The bunker has recently suffered the addition of a television to the drawing room. The most immediate cultural ramification of this development is that on Sunday evening I was extremely reluctant to leave the house to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Elliott Carter at the Barbican
, because I had become engrossed in the World Darts Championship final on BBC2.
In my defense, I will say that I was watching it wearing my anthropologist’s hat
. When you’ve become blasé about walking past St Paul’s each day to get to work – and complaining about the tourists getting in your way, besides – it takes a darts match shown on prime time terrestrial tv to remind you that you are in a foreign country. Once that novelty wore off, another type of fascination took over. The more I watched, the more it dawned on me that I was watching one of the great endangered species of popular culture, a type of television that the next generation of children will never know: the professionally-produced, relatively major television event that is completely unphotogenic.
I cannot imagine that in ten years’ time a large, Western television network will be making any shows where fat, balding men in polo shirts and soveriegn rings are watched by a clubhouse full of attentive smokers. The show commanded respect simply for having survived until now. Between sets, expert commentary was offered by two men who looked and sounded like they had walked off the set for Minder
, prison tattoos and all. In fact they hadn’t walked off the set, they were still on it: seated in a corner of the club foyer lined with framed publicity photos of stars of the vintage and calibre of Marty Wilde
To cap off the experience, I’d been playing with the new telly’s buttons and had switched on the subtitles. To add subtitles to the live broadcast, the BBC had opted for the cheapest possible option and so had either hired an ESL student in a call centre in Chittagong with a hunt-and-peck typing technique to listen in to the commentary over a party line while a typhoon raged outside, or had downloaded a trial version of a particularly unreliable voice recognition program (that would be all of them). A slow, unsteady stream of Engrish
sputtered across the top of the screen, usually followed by corrections hastily typed in after the more egregious errors.
The most impressive example came when an announcer remarked upon “how many Dutch fans are here tonight”. MANY DRUG BARONS HERE TONIGHT tentatively ventured Sanjay or ViaVoice, clearly unimpressed by Amsterdam’s coffee houses.
Elliott Carter is a composer. He is very old.
More details as they come to hand.
My biggest regret over my time in London so far has been blowing two opportunities to see the Fall
play live. Apart from being pretty much my favourite band, I’ve missed the chance to watch a gig descend spectacularly into chaos, complete with equipment sabotage, onstage punch-ups and walk-offs by various band members. If you’re lucky, you might see someone get sacked from the group on the spot, or quit in disgust.
This all happens quite a lot, as the 43 former band members can testify. Recently, Dave Simpson attempted to track down every last one of them
– from the keyboard player who lasted one day, to the drummer who has been sacked nine times – to see what they’ve been up to since they fell foul of band leader (and only constant member) Mark E. Smith’s desire to “freshen up” the band from time to time.
One is dead, one’s been sent to prison: not bad going for a relatively large sampling of rock musos. Former bandmates have ranged from teenagers who happened to drink at Smith’s local, to the manager of the Chemical Brothers, who was recruited as a last-minute replacement when the Smith threw the drummer off the tour bus at a service station en route to their gig at the Reading Festival.
Dewey was led to a darkened tour bus to meet Smith, “passed out with his shirt off. The guitarist had to punch him in the face to wake him up. Then they began fighting over whether or not they should teach me the songs. Mark said no!”
Since this article was published in The Guardian
, Smith has vowed never to speak to anyone at that paper again. You can also look at a PDF scan of the original article
, complete with photies and more survivors’ tales of being abandoned in a foreign bar for eating a salad: best of all is the concluding plea “If you have been in the Fall and we failed to contact you, email email@example.com”.
As one of the current guitarists says, “I have nightmares, but it’s never boring. It’s not Coldplay.”
Wednesday 21 December 2005
Buddy is the swingingest lounge singer around, in the archetypal Vegas style (although his last gig appears to have been in Palm Springs, according to his website.) It’s impossible to imagine him singing anything without a swagger: I suspect even “Strange Fruit” would yield to his persuasive powers.
If there is an LP I truly covet, it is this record that a friend found for $1 in an op shop in Marysville, Victoria.
That’s not someone’s scribble over the title, it’s part of the design: the word ‘sun’ is crossed out and ‘love’ written above it – see what they did there? My friend’s copy is a reissue on the Australian cheapo Summit label, which may explain why the cover photo came out so dark – all you can make out of Buddy’s face are his teeth gleaming from the gloom of his comically holey umbrella.
