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.

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.

Late November

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A lot of good things came together on the night of 9 March. A bit over five years ago I first heard of Dennis Johnson and his piece November, when Kyle Gann described it in some length on his blog: a minimalist piano piece written in 1959, which La Monte Young remembers being about six hours long but survived only as a wonky 2-hour tape from the early Sixties. Gann’s blog post gives a good rundown on what makes this forgotten piece of music so fascinating, particularly in the way it embraced so many neglected musical ideas that soon came to dominate new music over the next fifty years. Ever since first hearing about ‘the minimalists’ I’d been intrigued about other, lesser-known composers outside the three or four Big Names*, and Dennis Johnson’s mammoth piano piece sounded almost too good to be true.

Nearly two years later I heard a recording from a piano recital by R. Andrew Lee, which he’d uploaded, with a superb performance of Tom Johnson’s minimalist puzzlebox An Hour For Piano. I immediately became a fan and soon after started following his Twitter feed, largely in the hope of glomming onto some more mp3s.

Meanwhile, Gann announced that he had almost finished analysing and transcribing November. In 2007 he was trying out various, ultimately unsatisfactory methods of notation, lamenting that “we can’t ask Dennis Johnson about it: he’s disappeared.” By 2009 he’d discovered that November was more than “a kind of crazy, off-beat experiment… instead I’m thinking we’ll be unveiling a whole new formal paradigm that deserved to have more of an after-history than it’s had.” In the meantime, Daniel Wolf had provided a contact for Dennis Johnson, who in turn had sent the score.

Another two years later, I read some exciting news. Andy Lee has a copy of the score to November. I immediately forwarded it to a friend of mine, Mark Harwood at Penultimate Press, knowing that he gets excited about obscure and rediscovered artists, and wonky old piano recordings. We’d both heard and loved the recordings of November made by Kyle Gann and Sarah Cahill when the finished transcription was presented at a conference in 2009, as well as a rip of that old 1961 tape. The prospect of Lee recording November seemed unlikely, but tantalising.

On 9 March this year I finally got myself somewhere regular to live (still without regular internet) but I was more interested in being at Cafe Oto to hear and watch Lee play November in its entirety, as part of its joint release on CD by Penultimate Press and Irritable Hedgehog.

Over five hours, the music works a strange effect on the listener. The intervening decades of minimalist and ambient music have made us familiar with the concepts of long durations, tonal stasis, consistent dynamics, repetitions, but November uses these techniques in an unusual way. The sense of continuity is very strong, but there is no fixed pulse and few strict repetitions. The slowness, spareness and use of silence, with an organic sense of rhythm, make it seem very similar in many respects to Morton Feldman’s late music. The harmonic language, however, is very different. Johnson’s piece uses clear, familiar tonality to play with our expectations of the music’s ultimate direction, whereas Feldman’s chromatic ambiguity seeks to negate any feeling of movement in harmony or time.

The semi-improvised nature of November adds another element to a performance. It was interesting to watch Lee relax as he moved from the fully-notated transcription of the piece’s first 100 minutes, into the more open notation that made up the next three hours of playing. He seemed to go into a serene state of focused timelessness, perfectly matching the music he was playing. The music itself takes on the aspect of a musician feeling their way through the material, venturing into new areas then circling back onto familiar ground, adding new parts along the way to reveal older material in a different light. Lee’s interpretation of the open notation took on a similar character, meditative at times, almost casual at others, building up the strong impression of of a unified whole, gradually revealed. In effect, the music sounded like a inspired burst of improvisation, a fleeting run of chord changes and leading tones, slowed down 100 times to linger over every sensuous detail.

As I said before, it sounds almost too good to be true: a forgotten composer with a very short career (if it could even be called that), who disappears after writing a work of vast scale and great precedence, with said work languishing unknown for fifty years before it is rescued from obscurity, reconstructed and performed to great acclaim. The thing is that November is a truly great work, beautiful and captivating, which holds the listener’s interest more than could be hoped from a novel gimmick stumbled upon by a dilletante, and with far more substance and longevity than a piece of purely historical or musicological interest.

About twenty minutes into the performance Harwood held his phone out towards the piano for a while. He’d dialled Dennis Johnson’s number in California. Earlier that evening he’d told me a bit more he’d learned of Johnson’s career in mathematics: some of his work had gone into the Mars Curiosity rover programme.

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.

Charlemagne Palestine versus Oren Ambarchi

Wednesday 11 April 2012

There’s a bunch of stuff I need to catch up on but first I have to talk about the Charlemagne Palestine and Oren Ambarchi gig at Cafe Oto last week. I really have a problem with this type of “hey let’s take two musicians who have never worked together before and y’know like throw them together and then sit back and like watch the Magic totally happen” gig. It’s too much like there’s a curator in the background hoping to pick up the kudos if it somehow works. Never mind; I fuelled up on Beerlao from the cornershop and went anyway, largely because I had no idea what was going to happen.

Yeah yeah, there were the obligatory stuffed toys and glasses of brandy, but the music had to be different. For starters, the piano at Oto ain’t no Bösendorfer Imperial. The evening began while the punters were filing in, with Palestine playing a steadily-building tidal wave of noise from his laptop. For the concert proper he played with his distinctively animalistic mix of single-mindedness and capriciousness. In between the expected periods of drumming away at sustained harmonic intervals on the piano, there were more laptop collages, occasional extended drones on cognac glasses, and in one or two places some La Monte Young/Terry Riley type singing.

Ambarchi, as he freely admitted afterwards, really had no idea what to expect coming in to this setup. His response to being put in this situation is what made the gig work so well. Both experienced musicians, displaying all the craft they’ve spent years developing, refused to bend too far from what they do best. Ambarchi would build up layers of amplifier hum and electrical crackle under Palestine’s piano, and then seize upon the slightest pause and shift the frequencies and harmonics, forcing Palestine to retreat momentarily, and then start over on a new tonal centre.

Throughout the gig Ambarchi kept provoking Palestine, most entertainingly when the older man at the piano tried to play conductor, barking at Ambarchi “Drums!… Drums!… Drums!” The latter took his sweet time about it, before finally reaching over to gently tap one of his cymbals.