Wednesday 21 February 2007
From the sublime to the ridiculous: the previous post came out of my researching this one.
National pride is all well and good, but British classical music buffs are notoriously partisan. No praise is too fulsome for a doughty wind band from Bournemouth or church organist in Beccles, all of whom are favourably compared to their foreign counterparts and their somewhat suspect techniques. No wonder so many music critics were beside themselves when they discovered the late-blossoming career of the Cambridge-based pianist Joyce Hatto
Over the past year the British Gramophone magazine has been one of the most ardent champions of the 100-odd CDs recorded in the last 15 years of her life, after illness had forced her to abandon her concert career; alternately praising her and denouncing her critics in its quaint house style.
Hatto takes her place among the greats. Joyce Hatto’s CD legacy may be mired in controversy (“the forgeries of jealousy”?) but there is nothing controversial about recordings which surely place her among an elite of women pianists (only six artists of comparable stature spring to mind).
Doubting Thomases, of which there are apparently many, may well wonder how Joyce Hatto achieved such unalloyed mastery and musicianship when tragically beset with ill-health. But others will surely celebrate an awe-inspiring triumph of mind over matter, of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
It would take many weeks of intensive work to examine all of the Hatto recordings, but it seems clear that at least some of these great performances are identical to other performances available from other recording companies.
According to Andrew Rose, who investigated the hoax
for Gramophone, the list of CDs by other pianists plagiarised by Hatto (or plagiarised in her name by her record-producer husband) is growing every day, as enthusiasts track down the matching source material.
The cranky old men who populate rec.music.classical.recordings
on Usenet have descended into even wilder name-calling than usual, with hilarious use of quotations of previous Hatto praise to deflate some of the more obnoxious resident egos.
More cogent discussions are being tracked at Iron Tongue of Midnight.
Opera Chic offers her typically pertinent observation on the scandal, being the first to call out
Hatto’s “Jetsons-style” bouffant.
For some reason I didn’t mention Tenney’s passing last year: he was one of the sharpest musical thinkers and composers of the latter part of the 20th century. He’s often pigeonholed as a musical version of a conceptual artist, but his music beautifully embodies his understanding of the nature and perception of sound and, in turn, his theoretical writings illuminate the ways in which we do and don’t “get” contemporary music, in ways that conventional talk of harmony and structure fails.
In one of the nerdiest seductions ever, I once turned a girlfriend on to the avant-garde
by taking her to a performance of Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. (That piece is usually more of a knockout than the Sonic Youth performance in the link, but I like the way they take an idea and run with it.)
On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Sequenza 21 is hosting a debate on whether Philip Glass is overrated or underrated
. Part of the discussion has centred on why his later music seems to be so often driven by monetary more than artistic motives.
UbuWeb has both audio-only and video available for download of the Philip Glass episode of the 1975 series Music With Roots in the Aether
, in which Glass, in a magnificent shirt, sits surrounded by small children eating pizza while being interviewed by Robert Ashley, in an even more magnificent shirt. The interview begins with Ashley speculating on why he hates children, before Glass explains his current financial situation.
Glass is equally lauded and derided as the most successful “real” composer alive, so it’s interesting to hear this thirty-eight-year old man reflect on just how far his career has gotten him to this point:
When we’re not being paid for concerts, we’re on unemployment. So that makes it, that’s the way things are now. Unemployment seems to have become a permanent fact of everybody’s life now…. We’re into the second year of unemployment….When we’re not getting paid a cheque for a rehearsal or concert, we get the unemployment. So if you figure it out, that comes to about, we get the maximum, which is 95 a week.
Wednesday 31 January 2007
After the interval, Irvine Arditti addressed the audience. “I gather that many of you haven’t the faintest idea what it is we’re playing.” He then added, “We often feel the same way.”
The program for the Arditti Quartet’s gig at Wigmore Hall last week claimed we would be hearing Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough, and Kurtág, in that order. Then, before the concert began, a silver-haired gentleman mounted the stage and announced that in fact we would be hearing the second piece first, the last piece second, the third piece where it was, and the first piece last. He then added, as an attempt at clarification, that this meant the running order was now Kurtág, Dusapin, Francesconi, and Ferneyhough. No, we said, after checking this against our programs, but the gentleman had already disappeared, leaving us to our confusion.