As a Buddy Greco fan page succinctly describes
it, “Buddy singing the songs of 1969 ultra hip, with very clever arrangements and a very good backing. The theme ‘Let the sunshine in’ repeats between each song through the whole album.” Indeed, he starts with a blazing version of the Hair
hit, and the band quietly jams on the tune to segue from one track to the next, before closing the album with a mournful, haunting reprise. Genius.
If the front cover doesn’t convince you, then the back cover goes for the hard sell with an endorsement by none other than Buddy’s good pal, Mr Jimmy “Macarthur park” Webb:
Yes, Jimmy’s comfortable enough with his genius to assert his own greatness while he’s supposed to be praising someone else.
The absolute pinnacle of this album is when Buddy tackles the song that no other ageing crooner dared to touch when the older generation attempted to prove
they were still ‘with it’ in the 1960s. Amongst the Jimmy Webb and Burt Bacharach he fearlessly launches head and heart-magic first into the Greatest Song of All Time, the Everest of the 60s counterculture that forever rendered his generation of singers irrelevant.
Even more remarkably, he doesn’t reduce it to more manageable proportions: it’s even longer than the already-epic original, adding some much-needed showbiz pizazz missing from it’s better-known incarnation. You will wonder how you could ever bear to hear this song without horn section, backing singers, and a sax solo.
Now I just have to find the recording of Buddy doing “Macarthur Park”.
I wasn’t going to post anything tonight, but while checking my mail I’ve been listening to an oldies radio station
: Vic Damone, Ricky Nelson, Doris Day, Fred Astaire, Dinah Washington, FRANKIE GOES TO HOLLYWOOD. I suddenly feel very grey and feeble.
Oh god now they’re playing Spandau Ballet – must go lie down. Time to die.
I didn’t switch off quickly enough, and heard a pre-recorded xmas greeting. From Leo Sayer
Thursday 15 December 2005
In Australia they still want heroes. They are looking to me to teach their kids knowledge and wisdom.
Well, it turns out I owe Leo Sayer $100
too, as he up and done it. In April. We could have been in the Changi Airport terminal together.
This only popped into my head because this morning I read in the paper that he is allegedly (never, ever
trust reports on popular culture in newspapers, no matter how much you wish them to be true) enjoying chart success in the UK again, thanks to some uninspired DJ rehashing one of Leo’s creaky old chestnuts. The only problem is, ha ha ha, they can’t find him
… while Sayer seemed happy to give his blessing when first approached about the project, now that he is on the verge of his biggest hit in three decades, he is nowhere to be found. A new video was made without him after he proved hard to find in Australia, where he moved at the beginning of the year. And occasional e-mails suggest that he has little idea that he is storming up the dance charts…
Funny, he seemed accessible enough when he last updated his website
a couple of months ago, talking about the remix. I know Australia’s a big place, but he’s hardly the first Brit to go there, and he doesn’t seem to be the type to go trekking alone over the Canning Stock Route on a journey of self-discovery. Unless he’s looking to muscle in on some Aboriginal tribal elders teaching their kids knowledge and wisdom.
If anyone back home in Australia happens to notice Leo Sayer wandering the streets lost and confused, mumbling “I think I used to be an entertainer! Bobby Goldsboro? Donny Osmond?”, please alert the authorities. In fact, if you see anyone dressed as a scary clown mime
, best cosh them and drag them down to the nearest cop shop for their own good, just to be on the safe side.
Yes, I have been trawling through old blog posts. There are plans afoot.
Wednesday 14 December 2005
While procrastinating over finishing a longer article, I’ve been clearing through some unfinished posts from last year. First, this gem from 10 October 2004
And anyone who drones on to me about how they’re going to leave the country better be prepared to meet my wager of $100 that they will still be here a year later.
I forsee that this blog will perpetually be caught in a boom-bust cycle of updates.
Finally, here are a couple of pictures from an unfinished third instalment reviewing the contents of the Yooralla Box. First, a closeup of the front cover of the LP Judy Garland on the Radio, showing Judy’s scary Ellen-Foley-cocaine-black-hole nostrils to full effect.
Next, a prize photo of Barry Crocker’s crotch, from his fine LP No Regrets. Note the white jacket, belt buckle, and the two guys in the background doing the “Allen Ginsberg in Subterranean Homesick Blues” schtick. I particularly like the scuffing on the cover around Bazza’s trouser area – one passionate owner.
