Working backwards through summer: the Proms, part 1

Monday 16 September 2013

I was excessively busy with boring workaday stuff this summer, but I did get to see a few shows besides the LCMF. This year’s Proms season was sadly of the festival these days: the most interesting concert started at 10 on a Monday night, a Birtwistle premiere on a Monday afternoon.

The programming of Helmut Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied as an opener for the Mahler Fifth was such a welcome surprise that it’s almost churlish to pass comment that this was the first time this 33-year old piece has been played in the UK. Almost. I’ve always carried in my head the idea that there are two Lachenmanns: one who writes music which suffers from the intrusion of high concepts and philosophical temporising on the decline of Western culture, and another whose music transcends didactic underpinnings to present the listener with an elemental, unknowable sound-world that may be terrifying or sublime. I prefer the latter and always considered Tanzsuite as the prime example of the former.

In the recordings I’ve heard the piece always struck me as scratchy and thin, unusually monotonous. The music seemed to be a prisoner of its structural conceit and strained in places to fill that structure out. In person, however, the sound was much fuller, richer and varied. This was largely in part to the performers: the inevitable Arditti Quartet and, better still, the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Jonathan Nott. It wasn’t just the physical presence of the orchestra which brought the piece to life; the interpretation was committed, compelling, and built a dramatic narrative throughout the piece that had previously sounded like a rote recitation through the “suite of dances”.

I remember being able to hear some traces of the actual dance rhythms and the German anthem, or at least their pulverised remnants, in the recordings. No luck spotting any of the tunes that night: perhaps that’s the consequence of having an orchestra which fully inhabited the work without needing to rely on the programmatic aspects as a crutch. Perhaps I just haven’t been listening. I don’t expect to hear it played better.

Even more surprising was the response of the punters in the Albert Hall. I expected most of them were there for the Mahler after interval, and waited for large patches of the audience to offer the half-heartedly polite applause which is the British music lover at its most scathing. It was wonderful to hear instead almost universal enthusiasm, loud and prolonged, followed even more incredibly by wild cheers as Lachenmann himself descended from the loggia to the stage. Seems like it wasn’t just me who was won over.

Authenticity is Overrated

Tuesday 4 June 2013

“Cubism must have developed when the artist considered how much of his sketch must be finished. Finishing involves a stupidity of perception.” – Guy Davenport, Narrative Tone and Form.

“The raw, unexplained dream still has its power; the dream with legible symbols is a spent force. Hence the liveliness of Ernst, the dullness and triviality of Dalí.” – Guy Davenport, Ernst Machs Max Ernst.

True to one of Davenport’s recurring themes, that of the transformation of ideas across time and sensibility, I’d nailed together the above two quotes in my head some years ago. I only realised my mistake this evening, when I tried to look up the composite sentence that had never been written.

For all of its technical skill, there is a barbarity lurking behind so much mimetic art: a fearful reverence for “the real” has supplanted knowledge of the workings by which reality is created. Too many artists have tried to fill up every perceived hole in their work with “research” – pettifogging justifications for the audience’s disbelief, already held in suspense.

On Saturday night I heard the London Sinfonietta play Mauricio Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose in its entirety. Kagel disarmingly refers to this collection of eight pieces as “salon music”, pre-empting accusations of cultural appropriation or misrepresentation.

The music is playful and beguiling throughout, even at its most raucous. This deferential charm distracts from a second, more insidious game in play. The salon culture of misinterpreting artefacts from the four corners of the world has itself been taken captive and repurposed by Kagel.

Like a true inhabitant of the postmodern era, Kagel’s reference point for his compass keeps shifting to suit his subjectivity: the East is Slavic, the South is Mediterranean and the North-East is Brazilian. He reassures us that the Andean tribe’s procession in North-West is purely imaginary.

No salon band would have access to dozens of percussion instruments and found objects, culminating in the percussionist chopping at a log with an axe. At the end of each section descend into torpor, like a hand-cranked gramophone winding down. Even the artifice is artificial.

Is the joke on the musicians or the audience? Is this like one of Nabokov’s literary snares, where the better you are at decoding such situations, the worse you become entangled in it? While you’re kept guessing you’ll listen to a lot of rich, evocative music on Kagel’s terms, with no time to stop and check his cultural credentials.

