Helmut Lachenmann at Southbank (part 2)

Wednesday 27 October 2010

(Sorry for the delay – it was a long dinner. Part one is here.)

That’s the problem when you take an immediate liking to something you don’t fully understand: as you find out more about it you’re likely to be disappointed, as the reality fails to tally with the happy imaginings you’ve projected into the gaps of your knowledge. I remember feeling a little underwhelmed when I was at the premiere of Grido, Lachenmann’s third string quartet, back in 2001. It sounded too much like yet another European intellectual, railing against the past while hopelessly entangled in it. Walter Benjamin’s destructive, cheerful character was in scant evidence. The rest of the concert included something by Wolfgang Rihm and Schoenberg’s 2nd quartet, the latter of which showed up the others as still relearning a lesson ninety years old.

I know he’s revised it a bit since then, but Grido sounded very different to my ears this time around. Perhaps the different context helped. As mentioned last time, Lachenmann spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Grido became an attempt by Lachenmann to escape from his own musical past, retaining his voice while allowing fuller, “proper” musical sounds into the music. Okay, he actually wrote it that way because Irvine Arditti wanted a louder piece (his arm gets tired, don’t you know).

Other people I know were dismayed by the most recent piece, Got Lost for soprano and piano. It’s a long but slight work, which requires Sarah Leonard to produce a range of clicks, hisses and gasps while singing a text pulverised into scattered phonemes – a panoply of classic techniques from the 60s avant-garde. Nevertheless, I admired the skillful interplay between the voice and piano, while others bemoaned it as a capitulation to the conservative forces of the Establishment.

The pianist, Rolf Hind, returned in his iridescent green shirt to perform Ausklang with a greatly embiggened London Sinfonietta. My favourite Lachenmann shares a quality with that of Luigi Nono’s late music, a sense of unstructured timelessness in which sounds appear, half-appear, and disappear as they do in life, seeking no external justification for their existence. (It was good to learn later that Lachenmann had indeed studied with Nono.) As a practical necessity, Ausklang requires more forthright gestures from the piano for it to be heard against the orchestra, however sibilantly they may play. At first, a series of disjointed, blocky sounds come from the piano, amidst occasional abortive runs at virtuosity. It feels like this could quickly become very tedious.

At nearly an hour long, Ausklang fortunately doesn’t seek to wear the listener down; rather it takes on a life of its own. The music rises up, falls back to a prolonged whisper, recedes to an almost intractable stasis before gradually recovering into animation – all while seeming part of one unbroken, organic process. The motivation for esacpe and the inertia of the orchestra’s apparatus are held in an unesay equilibrium. Under intense observation from the audience, the sense of an internal logic began to emerge. In the Royal Festival Hall, the audience listened with the same intensity as they had to that first quartet.

Helmut Lachenmann at Southbank (part 1)

Monday 25 October 2010

We still don’t really get Helmut Lachenmann, do we? OK, you all understand him but I don’t – sorry about the journalist’s “we”. He has one of the most distinctive voices of the post-war European avant-garde, but it’s difficult working out exactly what that voice is saying.

Lachenmann is famous for his extensive use of extended playing techniques in his music – sometimes almost to the exclusion of any “normal” sounds. This makes him a rather obvious marker for the designated cutting-edge of European concert hall music. His apparent disregard for convention can easily be perceived as nihilism, but this perception is tempered by the delicacy of the sounds he coaxes from his instruments. The word ‘sussurus’ could have been invented just to describe a recurring texture in his music, created by stringed instruments brushed with the wood of the bow, or unpitched air blown through the brass. Nevertheless, he can still divide even the most culturally sophisticated audience.

He was in town over the weekend for a short series of concerts commemorating his 75th birthday. The highlights were the first and last pieces played. Hearing Gran Torso, his first string quartet, performed live was a revelatory experience. It was so quiet! Long passages of hushed, almost inaudible wisps of sound blended together as the Arditti Quartet made minute gestures over various parts of their instruments. I was in the fourth row and was straining to hear; god knows what the people up the back of the Queen Elizabeth Hall made of it.

What were we listening to? Or, what were we listening for? It would be easy to say that this music is an attempt at negation of musical tradition, an understandable position for a post-war German artist to take. In an interview after the concert, Lachenmann returned several times to the idea of escape, although he didn’t name it as such. He spoke of how a new field of sounds, however abundant, inevitably becomes a sort of prison over time. Gran Torso is an attempt at escape from, not a negation of, tradition.