More intriguing: maybe it’s the magic of long-lost 1970s trouser technology, but Barry does not appear to be a man who has much use for the golden section:
No wonder he looks pensive, but, non, il ne regrette rien
Saturday 10 December 2005
Still waiting on that personal jetpack for the commute to and from my perspex geodesic dome, but in the meantime we can give sullen, grudgeful thanks for the few, glistening gems of Future Shock that are tossed our way. First, coloured bubbles!
I cannot understand why I am so excited about this. It’s like cold fusion turned out to be real, only more fun.
Second, Neil Diamond has a MySpace page
. Anyone unwilling to at least cut this guy an inch of slack has a heart of stone. The fine blog Heart on a Stick
has collected the best of the many, many accolades
the man has received in his short stay on the website, and in doing so has taken the pulse of a modern, media-savvy society when common toilers such as you and I are suddenly confronted by the presence of a genuine, undeniable star. WARNING: it’s a bit bandwidth-intensive, but worth the effort.
Wednesday 30 November 2005
the piece is now permanently available for download at Cooky La Moo
It’s short, it’s austere, it’s a strict canon, it’s about 6 Meg and available for download for one week only. The piece was made out of an unfulfilled wish to hear Phill Niblock’s
music – despite having heard about it for over ten years I’d never actually managed to hear any of it – so I created an ersatz composition based on descriptions of the original. I knew it typically involved someone playing one note for a long time, over and over again, and then overdubbing all the renditions of said note, resulting in -?- : a mysterious product of all the previously imperceptible fluctuations of intonation from one idealised pitch.
The piece started as a sample of homogenous sound fed through a (virtual) tape delay system, using small variations in filtering to produce gradually shifting overtones on a steady harmonic base. It was long, capricious, and sometimes very loud. Then its nature shifted to a prolonged, almost inaudible performance piece, requiring great concentration and self-control to make a few gestures with little immediately-noticeable effect. Over several incarnations the piece became more and more restrained until it was reduced to this 5-minute composition, a fixed object for contemplation, stripped of added harmonic complexity and overwhelming volume.
This isn’t one note, but it is a single chord played by 240 string quartets with a remarkably uniform sense of intonation, each playing in a very rapidly articulated canon in unison, and each able to expertly imitate the slightest change of nuance in tone colour of its predecessor.
It’s ideally heard at a modest level, where you only notice the changes if you concentrate. Or if you prefer, set it on repeat, crank it up and switch the telly to a report on Third World child labour for the full faux-Niblock concert experience in your own home.
Opus 8 No.2 by Tom Phillips, 1968. First performed by Phillips and John Tilbury
as music to accompany a student film, Wolverhampton 1969. Try performing it for yourself on your next bus journey.
I have been listening to a couple of Riley’s film soundtracks downloaded from UbuWeb,
but they don’t seem to be available anymore. Pity: I’m getting to quite enjoy them now, having got past the hippie encrustations of titles like “Sunrise of the Planetary Dream Collector”. There’s an insistent drive and clarity of purpose throughout his music, when everything about his manner of presentation leads you to expect New Age gruel or Dead-like indulgent noodling.
Then I looked at his website
. Jesus, what a hippie! My keyboard still stinks of patchouli, even after flushing the browser cache. Honestly, it sounds better than it looks.
Wednesday 23 November 2005
I’ve spent the last week in a virus-bedecked half-dream room, so nothing coherent or original is getting written these days. It’s also cold at last, frost and fog and subzero temperatures just like the travel brochures promised. I sat indoors cursing that I didn’t have the foresight to pack a coat in my luggage, instead of waiting for my crates of chattels to arrive by sea, until last night when I actually bothered to look in the back of my clothes cupboard and found that I had in fact packed one after all.
You can tell I’m sick because I didn’t bother trying to make that story more interesting (i.e. make up something completely different). On the positive side, it means I do have a coat. On the negative, I now have the flu, which renders me generally unpleasant and uncommunicative.
So tonight I’m going to do something that blogs were originally meant to do: link to other sites for content. Of course, these days this means linking to other people’s blogs.
