Donnerstag aus Licht on Southbank

Tuesday 28 May 2019

A head full of pseudoephedrine and gin was never going to be an obstacle to enjoying a second performance of Stockhausen’s Donnerstag aus Licht. If needed, there were plenty of empty seats around Royal Festival Hall to loll around in but once again I found myself sitting attentively through the whole thing, even when it should have been soporific, by all rights.

This production, by French company Le Balcon, is the first of what is intended to be a production of the complete Licht cycle in Paris. The performances were just fine, while the staging was minimal, if not rudimentary. It was at least a massive improvement over the staging in Basel a few years back, which was less concerned with illuminating the drama than sheepishly rationalising it away. It’s no bad thing to have a stripped production of a Stockhausen opera – it suits the mystery-play nature of his theatre – but a bit of audacious spectacle would make for a better match with the music.

Experienced on stage without the Basel dramaturgy running interference, so much more of the drama inherent in the music was revealed; not just that overall theme of transcendence, which Basel tried valiantly tried to extinguish, but in recurring motifs that changed from one appearance to the next, allowing the audience to at least intuit some development in Stockhausen’s often tortuous parables. Using a bare orchestra stage, lighting and a few props, the music was trusted to carry the burden of the drama. It’s remarkable how different a place the stage seemed in Act Three compared to that in Act One.

Things I’d forgotten: Stockhausen’s use of musical space. Act One seems the most conventional, yet for most of its hour duration features just three voices in counterpoint against a soft, almost droning tape. Solo interjections from trumpet, basset horn and trombone are rare and brief. Like an x-ray of a traditional opera. Later, the held chords, sustained for ages with no dramatic foreground, aural or visual. Perhaps the real subject of the opera is simply the triumph of holding one’s nerve. I’d still like to see a production which can afford to be more ambitious without getting in the way.

Similarities and differences: Cyril Bondi & d’incise, Magnus Granberg

Monday 20 May 2019

Listening to the latest release by Cyril Bondi & d’incise, it’s easy to hear similarities with their previous releases with the Insub Meta Orchestra. The sound pulses and flows without any overt movement or direction, each moment self-contained. Here are three shorter works, Mem, Aleph, Lassis, each around ten minutes. The twist is that each is played twice, first by quartet The Pitch (clarinet, vibraphone, pump organ and double bass), then by Bondi and d’incise on various small organs with Mike Majkowski on double bass. The differences are subtle, with the latter trio sounding softer, more homogeneous without the percussion to add articulation. An echo, diminuendo. The shorter durations and consequent reduction in scale gives each piece a more definite, almost subjective shape. It’s pleasant listening, but that pleasure is sequestered within a comfort zone. It sounds more modest, but that may be because I’m coming to if after hearing their other recent album of deconstructed dub under the guise of Diatribes.

When I wrote about Magnus Granberg’s last release, Nattens skogar, I compared his music to late Morton Feldman: each one is the same yet each one is different. This new CD, recorded with his regular group Skogen, again contains a single ensemble work. Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn is nearly an hour long and features nine musicians but retains the starker sound-world of the quartet in Nattens skogar. It begins with a scraping sound punctuated by two chords on prepared piano. The consistently low volume levels throughout belie the sharp relief of the sounds being played. This low but distinct relief continues throughout; a slow, irregular rhythm of percussive sounds, some electronically amplified, against a faint background of string drones, electronic buzzing, field recordings, or silence. At one point, a high keening can be heard from either a violin, a recorded bird, a bowed vibraphone or feedback, or possibly a combination of the above. Where earlier works by Granberg presented a continuity of sound, here the interplay of sound and silence builds a more complex image, making each new sound’s introduction or withdrawal all the more striking, whether it’s bursts of line noise or recordings of wildlife. I’d described Nattens skogar as “the clearest expression I’ve yet heard of the aesthetic world Granberg has constructed” and Nun, es wird nicht weit mehr gehn continues that development, where the overall image grows more mysterious even as each element comes into clearer focus.

The Eurovision Song Contest Drinking Game, 2019 “What? Again? Already?” Edition

Friday 17 May 2019

Reposted from last year with trivial changes, because people seem to like it. In these days of online content, I recommend that you do not view anything Eurovision related until the final on Saturday night. Eurovision is best played stud, with every act coming as a complete surprise.

(Everything below has happened.)

CURTAIN UP

At the first appearance of the presenters, drink to the health of Masha and Pasha.

PHASE I: THE SONGS

A. Every instance within a song:

I.A.1 The Dramatic Key Change. Whenever the singers dramatically shift up a key for the final chorus(es).