The long, still section in the middle of the piece cannot help but suggest the sound of breathing – as natural and as imperceptible. I may hear it as a vindication of John Cage’s aesthetic of imitating nature’s manner of operation; you may hear it is the irresolvable impasse of attempts to escape tradition through the means of the very embodiment of that tradition. Part of the problem may be that when listening to Lachenmann, we hear what we want to hear.

(Continued tomorrow – my casserole’s ready. UPDATE: Part two.)

Tuning Update

Thursday 21 October 2010

I think I’ve settled on a tuning system for my Bionic Ear Institute piece. It’s a tricky thing. I’m trying to build up pitches based on overtones of a fundamental frequency. Each electrode in a cochlear implant is designed to respond to only a certain bandwidth of frequencies. The range of bandwidths used mean that certain parts of the scale will be received and interpreted differently, depending on which octave you play in.

Luckily, Robin Fox has sent me an implant simulator, which I am now using to test out different harmonies and combinations. Of course, the interaction of overtones with the cochlear implant becomes more complex still when differentiating between different instrumental timbres.

I think I made some music last night.

Saturday 16 October 2010

I’m not sure. I’m supposed to be working on this piece for the Bionic Ear Institute, but it always seems to be the case that when I work on one piece, I soon get sidetracked into starting another piece. This second piece will usually get finished first.

This time, the second piece was left behind while I started a third piece. I got some way into making this third piece when I broke off. Sometimes you come up with a few pretty sounds when preparing your material and you want to stop, afraid that they’ll get lost in the composition. I’m listening again now to the source material I prepared last night and I don’t want to do any of the things I had planned for it.

Morton Feldman said “material reigns supreme” and boasted that he kept “construction” in his music to a minimum, but this is an oversimplification of his technique: he also criticised music for not being composition, just wallowing in timbre. The material he allowed into his music was kept under strict control.

Particularly because I work with computers and electronics, I always have a question in the back of my head: “Is this too easy?” Listening to it I wonder if it’s too obvious, in its material and its construction. I think it has an effect on the listener but I’m not sure if that’s because it’s relying on some old, familiar trick. Since I’ve mentioned Feldman, I’ll also bring up his question, “Is music art?” Another one of his questions: when is a piece finished?

I was trying to make art, and by stopping now I’m not sure if I’ve made art or just achieved an amusing effect. It seems wrong to go any further with it. This is one of those pieces I have to set aside and listen to now and again until I can get some perspective on it, either to see through its superficial appeal or recognise the strength in its apparent simplicity.

Robert Poss, “Settings”

Tuesday 12 October 2010

I love receiving swag, and I’ve been listening to so much capital-A Arty Stuff lately, so I was happy to get hold of a copy of Robert Poss’ new CD, “Settings”. My knowledge of Poss’ music didn’t go much beyond him being that bloke from the Band of Susans who I’ve heard play Phill Niblock’s music, so the neat photo of pedal porn on the front cover was encouraging.

This album’s subtitled “Music For Dance, Film, Fashion and Industry”, but it’s more than just a grab-bag of background music for completists. The fourteen tracks build up into a varied and substantial body of music with some unexpected twists and turns.

You might get that Brian Eno Music for Films vibe over the first few tracks: relatively short pieces of sustained guitars and rin gongs made for Alexandra Beller/Dances. If you’re anticipating a collection of more-or-less variegated slabs of guitar drone, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the shifts in tone and style, such as the chiming guitar patterns in “Concordance”, which reappear later as a sinister set of interlocking piano loops in the darker “Border Piano Walk”. Brooding, atmospheric guitar-based tracks like “Inverness” are contrasted by the tumbling reverse samples that make up “Trio (excerpt)” and the undulating flute from which “Stare Decisis” builds.

I could do without the brief intrusions of tablas at a couple of points, and some of the synth patches used grate in one or two places, but that’s probably just me being a snob. The thing is, the more elaborate and ambitious pieces such as “Tourniquet Revisited” confirm what I already had come to believe, that I’m listening to fully-formed music by a serious composer, not just some muso noodling around (or droning on, in this case) to fill out the time.

Occasionally in the past I’ve struggled with the critical distinction so casually made between Proper Composition – which usually means stuff played in concert halls – and music like on Poss’ CD. (The reviews section of The Wire magazine helpfully illustrates this distinction in reverse, sequestering certain discs in a subsection headed “Modern Composition”.) Listening to this album reminded me why I usually conclude that attempts to rationalise this distinction are futile.

Mail Bag: an urgent request

Tuesday 28 September 2010

In my email today:

Subject: Urgently Needed

Good Day,

My name is Kelvin Mcdowells,I would like to make an inquiry based on your products. Do you carry Piano in stock for sales?