“Every society throughout history and throughout the world has made and enjoyed music! But we, now, here, in the west are unique… in our hunger for ever more, new music. Music surrounds us: in our houses, blasting out of radios, CD players, computers. It wakes us up, and it sends us to sleep. Outside we pump music into our ears through up-to-the-minute mobile phones and MP3-players… We hear it in our supermarkets, and we sing it in our churches and in our karaoke bars. Rock anthems in pubs, and recorder-concerts in schools. We chant it at our football matches, hum along to it in our cars, and dance to it in our nightclubs. There is no getting away from music. Our lives are musical lives, and our world is a musical world. Musical. Music.”
So wrote the philosopher Jacob Applebloom in his suicide note.
“All genres of music (excluding the extreme avant-garde) are struggling to come to terms with the impending melody-crisis,” writes Larry in his comprehensive and brilliant analysis of the need for radical musical conservation in the early 21st century. Never mind that his blog is called Tampon Teabag. If you want the full blogrolling experience, this was found linked through On an Overgrown Path.
A Concise History of Western Music
An experimental outline was devised using the Spiers – Rotluff test to qualitatively evaluate the `before/after’ responses to musical stimuli. Subjects were exposed to a range of literature… and a variety of promotional material for local concert events. They were questioned about their general music knowledge… It was intended that subjects be divided into a control group of professional practitioners, and an experimental group of interested amateurs as described below.
However, certain difficulties in formulating the control group soon became apparent, and indeed aspects of the study’s design needed attention in order to accommodate the experimental group. Firstly, it was impossible to find a conductor who would consent to take part in the study, most maintaining they `wouldn’t be seen dead’ in the company of the other subjects. We therefore decided to replace the conductor with an old poodle named Von K . On the surface this may seem, to the uninformed reader, a curious step to take. However, we point out that the dog performed well in a simple verbal test in which he consistently identified the music of Bach, although he was less successful with other composers. (In this respect he was ranked equally with the music critic, who professed to being partial to fine music and “…may not know much about Hollywood musicals, but I know what I like.”)
Secondly, despite the best of our efforts it was impossible to find a professional composer to take part in this study. Most of the potential subjects we contacted who professed some understanding of music composition were either university lecturers or employed by a “secret government agency
The criterion of professionalism could not be met, and it was decided after much deliberation (and certain cost considerations) to replace the composer with a standard laboratory rat.
Another set of difficulties was encountered with the experimental group. Not one opera subscriber would consent to participate unless we included Gilbert and Sullivan selections in the experiment. Likewise, the critic refused to join unless we could promise the music was of the highest calibre, played by a world-class orchestra. Perhaps only our European readers will understand the impossibility of reconciling these two demands. In contrast the arts bureaucrat seemed to have no personal views whatever, and in fact would only respond after being extensively lobbied by the laboratory staff.
Reprinted thanks to The Rosenberg Archive
, a treasure trove of one of the most important musical families of the last century.
I feel a little queasy after typing that last sentence. Fresh content on the weekend: something about Barcelona or Hackney.
Greg Sandow’s blog often discusses the problems of promoting classical music to a wider audience, and every now and then produces a particularly bad (or, less frequently, good) example. Just now he cites the San Francisco Symphony’s publicity for a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13, a setting of Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’, a poem concerning the slaughter of millions of Jews during the Second World War, poverty and starvation, and the spectre of the resurgence of Stalinism. The SF Symphony’s marketing director plugged it as the musical equivalent of a date flick. In a previous post he says:
This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?
Coincidentally, I just happened to visit the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Classic FM radio website, and found that they still apparently do their own marketing:
See? Classical music doesn’t suck so hard if you don’t listen to it too closely! It can inspire you to accomplish menial chores! Note also the non-ironic use of the word ‘joyful’ outside of an Xmas context for the first time in 40 years. Shostakovich would be proud to know that his terrors and deprivations weren’t suffered in vain.
The final night of the Xenakis
gigs, with the London Sinfonietta. The Rambler
left some remarks about this night in a comment, either on his blog or mine – I forget. Let’s get through this quick.
Waarg: Way to dampen the crowd’s enthusiam, opening with this stodge – yes, one of those flaky pieces from the mid-1980s I mentioned previously. The Rambler thinks the ensemble may have been off-form, but I assumed their wonky playing was intentional, having heard a recording of Épéi, another of X’s queasy, wheezy ensemble works. Épéi, however, had a particular kind of pig-headed authority, whereas Waarg sounded much flabbier. In fact, I didn’t mind this piece as much when hearing it as I did in retrospect: it had a kind of lyrical, relaxed attitude that made a nice change of pace from the rest of the music heard over the weekend. Still, it was a heavy, thudding kind of lyricism. And it was still flabby.
