Thanksgiving: Thomas Buckner sings Robert Ashley

Wednesday 26 November 2014

I didn’t write about the last time Robert Ashley was in town. Sometimes you have an experience that gives you too much to think about, to write it down coherently and do it justice; not at first, and then you leave it later and later until it seems too late. For much the same reason, I didn’t write about when he died in March this year, either. So many of us have been slow in catching up to the implications of Ashley’s work.

Last night, long-time collaborator Thomas Buckner sang a programme dedicated to Robert Ashley’s music at Cafe Oto, to an audience of as many as twenty people. Much of it was in Ashley’s signature style of speech heightened to the state of music (not to be confused with sprechstimme), but Buckner’s virtuosic shaping of phrase and intonation and even melody from Ashley’s text revealed an aspect I had not fully realised before. The virtuosic speech which is Ashley’s most recognisable stylistic trait is more than patter, an overwhelming flow of information; there are pauses, hesitations, repetition which mould the semantic and emotional content of the words and the voice into complex states of thought and feeling as skilfully as any great aria.

For the record, Buckner performed a version of Ashley’s opera Atalanta (Acts of God), consisting of the “Odalisque” aria from Act I, “Mystery of the River” from Act II, and the Anecdote “The Producer Speaks” from Act III. The first act was accompanied by piano, electric piano and synthesized organ, the third act by piano alone. “Mystery of the River” was a new electronic realisation, made only last year as it had never been performed before then. After the interval, Buckner sang Tract, a wordless melody with electronic accompaniment, and World War III Just the Highlights, for voice and chorus. Tract began as a setting of a Wallace Stevens poem for voice and string quartet until Ashley realised he didn’t want to bend other people’s texts to fit music and as for string quartets, well.

The music conveys a stillness of contemplation, containing an agitation of thought. Connections abound. Ashley rhymes his subjects like Ezra Pound in the Cantos. Like William Carlos Williams, he adopts Pound’s methods to articulate the fraught sense of an emerging cultural awareness in his contemporary U.S.A., wondering whether it will survive and grow, and in what form. “Mystery of the River” repurposes mythology into geography and family history, as any colonial community must if they are to find meaning in their environment. World War III Just the Highlights starts by dissecting the economics of an opera company staging the Ring Cycle before crossing the Atlantic to analyse the romanticisation of El Cid and the Italian condottieri: the subject matter, characters, their juxtaposition and the connections between them are all the stuff of the Cantos.

Every performance of Ashley’s music I’ve witnessed has been a revelation, leading always to bigger and better questions about the content of his work. It pains me how few other people were there to hear it for themselves.

The technique. Pateras, Toral, Frey.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Not much to report lately except for two gigs, both at Cafe Oto, about one week apart.

First night: two solo sets, by Rafael Toral and Anthony Pateras. I’d heard some of Toral’s music for guitar and feedback of different types, so this was relevant to my interests. He played three “pieces”, each using different sets of very simple equipment. After the first set I started to vague-out a bit. The first was the most interesting: holding a small powered speaker in one hand, he “played” it with a microphone/light in the other, moving it to and fro to create controlled bursts of feedback. It was reminiscent of a solo improvisation on a violin, in sound and gesture. Unfortunately, it also went on for too long – I think this was because Toral seemed more interested in extracting every possible type of sound out of his instrument than in shaping a musical experience. He later mentioned that he was thinking about jazz saxophone solos while playing, so perhaps this was the problem too.

I’ve known Anthony Pateras for a long time so it was good to hear him play again. He played solo piano, without preparations to the strings or other extraneous sounds (as is often the case with him). The difference in technique between the two musicians was striking, and not just in the obvious way of comparing Toral’s meticulous gestures with Pateras’ frenzied activity. The trademark hyperactive pummelling of the keyboard is nevertheless rigorously constrained, producing sharply defined contrasts in large harmonic blocks of sound as well as more subtle distinctions in texture. His technical agility keeps focussed on one musical idea, which is then expanded and elaborated upon. He also stopped soon enough for the audience to demand an encore.

A few days later I was back at Oto to see Jürg Frey and friends (or “personal army”, as they were described on the night). He’s a clarinettist and composer, another one who’s associated with Wandelweiser. Quiet, pulseless sounds: unlike my previous experience, the usual feeling of hushed stillness had additional depths. Some of Frey’s music that I’ve heard seems, to some extent, a provocation in its refusal to yield to an implied, wider palette of sounds. (This is particularly after hearing R. Andrew Lee play Frey’s piano music.) On this occasion, there were also some surprisingly rich sounds, with an almost playful (on Frey’s terms) exploration of harmonies and instrument combinations.