Evidently I will freeze my arse off for Philip Guston

Monday 25 February 2013

I spent Saturday afternoon in an empty art gallery in Camden listening to a live performance of Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston. In a high-ceilinged back room of the gallery, twenty folding chairs were set out in front of the musicians from the Guildhall School: Siwan Rhys playing piano and celesta, Alasdair Garrett and Martha Lloyd tag-teaming on the flute parts, and finally George Barton on the tuned percussion (once he’d finally turned up, wearing an inside-out jumper and clutching a stack of a hundred-odd dog-eared pages of the score.)

The first four notes sound almost too hushed, like one voice heard amongst the hubbub of the crowd in the other rooms of the gallery. Eventually, but quite quickly, all other noises from the rest of the gallery fade away. I’m assuming everyone else has left us alone, musicians and audience, in the back room. The playing is beautiful and I relax, knowing that I’m going to be hearing a piece of music and not a bystander in an Art Stunt. At times the playing is a little rough around the edges. I can only assume that in writing such unforgiving parts, and making the whole piece four hours long, human frailty must be considered as part of the work itself. The piccolo sections – all soft, sustained notes – must be especially Not Fun.

Every time I hear For Philip Guston I hear something else. Last time I noticed how the piece fell into large sections that repeated the same process, of starting in an even flow and then gradually winding down into stasis. This time I hear how Feldman tricks you into hearing individual sounds outside of their continuity. There’s always the suggestion of those opening four notes returning – and they do, but never in quite the same way. As the pattern gets passed from one instrument to another, you find yourself waiting to hear each sound, and then weighing it in your mind.

The two flautists take one-hour shifts, which unfortunately signposts the passing of time. On the other hand, the sky outside is getting steadily darker and the room starts getting cold, so this feeling is inevitable. I start dozing off a little about an hour into the piece, but that feeling passes and for the rest of the piece I’m more attentive than before. The ensemble passages are beautifully written but today I’m less interested in these more complex effects and become transfixed when the music dwindles to nothing. For minutes on end the piece can be silent, articulated at intervals by a single, repeated note. So little needs to be done. Polyphony sucks.

I think John Cage first described Feldman’s music as heroic, and there is something heroic in the way he can break away from such simple silences after lingering on them for so much time. A minimalist could build a career on them. When the sky is dark and the audience is chilly and the music finally ends it’s like a blanket’s been taken away. Everyone hovers uncertainly in the silence, a little apologetic that it’s over, a little embarrassed that we can’t bring ourselves to applaud. Not just yet, just a little bit longer.

Morton Feldman’s early piano music at Cafe Oto

Thursday 13 December 2012

I’ve complained about the piano at Cafe Oto before. Just about everybody has, particularly John Tilbury, who refused to come back until it was replaced. The new piano’s been there for a while now; there’s just the question of paying for it.

Tuesday night’s Tilbury concert was intended as a fundraiser for the instrument. Instead of angling for broad, populist appeal, the programme consisted entirely of Tilbury playing Morton Feldman’s early solo music. With the exception of his last piano piece, Palais de Maris, and an arrangement of Madame Press Died Last Week At Ninety, all of the music was from the Fifties. Before playing, Tilbury announced he would be playing the entire programme without a break and requested no applause between pieces. The chairs had all been gathered around closer than usual, in a tight huddle around the piano and away from the bar. This was a Serious Concert.

Amazingly, for a freezing, foggy December night in London, no-one in the audience had a cough. It was like the end of the John Cage Prom all over again.

At the start of the evening Tilbury said something that I’m sure a lot of us were thinking: that Feldman is still an overlooked composer in that attention is focused almost entirely on those long, late works from the last decade of his life. He added that “early” Feldman was where he started with this music and mentioned ruefully that “you can’t make a career out of playing early Feldman.”

Cafe Oto is not the best place for concentration, but everyone knew that they needed to give full attention for this music to be heard properly (even the punter in front of me who fell asleep during Palais de Maris.) The first piece began abruptly – short notes, isolated, no pedal, so that it sounded accidental – inconsequential but obtrusive all the same. Hearing Feldman’s early music is a reminder of the idea in the air at the time, as expressed by Cage, that this music existed in the now-moment alone, where all you can do is suddenly listen.

The sounds are simple in themselves, but the effect they produce is complex – both reasons working against this music as a career vehicle. So much of the music’s affect comes from the placement of the sounds in a given place and time, instead of the usual uninterrupted flow of musical rhetoric that tries to shut out its surroundings.

I’ve heard Tilbury play the last two pieces on this programme before. This night’s performances were very different; more restrained, less variable, less… not less romantic, less demonstrative. Interpretations can change over six years, but it seems likely that this is music to which the performer intuitively responds and allows to emerge differently, as clear as possible in consideration of its surroundings.

