Principal Sound: Feldman and Nono in particular

Wednesday 21 February 2018

In the days when information was scarce, one of the few readily available recordings of Morton Feldman’s late work was the CD of Joan La Barbara singing Three Voices. It was an invaluable, but unusual, entry point. A rare example of Feldman working with tape – the only one outside of his experiments in the early 50s – and a long work for voice alone, with other small curiosities that set it apart from his other pieces of the time. Last weekend, the Principal Sound festival at St John’s Smith Square presented a chance to hear this strange music in a new way.

Having just written about the importance of seeing/hearing music performed live, Juliet Fraser’s performance of Three Voices was a perfect example of what can be gained from the concert experience. I haven’t heard Fraser’s recording of the piece from a couple of years ago, but her performance on Friday night showed this piece and Feldman’s musical qualities in general at their finest. Imperceptible shifts in shading to the voice(s) kept the music hovering in an ambiguous emotional space, between tender and cold, sensuous and forbidding. Fraser’s perceptive programme notes mentioned that she chose to disregard the score’s instruction against vibrato; this had the added effect of softening the edges of the notes, slightly blurring the distinction between the live voice and the ‘tombstoney’ loudspeakers at each side, inviting a connection to be made between them. Working, unusually, with such a ‘full’ sounding instrument as the human voice, Feldman’s constricted harmonies cause beatings and overtones to emerge between the voices – this was clarified somewhat by the spatial distinction across the stage, particularly when the three identical voices hocket back and forth on the same pitch.

It was a smartly-programmed concert. Feldman is the source of inspiration for the concert series, but the programme this year focused on Luigi Nono, particularly his late works, which share Feldman’s need for hushed expanses of time searching for a form. Each work contained an elegy or dedication of some sort, and the choice of Feldman’s work echoed Nono’s use of electronics and spatialisation of sound. The series began with Nono’s A Pierre. Dell’azzurro silenzio, inquietum: flute and clarinet hidden away in the upper reaches of the church, swathed in trailing streams of harmonic resonances and echoes that circled around the audience below.

Over the weekend I got to hear the Quatuor Bozzini play again, after hearing them play Jürg Frey so well in Huddersfield, years ago. Their rendering of Nono’s Fragmente – Stille, An Diotima was a telling contrast to the interpretation I heard the Arditti Quartet give ten years ago. In his late works, Nono contructs fragile webs of sound out of the most meagre of materials. Stark, unpolished, often rudimentary instrumental gestures, broken off from any phrasing or context. With Arditti, Nono’s quartet became a transcendence of musical refuse into thwarted lyricism. With Bozzini, it became more coherent, like remnants of an ancient culture that has endured the ravages of time, faded but still refulgent. The following afternoon, the Bozzini’s two violinists played the duet “Hay que caminar” soñando. Nono’s last piece remains one of my favourite works, for its miraculous capturing of sonorities in the same realm as his electroacoustic works, produced entirely through acoustic means. Clemens Merkel and Alissa Cheung’s use of bow pressure, placement and angles brought out colouration of the violins’ sound that rivalled the electronics heard on the first night.

I don’t want to run down a checklist of everything that happened, so I’ll just mention a few more things that stick in my head now. Hearing Exaudi premiere a new work for unaccompanied chorus by Linda Catlin Smith, getting to experience Aisha Orazbayeva and Mark Knoop playing Bryn Harrison’s Receiving the Approaching Memory live and relishing that it’s as labyrinthine for them as it is for us, the Bozzini Quartet playing something by Claudia Molitor that has finally made me start to pay attention and, conversely, something by the wonderful Aldo Clementi that I found, to my surprise and shame, dull.

Hearing it, seeing it.

Wednesday 14 February 2018

I’ve seen a few cases of really petty criticism lately about people talking of ‘seeing a concert’ instead of hearing it. It’s a stupid argument based on false pedantry. This doesn’t mean there are significant differences between hearing a recording of a piece of music and hearing it performed live. Apart from context, the visual aspect plays a large role.