Performance technique in Frey’s music becomes a matter of mastering a highly disciplined activity, to achieve the extremes of attenuated sounds demanded in the score. Looking back on the three different sets, it became clear that I was hearing differences of technique that applied equally to composition as they did to performance. The opportunity to hear Frey play his own music made this connection much clearer. A more extreme case of performance dictating composition was also presented at the Frey gig. Anton Lukoszevieze’s performance of part of John Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings reveals that the harmonic structure of the piece is entirely produced by the systematic execution of a single, extended gesture by the cellist – conceptually simple, but physically difficult.

The same musicians had spent the weekend recording Frey’s music for another release by Another Timbre. It will be interesting to hear the music apart from the theatre of performance.

Is This Wandelweiser? West Coast Soundings

Monday 27 October 2014

I think I’ve ragged on Wandelweiser a few times recently, finding fault with its apparent sense conformity and complacency. It’s not completely true, of course, and as it happens I was just sent a copy of the new Edition Wandelweiser release West Coast Soundings, a double CD which makes an excellent case for the whole Wandelweiser aesthetic and the musical thinking behind it.

This album was crowdfunded last year under the name “Cage’s Grandchildren” (this title still comes up in the CD metadata). It might well have also been called “Tenney’s Children”: James Tenney is the only featured composer from a preceding generation, and his Harmonium #1 dates from 1976 while all the other works are less than 10 years old. Most of the composers here studied with Tenney, or at Cal Arts. Harmonium #1 isn’t the point of origin for all the music here and the album makes no such claim, but the work appears later on Disc 1 as a touchstone for this genre of music.

Like John Cage, Tenney produced a bewilderingly diverse body of work which opened up so many potential new paths of discovery. West Coast Soundings takes Harmonium #1 as a reference point for one particular set of ideas: a focus on the qualities of sound itself as a subject, listening in the present without narrative context, an emphasis on process and structure, but aimed towards elaboration of the sonic content, not teleological development.

Having complained about Wandelweiser’s output getting too samey, this collection is beautifully varied and balanced, presenting different facets of the above mentioned musical concerns while still maintaining an overall mood. I’ve played it in various situations and, for twelve pieces over two hours, surprisingly it’s never felt like an endurance test. More “typical” works – long-held tones blending together, a gentle but implacable aimlessness – are given a distinct identity by being thrown into contrast against music like the sinuous electronic drone of Chris Kallmyer’s Between the Rhine and Los Angeles. Liam Mooney’s 180°, in which performers press triangles against dry ice, recalls Cage’s interest in finding new sounds, Tenney’s percussion music, sound sculpture and Fluxus happenings.

The smaller, slighter works play an important role. Mark So’s brief segue makes a mysterious introduction to the album, with cellist Anton Lukoszevieze acting as the text’s reciter. Casey Anderson’s possible dust can’t add more to Cage’s works for multiple radios, but is sequenced here as a distinctive palate cleanser before Michael Pisaro’s quietly powerful A single charm is doubtful (Gertrude Stein).

After being disappointed with Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight last month, I was very pleased to find her piece Frame for Flute the highlight of the two CDs. Written for (not so fast!) grand bass recorder and cello, the two instruments echo off each other. The sonorous notes played by Lukoszevieze and recordist Lucia Mense merge and diverge, creating rich but subtle differences in tone that often sound as though they were electronically manipulated.

Brian Olewnick’s blog gives a good summary of all the pieces played and who plays them. West Coast Soundings turns out to be one of the best kind of surprises, one that is satisfying instead of sensationalistic, when you were only expecting more of the same.

Old-Fashioned Modernism: An Index of Metals

Monday 13 October 2014

Just reading about what Fausto Romitelli hoped to achieve with his final work, the “video opera” An Index of Metals, is enough to cause apprehension. The wish to immerse the audience in a solid, all-consuming mass of sound and light was never going to be realised, certainly not with an electroacoustic ensemble and three video screens in a concert hall. The gap between the ambition and the physical reality was always going to be too big to ignore, rather like the dreams of futurists from 100 years ago whose reach exceeded their grasp.