I.A.2 The Bucks Fizz. Whenever performer(s) sheds a piece of clothing – once only on every instance, whether executed by an individual or as a group. Finish your drink if the clothing loss is obviously unintentional.

B. Once per song only:

I.B.1 Is That English? Whenever someone notices that the singers have switched from their native language into English in an attempt to win more votes. Two drinks if they try to dodge the language issue by intentionally singing gibberish.

I.B.2 The Fine Cotton. Any appearance of mercenary talent flown in to represent a foreign country. Two drinks if they’re Irish.

I.B.3 Las Ketchup and the Waves. A country drags a legitimate, real-life, one-hit wonder out of obscurity in the hope that name recognition can buy them some points. This is additional to I.B.2.

I.B.4 The Cultural Rainbow. Every time an entrant blatantly rips off last year’s winning performance. Finish your drink if last year’s winning country rips itself off.

I.B.5 The Wand’ring Minstrel. Unless it’s a solo guitar or piano, Eurovision insists on backing tapes. It’s in the rules, so don’t accuse some entrants of cheating; but take a drink if performers pretend to play a musical instrument (or simulacrum thereof) in a blatantly fake way, as part of the choreography. A second drink is permitted if a subsequent, different wave of faux-minstrely rises after the first has subsided.

I.B.6 The GreeksRussiansGreeks (formerly The TaTu). Finish your drink if the audience boos (on the telly, not in your living room.)

I.B.7 Don’t Mention The War. The German entrant sings something about everyone being happy. This is a legacy rule, as in recent years it has largely been supplanted by…

I.B.7a Don’t Mention The Wall. The Israeli entrant sings something about everyone being happy.

I.B.8 My Lovely Horse. Any obvious indication that a country is deliberately trying to lose, to avoid budgetary/logistical/political problems of hosting the event next year.

PHASE I ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

I.B.5a The Wand’ring Minstrel (supplemental). Two drinks if the instrument is an accordion.

I.B.9 The San Remo. Any occurence of visible armpits and/or pointing at nothing in particular. Two drinks for a hairy armpit.

I.B.10 The White Suit. You’ll know it when you see it.

PHASE II: THE VOTES

II.1 The Wardrobe Change. Each time the female host changes frocks. Two drinks if the male host changes suits.

II.2 The Gimme. When Greece maxes out its points to Cyprus.

II.2a The Gastarbeiter. If Germany still gives twelve points to Turkey.

II.3 The Old Europe. When the UK gets nul points from France.

II.4 The Sympathy Vote. When anything sung in French first gets a point, the United Kingdom gets its first point, and/or the last country without any points finally gets off the mark. A special toast at the end to any country which did not receive so much as a single vote.

II.5 The “Viktor, You Very Unattractive Fellow.” Two drinks if the hosts speak in rhyme and/or pretend to flirt with each other. Finish your drink if the flirting is serious.

II.6 The Wogan. Any blatant display of favouritism between particular countries in the jury, or a hasty correction by a flustered announcer when reading out results. Keep an eye on Russia, Ukrainelol nope, Azerbaijan, Armenia, and anomalies in votes for Slavic and Balkan countries.

PHASE II INTERMEDIATE: You and your friends probably will be too unruly by this stage to register every occurrence of these, so a liberal interpretation is allowed.

II.7 The Hurry-Up. Every time the announcer from each voting country is politely asked by the hosts to shut the fuck up (i.e. “Can we have your votes please?”). Two drinks if the announcer tries to deliver a personal message to a friend or relative watching at home.

II.8 The Sandra Sully. Each time an announcer reads the voting results wrong. Two drinks if they get so confused they have to start over.

II.9 The Sally Field. Each time they show contestants backstage during the voting looking genuinely surprised and pleased with themselves when they get the same politically-motivated votes they get every year.

II.10 The Master of Suspense. This hasn’t happened for a few years but people might get confused by the new rules: each time an announcer fails to understand that the pause for suspense only works if they announce the twelve points first, then the country that has won them – not the other way around.

PHASE II ADVANCED PLAYERS ONLY:

II.11 The New Europe. When the Baltic or Balkan states all vote for each other, or a former Soviet republic votes for Russia. Do not attempt without medical supervision.

THE WILDCARDS

W0: Australia! Any person may lead a toast amongst all drinkers by shouting “Australia!”, “Aussie!”, “Oi!”, “Hawkey!” or any suitably positive Australian word or noise. This can happen any time during the night as many times as wished for no reason whatsoever because OBVIOUSLY NOBODY AT EUROVISION GIVES A SHIT ABOUT THE RULES.