I’ve written in the past about the advantages of being at a live concert over listening to a record, and of the problems in how to present live music with minimal visual content (i.e. laptops). Last week’s Kammer Klang gig at Cafe Oto highlighted some of these contrasts in a very stark way, juxtaposing a tape-only work by Hanna Hartman (who often plays live with an elaborate, visually-intriguing setup) with two chamber compositions performed by Distractfold that both used theatrics. (This was all followed by Jennifer Walshe so, yeah, Performance.)

Even in the most traditional music gig, visual cues to the music abound, drawing attention to structure and the interplay of elements that may not be immediately obvious to a casual listener. (Walshe’s piece, Is it cool to try hard now? included a section that referred to how these gestures can be faked to elecit an emotional response.) Distractfold played Steven Kazuo Takasugi’s piece The man who couldn’t stop laughing, a work I’d previously heard on the radio. In addition to electronic playback, the musicians dress up for the piece and are required to grimace or gesticulate at various points in the score. It adds another layer to the piece, one which I had been unaware of when hearing it the first time. I don’t know how much it helps to have the theatrical part. In a crowded space like Oto (Kammer Klang nights seem to be habitually rammed) it’s easy to miss a lot of what’s going on; plus I’m biased towards sound and less well disposed to the cabaret-like stylised subjectivity on which the theatre was based.

The first piece, Barblina Meierhans’ May I ask you something? also used theatre, but with a different approach, at once both more naturalistic and more deconstructive. Beginning with a kind of meta-narrative of the musicians discussing the piece and performance instead of playing, then sliding back and forth between music and theatre. The approach came across like the work of one of the composers associated with Bastard Assignments – with a focus on speech, performance gesture, memory and social context – only with more overt ‘music music’ content. Again, it could be hard to see, but it became activity that merged with the surrounding audience.

I want to finish with a counterexample. I first heard John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings performed by Anton Lukoszevieze at a live concert and was a little underwhelmed. Even for my reductionist tastes it seemed a little too simple: a slow sweep up the length of a cello string, from low to high, pressing lightly to produce harmonics. Months later, I bought the CD recording and became intrigued. Harmonics don’t ascend in the same linear arrangement as fully-sounded pitch, but emerge and disappear, sounding lower or higher according to each harmonic node reached. As sound only, without watching that finger progressing up the fingerboard to each successive node, the music gained a depth and complexity that my eyes had denied me.

Repost: The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Wednesday 24 January 2018

(Originially posted 2006. RIP Mark E. Smith, who my girlfriend thought “looked pretty good for sixty-five” at the time.)

Has anyone made a comedy map of Britain? I don’t mean a map indicating clubs and the birthplaces of comedians; I mean a map marking the real locations inhabited by fictional comic characters, haunted by absurdist conceits. The more anonymous and duller a place is, the more likely it is to have been infused with significance by generations of comic minds: dormitory suburbs, brownfields, dead ends, postwar nowheres. Balham, Putney, Hendon, Cheam: London and the counties are held together in an invisible network of bathetic, negative landmarks. The enervated traveller crossing these liminal spaces is suddenly seized with a numinous inversion of meaning with which the no-place has become invested. What ley-lines connect these psychogeographical lacunae; do they awkwardly bisect the zones of conscious importance, or sneak behind and between through forgotten territory?

Last Friday night a self-selected cross-section of Londoners and American tourists were sharing a small frisson at finding themselves congregated outside a bingo hall in Cricklewood, reminding each other that The Goodies lived in Cricklewood. This wasn’t the reason we were all there; we had come to see a different British institution, of similar cultish appeal. We had come to see The Fall; or not see The Fall, as the case may be.

The Americans amongst us were hopeful of seeing a real, genuine Fall gig, having been repeatedly exasperated at home by the nominal band’s touring habits: either gracelessly imploding on stage or working a setlist top-heavy with interminable ten-minute dirges about supermarket car parks in Salford. (Mark E. Smith has his own appetite for psychogeographical nullity.) Perhaps they didn’t know that the band’s London gigs tended to be equally perfunctory: it seems anything south of Birmingham is much of a muchness, as far as Smith is concerned.