Also like the futurists, Romitelli seems to have been stridently demonstrative about wanting to be modern, but did so in ways utterly beholden to the past. A piece for solo electric guitar titled Trash TV Trance written in 2002 is obsolete before its première. I went to see Hila Plitmann and the London Sinfonietta play An Index of Metals last week and found that like his fellow Italians a century earlier, Romitelli preferred to wax romantically about what modernity could be like than be modern himself. Reviews seem to be divided between what you would like it to be as imagined in your head and what you actually heard and saw on stage.

The music worked hard a creating a persistent mood throughout the evening, which I suspect will make it all sound as quaint as Antheil in a generation or so. The playing on the night seemed to lack both the coherence and the bite that Romitelli had in mind. There were video projections; I’ve seen plenty worse. Romitelli’s sound world is distinct and striking, but it has an exotic decadence about it which sits oddly against the claims to be a bold pioneer.

Konzert Minimal play Antoine Beuger and Catherine Lamb

Thursday 25 September 2014

I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.

Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.

The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.

I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.

Laurence Crane, live and on record

Tuesday 19 August 2014

crane_cd_s The first paragraph is a bad-tempered rant which may be ignored.

This album came in the nick of time. I’d been listening to a bunch of “new music” lately that left me disillusioned about what so many composers are up to today. They want to get away from all that stuffy, arty concert hall music, but they don’t seem to know how. This would be more palatable if they addressed their predicament honestly but instead they plough on with fixed smiles and serious sincerity, serving up boring, boring music while telling us the scene’s never been in better shape. They repeat the mistakes of the post-minimalist set from the 1980s and sound old before their time. Bland harmonies, four-square rhythms, aspiring to the lofty heights of pop music but ending up like library music, an internationalised corporate-speak that speaks to, and is spoken by, no-one.

It was such a relief to join the crowd in that hot, stuffy, noisy room at Cafe Oto to hear Apartment House play at the launch of their double-CD of Laurence Crane’s music. The uncomfortable conditions were made simultaneously worse, then better, by the sheer number of well-wishers crammed into the place and the celebratory mood they brought with them. The bigger relief came from prolonged exposure to Crane’s solo and chamber pieces.

Mostly short (5 to 10 minutes), seemingly simple and unambitious, each piece has sort-of clear harmonies, almost-regular rhythms, kind of like the habits of those post-minimalists – only completely different. The spareness of the music suggests an ambiguity of things omitted, its transparency allows nuances to emerge in a way that implies greater depths concealed beneath the surface and hints at how they may be revealed. The material may be conventionally seductive, but its presentation is disaffectedly formal. You suspect there’s a formula behind it, but also suspect that learning the formula would neither help nor hinder your enjoyment. Like Satie’s music, it is obstinately beguiling. Like Satie’s music, you could mistake it for aural wallpaper only to discover it is in fact furniture and unexpectedly bark your shins on it.

Listening right now, there seems to be a timeless quality to Crane’s music, inasmuch as its qualities seem to serve no manifesto nor oppose a prevailing fashion. You could play the CD to your non “new music” friends and not think less of it after it turned out they liked it. Like the best pop music, its bright surface can also suggest darker or more sinister moods.

At the launch I bought the CD so I could enjoy it at greater length. It’s put out by Another Timbre, whose discs I have written about before. Apartment House’s playing is appropriately clean, clear and possibly even deadpan. I’m playing it whenever I can to remind myself that there’s more than one way of doing things, that it’s always possible to make things new.

Non-systems (1)

Thursday 3 July 2014

On Saturday I got to see and hear the Scratch Orchestra play selections from Nature Study Notes. I saw these guys performing Cage’s Song Books a couple of years ago, and again there was a blurring between art and life. Performers would come and go, participate when they felt most at home with the material, occasionally opting out to sit in the stalls with the audience or stand on the stairs outside. The door to the fire escape stayed open, letting in sounds from the surrounding streets and houses.

Much of the material in the Notes is open to interpretation and speculation. Reading over them after the event, it’s fun to spot how many you can recognise.

I learned later that there had been some general discussion of ideas beforehand, but no group rehearsal. The nature of the Scratch Orchestra music, as alluded to in the notes themselves, had little of the focused intensity of activity found in Cage’s music. An atmosphere of informality and naturalism was sustained throughout – this was achieved largely through the sensitivity and dedication of the performers to the spirit in which the Notes were made. As when observing a street scene, everything that happened in front of the audience fell together into its own sense of order.