A L’Île de Gorée: Wow, this was bad! The Rambler liked the harpsichord playing – which was technically admirable and almost thrilling, except it was at the service of a shoddy and inept composition. The idea of Xenakis writing something for harpsichord sounds like some music insider’s idea of a joke, but he wrote at least four substantial pieces featuring the instrument. Unfortunately they all sound pretty much as you might expect, with lots of frantic banging away on the keyboard vindicating Sir Thomas Beecham’s likening of the modern instrument’s sound to that of skeletons copulating on a tin roof.
There was lots of give-and-take between the soloist and the ensemble, as you’d expect when X’s typical dynamics ensure that the harpsichord would be drowned out. The whole thing was so stop-start and felt so poorly constructed that you just wanted it to end. The piece was dedicated “to the black Africans… the heroes and victims of apartheid in South Africa” (Thanks Iannis, just what we wanted!
). The motivation behind Nuits
substantiated its significance, this dedication sought to create significance. It was the sort of claim to relevance that gives European intellectualism a bad name. Written in the mid 1908s? Absolutely.
This was another mid-1980s piece but much better, with a spiky severity that held your attention throughout in a way the preceding pieces did not. It was written for Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain
and it’s easy to imagine Boulez hovering over X’s shoulder the whole time he was writing it muttering “act like a professional for once in your life, dammit” – in some respects this piece sounds as close to anything his contemporaries may have written as you could hope for. The program notes use the supremely baffling term “polar centre.”
ST 10-1,080262: Known as just plain ol’ ST/10 to its friends. Written in the late 50s and early 60s, this piece always gets kudos for being one of the first works written with the assistance of a computer. A computer program handled the calculation of dozens of probabilities concerning musical densities, curves, pointilistic textures and structures. The result is a hyperkinetic whirlwind of fragments from what sounds like a dozen or so wild compositions thrown into a blender. The combinations and successions of sounds have a perverse kind of objective logic to them, and yet they are combined in ways that would never have previously occurred to a composer. Not to be confused with ST 4-1,080262, a string quartet written at the same time, and either used the same program results as ST/10, or one is an arrangement of the other. Several passages were awfully similar, but the program notes didn’t elucidate.
Akanthos: It’s harder to write about pieces you don’t mind. A work from the late 1970s for soprano (wordless) and ensemble, I heard a recording of this and found it shrill and overbearing. I liked this performance, even thought it was because the singing wasn’t as strong as it could be ideally and so would get swallowed up by the other musicians from time to time (the soprano must sing without vibrato, which can make projecting the voice a tough ask.)
Eonta: Now this is how you finish a concert! Piano playing of impossible ferocity (again, a computer was used to help determine the torrents of thousands of notes) and a brass quintet playing into the piano’s open soundboard. Except at first they’re lined up along the back wall of the stage, playing first into the floor, then up into the air, then over to the piano, and then wandering (carefully!) around the stage, playing long, dense chords over the piano’s rampage. Finally, they get chair facing off opposite the piano for some diabolically intertwined sliding tones, before a final crossing of the floor and face-off with the resonant insides of the piano. This piece had everything to please the punters: keyboard pyrotechnics, theatre, wacky stunts, a real spatialisation of sound that Alax couldn’t provide, and a dramatic pause right near the end the caused some overexcited punters to start clapping too early. Haven’t heard that happen for ages! Wildly enthusiastic applause from just about everybody, including those who were sheepishly fleeing for the exits; not because they didn’t like it that much, but because years of exposure to British public transport turns you into a twat.
Harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka’s red afro, sequinned vest and facial expression that suggested she was under strict medical instructions not to smile, presumably from a very expensive Swiss doctor at the Ponds Institute
with a beard and white laboratory coat. And her habit of dumping each page of the score onto the floor when she was done with it.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: None whatsoever. For the whole weekend.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange:
Someone shouted me so I didn’t get the price, but if you get it in a plastic cup the Royal Festival Hall lets you take it into the auditorium just like it’s the band room at the Corner Hotel
, although I doubt this is to minimise harm if you get into a stoush with the band and/or your fellow audience members. Or is it?
