Many years ago I wrote a little blog post titled “Classical music sucks: just ask the people paid to promote it“. It seems just as pertinent now as it did then. Just last month this little post attracted the canniest piece of comment spam I have received to date:
Hi. I can tell this website caters towards the urban community.
Next Tuesday Radio 4 will broadcast a programme titled Who Killed Classical Music? The BBC seem to have forgotten that Norman Lebrecht published a book with the exact same title in 1997, as he’s not mentioned anywhere in the programme blurb. I’m sure he’ll remind them shortly.
A cynical observer may suspect that Lebrecht’s book turned out to be an opportunistic piece of publishing ephemera which failed to offer any satisfactory answers, but let’s assume instead that the BBC is genuinely ignorant and is tackling the old chestnut in good faith. Let’s see what they’ve dug up:
The Composer Gabriel Prokofiev (grandson of Sergei Prokofiev) looks at the increasing disconnection between classical music and its audience. How did composers such as Schoenberg kill off 20th century classical music for all but a small elite audience?
Until the early 20th century, each composer of classical music developed his own style built on the traditions of previous composers. Then Arnold Schoenberg changed all this, by devising ‘Serialism’ where melodies were no longer allowed.
It’s hard to believe that composers like Prokofiev (and Alexander Goehr, Tansy Davies and others) knowingly signed up to contribute to a show with such an inane premise. Or is it? The spiel continues:
Now the Serialist experiment has been largely abandoned and a whole new generation of composers – including Gabriel himself – is embracing popular culture, just as composers used to in the past when folk music or dance music were a major source of inspiration.
“Is music an art form? Or is it all just showbiz?” Morton Feldman’s question remains eternal. Never mind painting or sculpture, Christopher Nolan talking about his latest goddamn Batman movie wouldn’t take such a dismissive line towards
the wide range of cinema that “strayed too far” beyond its traditional roots in action, spectacle and broad melodrama. No other art form has so many of its practitioners going out of their way to tell how badly it sucks and isn’t really worth your attention.
Just yesterday The Guardian reported on a concert where the audience was deliberately groped and pestered throughout:
while the Phaedrus Ensemble got stuck in to Debussy, the audience were blindfolded and fed different sensory experiences in parallel with the music: fizzy pop and cola bottles for the effervescent second movement and fingers scampering up your arms in tandem with the first violin, then as the music changed, a scent-soaked silk scarf flickering across your skin, and hands laid on to give a sensation of pressure or relaxation. It’s a thoroughly entertaining experience.
As an experience it seems uncannily similar to Umberto Eco’s tour of the wax museums of California, where he saw reproductions of the world’s most famous artistic masterpieces: a full-length, three-dimensional Mona Lisa sitting for her portrait, the Venus de Milo in flesh-coloured wax, complete with arms. The museums wanted to give you more than the art, they wanted to show the real-life models “as they would have appeared” to the artists who immortalised them. Eco observes that for these add-ons to work, the art being so “enhanced” must first be idolised, an object for uncomprehending reverence. As such, the art is rendered meaningless in itself and so reduced to kitsch.
In the music world of today, those philistine hucksters encountered by Eco have been promoted to curators at the Louvre. Here is a genuine classical music experience! It must be good because it doesn’t sound like classical music! It must be good because it needs other sensory input to improve it! The music we are giving you sucks so hard we will do anything we can to hide it!
Composers, musicians and concert promoters are falling over themselves to denounce the qualities in music that led them into their love of music and their careers, with all the authority of a TV chef reassuring viewers that he never cooks with vegetables. Their fumbling for inclusiveness result in a presumptive orthodoxy of Boulez-like proportions.
Like that bit from Greg Sandow I quoted back in 2005 says,
This is yet another way in which classical music is drained of all meaning. Who cares what Shostakovich really is? It’s classical music! It’s a celebration! It’s big, grand, and colorful! Can anyone imagine talking about any other serious art this way?
Frankie Mann, “I Was A Hero, from The Mayan Debutante Revue” (1979).