There are photos and a complete recording of the performance online.

An Evening with Christian Wolff

Monday 19 May 2014

Last Monday, on the way back from the Tectonics festival in Glasgow, Christian Wolff gave a talk in London about his music. After his talk, members of Apartment House played a selection of his recent music (recent as in from the last 25 years, out of a 60+ year career).

I’ve discussed performances of Wolff’s music a couple of times before, one with Wolff’s participation and one without. A few of my thoughts about Wolff have persisted over the past five years. There is still a lot of lip service paid to the knowledge that Wolff is an important composer, much as there was to John Cage in his lifetime (and still, to a lesser extent, today). Even on the rare occasions that Wolff’s music is played, it seems to be presented so often as an historical or theoretical specimen. The Wandelweiser performance I saw repeated the received idea of Wolff as a conceptualist working in Cage’s shadow. After the talk, a punter asked Wolff about the effectiveness of different interpretations of his music. Wolff replied that he hadn’t heard enough repeat performances to find out.

When previously describing Wolff’s music I wrote that “the material is so “poor” and undistinguished it directs attention away from itself”, and noted how well it embodied Cage’s wish for sounds to be heard just as themselves, for themselves. Listening again now, this redirection toward the intrinsic qualities of unadorned sounds is also reminiscent of Morton Feldman’s music. Wolff’s music seems to achieve the aesthetic ideals his New York School colleagues aspired to but could never quite meet.

The music appears deceptively easy to play but requires both concentration and attentiveness to the other musicians, which must nevertheless be worn lightly, to play successfully. The Apartment House musicians made the discontinuities sound playful, even beguiling, rather than haphazard – particularly in the trio Emma, with its occasional echoes of popular tunes.

Wolff spoke mostly in a general, autobiographical way about his work. Of particular interest was his recollection of studying music with Cage, an education which consisted mostly of analysing Webern’s Symphony, writing pieces with as few notes as possible, and studying lots of counterpoint. The main point was to learn discipline and when Cage decided that Wolff had it, the lessons ended.

After “Vessels”

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Last night I got to see Philip Thomas play Bryn Harrison’s Vessels live, at Cafe Oto. As implied last time, I hadn’t re-listened to the piece on CD prior to the gig. I now need to make some additional comments.

The first surprise, before the piece started, was that the piece is more thoroughly notated than I thought: a dense hedge of changing meters, irregular rhythms and tuplets, all on a single treble stave throughout. No wonder the pianist finds it disorientating. As in Feldman’s later scores, Vessels uses precise notation to produce ambiguous results, so that events seems to drift by without any sense of a rhythmic pulse underneath. The comparisons to Feldman’s music keep coming up, so here are some more important differences. Feldman used irregular rhythms to set his sounds in surrounding silence; his music is episodic, switching arbitrarily between contrasting sets of sounds. Harrison’s piece allows for no breathing space and never deviates from its initial palette of sounds and texture, which seems even more exhausting than a Feldman work of comparable scale. (The very late works for orchestra are a significant exception.) The entire work barely covers more than three octaves of the piano’s range.

The scale of the piece has an insidious effect on the listener. After a while you get used to it, become immersed in it, like an aural bath, but through sheer persistence it unnerves and captures your attention again, as you try to figure out if it has changed.

It’s remarkable how short many of the repeated passages are. The piece frequently loops on itself for a while, but the harmonic ambiguity and unfocused rhythms make it very difficult to detect where each loop begins and ends, if in fact it is repeating at all. With further analysis the ingenious construction would become more intelligible, but by that time the indelible impression of its first hearing has already been made.

Witnessing Thomas perform the piece in person, as beautifully and seemingly effortless as on record, impressed on me further what an achievement it is. Strangely, it seemed to be over too soon.

Bryn Harrison’s “Vessels”

Thursday 1 May 2014

I’ve been working my way through that bundle of CDs from Another Timbre and so far the highlight has been the recording of Vessels for solo piano by Bryn Harrison. It began as a 20-odd minute piece in 2012 and was expanded into a 75-minute piece last year.