Golden Fur played Morton Feldman’s “Patterns In A Chromatic Field” at Cafe Oto.

Tuesday 31 July 2012

All the elements were in place for a disaster. Cafe Oto can be hot and stuffy in the best circumstances but after several intense summer days, followed by an evening of clouds and rain, the room became a sweaty, airless torture chamber. The musicians were jet lagged, having flown in from mid-winter Australia the day before. They’d had about 40 minutes of rehearsal since arriving, which is about half the length of the piece of music they were meant to play. Outside, a DJ was entertaining partygoers on the rooftop of the building next door.

On top of all that Patterns In A Chromatic Field is one of Feldman’s most recondite pieces. Added to its length and awkward rhythms, which are to be expected, the texture abruptly switches back and forth from relatively frenetic thickets of notes to prolonged moments of absolute torpor. The cello part demands extended passages of artificial harmonics, written in perverse note spellings that seem to insist on microtonal inflection. Finally, as mentioned before, the piano at Oto is frankly b0rked.

Was it rough around the edges? I suppose it was, in a way. The players themselves certainly thought so. But then the venue’s pretty rough too. This is no concert hall, what with next door’s party leaking through the windows and a bar still serving punters at the back of the room. I don’t think anyone went to the bar during the performance. One or two loo breaks, a couple of people going out for fresh air; apart from that, no-one in the place moved once Golden Fur started playing. As everyone settled in, musos and punters alike hooked into the same concentration, the same determination, and never let go. There’s no need for signs here like at the old Luminaire telling everyone to shut up.

Patterns has always been seen as an anomaly in Feldman’s oeuvre. It seems that Feldman wasn’t entirely happy with it, and this may have been down in part to the wrong-headed performances it received in his lifetime. Whatever the flaws Golden Fur perceived in their performances on the night, they were quite rightly overlooked as trivial by everyone else, in favour of the understanding and interpretation the musicians brought to such a contrary score. If he could forgive the conditions, Feldman would probably not have regretted staying to listen.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 2)

Thursday 24 May 2012

Really sloppy notes here, sorry. Part 1 is here.

I remember when I first heard Frank Zappa’s songs. The singing felt forced and goofy, with straining falsettos and dopey bass vocals. Then I heard the original doo-wop records which inspired him and realised that his comedy mugging is absolutely faithful to the earnest material it imitates. “No no, we do it straight,” he enjoins his singers shortly into a cover version on one of his live albums. In the next breath, he admits, “It’s hard, I know.”

This was the same feeling I got watching Europera 3 performed. At first it all feels like a colossal joke, and the punter is left wondering at whose expense the supposed fun is made: at us for our pretensions, the singers for their dedication to the ridiculous enterprise, or Cage himself for his impertinence for devising such an absurd collage and expecting it to be taken seriously as an operatic experience. True, each opera is a comedy, although in each a different kind of comedy is in play.

The singers in Europera 3 seemed at first too eager to please, and too pleased with themselves for being in on the wheeze; but then, as with Zappa’s doo-wop homages, I began to realise that this playing to the audience is an essential part of traditional opera. Despite whatever pretensions opera may have to the highest of high culture, it sure ain’t subtle. If anything, Cage’s score seemed to constrain the singers too much.

I’m assuming it’s Cage’s score for Europera 3 that assigns a fixed location for each singer’s aria, as I assume that it was the director’s decision to assign these locations to the front of the stage, which tended to give the production the feel of a procession of entrances, presentations and exits. How ever it is produced, I can’t help feel that Cage fundamentally misread a crucial aspect of opera in Europera 3, in that there is no allowance for interaction between the performers. Europera 3 is one of those occasions when Cage’s idealism gets in the way of his aspirations. In seeking to distil opera to its basic elements of music and theatre, he forgot that opera is an impure, messy, pandering, superficial, gossipy, star-struck and fashion-obsessed artform, and what Cage perceived as flaws are essential to its survival.

Having said all that, what has Cage given us other than music, singing, costumes, theatre – is that not opera? The silliness of the incongruous costumes seen plain, the gesticulations stripped of dramatic context, are subsumed in the richness of talented singers presenting great arias against a backdrop of opera on LP and piano reduction (cultural legacy in portable, domestic form). It sort of resembled an opera, but more an opera rehearsal, or an opera school, with multiple distinct and disciplined activities each directed to an immediate aim, taken as a glorious whole.