(9’32″, 22 MB, mp3)
I’ve got wind and rain lashing against my leaky window, but still it’s been a quiet end to the year. I’m thinking back on what I’ve seen and heard this year – not too hard, just enough to see what’s stuck with me – and it’s the quiet, contemplative, introspective works that have defined the year for me. 2011 and 2012 were each dominated by the euphoric spectacle of seeing Stockhausen’s Sonntag and Mittwoch aus Licht. This year, the events which were epic in scale were far more modest in immediate presence, audience, venue, and sound world.
Hearing Morton Feldman’s For Philip Guston live for the first time in winter early this year seemed to set the tone. Not the best performance imaginable, but the experience of sitting in a smallish room with the musicians, in the back of an art gallery in Camden, for four hours was invaluable. A small crowd came and went throughout the afternoon; a few stayed.
I mentioned more recently that amongst the usual dazzle and complexity of featured composers at Huddersfield this year (Alberto Posadas’ elegant, Hèctor Parra’s slightly clumsy) three oases of stillness stood out. Firstly, Antoine Beuger’s en una noche oscura sort of pleased me because I didn’t like it. Another four-hour stretch of stillness and near-silence, it showed me that I’m not an indiscriminate sucker for anything sufficiently hushed and conceived on a sufficiently expansive scale. It felt stilted and precious, disappointingly inert. Unlike other punters there, I did not experience any transformative effect as the piece progressed into the small hours.
Anton Lukoszevieze’s arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum, on the other hand, took on a strange new life. Originally collaged from repeating fragments played on an organ to soundtrack the film of a Joseph Beuys performance, this chamber arrangement for a small ensemble of winds and strings revealed a different character, somewhere between Satie and late Feldman in its cross between the naive and the gnomic. The episodic series of repeating patterns could be taken as either forbidding or beguiling.
One of the two biggest highlights of the year was Jakob Ullmann’s Son Imaginaire III. Successfully performed at last, after three attempts in nearly 25 years, this concert had everything Beuger’s piece lacked. Again, a piece that hovered on the threshold of audibility, but in Ullmann’s case the music contained a faint but indelible richness, a mystery in how the sounds blended together in ways that couldn’t be understood, from one musician to the next and with ambient sounds in and outside St Paul’s Hall. Sitting there, attention focused on perceiving the music, you could lose yourself, your concentration on a sound so diffuse that your attention becomes a sort of dream state. Over a hundred years ago painters really started to pull apart the idea of what it meant to see something; we still don’t know what it means when we say we’ve heard something.
The crowd for the Ullmann gig was small, but maybe not as small as I remember.
All of this is leading back to my real defining musical experience of the year – hearing R. Andrew Lee play Dennis Johnson’s November at Cafe Oto. It was a satisfying culmination of many things, but also the start of many more.
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.
First of all, Antisonata now has its own web page.
I spent a weekend in Brighton and heard Dieter Schnebel talk about his music, and the premiere of his Liebe–Leid. I went to Huddersfield for a few days. The highlight there was hearing the first (uninterrupted) performance of Jakob Ullmann’s Son Imaginaire III, preceded by a brief talk by Ullmann himself. On Sunday I was fortunate enough to see György and Márta Kurtág performing selections from Játékok. (This review pretty much sums up my experience of the concert.)
It feels like I’m turning into a sort of collector, grabbing on to whatever remains of the living tradition of postwar European modernism. Maybe that categorisation doesn’t apply to Ullmann so much, but at this point it’s really too early to be certain. Ullmann’s music may be the end of one era or the beginning of another. Right now I’m going to see these guys for no real reason other than simply because I can, like an indecisive heathen making as many pilgrimages as possible, just in case.
Seeing them all in person is a useful reminder that the mythology of a monolithic “movement” of 1950s European avant-garde is more a hindrance than a help in understanding what’s been happening in music since, well, forever.