Ultimately, what amazes me the most about this piece is how I feel like I’m hearing something completely new, even though it all seems so familiar. Everyone compares it to Morton Feldman’s late music, understandably, and Harrison himself cites Howard Skempton’s music as an inspiration. The subtle contrast between these two composers is revealing. Both composers work with relatively unvarying dynamics and (near) repetitions, the stock in trade of “holy minimalists” like Pärt, Górecki et. al, but to very different effect. Feldman and Skempton’s music avoids conscious expressiveness, but is all the more richly evocative of complex moods through a focus on the presentation of the musical material itself. On the surface, Skempton’s music seems more conventional than Feldman’s, being often more familiar in terms of melody, harmony and scale, but its greater self-effacement achieves a type of “anonymous beauty” which Feldman admired. I once made a crude analogy that if Feldman is like Rothko, then Skempton is like Morandi.

Where does Vessels fit in this? It’s a long, seemingly undifferentiated span of chords that unfurl at a roughly constant pace. Philip Thomas, who plays this piece superbly, “said that when he plays Feldman, he always feels that the music is moving somewhere; through all the repetitions and varying patterns you end up achieving some kind of resolution. But with your piece Philip says that he is almost disturbingly disoriented because the music doesn’t seem to move anywhere at all. Playing it he feels that – for all the notes – he’s still circulating around the same place where he started after 5, 15 or even 50 minutes. Philip was arguing that in that sense Vessels is more radical formally than Feldman.” I heard echoes of Ustvolskaya’s chorales, and the cyclical directionlessness of Hauer’s music.

Harrison himself describes the piece as “disorientating to play” and it is also disorientating to listen to, for several reasons. Vessels messes with your sense of familiarity, the repetitions and recurring chord progressions pass by with the same reassuring presence that trees have in reminding you that you’re still lost in the forest. Have we been here before? Is the music moving somewhere else now, or is my mind playing tricks on me? I’m writing this from memory after hearing it again last night, and I’m starting to wonder whether I actually heard some of the things I want to describe now. If I play it again now I’ll be up all night.

It’s also disorientating if you’re used to Feldman or repetitive minimalist music. The uncertain sense of the music cycling around you has a vertiginous effect. Instead of the sensation of looping, drawing you into the music, the effect is more of a spiralling, equally drawing you in and pushing away. There is no sense of progression or return, only of inexorable drift. This is like one of Hauer’s musical labyrinths blown up to a massive scale. It’s a worthy addition alongside piano works like Tom Johnson’s An Hour For Piano or Dennis Johnson’s November.

Philip Thomas shows tremendous stamina, playing through this maze for 76 minutes as though it all just came to him naturally. I’m really looking forward to hearing him play it live next Monday.

James Saunders, live and on record

Thursday 24 April 2014

In my last post a month ago(!) I was navel-gazing over the musical conversation going on in London. It’s occurred to me that I’ve been taking for granted how many interesting composers are working in the UK these days. Just recently I read Daniel Wolf’s post about the two streams in British composition now and it’s nice to know my opinion isn’t pure parochialism.

Wolf’s mostly discussing the “complexity” school in his post, but it’s interesting to see that the “experimental tradition” is still thriving, too. I got this bee in my bonnet about how what is usually considered “experimental” in music is the stuff that approaches music as art, more than as craft, so I’ve been pleased to find more than just a scattering of a few, lone voices in the British scene.

That sense of “scene” is helped through supportive musicians and other organisations, like the record label Another Timbre. A couple of weeks ago I saw Ensemble Plus-Minus perform a concert of pieces by James Saunders. The music draws from a variety of influencing sources: group behaviour and home-made materials à la the Scratch Orchestra, a focus on process and structure that emerged with conceptual art, minimalism, controlled improvisation, the austerity of materials used in the Wandelweiser group. Group behaviour was the organising principle for several works: titles like everyone doing what everyone else is doing and everybody do this pretty much sum up how the musicians interact in the respective pieces. The music is composed through the arrangement of these interactions, leaving the sounds themselves to the discretion of the performers, using both instruments and found objects.

At times the music teetered on the edge of being little more than a technical exercise, albeit an entertaining one. Much conventional music also takes this risk, with much less interesting results. You start to wonder if a recording of the music would be less appealing because of the lack of the theatrical element, or more appealing because the structural means are a distraction from the musical ends.

Luckily for me, just after the concert I got sent a nice swag of CDs by Another Timbre for reviewing or whatever. One of them is Saunders’ disc divisions that could be autonomous but that comprise the whole. The musical material here is much more spare, with much fewer musicians involved than in the Plus-Minus gig. Two duets, three solos, a trio, and a work “for 10 players with coffee cups on various surfaces”. Without visuals, the music is separated from concerns about technical exercises and deals with subtle distinctions in sound. Much of the disc is very quiet, and the sounds often have an ambiguous character to them, fragile and unstable. When just listening, you realise that the substance is obscured as equally as the technique: a harp is prepared with objects and bowed, radio static merges with the soft rasping of a bowed wood block.