Hang on, I’ll just check under the bed…. Nope. I used to have one, but I couldn’t sneak it out past my landlady when I moved.

If you do, can you kindly get back at me as soon as possible and let me know the price ranges availability for the Piano.Also please advise the type of Piano that you do have when you don’t have what i am requesting What type of credit cards do you accept for all orders Looking forward to hear back from you as soon as possible.

Best Regards,
Kelvin

I’ll get back at you,you nugatory nincompoop.Also please see below some of the many wonderful pianos I have when I don’t have any pianos Please send bacon.

Otherwise, try getting in touch with this guy.

These are not the minimalists you’re looking for.

Saturday 25 September 2010

So I was listening to music last night and this question popped into my head, how come all the minimalists pussied out? Of course I immediately realised this was the wrong question, but it was wrong for more than one reason.

The most obvious reason, natch, is that there are minimalists and there are minimalists. I don’t want to get into an argument about who’s a True Scotsman, but minimalism is an unusual musical influence in as much as the label can be applied fairly accurately to more than three people and the most famous examples aren’t necessarily the most representative. This leads to the other reason: when I gratuitously accused all these many fine composers of the nebulous crime of pussying out, I was thinking of the Big Famous Minimalists. You know, the ones with movie soundtracks and orchestra commissions and tasteful album covers*.

Okay, so maybe these Big Famous Minimalists are really just sloppy old-fashioned romantics with more taste than imagination when it comes to matters of harmony and rhythm. In which case, the question becomes how the hell did these boring old farts manage to write some amazingly cool music for a few years back in the 70s? Those old Glass and Reich pieces sound at least as extraordinary today as when they first appeared, not least because they were produced by the same tedious fusspots who churn out pricey aural wallpaper today.

What I’m really trying to say here is that I’m surprised at how my perception of Terry Riley has changed over the years. When I was young and arrogant I thought less of his music ‘cos he seemed a bit woolly-minded (his website doesn’t help) and too interested in aimlessly noodling around. Now I’m old and dismissive I notice that while his sometime peers got respectable and boring, he’s still noodling away – with a better sense of adventure, formal rigour and musicianship than the Movie Music guys.

I guess the old hippie ethos of being true to yourself can pay off if you stick to it, and there’s something to be said for repetition.



* Unless you’re Philip Glass.

Music for Bionic Ears

Thursday 16 September 2010

One thing I’ve been meaning to tell everyone is that I’m currently working on a project conducted by the Bionic Ear Institute and composer/laserdude Robin Fox. Although cochlear implants (or, to use the technical term, “bionic ears”) are pretty damn miraculous at restoring hearing, they reconstitute sound in ways that make it extremely difficult for users to properly perceive, let alone enjoy, music. It takes patience and training to learn, or even relearn, how to appreciate the musical attributes of sounds.

The BEI is working on several projects to improve music perception. One of these involves asking several composers to write pieces specifically intended for reception by a cochlear implant. For the last little while I’ve been reading up on the design and function of the implants, and how users perceive different aspects of sound through them. So far I’ve produced a number of sets of data on how to best re-think sound, and from this made a few short musical studies and sketched out plans for the final piece. Hopefully I’ll keep posting regular updates on how the work is going, and discussing the various tricky issues that arise from it.

Further news about this and related projects can be found on the Hearing Organised Sound blog.

It’s Cage Day: NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX2

Sunday 5 September 2010

It’s not the best quality because it’s on Last.fm but it’ll do for now. What with it being John Cage’s birthday today I’ve uploaded NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT RMX2, a remix of a piece for 14 differently-tuned harpsichords.

The original NSTNT HPSCHD PCKT MX was composed in 2002 on the 10th anniversary of Cage’s death. This new mix never has more than seven of the harpsichords playing at any one time, and each may be mixed in at any of 3 different volume levels. Entrances, exits, loudness and tunings were all, of course, determined by chance operations.

The Allure of Badness

Saturday 4 September 2010

Short, shameful confession: despite being interested in music, and interested in Ezra Pound, I’ve never heard so much as a single note of Ezra Pound’s music. I’ve read about it, sure, but never heard it. From time to time this troubles me as a significant gap in my knowledge, but then I forget about it.

The latest event to suddenly prick my conscience was a discussion originating on Alex Ross’ blog over what might be the worst recording ever made, a-and up came… Ezra Pound. Not that the performances are bad (sez Marc Geelhoed), it’s Pound’s terrible, terrible music.