The previous posts about the Xenakis gigs are here
. A post that was meant to be about Xenakis but mistakenly ended up about Stockhausen is here
: do not read this
if you want news only about Xenakis. Also, the link I posted to Rolf Hind’s shirt doesn’t work: apparently James Bond fansites are picky about linking to their pictures and would prefer you to just steal them outright, so here’s a nice photie of Mischka, or Grischka.
Imagine that shirt with Norman Wisdom’s head on top. Oh, and without the knife, unless the piano recital needs some Keith Emerson keyboard-stabbing action to liven things up.
Wednesday 26 October 2005
I’m afraid this is badly written, but I can’t fiddle about with it forever…
Did I mention that these gigs were almost all sold out? That you can fill a hall with people who want to hear nothing but Xenakis, except maybe for a bit of Feldman
* to break things up a little? It’s not often you get to hear live performances of music by composers who wrote stuff which requires musicians to put an effort into getting it right. Most of the time, when a 20th-century composition does get programmed at a concert, it’s something dull that performers and audience alike can safely doze through pretending it’s either Brahms or Gershwin and not caring too much if they get it wrong. Then they fill up the rest of the program with 2nd-rate Brahms, under the assumption that the subscribers will like it (they won’t, but they won’t complain about it either). It seems I’m not the only one who’s been hanging out for a concert where I don’t have to leave early, or arrive late.
Rolf Hind knew how to keep the punters happy at his piano recital, starting and finishing with two of Xenakis’ blockbusters for the solo instrument: Mists and Evryali. Don’t mistake the title of Mists – this is not a soft-focus montage of dewy impressionism, but an implacable study of thousands of motes in a constant roil of Brownian motion. The sheer sonic fireworks of Xenakis’ piano music, coupled with the theatrics of a pianist playing music of such obvious, stupefying virtusoity, makes for superb entertainment. It’s very hard to pretend you’re appreciating the intricacies of Xenakis’ use of arborescences and number sieves in these works when the sound just blows you away.
Evryali is, if anything, even more dazzling – long barrages of rapidly hammered 10-note chords ranging far and wide over the entirety of the keyboard. Given a quick look at the score for the piece, you’d think it was written for four hands; after closer examination you’d still need convincing that one person can be capable of playing it. It’s a great way to finish a concert, especially for an audience who are thinking “This cost me less than half the ticket price of watching Stockhausen operate a tape deck.”
A good way to impress the crowd is to play Evryali immediately after Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, a work as soft and still as Evryali is loud and frantic. I went to this recital as much to hear the Feldman as the Xenakis – he’s just about my favourite composer, yet I hadn’t heard this piece before. I was surprised at how overtly beautiful, even romantic, this piece was – at least as Hind performs it. It was written right near the end of Feldman’s life (he died in 1987), between compositions of deep, hermetic ambiguity and spareness of almost opressive austerity (but still beautiful, just not in such a showy way).
Of course, it would have been more impressive to bash out the Xenakis and then sustain the delicacy of touch needed to play Feldman right. Roger Woodward actually did this at the British premiere of Mists, using it as the opener for the premiere of Feldman’s 90-minute long Triadic Memories – although this may explain why his interpretation of Feldman is as mad as a two-bob watch. The biggest problem about this part of the concert was that the punters wre so pumped up by the preceding music that they got restless and fidgety – moreso than usual during a Feldman piece, in which the quiet atmosphere really amplifies those squeaky chairs.
Rolf Hind’s shiny red shirt, like he was Mischka
) from Octopussy
. And his hunching and gurning throughout the recital, like he was Norman Wisdom/Steve Martin/Tim Ferguson (pick whichever comedian suits your nationality) miming to a record.
(Tomorrow: last instalment, promise! Now I have to post a picture of a cigarette packet.)
* WARNING: Hideous 1996-style website design. Kids, learn how Gorak saw the web!
In Melbourne I was a regular customer (if you can call hanging around in and listening to stuff rather than actually buying it) at Synaesthesia Records
. Apparently their biggest seller was (and possibly still is) a CD of electronic works by Iannis Xenakis
: it seemed to be a disc in which the free-improv, Japanese noise, avant-garde, computer-glitch and outsider fans could all find some common ground.
