Trip Report: An Assembly play Charlie Usher and Rowland Hill

Tuesday 16 October 2018

I’ve got some new recordings I need to talk about (Þráinn Hjálmarsson, All That Dust) but first I should follow up on that An Assembly gig previewed a couple of weeks back. The programme of new works commissioned by the ensemble has completed a small tour of the country.

Rowland Hill’s Tha-at’s right matches, or mismatches, 16mm film footage of three dancers in a studio with a live chamber ensemble. Both are drawn from Edwin Denby’s review of Stravinsky’s ballet Agon, taking Denby’s eccentric interpretations as a score to be, in turn, interpreted into a ballet. I was looking forward to this piece, commenting that “I’m a sucker for this sort of approach, acknowledging and exploiting transmission of information as a form of cultural distortion.” It didn’t disappoint. There’s a sly humour throughout the piece, made all the more subversive by never letting the audience relax into certainty over what, or who, is being made fun of from one moment to the next. Everything obeys an external logic of which the audience is aware of but not privy to. The film is disjointed, the setting informal like a rehearsal, but the dancer’s repeated movements and the abrupt changes of camera angles emphasise a structural rigour, following a logic that is never made clear. (Think audience alienation, more Godard than Brecht, but emptied of emotional or political manipulation, leaving the punters wary and bemused and ready to laugh or rein it in at a moment’s notice. The notice never comes.) The dancers bring a discipline and dignity to the ridiculousness. Like in a Robert Ashley piece, only with movement instead of words, the music does its work while the audience is distracted, a deadpan “No comment” while slipping a diffuse, brittle collage of chamber music past our ears.

Charlie Usher’s An assembly was, as promised, 122 pieces played in 45 minutes, each piece 13 seconds long except for an extended coda. The ten musicians, conducted by Jack Sheen, were augmented by modest electronics and occasional field recordings. One thing I didn’t expect from this work was the effect of writing, playing and listening on such a reduced scale for such an extended time. The description of the work’s form conjures up mental images of a kaleidoscope, or miscellany, but this possibility is never offered to the listener. Most of the pieces have titles and were dutifully listed in the programme (“they’re there to shade the content”): they read as notes for Usher’s own benefit, significant but insubstantial. There’s little in them for the audience to latch onto as an idea and besides, who can keep track from one piece to the next? 072 The green – believe it exists. 073 Strength with all sisters. 074 Music as a trace on your day. An artist’s notebook, instigating and susbtantiated by the music.

But what is the music? 13 seconds is almost nothing. Many of the pieces have scarcely any substance at all: sound is present, and that suffices. With no time to establish much beyond that, each piece is formed with due care but without any foolish attempt to assert its distinctiveness. The pieces were ordered in such a way as to “create a sort of flatness, an avoidance of shape and drama and to put everything on the same plane”. Usher described one meaning of the title as “45 minutes with sound”, the music forming a type of public space. Even when aware of the time structure, the listener loses interest in trying to distinguish one piece from the next. A new type of listening comes about, detached from both the immediacy of the continuous present and from the awareness of details. Those two descendants of Cagean thinking do not come into play here; the faint but indelible didacticism in Cage’s aesthetics is finally effaced. An assembly allows music and listener simply to coexist, without calling either to account.

Of course it’s not that simple. That last piece, 11 minutes and 10 seconds according to the programme, is a low sun that casts the preceding music into relief. A suspended, sustained harmonic shimmer that by this point seems to extend forever. It means nothing, but it opens up a vast space for reflection. As with painting, contemplation of abstraction on that scale can get emotional.

Séverine Ballon: inconnaissance

Monday 8 October 2018

I went to four unrelated cello gigs in about a week, each demonstrating some a aspect of playing and composing for the instrument. 840’s most recent gig at St James’, Islington focused on cellist (and composer) Anton Lukoszevieze, aided by pianist (and composer) Alex Nikiporenko. Some of these pieces are becoming old standards now, such as Linda Catlin Smith’s Ricercar and Laurence Crane’s Raimondas Rumsas; amongst the new work, the premiere of Christian Wolff’s six Small Pieces for Cellist was the highlight. Any new work by Wolff in the fruitful late phase of his career deserves our thanks, and the dedicatee Lukoszevieze brought out much more than you could imagine from a composer whose music so often looks unprepossessing on paper. The pieces alternated between full and open notation, with Lukoszevieze seizing the opportunity to add variations in attack and touch to Wolff’s discontinuous phrases, creating a kind of Klangfarbenmelodie.

The cello is a big and tactile instrument, which makes it ideal for observing technique, both in performance and in composition. The following weekend I was at the Old Dentist in Clapton, taking in the venue’s traditional BYO over the fire in the backyard before crouching in the cramped front room of the stripped terrace house to hear Judith Hamann playing solo again. This was a more focused set than the one I remember from Cafe Oto a while back: a pulse that slowly contracted and expanded, in feeling if not in tempo, as Hamann concentrated on drawing harmonic overtones from her instrument, from the endpin working up to the strings. There was no obvious systematic process at work here, nor anything reductionist or extreme to coax the listener’s attention to a different state: while setting up, she decided to go without any amplification. The cello became a sounding vessel, speaking in its own language of resonant vibrations.

Last Tuesday was the start of 10th season of Kammer Klang at Oto, with co-founder Lucy Railton performing Phill Niblock’s Harm on his 84th birthday. It was a kind of inversion of Hamann’s performance – “It’s loud,” Railton warned the punters, “and dense.” Here the overtones played the instrument, a wall of complex, pulsating colours that shimmered and darkened in ways beyond the solo performer’s full comprehension. In the midst of all this, Railton’s bowing alternately merged and fought with the backing layers of cello (previously recorded by Arne Deforce), a thin streak of oil over churning waters. After repeated tangential brushes with Niblock’s music played live, and hearing the man himself with laptop last month, I think I finally got the true live Niblock experience.

In amongst all this I got invited to the launch of All That Dust, a new record label started by London-based new music performers and producers Newton Armstrong, Juliet Fraser and Mark Knoop. We were treated to live performances of excerpts from two of the new releases – cellist Séverine Ballon, and percussionist Håkon Stene playing part of Matthew Shlomowitz’s Popular Contexts 8 – as well as Knoop playing a piano piece by Tim Parkinson, part of a collection sheduled for next year.

I want to get around to all the current releases (three on CD, two download-only) in time. Séverine Ballon’s live set, and her CD inconnaisance, exclusively deals with her own compositions for solo cello. Having long been a skilled interpreter of other people’s music, she has spent the last couple of years developing a set of her own pieces. Witnessed live, you could appreciate the thoughtful placement of sounds paired with the care taken in touch and intonation. There are extended techniques appearing throughout, but used in unobstrusive ways that keep the focus on the sound: pedal tones, bowing behind the bridge, some of the more esoteric harmonics. Colouration from different bowing techniques are foregrounded. As might be expected, the music’s composition is clearly rooted in performance but is much more than a working through of a cellist’s favoured processes, as can so often be the case. The set of tracks on the CD can be heard individually yet clearly work as a suite, with each section presenting a distinct style and soundworld rather than an excerise in a given technique. On disc, the sound is beautifully captured, evoking the same experience of hearing it live at close range.

There’s confidence behind Ballon’s musical thinking, both in execution and in conception. At times, she lets the sound slip away to almost nothing without ever losing its presence, letting details recede and emerge, with contrasts in dynamics and activity that always feel natural. It all makes for a solid musical experience when heard alone, or even in ignorance of the skill required to make it.