Thinking back on everything I heard at Huddersfield, three things in particular stand out. Besides the Ullmann, there was the performance of Antoine Beuger’s en una noche oscura and Apartment House’s chamber music arrangement of Henning Christiansen’s Fluxorum Organum. All three were very different, but shared a quality of blankness, or emptiness, that’s intrigued me for some time. Both John Cage and Morton Feldman shared an interest in this type of music (not just their own, but predecessors like Satie’s Socrate) but I don’t recall them ever articulating an exact understanding of what this quality might be.
As promised: if you have a MIDI player and a piano soundfont that is halfway tolerable, then the complete Antisonata for piano can now be downloaded and played in the comfort of your own home.
Antisonata for piano (full MIDI file, 4MB). Warning: this file is big and may crash your MIDI player.
Technical note: the file uses channels 1 and 2, with both set to patch 0 i.e. acoustic grand piano.
Update! The MIDI file is now ready – see below.
Domenico Scarlatti wrote 555 keyboard sonatas. Antisonata plays all of Scarlatti’s sonatas simultaneously, but very, very slowly; so slowly that a complete performance takes as long as it would to play them consecutively – about 18 hours. To complicate matters, the pitch range of the source material has been extended to match the range of a modern piano, and new chords have been added throughout. The placement of chords and octave transpositions were determined by chance, according to independently variable probabilities.
I don’t know why, but to me it sounds like it’s always about to break into Chopin’s A-flat Polonaise.
Why did I do this? I wanted to hear what happened when a carefully organised set of materials is meticulously re-organised according to a different, all-encompassing system. The musical relationships within each piece are now presented so infrequently and with so much interference from the other 554 pieces that they disappear. The linear distinction of one piece from the next has been collapsed into one undifferentiated simultaneity.
The title of Antisonata is not intended to present the piece as a destructive work of anti-music or anti-art. The word is used to refer to the impossibility of perceiving the music as a whole. The excessive length pushes the music beyond the listener’s ability to hear it all, and relocates the idea of hearing the entire work partially into the realm of conceptual art. The density and apparent formlessness of the music perpetually reminds the listener of what it once was, and is no longer. In short, I’m not really sure if anyone can hear anything when they listen to this piece.
The good news is that you don’t have to play the whole thing. Any excerpt down to 30 seconds (one page of the score) may be performed at a sitting. I’ve prepared a performance score of the piece, in which the pianist may take liberties as necessary, because on this scale who’s going to notice such minor deviations.
Antisonata for piano (full PDF score: 2056 pages, 7MB).
If you would rather hear it than play it, I’m now preparing a MIDI file of a “correct” interpretation. Unfortunately it’s pretty big and keeps conking out but I’m sure it
will be ready for upload soonis ready now!
Antisonata for piano (full MIDI file, 4MB). Warning: this file is big and may crash your MIDI player.
I expect it’s a bit too long to fit an entire recording online, but for now you can enjoy the three excerpts below. They are the first 18 pages, middle 18 pages and last 18 pages. You’ll notice the piece takes a while to wind up at the start, and down again at the end. The middle section is representative of the piece as a whole.
I’ve been thinking about Daniel Wolf’s composition 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet and my anxiety over the use of multiples in my own work.
One of the few things I remember about Wittgenstein: “It is questionable if when he died he had ever come to any understanding of the number 2. Two what? Two things would have to be identical, which is absurd if identity has any meaning.”
Something else that sticks in my head: the criticism that the sole distinguishing, even redeeming, feature of the architecture of the World Trade Center towers was that there were two of them. This is where I start to worry about my own stuff. Do I make multiples of things because I think that each individual element is inadequate as a work of art or music in itself?
Write a short, dull, awkward chorale for piano and it’s no big deal. Preface it with the instruction to repeat it 840 times and you become a musical visionary. Make a small, nondescript object and (probably) no-one bothers with a second look. Turn out thousands of identical objects and fill the Turbine Hall and you pull 4.7 million visitors per year.
