Two kinds of craft: Max Eastley v Eliane Radigue

Wednesday 15 June 2011

I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.

Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.

On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.

Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.

Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.

Mark Knoop plays Morton Feldman’s “For Bunita Marcus”

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Where is that buzzing coming from? It sounds like a small piece of machinery grinding away. I’m sure other people are noticing it too; from time to time they’re looking up and around. I don’t think they’re doing it as a stretching exercise. I’ll tell myself it’s the wind blowing outside, even though we’re in the basement of Kings Place.

Is it a coincidence that there’s a second performance in quick succession at this venue of one of Feldman’s long, late pieces? It’s a pity this gig is in the smaller hall – the seats aren’t so good. After a warm afternoon and a couple of glasses of red I’d felt like indulging myself by dozing off during the concert.

For Bunita Marcus is a piece I find by turns ethralling, boring, infuriating, captivating. Long passages of single notes, usually displacements of semitones, turn with the slightest change of inflection from elusive to banal, from fluid to stiff and then back again. With equally trivial shifts in nuance, sudden changes in the score can sound either revelatory or manipulative. Then, with a few casual arpeggios the music becomes lush, even lyrical compared to the surrounding austerity – but only for a short while. Yet still these fleeting moments seem as indifferent to the listener’s attention as any passage in the piece.

Whenever I hear Feldman being played I wonder if it’s too loud. Is this just because my ears have adjusted to the low level of sound? The fading sound of the piano is just enough to cover that mysterious whirring, until the silences become too long. I’m not sure if this is distracting me from the music or making me concentrate on it. Is this the composer’s problem, the pianist’s, or mine?

John Tilbury and the Smith Quartet play Morton Feldman

Monday 26 April 2010

Piano and String Quartet, at King’s Place last Thursday. How little you need to make something beautiful, elusive; not just the material, the subject, but how it is articulated. It takes so little from each instrument to keep the music alive.

Timbre and range are the same problem, and both are more important than pitches. When one knows exactly the sound he wants, there are only a few notes in any instrument that will suffice. Choosing actual pitches then becomes almost like editing, filling in detail, finishing things off.”

This isn’t minimalist music – it isn’t making the most of limited means. It’s music composed with the richness of a certain set of timbres and instrumental sounds, for which only certain pitches will suffice.

Playing this softly, this slowly, the sustained chords of the piano seem to chime on forever against the string instruments.

Hearing it live, you notice how the musicians are living within the piece, so large are its dimensions. Two thirds of the way through you can feel them tiring, getting a little faster, a little louder; then someone attacks a note with a little frailty and the mood changes and a sense of quiescence returns. In its small way, a gentle climax has been achieved.

Tilbury’s playing seems more constant in his approach than other times I’ve heard him play Feldman, but on those occasions he was playing solo. Balanced against the quartet, the two forces alternate between sound and silence for the opening section of the piece, each framing the other. By the end the quartet is playing constantly, with the piano disturbing the otherwise still surface of the music.

The fatigue, the compromising of styles to accomodate others: to what extent did Feldman anticipate the frailties of musicians when writing this music?

Bird And Person Dyning

Wednesday 24 June 2009

An old man is walking slowly through the room. At one end of the room a bird is twittering. Not a real bird; it’s an electronic bird call. The man walks slowly towards where the sound seems to be coming from. We can hear the bird, but we can also hear what the man hears: he’s wearing microphones over his ears. The sounds he can hear are played through loudspeakers in the room, so that we can hear the bird from our position, and the bird from his position, as projected from a third position. The man can also hear what he hears relayed from those loudspeakers. Inevitably, feedback occurs.

The feedback produced is a high, whistling sound which complements the bird nicely. The man tilts his head a little to one side, or hunches down a fraction. The feedback shifts to a new note, the tone becomes reedier. The slightest adjustment to how the man listens can completely change the sound we hear. Even the bird’s repeated call changes: its chirping amongst the feedback causes heterodyning, creating the illusion of other, differently voiced birds chirping in chorus.