What amazes me is that such a simple collage of available elements from the repertory can provoke so many contradictory reactions to Cage’s art and to opera itself. Whatever weaknesses it may have, Europera 3 certainly succeeds in demonstrating Cage’s strength for showing, not telling, when raising questions about music, aesthetics and the nature of art.

After the interval, Europera 4 raised different issues again. Europera 4 was conceived as a pair with Europera 3, and I was surprised by how much it differed. I had thought the resources for both operas were largely the same, but that in Europera 4 Cage had skewed the odds in his chance operations to favour less rather than more. It was actually closer to Europera 5 in scale. Two singers, soprano and baritone, instead of six; one pianist instead of two (sometimes shadow-playing); and the one Victrola instead of the six turntables and crates of LPs.

Some, but not all, of the productions differences were down to direction. No costume changes, and the lighting changed only in intensity. (No sudden dusk eclipsing the Queen of the Night this time around.) Unlike Europera 3, Europera 4 began in quite an affective and haunting way, with the soprano singing a vocalise while the baritone, as yet unseen, sang far away backstage. As with Europera 5, a dramatic interpretation was imposed upon Cage’s score, and maintained a coherent conceit throughout from this initial, accidental duet.

The singers appeared as perpetually doomed lovers, fated never to meet and yet to die in wonderfully operatic fashion after each and every aria, only to rise, sing, and die again. I suppose it could be called a perverse re-imagining of Cage’s opera as it played out like a consciously constructed absurdist drama. I do enjoy it when someone turns Cage against himself and makes it work in is own right, and it doesn’t happen nearly often enough. I don’t know what all those balloons were about, though.

John Cage meets Regieoper (part 1)

Monday 21 May 2012

One other effect Einstein on the Beach had on my life was that it made me a sucker for wacky opera. After Einstein, John Cage’s Europeras may be the most notorious wacky operas around, so I had to go to Cologne to see the final three (of five) performed in one night.

First obvious question answered: is it a real opera? Of course it is. Someone in the foyer smelled faintly of wee. QED.

What I found most immediately interesting about the performances on the night was the liberties that had been taken by the director, sometimes to the point of disregarding Cage’s score. From Berg to Glass, any opera composer specifying more than the words and the notes is asking for trouble sooner or later, and Cage’s use of chance-determined collage in the Europeras extends to stage movements, scenery, costumes and lighting.

The “free” interpretation by Oper Köln was most blatantly different in Europera 5. One of Cage’s last compositions, it pares the constituent elements of its predecessors to the barest minimum. In the space of an hour, two singers sing five arias each, unaccompanied. Half a dozen operatic 78s are played on a wind-up gramophone. A pianist occasionally mimics playing transcriptions of scenes from romantic operas, hitting keys only by accident. From time to time, a radio plays, a television (silent) is switched on. A rumbling passes by in the far distance.

In Cage’s score much of the action, such as it is, consists of changes in lighting, with specific instructions for multiple (unspecified) lighting sources to be turned on or off at chance-determined intervals. In Cologne, the lighting was an even mid-grey throughout. The scenario may very well have been drawn from Samuel Beckett; but I’m not convinced that Cage and Beckett are the most agreeable of stage companions.

The production drew a definite interpretation from Cage’s indeterminate collage, depicting a scene of great age, infirmity and decay. This conceit was evidently used to account for the extremely slow movements Cage’s score prescribes for his singers, from one part of the stage to another. The Victrola only added to the air of age and obsolescence. The feeling of openness and quiescence that Cage so often aspired to in his music was here supplanted by a bitter, ironic humour.

Soprano and mezzo-soprano, both entirely grey, walked with stiff, pained movements, finishing each aria with bows and blown kisses to imaginary fans like opera diva Norma Desmonds. The old gent in the bathrobe also stands and bows after each phonograph has finished. Cage instructs each singer to wear an animal mask at a given point, but the mezzo insists on donning her bear’s head each time she acknowledges the invisible audience.

Beckett admitted that he had no real fondness for opera, so he may have enjoyed the bleak comedy in the presentation of these denuded fragments. I’m not sure that Cage had anything so confrontational in mind when he talked of giving opera back to the Europeans, but then Verdi and Rossini couldn’t have anticipated the reconceptualisation of their works in Regieoper, either.

Cage’s music deserves to be played at least as well as Verdi’s – as it was here, although none of the notes were actually written by Cage. I suppose if people are going to accept him as the great composer that he was, it’s only fair that he be interpreted as wilfully as Verdi, too.

Europeras 3 and 4 raised different concerns, about whether or not Cage had succeeded in making a good opera, but that can wait until next time as it’s late and time for my Ovaltine.

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.