To get an idea of the venue, take a look at their website (proletarian visions of prosperity). No really, it’s priceless. A gilt-edged coffin for Punk’s corpse, WMC Blobs laid to boozy rest with Celtic troubadors and cowboys from Carlisle. As a harbinger of the muzzy haze of regression that threatened, the opening act was John Cooper Clarke, preserved like Sharon Osbourne.

Perhaps it was the faded premises on the cultural and subcultural margin that made the band turn up and play. The band, such as it is, all vestigal entity outside of Smith himself having long departed and now routinely replaced with such regularity that even fans can’t keep track of the musos’ names, has a reputation for only partly turning up, in body or mind; with Smith himself late, drunk, or a no-show. Instead of a vicarious trainwreck thrill we got the embodiment of a Rock Band at Work, of performance as routine.

Smith, famously looking 20 years older than his real age, stumbled round the stage snarling and hollering incoherently as usual, into one or two mics, as usual, dropping one or picking up the other, peripetetically bemused by their technical failings, nonconsensually futzing with his bandmates’ gear, as usual. Performance as routine, stripped of its romance and mythology when seen plain on stage as schtick – in the same way that he refuses to play any songs more than a few years old, Smith’s performance denies his fans the delusion of shamanism, of recollection of an intangible psychic resonance. What is left is form and technique, with no invocation of the past, to impress the punters – not appeals to faith. (My companion for the night, oblivious to The Fall’s history and significance, attested to this.) The conventional becomes experimental.

The band confined themselves to solid riffs, one per song, starting out OK and then locking into a tighter groove that propelled the music and voice into the higher levels, into the lower reaches of the transcendent state a good rock gig can give. After this peak it was in the recoil of the interval, ebbing into a slower, muted rhythm, “Blindness”, its protracted disorientation nudging the punters into a dreamlike semiconsciousness. Smith himself had delayed his entrance onstage, like Elvis in Vegas, but then disappeared early as well, before and after the encore, effacing himself backstage inconspicuously, not to return. It seemed over too soon.

Catching the band in an upswing of collateral cool thanks to John Peel’s untimely death, the crowd was a mixture of disoriented tourists, middle-aged punks in mufti, prematurely-aged anoraks comparing notes on Tuesday night’s gig (and observing that one band member had been sacked in the interim), curious students, a mosh pit, bright young things their dowdy finest, a pair of them dancing like frenzied muppets on the balcony behind the band, alternately irritating and amusing the more sombrely dedicated punters. And of course, the indifferent regulars up the back getting their pints in all the while.

Opera as Entropy: Cage’s Europeras 1 & 2

Monday 22 January 2018

Many years ago I experienced a production of John Cage’s last three Europeras in Cologne. Soon after, I blew the chance to see the first two of the set – the “big” ones with greater complexity and more elaborate staging. Don’t know how but somehow noticed that a new production of Europeras 1 & 2 was happening just before Christmas, at Staatstheater Braunschweig. It seemed a little odd that Cage was being presented in what appeared to be a fairly small, regional theatre. “It’s where theatre people in Germany get their first real job” someone explained to me.

The company raided the theatre’s sets and props to an appropriately disorienting effect. The singers and actors seemed enthusiastic enough as they threw themselves into the melange – literally so, in the case of the soprano with the dumpster. Beside the singing, the orchestra parts are particularly strange: a type of collage both fragmentary and unaltered, which is unusual for Cage. The peculiarity came from its success as music in its own right instead of a mere concept, as so often happens in these situations. Like a paticularly unfocused piece by Berio, it persisted without differentiation or structure, distinctively undistinguished Euro-mood music that faltered, wobbled, but never ceased.