These finely nuanced results are very different from the deceptively straightforward compositional strategies that produce them. As with a good piece of the New Complexity school, the music is both intellectually and aesthetically satisfying.

in vain and outside of taste

Monday 9 December 2013

I had the good fortune to hear Gorecki’s 3rd Symphony live in concert a few months before the famous recording of it was released and quickly became ubiquitous. This made it a musical work I could hear as itself, not as a media phenomenon, but more important was the fact that I, and my friends and family seated beside me, and most of the audience were taken by it completely unexpectedly. Even having heard two or three other Gorecki pieces before, I wasn’t prepared for a piece simultaneously so monumental and so direct. Those two qualities combined can be used equally effectively to praise and to damn, and so a queasy ambivalence has settled in when discussing Gorecki’s hit. Unless you set out to be an iconoclast, any critique of the Symphony starts to lurch between defensive shrugging about the effect it has on listeners, and barbed apologies for its simpleness.

That same ambivalence reared up again after Friday night’s performance by the London Sinfonietta of Georg Friedrich Haas’ in vain. One review after another struggled over whether the piece is really as great as it’s been made out to be. in vain definitely fits the criteria of monumental and direct: an unbroken 70-minute span of music for chamber orchestra, who soon leave off their intricate flurry of notes to become caught up in repeated runs of notes that sometimes rise, sometimes fall. There’s a hook, too: at certain, prolonged moments the hall lights go out, the audience listens and the orchestra plays in pitch darkness.

Possibly coincidentally, I was unprepared when I first heard in vain, as a recording several years ago. It was a Kairos CD so I was expecting something typically spiky and recondite. In that frame of mind, the unexpected emergence of naked harmonics, sliding tones and unmotivated dramatic gestures was entirely disarming. It gave a definite sense of a longstanding consensus being broken, a work turning Caliban-like upon the culture that both created and confined it.

Having now witnessed it performed live it feels like, as with Gorecki’s Third, I no longer need or want to hear it again. Once it’s done, it’s done; and you can argue endlessly over whether that makes it less or more effective as a work of art.

I’ve read very little on the circumstances of how the Gorecki and the Haas were composed and I don’t plan to research it now, but both seem to share a quality of compulsion, a persistent image that had to purge from their systems, as something outside of, and indifferent to, their tastes. (Another parallel: both works contain indelible moments, but on reacquaintance also conceal forgotten longueurs, unfortunate adjuncts to supporting the overall image.)

Taste, both good and bad, has plagued Western art since the late seventeenth century. In his book The Counterfeiters Hugh Kenner describes the strange, sudden emergence of this scourge, as it applied to English poetry when the Metaphysicals gave way to the Augustan era.

Analogies have no inherent decorum, their efficacy is a function of detailed judgement. For poet and reader alike are now men of Judgement, collaborating in that strange attempt to rear a whole civilization upon taste. Fine shades of congruity and incongruity must be distinguished with an instinctive sureness. There is literally nothing that will not help sustain a poem, precisely as a satellite is maintained in orbit by forces whose intent, unbalanced, is to plunge it off into the infinite abyss forever.

The contemporaneous emergence of science as a discipline of knowledge had its own destabilising effect:

Registration, not discourse: the most profound innovation of Royal Society Prose was this, that the relation of subject to predicate was no longer something affirmed, by a speaker, but something verified, by an observer…. In a virtually new language, stylistic principles had to be rediscovered from scratch. It is not surprising that many experiments were unlucky.

in vain, just thirteen years old, seems to have been a beneficiary and then victim of taste. It was elevated so quickly as a masterpiece, but by its British premiere in Huddersfield last month it had already started to cause embarrassment. The novelty of its exterior is wearing through, and any persistent interest in its craft may be quickly exhausted. The audience on Friday night, however, was mostly enraptured, a significant minority moved to stand for their applause. Are they just a little bit behind in their taste, or have they latched onto an element of the work where taste played no part?