W1 A person must finish their drink if they ask:
W1.a why Israel is in it;
W1.b why the United Kingdom is in it;
W1.c why ItalyTurkey isn’t in it;
W1.d why Russia Ukraine isn’t in it this year;
W1.e where the hell is Moldova?; or
W1.f Australia?

W2 Drink to any display of national resentment or self-pity related to current events. Pay close attention to Armenia/Azerbaijan, Ukraine/Russia, Greece/Germany, anybody/United Kingdom, Australia.

W3 Pretend to drink when someone makes a disparaging comment about the United Kingdom. Finish your drink if someone makes a disparaging comment about RussiaAustralia.

W4 A toast to the first person who expresses dismay when they realise how long the voting is going to take.

W5 A toast to the person who gets so drunk you have to secretly call a cab and persuade them they ordered it when it arrives.

Oren Ambarchi at 50

Thursday 16 May 2019

A three-day weekend at Cafe Oto: less a showcase of Ambarchi’s talents, more a swag of really cool birthday presents. Here’s a quick trip round the bits that stuck in my head.

It’s been long time since I’ve seen a gig made up of sets by a bunch of different artists where everything was equally satisfying, then there were two on successive nights. Everything was distinct, but the two evenings had a cohesiveness that made things seem to flow naturally from one set to the next. Then there was the selection of musicians – innovative thinkers, all capable of playing with a mixture of sound technique and inspiration.

Two nights only, because I’m a dickhead who didn’t get to the first night with David Rosenboom. Luckily, I have friends who were there and have been rubbing in what a great show I missed.

The solo electronic sets (Joe Talia playing his work Tint, Eiko Ishibashi, Kassel Jaeger, Massimo Toniutti) could be appreciated individually. The technology is now sufficiently widespread and trouble-free that these sorts of shows can often get samey and tedious – kind of drone, kind of field recording, montage, crossfade, introduce a narrative element, mix to taste and repeat – but each artist had a contrasting approach in the way they juxtaposed sounds and managed their sonic palette, producing a distinctive experience.

It’s also been a long time since I had to queue to get in. I booked ahead for the Monday night gig, which was just as well because that show sold out.

James Rushford on portative organ with Will Guthrie on percussion: it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been working as a duo for years. Their set was a superb demonstration of their sureness of touch, with the odd combination of instruments sounding as one immensely variable voice. Each gesture was decisive even at its most fleeting, often suspended in the grey area between extended techniques and flat-out playing. There was an audible connection between this set and the electronic pieces.

Acoustic gigs always have an edge over electronic. It can’t be helped; there’s the theatrical aspect, the appreciation of physical skill and the sense that, accustomed to thinking of electronic sounds as a medium instead of an instrument, you’re hearing something more that could be heard in any recording. Arnold Dreyblatt’s duo with Konrad Sprenger combined the two just delightfully, but at the core of it all was the thrill of Dreyblatt’s double-bass harmonics live in person.

It must be twenty goddamn years since I’ve heard a set like the Alvin Curran and Oren Ambarchi duet. Oh sure, I’ve heard lots of attempts to do what they did on Sunday night – a manic electroacoustic free-for-all wowing the punters with a relentless barrage of wacky sounds and killer musical chops – but these two somehow managed to defy history and pull it off. In theory, such a gig should be fun, but in practice this has seldom been the case. Once upon a time, this sort of gig would almost inevitably devolve into insufferable wankery, stale jokes and undifferentiated sludge, but more recently they have settled into being mannered and sedate. Watching Curran, furiously working his sampler and keyboard, facing off against Ambarchi hunkered down with his guitar behind a bank of electronics was like witnessing the rediscovery of a lost technology as they showed it is in fact possible to be fast, loud, stoopid and about as thematically stable as a channel-surfing cokehead without ever getting boring. Part of the giddiness it induced was because I don’t know how they did it.

The whole thing ended with a 20-muso blowout appropriately named HUBRIS. Built on a steady pulse and monomaniacal riff carried by half-a-dozen guitars, it acquired a two-note bass line and just kept getting louder. It had the same driven rock impulse of Ambarchi’s Sagittarian Domain, but stripped of content in exchange for overwhelmingly excessive force. It’s a ballsy move to raise your audience (and bandmates) up into birthday bonhomie by battering them into submission, but he somehow got away with it. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a gig where my ears started to hurt, so thanks for the dash of nostalgia.