I will take as a given that I produce substandard music and art. Does this inadequacy at least partly reside in the reliance on duplication, repetition and scale to add the semblance of artistic distinctiveness? I suppose I would rather believe that I am using “the work” as mere material, a vehicle in which to convey the true artistic substance, which somehow emerges from the sense of difference, repetition, scale and duration.
There is a species of art whose meaning and effect is that it is. The use of multiples is one of the clearest ways of making this point: they raise the question of their own existence and leave the speculation to the audience, while the more fundamental dimensions of time and space do the real work on the darker recesses of consciousness.
As for making them, it’s best to plough ahead through the process as something that needs to be done, because the outcome cannot be imagined. This is why I’ve started work on writing out neat versions of 2000 Guitar Solos again.
Further re-reading (for self): Konrad Bayer, “The Mosaic through the Centuries”.
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.
I just mentioned that I keep playing with the idea of multiples and redundancy in my music. I’m interested in using the idea of excess as an aesthetic tool, even though I’m conscious of it being a blunt instrument. At the other extreme, there is the use of silence – an excess of absence, as it were.
For many years I’ve been playing with how much of the “music” stuff can be taken out of music, whether it be content, context, structure or purpose. This is the latest from a series I’ve been working on the use of absence as material, titled Against Music. I finished this one last night.
My last few posts here have been going on about the vice and virtue in giving either too much or not enough. These posts were ostensible concert reviews, but they reflect concepts that have been bugging me in the music I’ve been making lately. That last post started contrasting excess against abundance in art. I’ve been trying to understand the distinction between the two in my own work. What is it about the use of multiples that I find so seductive, yet so difficult to justify? This problem becomes the source material for yet more new work. These are the sorts of things I consider most when I write music. Issues around harmony, pitch, instrumentation are simply not a concern.
Last weekend I went to see the London Sinfonietta play Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and two contemporaneous works by Luigi Nono. As mentioned before, Gruppen is a work of abundance but not excess. Like its source of inspiration, its effect is like that of a dramatic landscape: a complex but immediate image containing almost inexhaustible detail. Stockhausen wanted to put himself on the cutting edge of musical thinking at the time: a vast expansion of the use of the series and pitch-rows to coordinate harmonic, rhythmic, dynamic, timbral and spatial relationships. This intricate focus on the manipulation of pitch, and its extrapolation to corresponding aspects of sound, create music in which pitch has little immediately obvious effect on the listener. The audience was blown away by the contrasts and shifts in texture, space, colouring and weight.
All of these latter attributes are the sort of stuff I want to handle in my music; directly, not mediated through traditional compositional technique. Did Stockhausen accidentally create music with implications far beyond what he intended? I’m back to thinking about John Cage and Morton Feldman again. They both worked hard on putting compositional method, the matter of getting from one sound to the next, outside of their conscious concern, favouring problems of art over those of craft.
In between the two performances of Gruppen the Sinfonietta played Nono’s Canti per 13 and Polifonica-Monodia-Ritmica. The punters generally though the Nono suffered in comparison, hidden between the dazzling peaks of Stockhausen – particularly Canti per 13. I found Canti per 13 intriguing perhaps as much for its unfortunate context as for its own merits. Its apparent drabness became an obstinate rebuke to the tour-de-force that preceded it. Cage and Feldman also shared an admiration of music that was determinedly plain, undifferentiated, blank, undemonstrative, anonymous (with Satie’s Vexations as perhaps it’s ultimate expression). Again, I share this same fascination. It was interesting to notice how Nono, steeped in the same musical teachings as Stockhausen, could produce music so unvaried and homogeneous, and how it presaged the bleak expanses of his extraordinary late works. I also liked the way Canti per 13 is played fairly loud throughout, at a time when so many composers these days would write music like this to be as soft as possible, thanks to an unfortunate confluence of Feldman and the holy minimalists. That’s another one of my compositional hang-ups right now.
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 Sonntag – premiered 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.
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.
79% of those interviewed agreed that Britain has become a ‘surveillance society’ (51% were unhappy with this).
YouGov / Daily Telegraph poll, 4 December 2006.