I keep thinking of that poetic chestnut “Trees” – more particularly of Guy Davenport’s essay on the poem. “It is, Lord knows, a vulnerable poem,” he writes, conscious of how its many flaws – mixed metaphors, simplistic pieties, infelicities of diction – may be observed by readers of Judgement. It is a poor imitator of the commercialised Art Nouveau aesthetic from which it derives, and yet those errors in imitation have pushed it beyond the pale of the correct tastes of its time, and allowed it so survive on its own terms when hundreds of more technically (tastefully) accomplished poems have been forgotten.

And yet there is a silvery, spare beauty about it that has not dated. Its six couplets have an inexplicable integrity, and a pleasant, old-fashioned music. It soothes, and it seems to speak of verities.

The crudity and inarticulacy that emerges from in vain may be its saving grace. It is too soon to tell what the music’s fate may be. It will probably join the thousands of pieces of the nominal but unplayed repertoire of the past hundred years or so. It may persist, equally adored and derided, or it may even be effaced as a cultural signifier, as inaudible as Orff’s O Fortuna or Barber’s Adagio. Immortality always comes at a price.

July Mountain in Clapton

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Pretty special night on Saturday, at the Round Chapel in Clapton. Tim Parkinson and a host of other muscian/composers including folks from Sonic Arts Research in Oxford playing music by Michael Pisaro and Makiko Nishikaze.

Punters sat in the gallery that encircled the long, high hall, looking down on the performers below. Pisaro’s Ricefall, a piece previously created by studio overdubbing, was here realised by a small orchestra of sixteen musicians allowing grains of rice to fall at different rates onto various objects and surfaces: paper, metal, plastic, leaves, ceramics, wood, stone. The blend of soft sounds were unamplified and rose up into the gallery. The gradations in the type of sound and the varying textures as the flow of grains ebbed and flowed became more and more distinct. In some respects little more than an exercise in listening, the work took a more substantial presence when performed as a live, group activity.

This piece and the rest of the evening fit perfectly into some of my current musical preoccupations, which I recently discussed: “contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight”. Parkinson’s performance of Nishikaze’s very beautiful Piano in Person I dealt with similar matters. With no logic, argument, theme or linear development apparent to the listener, for maybe half an hour took on qualities more reminiscent of painting, questions of touch, surface, shading, balance, contrast. The same questions, addressed differently, in Morton Feldman’s early and middle-period piano music, before patterns became discernible. Again, there was that other preoccupation, of music undirected and undifferentiated.

The third and final piece brought back the small orchestra for Pisaro’s July Mountain. A tape that wove together field recordings into an unbroken skein of sound played through the hall. Wallace Stevens’ poem of the same name provides the key to the way these recordings are blended, but this underlying structure is not evident to the listener. Snare drums are rubbed, drums and vibraphones are bowed, small speakers agitate loose objects on tympani and amplified surfaces. These live sounds somehow blend in seamlessly with the recordings of wind, birds and traffic. Unusually for electroacoustic music, the technology is used for the sake of the acoustic sounds, and yet the electronically-reproduced field recordings are enhanced and augmented, made hyperreal, by the acoustic sounds. It’s a remarkable relationship, both symbiotic and paradoxical. The music is impressively monumental but thrillingly restless.

In a different space it would be an overwhelming, engulfing experience – as it has been in previous performances. In the chapel the sound was softer and less aggressive, like a passing natural phenomenon that fascinates, consuming your attention without demanding or expecting it.

Abundance versus Excess: the Proms, part 2 and Stockhausen

Tuesday 8 October 2013

I just remembered I never got around to talking about seeing Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht in Birmingham last year. That needs to change soon. What sticks in my mind the most about it was the ending, the aftermath. Despite a very different opera with a very different approach to production, both Mittwoch and Sonntagpremiered the year before in Cologne – left the audience in a common state of euphoria. The punters and the performers mingled about long afterwards, everybody just beaming.

Since then I’ve wondered how much of this effect on the listener was down to the music and how much to theatre, the spectacle, the sense of occasion. One of the Proms concerts this year gave me a chance to find out, by repeating Ex Cathedra’s performance of Welt-Parlament in a concert setting. As part of Mittwoch, this scene is one of the highlights. As a stand-alone work on the stage (as opposed to surrounding and wandering through the audience) it’s equally effective, holding attention throughout it’s babel of languages and small dramas, the individual voices united by a common musical and ideological resolution. Ex Cathedra nailed it both times, and they sold Stockhausen’s requisite moments of pantomime without being arch.

