost too simple, but after a while the anodyne surface slips away to reveal something more beguiling, unexpected turns designed to charm rather than subvert or surprise.