There were rough edges – the handling of the Truckera tape collage’s appearances was clumsy – but no obvious horseplay, cutting up or general piss-taking by the musicians. Hopefully those dark days of self-sabotage are behind us. There was occasional mugging or playing up to the audience, which is forgivable to some degree; it’s a comedy, after all. The biggest revelation was in the lighting. In the Cologne productions I saw, Cage’s detailed lighting cues were ignored. In Braunschweig, lighting made all the difference. Onstage antics between singers, dancers and actors were cast in a dim, reflected glow, or with long shadows, while a bright spot was cast on the side of a pillar downstage, or focusing on a discarded watering can. Scenes played out half-hidden in the background, comedy in chiaroscuro. The audience’s attention was effectively decentred, wandering over scenery and actors without overt direction: Cage’s conception of the circus contained within a proscenium arch.

As for the audience, it was small for Europera 1 and, after the interval, noticeably smaller still for Europera 2. It looks like there are more performances scheduled in June, so perhaps summer might be more of an occasion than a cold, wet night in December.

I’ve commented before on how Cage’s music, like other great art, continues to speak to the world in surprising, often disturbing ways. In the thirty years since the Europeras first appeared, the apparent shift in attitudes towards ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture has only accelerated. At the time of its conception, the work would have been viewed by many, whether pro or anti, as an iconoclastic exercise in irreverent anarachy, in the footsteps Chuck Jones and the Marx brothers. It’s hard to get that same feeling, these days (although the defecting audience members in Braunschweig might disagree). Opera, once a signifier of the rich, the powerful and the cultured, is now a signifier of the old and out of touch. The stereotype of the top-hatted toff persists, but as much as an anachronism as of a symbol of privilege. These days, real power prefers the corporate hospitality at the football and backstage access at the U2 gig.

In this time, the opera is an institution more to be pitied than mocked and here Cage’s celebration of the genre was more wake than circus. The persistent image was one of entropy: the disassociated costumes and props seemed like salvaged detritus, fragments which could no longer make a whole. As opera, even as an idea, recedes from popular culture and consciousness, iconoclasm becomes a moot point. Pure indifference has already done Cage’s work for him. At various times, stagehands brought out portraits of opera composers, propped them up and later knocked them down, unless they fell of their own accord, sometimes immediately. As the evening progressed, the empty stage accumulated clutter of cast-off inventory from the theatre’s storage, presented and abandoned. Rather than removing meaning, perfoming Cage’s Europeras now seems like an act of finding new meaning, whatever it may be and wherever it may lay.

I remember how in the programme for Einstein on the Beach, audience members were encouraged to talk quietly amongst themselves, if they so wished. Never noticed it happening, though. In Braunschweig, the group in the row in front of me kept up a quiet conversation throughout, pointing, commenting, debating. I didn’t get the impression they even liked Cage particularly much, but they were engaged with the opera and weren’t noticeably dismissive or disruptive. Nothing they said or did was a distraction; in fact they slightly enhanced the musical and theatrical experience.

Working With Limitations: Olivia Block

Wednesday 10 January 2018

How do you compose through improvisation? Just let go and try not to think about it? Keep it as it is, or go back and revise? If you revise, do you cut back or elaborate? This new release by Olivia Block is an untitled, 35-minute suite of three movements, played on and inside a piano, with additional parts on organ and some electronics. She has stated that this piece was created over several years of rehearsals and performances. Musical material was developed, but in a way which left lots of space for improvisation, an open structure where placement of the composed elements was never entirely fixed.

The scope for improvisation is thus circumscribed. In doing so, the improvisation becomes of a piece with the composed elements, each seeking out a coherent context. At first, the piano sound predominates, with untreated and prepared piano notes combining with harmonic resonances. The central movement introduces contrasting percussive sounds from inside the instrument. The final movement returns to the keyboard but much sparser, with silences becoming more persistent and occasional intrusions of electronic distortion. Each time I listen to this CD, I hear the performance as an act of heightened responsiveness. Aesthetic decisions are made, but always in reaction to what is heard. Sounds are augmented, changed, reduced. It isn’t continuous, the changes are perceptible, the sounds and sections are clearly differentiated – still, the three movements play as an organic whole.