Xenakis’ life and work
has been condensed in the public mind into a neat little quasi-mythology even tighter than Stockhausen’s, and without the loony parts: ethnic Greek Romanian, socialist partisan fighter in the war, got half his face shot off, exile in Paris, assistant to Le Corbusier, Philips Pavilion
, use of number theory and stochastic calculations, the contrast of theoretical sophistication with the raw visceral impact (make sure you use the word “brutal”) of his music. Throw in the word “polytope
” and you can pretty much write your own program notes. The front cover of this concert series’ program uses the phrase “builder of dense and dazzling sonic masses” in large type on the front cover.
There is, however, one dirty little secret about Xenakis that is never directly acknowledged. While the ingenuity and power of his greatest works are indisputable, he also wrote a quite a lot of duds. I think the critical consensus acknowledges that his output from the mid 1980s onwards can get pretty flaky, but we’re only now getting to grips with just how many dead-ordinary pieces he turned out, and it looks like a much higher proportion than other composers of his (deserved) stature. What’s even more perplexing is how utterly superfluous these substandard works appear to be: their failures are not interesting failures, and their successes are better heard elsewhere.
Milling about in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall (non-Londoners, imagine something slightly more ambitious than the assembly hall of a large high school built in the 1960s – a concrete testament to the nation’s postwar self-doubt), it was slightly disappointing to be part of a crowd all of the same mind about Xenakis’ strengths and, apparently, his weaknesses. I missed the sad old man who sat behind me though a stonking take on the piano concerto Keqrops (Roger Woodward/MSO, if you’re interested) and then held me transfixed as he spent the entirety of the intermission bitterly complaining about it; his central thesis being the classic observation that it wasn’t music, it was just a collection of sounds.
I was disturbed – but no longer surprised – to find everyone in the room agreeing with me.
At the first gig (I went to five) I finally got to hear Nuits, a wordless piece for 12-voice choir from 1967. This is everything Xenakis is cracked up to be: gripping, dramatic, and totally uncompromising. Dedicated to “the thousands of unknown political prisoners”, it’s a lament that turns between terror, outrage and defiance. I typically find this kind of mid-20th century vocal exercises precious and faintly ridiculous, so anyone who can make me believe in it gets marked down as some kind of genius in my books.
They (the BBC singers) also performed Sea Nymphs, a setting of the “Full Fathom Five” lyric from The Tempest, the latest work (1994) played for the whole weekend. Cannily, they peformed this piece first, so that it was only retrospect you would realise how derivative it is from its illustrious predecessor.
The other highlight of the first night was Shaar, a work for 60-piece string orchestra that really should have been the crowd-pleaser to close the evening. It has every indulgence you could hope for: big, pulsing clusters of sound, wild sweeps back and forth across the orchestra, eight double-basses, everybody playing something different at the same time.
The other concerts in the series all made a point of finishing with a bang, however for this night the closer was an anticlimactic performance of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, a choice which can only be explained by a need to find something else for the BBC Singers to do, having already cruelled their Friday night. I don’t care much for Stravinsky’s music, so it’s become almost fascinating to be exposed to the lesser-known corners of his work and hear music that is surprising, eclectic, and inventive, that I would not care in the least if I never heard again.
Apart from that, some members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played Alax, the first of Xenakis’ pieces to be heard over the weekend to feature lots of long, plodding unison passages of quasi-baroque honking which was starting to wear very thin with the regular concert-goers by Sunday night. There’s always something satisfyingly excessive about music written for multiple orchestras, even though Alax is written for three relatively small ensembles and only needed one conductor, which feels like cheating. However, the stage they played on was so small that all three groups had to sit right next to each other, which rendered the whole enterprise rather pointless. The best entertainment to be had was from watching the three harpists (a hapless role in any Xenakis composition) struggle to be heard over the three percussionists – drums and all – and nine french horns on stage.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention the remaining piece played at the first concert: Varèse’s Intégrales. It’s very satisfying hearing avant-garde from the early 20th century getting played these days, being sufficiently old that orchestras can now usually do them without getting the notes wrong, playing them as if they actually like them, and knowing their way around them sufficiently well to give some thought to interpretation. And Varèse still has what it takes these days for a sufficiently nerdy high school kid to really piss off their parents.
Theatrical highlights: The singers periodically tapping tuning forks against the backs of their heads (coming in on the right note when singing 12-part atonal harmony is a right bastard).
Conductor Jac van Steen pausing to smooth down his hair during a quiet bit near the end of Alax.
(To be continued tomorrow…)