Interestingly, out of all the composers’ names, the one the locals had the most trouble pronouncing correctly was the Coventry-born Brian Ferneyhough.
I was glad I was too cheap to pay £3 for the program, seeing as it was useless for finding out what was playing when, and because I later learned that the notes for these compositions, by the composers themselves, were similarly confusing and unhelpful. They were in the much-parodied academic-speak beloved of the institutional avant-garde, who write everything as though it were a conference abstract.
Ferneyhough’s Fifth String Quartet is a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities”; completely unlike his Second Quartet, which “realizes the projected possibility of a gradual coming together between objective coherence and receptive spontaneity”. Chalk and cheese, really. Both are significant advances over his earlier Sonatas for String Quartet, with its “dialectical tension between the elements with a deliberately rationalizing character and others of a more spontaneous gesture”.
I wonder if these types of program notes in today’s intellectual climate seem more quaint than alienating. This sort of hyperintellectual analysis doesn’t upset me as much as it does others: just about every artist is intellectually beholden to some personal philosophy that, on contact with the outside world, proves to be more or less bogus. Whether it’s poststructuralist discourse or catholicism, I don’t have to buy into the ideas that make a piece of music I enjoy listening to.
Oh yeah, the music was really nice. Contemporary classical music is alive and well etc. As Ferneyhough put it himself when discussing his Third String Quartet, “the multiplicity of values in the text rests on a coherent structuring procedure regulated by the relation between silence and eloquence. Such a postulate of art for art’s sake gives birth to a work that can only be conceived by self-reference: first in a metaphorical sense, but finally in a literal sense.” Which I take to be a particularly thorough way of saying: it is what it is.
What’s big in composition right now: sustained passages of rapid movement, played very quietly. Every new piece these days has to have at least one, it seems.
Wigmore Hall is Rock’n’Roll!
- One punter reeks of piss!
- Another punter reeks of stale booze!
- Yet another is swigging straight from their single-serve bottle of wine without using the glass provided!
If there’s a reason my compulsive CD buying has stopped over the past 12 months, it’s because of sites like UbuWeb
, the Other Minds Archive
making available all sorts of wild stuff I’d heard about, but never actually heard.
Lately ANABlog has been working through mini-retrospectives of music by underrated composers of the 20th Century (their latest project, Ben Johnston, is definitely worth a listen) but amongst all this they have uploaded
George Harrison’s much maligned second solo album, Electronic Sound
This is the album he made (or didn’t make, depending who you ask) entirely on his shiny new Moog synthesiser in a couple of days. I don’t know which is more surprising, that someone has bothered to upload an MP3 of this record, or that it was once issued as an 8-track cartridge
If you’re at all curious, get it soon, because it won’t stay around for too long. (Short, shameful confession: I haven’t downloaded it because I bought a slightly battered 2nd-hand LP of it some 15 years ago.)
Also: Forget the Beatle!
I just checked UbuWeb and they now have a collection of readings by Jas H. Duke
. This is the guy who would have changed the history of poetry, if only (a) he wasn’t Australian, (b) the cultural custodians acknowledged his existence, and (c) he didn’t fall down the Melbourne General Post Office steps in 1992.
“This piece goes for 70 minutes!” my friend groaned, looking through the program. After an hour or so of Phil Niblock’s drones
at Sketch earlier in the day, we were at another free concert: a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s
1968 composition Stimmung
, in which six singers hold a single chord based on overtones of a low B-flat for the duration.
The piece is an excellent example of the combination of rigorous logic and loony inspiration that comprises much of Stockhausen’s music; its esoteric and irrational material harnessed by a meticulous design. Names of the days of the week, gods from religions around the world, and slightly goofy self-penned erotic poetry, are given means to be incorporated into designated rhythmic patterns at times decided upon by the singers, which in turn generate subtle harmonic combinations as these patterns are imitated or diverged from amongst the other singers.