Now I’m not expecting Pound’s minor career as a composer to have produced hidden masterpieces, but: worst ever? Worse than Nietzsche? Descriptions I’ve read of Pound’s music typically comment on its rudimentary nature (even the stuff assisted by Agnes Bedford) and unusual rhythms, and then broadly implying that it should be considered as an adjunct to his poetry. Pound himself said that his inital attempts to set Villon to music were spurred by his inability to adequately translate him into English. Yet, even though reading Pound’s poetry often requires you to wilfully misunderstand everything else in the universe, I’ve never seen even his most ardent detractor insist that his music sucks. Even Humphrey Carpenter, a biographer who displays little interest in making sense of Pound’s life or work, singles out the music for surprisingly lavish praise. Mind you, Carpenter’s attempts at interpreting Pound’s poetry are pitifully wrong-headed, so much so that his approving comments were my first suspicion that something might be amiss.

So, I’ve always meant to get around to listening to Pound’s music; but now that Marc Geelhoed has damned it as the definitive worst, I’ve really, really got to hear it bad.

Coincidentally, I’ve also just read another of Alex Ross’ blogposts, looking at depictions of imaginary music by imaginary composers in literature. He concludes with Mann’s Doctor Faustus, and the strange effect Leverkuhn’s fictional music has had on real composers:

The composer’s life may be one long descent into madness, but his music represents a quest to escape the horror, or, failing that, to capture it with all the resources at a composer’s command. I first read Doctor Faustus at the age of eighteen, and I remember feeling both appalled and thrilled by the all-devouring, chaotically conflicted concept of musical expression that it embodied, so different from the prim community of “classical music” that had been presented to me. … More than a few composers of the postwar era responded with perverse enthusiasm to Mann and Adorno’s descriptions, attempting to bring them to life. György Ligeti, in Hungary, first learned about twelve-tone writing through Mann’s eccentric account of it. Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Peter Maxwell Davies, Poul Ruders, Bengt Hambraeus, and Alfred Schnittke, among others, alluded to Leverkühn in their music.

It’s a tendency that goes back to Ovid: video meliora proboque, deteriora sequor. There’s something irresistable about art that violates the accepted rules of propriety, that is chaotic and conflicted, even if it doesn’t succeed. The chaos becomes a source of renewal. It’s part of why I was attracted to Pound’s poetry in the first place, and why, after hearing someone say it’s terrible, I suddenly believe I could learn something very interesting from hearing his music.

The One Prom of the Year: Cage, Cardew, Skempton, Feldman

Tuesday 24 August 2010

Finally the British are starting to play Cornelius Cardew. First Autumn ’60 in May, and now Bun No. 1 has received its first performance in London, a mere 45 years after it was written. This was part of an excellent programme, tucked away at the Proms as part of a late-night Friday session.

The impression of Autumn ’60 sounding like Earle Brown’s music played in slow motion was repeated in Bun No. 1, although this later piece was more conventional, both in its fully-determined form and its harmonic material. The language of Darmstatdt, carefully picking its way from one unresolved dissonance to the next, was all too familiar to anyone who has heard a lot of the Fifties’ avant-garde. It’s something of a consolation that the programme notes discuss Cardew’s own reservations about the compromises he made in this piece to meet the expectations of an orchestra and his academic supervisors. Despite these shortcomings, Cardew’s proffered Bun to the institutions uses its ostensible material as a vehicle for contrasting instrumental groupings and timbres, which become particularly effective toward the end of the piece, with the use of long-held chords and silences.

The opening performance of John Cage’s First Construction (In Metal) was played as neatly as you could expect, by the percussionists of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. It’s fascinating to hear this piece once in a while and realise what a talented young composer Cage was and how he might have ended up like other American avant-gardists of his generation, regurgitating washed-out folk tunes for movies and orchestras. The First Construction has an ingratiatingly flamboyant character and regular muddles of percussion sounds getting in each other’s way. It wasn’t until the mid-Forties that Cage worked out how to focus his music by jettisoning sensation.

Before the Feldman piece the orchestra played Howard Skempton’s Lento, a piece in danger of becoming a modern chestnut, like a bite-sized morsel of Arvo Pärt or Henryk Górecki. This would be a shame, as Skempton is playing a much more subtle and complex emotional game on the listener than the “holy minimalists”. People frequently liken Feldman’s music to a Rothko; Lento is like a Morandi.