On the weekend I got to see and hear Alvin Lucier perform his 1975 piece Bird and Person Dyning, as part of the Cut and Splice festival at Wilton’s Hall. The above description gives some idea of how a simple setup can create a complex sonic environment. In a single, unified action it reveals how the subtleties of sound depend on how we listen, our position in space, the size and shape of the room. There were some good pieces on the weekend, and more poor pieces, but Lucier’s music still stood out for having both a depth and a transparency that the others lacked.

(Video and audio of Bird and Person Dyning is on UbuWeb.)

So wrong it’s right: Morton Feldman

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.

The Guardian 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.)

The Fall and the Liminality of Kitten Kong

Friday 29 September 2006

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brand New You’re Retro: Elysian Quartet at Cargo

Friday 9 June 2006

One distinctive tic in my psyche is that scenes from the movie Highway 61 keep appearing, unbidden, in my consciousness. At one point the hero (for want of a better word), a rock’n’roll-loving hairdresser, is challenged on his choice of instrument to follow his musical dreams: the trumpet. “I know,” he says bitterly, “it always ends up sounding like jazz.”

I am now working on a similar theory, that any attempt by a string quartet to play rock ends up sounding like Bartók. Before going offline for a week I went to the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No. 2, at Cargo in Shoreditch. It was a pleasant-enough piece, with the regular, propelling rhythms and static harmonies that have become commonplace in much of the music written over the last 20-odd years, since the commercial success of Philip Glass’ earlier musical innovations became too conspicuous for struggling composers to ignore.

Like much so-called ‘post-minimalist’ music written in the wake of Glass and his sometime mates, Prokofiev’s quartet wants to be identified with Glass at his most populist while simultaneously disassociating itself from its stridency – thus the simple, steady beat and harmonies were muddied with variations in mood and sour inflections which came across as, well, Bartók (188-1945). It was only when I read the press release after the gig that I learned it was supposed to have been inspired by electronic dance music. If so, it was looking for its inspiration in the wrong places; adopting only the most superficial ornaments of techno instead of engaging with its unique substance, focussing instead on its classical foundation of traditional western harmony that, stripped of attitude, renders grime, metal, and pop indistinguishable. Any kid who’s tried playing rock on their school recorder knows this.

The Rambler has given a description of the kind of nights Cargo has been hosting: informal club performances of new music otherwise confined to the concert hall. As he suggests, the crucial element that makes these gigs engaging and enjoyable is the setting, which forces performers to interact with the audience. It is this, more than any slick visuals or appeals to hipness, that hooks in the smart and arts-savvy (or even arts-curious) punters.

“It seems like a simple formula, but it surely can’t be otherwise everyone would have been doing it for years already, right?” he asks. Well, the execution still needs some tweaking before it becomes as second-nature as laying on a rock gig. In particular, musicians and sound technicians are still learning how to properly amplify this type of gig to suit both the music and the audience. GéNIA’s set of electronically-enhanced piano music was diminished by the piano sounding muffled and dull. And the Elysian Quartet’s performance of Max DeWardener’s new work was spoiled by an electrical glitch making line noise and the players’ click tracks audible through the PA.

Despite these problems I hope this type of presentation of new “classical” music is a trend that will continue, as a way of bringing this music to an audience more likely to embrace it than the usual concert-hall subscribers. I can’t help but wonder how a performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together would come across in this context! I took two musically-literate Rzewski neophytes to the performance at Trinity College the week before, in a carpeted, overlit rehearsal room hidden deep in the College campus. The piece came out strident and threadbare, and afterwards both my friends agreed: “That was so 70s!” Would the change of setting have changed their attitude? Would it have changed the performers’?

Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.

This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)

The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.

This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)

Cornelius Cardew is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.

Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.

At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.

Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin.

This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.

On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust. When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”

Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.

Overheard gossip in the foyer: Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.

A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.

* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.