Unlike the Niblock performance, there were no couches, drinks, or quiet conversation. The singers, three male, three female, sat around a table, facing each other, with microphones to provide slight amplification to better bring out the harmonics in the drones. We sat surrounding them, in hard plastic seats arranged in rings around the cavernous room. A small speaker in the centre of the floor softly played the low drone, to keep the singers in tune. Clearly this would have to be a meditative experience.
My only worry about going to this gig was whether the singers – a group called Intimate Voices, who all have non-music related day jobs – would be any good. Singing softly and holding the same pitch for long periods of time is not at all easy, and excessive deviations in intonation or loudness, or confusion in moving from one pattern to the next, could make the experience interminable. The performers have to learn a new singing style, and jointly work out their own structure for a coherent interpretation. It wasn’t surprising to learn this night was the culmination of 18 months of rehearsals.
I’ve heard the Singcircle
recording of Stimmung
, and this performance was a bit rougher, as you’d expect in a live setting. However, Intimate Voices gave an interpretation that showed more variety in atmosphere and attitude from one section to the next, unlike Singcircle’s consistently unruffled approach, even during the dirty poems. Intimate Voices’ interpretation was more episodic, with more pauses and breaks between sections: I’m not sure how acceptable this is to the composer. The electronic drone could still be faintly heard throughout the concert, which both filled the gaps in the singing and revealed when singers began to stray from correct intonation.
Despite these small issues, the singers in Intimate Voices made a subtly beautiful, flowing and well-shaped interpretation of Stockhausen’s score. The open form of the work meant that hearing other performances did nothing to prepare me for how the work would unfold, so it was very satisfying hearing the familiar elements arranged into a new form with its own dramatic sense. The visual aspects helped: watching the singers signalling to each other when they were introducing new material, and hearing how it was incorporated into the music.
My friend, who has taken singing lessons and sung in a number of choirs, appreciated the difficulties of the piece and liked the way the six singers kept it together, adding her own statement of approval: “That felt like only 50 minutes!”
A reproduction of the score, and a more detailed analysis of how it is constructed, is available here
Wednesday 24 January 2007
In the bit of my Gubaidulina review
where I ranted about how so many composers don’t know how to write music for certain instruments, so they just copy what some famous composer did before them (and so everything written for that instrument ends up sounding the same, and so everyone thinks that instrument always sounds the same…), I was referring to something Morton Feldman used to complain about
. I forgot to mention it.
Kyle Gann has been discussing Feldman again on his blog, with two anecdotes
I’d not heard before, regarding the need to be aware of how complicit you are in acceding to convention, be it social, historical, or personal. He doesn’t mention whether there is an intentional subtext about Jewish minds thinking alike.
Morton Feldman used to have a standard assignment that he gave his students: “Write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” He found that his students wrote their best pieces denying all their usual reflexes. (Sort of like the Seinfeld episode in which he decides, since everything he does turns out badly, that he’ll do the opposite of his reflex habits from now on – and it works.) Feldman also had a standing offer to buy dinner for the student who could come up with the worst orchestration – and no one ever won, because the more they worked to come up with bizarre instrument combinations, the more interesting the results.
Wednesday 24 January 2007
I swear that scoring free drinks at Sketch
was only an afterthought when I went to the opening of Phill Niblock’s The Movement of People Working
. The main reason was hearing and watching live performances of his music.
As far as anyone is concerned, Niblock does two things. First, he writes music which requires a solo musician to hold one note for as long as possible, over and over again, and then overdub that with more of the same, over and over again. A loud, dense drone, rich with shifting overtones, is produced.
Secondly, and this comes as a surprise to music-oriented people when going to see a performance of his music, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. At Sketch we were surrounded by people repairing boats, harvesting seaweed, dismembering carcases, making noodles, ploughing earth, flaying hides, winnowing grain, scavenging garbage.