More Stockhausen: August at the Roundhouse, with the London Contemporary Orchestra. Four selections from the Klang cycle, including Cosmic Pulses, the extraordinary electronic work for 24-channel surround sound that’s ideally suited to circular spaces. When I first heard it in the Albert Hall in 2008 it was one of the rare pieces that actually sounded good in the venue, and it was just as overwhelming in the Roundhouse.

Cosmic Pulses was the last piece in a long night that ended late. The gig started with the premiere of the 8-track version of Paradies, with two works for live musicians to follow: the string trio Hoffnung and the wind trio Balance. I’ve heard a recording of Hoffnung and wasn’t impressed – Stockhausen’s writing for solo strings always seems a bit wan compared to his other music. The trio from the LCO make a much better case for it. Balance is better still, and came with the added theatrical aspect of watching the bass clarinettist play while wearing a pretty cruel pair of platform heels.

I don’t think the heels were Stockhausen’s idea. As frequently noted in all the publicity for the gig, the musicians’ costumes were designed by Vivienne Westwood. Punters were issued coloured glasses to match the colours Stockhausen associated with each piece, and there was a slightly precious dégustation menu selling hors d’oeuvres before each piece. By coincidence, Conrad Shawcross’ kinetic light sculpture Timepiece was installed in the space, which should have ideally suited the music. It was all a great idea, in keeping with Stockhausen’s ideas of sensory immersion. Unfortunately the more opulent trappings sat uneasily with the stripped, seatless space of the Roundhouse, and the designer namedropping grated against the overtly devotional aspects of the music. The swinging of the sculpture’s lights overhead started to become an annoying distraction, the breaks between each piece made the evening drag. Also, Cosmic Pulses aside, the music wasn’t Stockhausen’s A-grade material.

Still more Stockhausen: last weekend, the London Sinfonietta with a killer performance of the landmark work Gruppen. This was a different kind of sensory overload, one which shows the difference between excess and abundance.

Listening to Some Recent Silences

Monday 23 September 2013

Like John Cage, I’m drawn to art with either too much or not enough in it. This means that I was compelled to attend the Apartment House gig on Sunday afternoon, curated by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. Some Recent Silences was a quietly ambitious (heh) show, focussing on the various ways composers use silence as a fundamental element of music.

Despite knowing the programme and the concept behind the gig, I still wasn’t sure what to expect. What such a concert might actually sound like could easily be conjectured upon but still be very difficult to imagine how it might come across to the audience. There was a risk/hope that it would play out as an experiment, or a manifesto, or a challenge. Wonderfully, it all worked superbly as a varied programme of contrasting pieces with a strong thematic unity. Although the ostensible theme was silence, the recurring point of fascination throughout the show was the reliance on the faintest subtleties in sound, shared by so many composers working today. So many musicians who acknowledge the importance of Cage seem to interpret him through Morton Feldman.

Context becomes extra important with this music. The car park in Peckham would not have been a suitable venue. The smaller hall at Kings Place can feel like a sterile bunker at times, but in this case it was perfect for the concentration needed by performers and punters alike. I have to compliment the musicians and organisers for their punctuality. I arrived a couple of minutes after 4 and the show had already started, so I didn’t hear the first silence. The next ten minutes were spent listening to the strange meld of sounds in the Kings Place atrium, made more incongruous by the student jazz band rehearsing on one of the landings.

The programme revolved around two contrasting poles: György Kurtág’s brief, witty Quarrelling 2 (Dumb Show) and Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, both from the mid-70s. Everything else was from the present century. Spahlinger meticulously prescribes the slightest inflections on the room’s ambience, whereas Kurtág’s exaggerated pantomime “silence” produces its own subtleties. In this company, works like Ben Isaacs’ allone and Charlie Sdraulig’s close seem almost normal, making almost exclusive use of what are typically thought of as “extended” techniques that may or may not yield audible results. Perhaps in this case, “attenuated techniques” may be a more appropriate term. The sound world is rich and evocative once we’ve acclimatised to the reduced scale.

The final piece, Michael Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano, seems almost aggressively simplistic. Single notes, seemingly at random, struck and repeated with ever-decreasing force, with long, irregular pauses between each new note. It seems like something a high-minded but lazy teenager would conceive as something “arty”: something for private contemplation, not to be shared. The repetitions give a strange, lulling sense of continuity, even though we know it to be false. You feel your brain being pulled and pushed between the senses of presence and absence. It seems too artless to be didactic. I don’t really know what to make of this piece.