Morton Feldman’s Piano and Orchestra, with John Tilbury as the soloist, was the highlight. Whenever I hear this piece I come away thinking it must be his finest work, because it leaves such a vivid impression in my mind without being able to recall any specific part of it. So much of Feldman’s approach to composing seems to have been a process of negotiation between paradoxes, and in this piece he most successfully reconciles the opposing forces he sets in play. The instruments are everything, and yet they are always held in check. The soloist’s part seems negligible: a single, repeated note, two gently alternating chords. The writing seems so fragmentary, like a voice struggling to finish a sentence for an unformed thought; the piano and orchestral groups are so often separated, yet form a coherent whole. The overall effect is both sombre and luminous. I’ve just realised this is the first time I’ve heard his orchestral music live.

A conceptual bird in a perspex cage

Wednesday 18 August 2010

Jodru at ANABlog has visited that 639-year performance of John Cage’s Organ2/ASLSP in Halberstadt so you don’t have to.

A few years ago I wrote about this slow-motion stunt, saying that it reinforced

… Cage’s undeserved reputation as a conceptual artist whose ideas are more interesting than his music. More than any composer Cage wrote music to be heard without recourse to external ideas, whether cultural, literary, or theoretical. His aim was always to make you hear, not make you think. Unlike many artists, he’d trust you to think for yourself.

An 600 year piece, which in practice cannot be heard, is at odds with everything Cage wrote. Worse still, it devalues the true beauty and importance to be found in Cage’s music, instead promoting Cage-the-personality as some blue-sky empty vessel that can hold any wacky idea that happens along.

Jodru walks you through the laborious process of actually getting to see the organ in action, and offers his verdict on whether it’s all worth the effort. Two telling points: first, that the church is kept locked to spare attendants from having to be on-site listening to the music all day. Second:

The organ is quite small, but it is encased in acrylic to dampen the sound.

To quote a noted antipodean oenologist, “This is not a wine for drinking; this is a wine for laying down and avoiding.”

Better on Vinyl

Friday 13 August 2010

What is the lingering appeal of the vinyl record? Classical music store Harold Moores Records is refurbishing for the next two weeks, and has been making room in the basement by clearing out all the second-hand LPs and dumping them in a skip in Great Marlborough Street. The result:

I was alerted to this feeding frenzy when a friend sent me a frantic text ordering me down to Soho. By the time I arrived the skip was only one-third full. Luckily for me they were still bringing out fresh stock/trash, from some of the more insteresting racks. More importantly I was able to grab an empty box everyone else was ignoring, so I could actually lug the lot home.

There were, of course, people who came up to the skip, poked around a bit, and then left once they had determined that there were only classical records. Despite this, some people were content simply to grab a record or two and then leave. A couple of guys were about to leave when they decided that the records were appealing enough as objects to make it worth their time to make a large and varied selection.

Vinyl records and gramophones are the steam engines of music: impressive and elegant works of engineering, advanced in technical and industrial development yet still obvious enough in its means of operation for the everyday mind to intuitively grasp and appreciate. Subsequent recording technology is too efficient to be impressive, too inscrutable in its technology to admire on an aesthetic level.

I found myself picking up a couple of records which I already have on CD; not for any retro-chic appeal they might possess, but because the old LPs are clearly “newer” than the CD reissues. They are artifacts of the time when the recording was newly-recorded and released, and so still an unknown quantity – far different from the “classics” preserved on CD.

Despite whatever protest Harold Moores’ staff may have made, at least at first, the records had obviously been kept in stock for some perceived monetary value as objects, not as recordings. That album of Henze’s El Cimarrón was priced at £36. You can get the same recording on CD at Amazon for at least 10 quid less, and without the scratches, dust and surface noise. No wonder no-one bought it.

The Claytons Composition

Tuesday 8 June 2010

I would like to say I made this by accident, but I very deliberately and painstakingly made this instead of working on the piece I’m supposed to be making.

Quattro versioni originali della tattoonotte di Madrid rovinata da qualcun altro

This is the New Music: Baroque Variations (Hoddle-Fawkner-Batman Mix)

Wednesday 2 June 2010

1. Spring 17’36″ – Variations 10, 7, 11, 16
(Tivoli Arcade, Café L’Incontro, Bond Street, Paramount Centre, Uniacke Court, McDonalds – Collins Street)

2. Summer 7’53″ – Variations 3, 12
(Newsagency – Elizabeth St, Hardware Lane at Little Lonsdale Street)

3. Autumn 14’36″ – Variations 8, 2, 5, 4
(Spenser Square, Flinders St Overpass – King Street, Newsagency – Elizabeth St, The Age – Little Lonsdale Street)

4. Winter 8’14″ – Variations 1, 9
(Bourke St Mall at Swanston St, Lobby – Kino Cinema, 7-Eleven – Bourke St)

5. Epilogue 3’19″
(undisclosed location)

There is a perfectly rational explanation for everything.