The films are open to political, social and economic interpretations, but these considerations are subsumed within the prosaic documentation of people performing practiced, necessary actions, devoid of aesthetic artifice. If the juxtaposition of sound and image comment on each other, it is through the musician’s playing, stripped of expressive subjectivity, performing a disciplined series of tasks. The necessity of the work shown on film, however, is missing from the music. Largely, it appears that both appear together because they’re the two things Niblock does. The incompatibly impersonal approaches to the two media make film and music oddly neutral accompaniments to each other.
The square, high-ceilinged gallery at Sketch showed three videos projected high on each wall, showing randomly-selected sections from the hours of film Niblock has shot over two decades, above a pit of fashionable bohemian types busily networking and quaffing free pinot grigio. (“I’ve seen your website
,” was the first piece of overheard conversation upon entering the room.) There was a palpable irony in the disconnect between the scenes in the lower and upper halves of the room; yet amongst the milling crowd – the muddled conversations, the drinking, the social climbing, the little group of small children, one wearing a strikingly painted helmet, who ran around and occasionally butted into the small bar, sending glasses flying – there were people at work: a couple of flustered drinks waiters trying to clear tables and keep the glasses intact, and in one corner a flautist and a guitarist alternately playing Niblock’s music, which filled up all available aural space in and around the crowd noise. They were doing their job, mostly ignored, and hopefully getting properly paid for it.
Later that day I went to a performance at Goldsmiths College of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, a large work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for seventy minutes. Like the Niblock gig, it was free! But no booze. The write-up will have to wait until part 2, tomorrow.
The year has begun in its traditional way, with the confluence of darts finals on the telly
and the Barbican’s annual weekend with a not-quite-dead composer. It seems I missed a nailbiting final, as this review describes in satisfying detail
what makes watching people watching darts so enjoyable (“That’s the brilliant thing about darts – the honesty.”)
This year’s composer was Sofia Gubaidulina, whose music I’m not sure about. I’d heard a few pieces, which ranged from great (Offertorium
) to tedious and pedantic (Sieben Worte
), so this seemed like a good time to skip the darts and find out which of these works was the exception to the rule.
The big Friday night concert presented all of Gubaidulina’s orchestral ‘Nadeyka’ Triptych for the first time. The first piece, a violin concerto called The Lyre of Orpheus, contained some of the attributes that makes Offertorium such a strong piece – a sombre capital-B Beauty, and an imaginative use of tonal colour, such as the combination of violin and percussion instruments – on a more limited and modest scale. This law of diminishing returns continued to assert itself as the evening wore on.
After the performance of the second piece, ‘…The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair’
, one reviewer called the solo flautist
“mannered”, because he didn’t have enough space to print “evil wind-up Bridget Fonda doll who thinks she’s the conductor”. The music didn’t help, giving her lots of free time to mince around on stage in between aping the opening gesture of Varèse’s Density 21.5
over and over again. This is a problem that recurs with the lesser, academically-acceptable composers: they don’t know what to do with instruments less familiar than piano and strings, so they all tend to write for the same instruments in the same way. Gubaidulina is not the only composer to copping flute gestures from Varèse’s piece and generally faking along with other flute clichés like trills and whirling chromatic runs, strung together into the semblance of real flute music.
In case the title of the previous piece wasn’t portentous enough for you, the final work, for large orchestra and tape, was called A Feast During the Plague. For the better part of half an hour the orchestra heaved and groaned through a sludgy, turgid, overbearing score that played like a parody of Serious Modern Music. The tape (deliberately incongruous techno breaks interrupting the orchestra) was poorly executed and carelessly played through speakers either side of the stage. Combined with the orchestra’s bombast, it left everyone in the audience feeling bemused, belaboured and mildly embarassed.
The more one listens to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, the less one likes it. Such disenchantment comes, it should be added, from hearing it in quantity. Performed in isolation, her works often give the impression of stark originality. However, placed end to end in this year’s BBC composer weekend, they revealed startling limitations of emotional range.
Music not being sentient, I don’t care about its perceived emotional range, be it limited or not. Xenakis
stuck to one level of expression for pretty much his entire life and I don’t have a problem with his music the way I do with Gubaidulina’s. It’s not that perpetually pained religiosity, that has helped so many eastern European composers find favour with western critics, which I find objectionable; just that it is used to sustain poorly-constructed, numbingly literal music.
The afternoon concerts at St Giles at Cripplegate of Gubaidulina’s string quartets showed both her strengths and her weaknesses as a composer in a better light. Quartets allow less room for bombast, and these pieces were allowed by the composer to relate to listeners on musical terms alone, rather than asked to bear a heavy, ungainly spiritual message that neither the medium nor the composer could sustain. The musical ideas were interesting and quite unusual, but each successful passage seemed to hang around a little too long: she always seemed too intrigued by the effects to properly integrate them into a cohesive composition.
Finally, by way of a wholly gratuitous and unenlightening anecdote, I feel compelled to observe that Gubaidulina, present at all the concerts, wore the same damn shirt on each of the three days.
Wednesday 17 January 2007
I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I last wrote about Leo Sayer
. Someone, equally incredulous, just wrote to me to say
, “I can’t believe you haven’t posted about Celebrity Big Brother
yet,” as if I’m the sort of person who watches much TV besides darts
. I had no idea what the anonymous well-wisher was driving at, until I remembered who one of this year’s contestants was: the former pop star who moved to Australia with the immortal words…
I don’t know how much luck he’s had inspiring the youth of Australia, but he’s been back in the UK trying to engender veneration from the likes of Ken Russell and Face from The A Team.
Sadly, it seems Australia is still a more enlightened place than Borehamwood, because he’s already quit the show, “after knocking down a door with a shovel.
” And he’d run out of clean underpants. Paul McCartney was right about saints. Happy now, Anonymous?
Just when my hard drive is about to die: The 365 Days Project is back for another year. I’ve already plugged
this remarkable collection of audio anomalies, first uploaded one file a day throughout 2003. Four years later, WFMU has decided to repeat the exercise, compiling another 365 songs, radio broadcasts, advertisements, and home recordings that struggle to justify their existence in consensus reality.
In fact, this time around there’ll be more than 365 semi-classifiable sounds to enjoy: on some days they’re posting more than just one file. A lot more. So far they’ve given us obscure chocolate jingles, the Leif Garrett Fan Club record, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore’s The L.S. Bumble Bee, and the jaw-dropping concept that is Play It Safe, Vol.4. Get in early before it overwhelms you.
Thursday 21 December 2006
Having just blabbed on about Morton Feldman
below, YouTube has some video of the concert I attended: Debora Petrina performing Three Dances (1951)
. This is not typical Feldman! An early, unusually sparse work, even by his standards: it was composed with choreography in mind, and Petrina has managed to combine her own choreography with the musical performance. Not the best video quality, and not Feldman at his best, but this is rare stuff.
If you don’t know anything about Feldman’s music and want to throw yourself in at the deep end, Radio Tonkuhle
in Germany is playing his String Quartet II
on Christmas Day, as performed by the Ives Ensemble. The live stream
starts at 23:00 (GMT+1) on 25 December.
If, for some reasons, you have other plans that day and miss the broadcast, Princeton’s WPRB
is playing the same piece, performed by the Flux Quartet, on 29 December ( live stream
at 11:00 GMT-5).
String Quartet II (1983) is Feldman’s most notorious work: a single movement for quartet, quiet and slow throughout, and long enough to go beyond the standard considerations of structure and form, into an immersion into a sustained, unique soundworld without a past, a future, or a sense of scale. The Flux Quartet play the full six-hour version, while the Ives Ensemble take the “easy” route with the trimmed-down, four-hour version. Have fun justifying this to any relatives you have staying over for the holidays.
This will probably be the last post until new year. Have a good one!
Thursday 21 December 2006
I missed the concerts dedicated to Morton Feldman
, my second-favourite composer, at the Huddersfield Festival last month. I’m not exactly sure where Huddersfield is – I suspect it’s Up North somewhere – and events conspired to keep me confined to London throughout.
published a neat little overview
and discussion of Feldman’s career, including this interesting comment:
There are those who hear in Feldman little more than a sort of high-art easy listening. The music is quiet, it’s quite repetitive, it uses pretty sounds, so how is it different from any of the other ambient soundscapes that help people to chill at the end of a busy day? The Huddersfield retrospective should help to clear up the confusion. For anyone prepared to listen in the attentive way that Feldman expected, his work is full of surprises, the flow of events enigmatically unpredictable and the grain of the music always changing – the antithesis of easy listening.
This description of the mishearing of Feldman’s music is accurate as far as it goes, but the misconception of Feldman as a proto-New Age holy minimalist
can be partly blamed on the way some performers play his music these days. Over the years, as Feldman has become more popular, more performances and recordings have been made and many of them prefer to play his music as if it were, in fact, “high-art easy listening.”
Yes, Feldman’s favourite instruction on his manuscripts was “as slowly and softly as possible”, but too many people are interpreting this as a licence to play pretty and precious, pious and bland; warping his unique style into an imitation of the more homogenous idiom of later, more conspicuously popular composers.
(To a certain extent, this has happened to a lot of post-war avant-garde music: recordings of performances from the 1950s and 60s tended to sound sharp, spiky and “difficult”. The same pieces played today tend to sound softer, serene, and meditative. John Cage
, in particular, seems to get a lot of this treatment in his more austere, contemplative pieces; as though he were a Zen guru first, and composer second.)
Earlier in the year, I went to a concert of Feldman’s music
given as a book launch for a collection of Feldman’s lectures and interviews
. It was an old, small hall in Holborn, used as the headquarters of the London Free Thought Society, so the corridors were posted with flyers advertising forthcoming talks such as “The Middle East Crisis: Education or Barbarism? by Mr Elijah Sittingbourne (B.Div., Cantab.)”. The hall itself bore an inscription across the proscenium, quoting, apprarently without irony, Polonius’ “To thine own self be true.”
One of the musicians in the concert was the pianist John Tilbury, who had first met and worked with Feldman on his first visit to the UK in the 1960s, and on several subsequent occasions. He first played an early work of Feldman’s, Piano Piece 1952, a slow, steady succession of single notes, each identically notated with the duration of exactly one and a half beats. Yet Tilbury made no attempt to disguise that he was giving a very different emphasis to each note: some were dramatically prolonged, others almost rushed, relatively speaking.
A purist would sniff that this was an erratic, indulgent performance; but here was a musician who had known and worked with Feldman. Could we presume he knew first hand what the composer wanted? I have a recording of Roger Woodward playing Feldman’s Triadic Memories: his rhythms are nothing like those Feldman carefully notated. Yet Feldman had dedicated this piece, amongst others, to Woodward, and had previously praised his playing.
Perhaps, as we would expect of interpreters of music from the romantic era, these performers are comfortable taking liberties with the score, understanding the idiom well enough to take license with what is written down to get closer to the music the score represents, instead of retreating from the music’s challenges into a sound-world more familiar and comfortable. Tilbury didn’t take the score literally (every note to be played the same), but grasped at the truth behind it (every note is to be treated as a unique, independent event). In music, there’s a difference between accuracy and authenticity.
Tilbury also played a very late Feldman piece, Palais de Mari
(1986), which I heard Rolf Hind play last year. My notes say
I was surprised at how “overtly beautiful, even romantic” it was. Tilbury’s performance added more drama and expressivity, presumably straining the limits of what was permitted in the score – the hint of restrained climaxes and crescendoes, in a composer who treasured the “flat surface” in his work. It also had a better sense of phrasing and overall shape than Hind’s interpretation: without that, so much later Feldman can sound like just one damn little thing after another.
As far as “wrong” performances go, it’s worth mentioning that at the book launch there were readings from Feldman’s essays and lectures. It was very strange hearing his classic Brooklyn turns of phrase spoken in a plummy English accent, particularly once you’ve heard Feldman’s distinctive Noo Yawk speaking voice. (Note to self: post some soundbites of Feldman talking in 2007. He was good value as a guest, so long as he didn’t take an immediate dislike to you.)