Greg Sandow’s blog often discusses the problems of promoting classical music to a wider audience, and every now and then produces a particularly bad (or, less frequently, good) example. Just now he cites the San Francisco Symphony’s publicity for a performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No.13, a setting of Yevtushenko’s ‘Babi Yar’, a poem concerning the slaughter of millions of Jews during the Second World War, poverty and starvation, and the spectre of the resurgence of Stalinism. The SF Symphony’s marketing director plugged it as the musical equivalent of a date flick. In a previous post he 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?
Coincidentally, I just happened to visit the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Classic FM radio website, and found that they still apparently do their own marketing:
See? Classical music doesn’t suck so hard if you don’t listen to it too closely! It can inspire you to accomplish menial chores! Note also the non-ironic use of the word ‘joyful’ outside of an Xmas context for the first time in 40 years. Shostakovich would be proud to know that his terrors and deprivations weren’t suffered in vain.
Waarg: Way to dampen the crowd’s enthusiam, opening with this stodge – yes, one of those flaky pieces from the mid-1980s I mentioned previously. The Rambler thinks the ensemble may have been off-form, but I assumed their wonky playing was intentional, having heard a recording of Épéi, another of X’s queasy, wheezy ensemble works. Épéi, however, had a particular kind of pig-headed authority, whereas Waarg sounded much flabbier. In fact, I didn’t mind this piece as much when hearing it as I did in retrospect: it had a kind of lyrical, relaxed attitude that made a nice change of pace from the rest of the music heard over the weekend. Still, it was a heavy, thudding kind of lyricism. And it was still flabby.
A L’Île de Gorée: Wow, this was bad! The Rambler liked the harpsichord playing – which was technically admirable and almost thrilling, except it was at the service of a shoddy and inept composition. The idea of Xenakis writing something for harpsichord sounds like some music insider’s idea of a joke, but he wrote at least four substantial pieces featuring the instrument. Unfortunately they all sound pretty much as you might expect, with lots of frantic banging away on the keyboard vindicating Sir Thomas Beecham’s likening of the modern instrument’s sound to that of skeletons copulating on a tin roof.
There was lots of give-and-take between the soloist and the ensemble, as you’d expect when X’s typical dynamics ensure that the harpsichord would be drowned out. The whole thing was so stop-start and felt so poorly constructed that you just wanted it to end. The piece was dedicated “to the black Africans… the heroes and victims of apartheid in South Africa” (Thanks Iannis, just what we wanted!). The motivation behind Nuits substantiated its significance, this dedication sought to create significance. It was the sort of claim to relevance that gives European intellectualism a bad name. Written in the mid 1908s? Absolutely.
Jalons: This was another mid-1980s piece but much better, with a spiky severity that held your attention throughout in a way the preceding pieces did not. It was written for Pierre Boulez’s Ensemble Intercontemporain and it’s easy to imagine Boulez hovering over X’s shoulder the whole time he was writing it muttering “act like a professional for once in your life, dammit” – in some respects this piece sounds as close to anything his contemporaries may have written as you could hope for. The program notes use the supremely baffling term “polar centre.”
ST 10-1,080262: Known as just plain ol’ ST/10 to its friends. Written in the late 50s and early 60s, this piece always gets kudos for being one of the first works written with the assistance of a computer. A computer program handled the calculation of dozens of probabilities concerning musical densities, curves, pointilistic textures and structures. The result is a hyperkinetic whirlwind of fragments from what sounds like a dozen or so wild compositions thrown into a blender. The combinations and successions of sounds have a perverse kind of objective logic to them, and yet they are combined in ways that would never have previously occurred to a composer. Not to be confused with ST 4-1,080262, a string quartet written at the same time, and either used the same program results as ST/10, or one is an arrangement of the other. Several passages were awfully similar, but the program notes didn’t elucidate.
Akanthos: It’s harder to write about pieces you don’t mind. A work from the late 1970s for soprano (wordless) and ensemble, I heard a recording of this and found it shrill and overbearing. I liked this performance, even thought it was because the singing wasn’t as strong as it could be ideally and so would get swallowed up by the other musicians from time to time (the soprano must sing without vibrato, which can make projecting the voice a tough ask.)
Eonta: Now this is how you finish a concert! Piano playing of impossible ferocity (again, a computer was used to help determine the torrents of thousands of notes) and a brass quintet playing into the piano’s open soundboard. Except at first they’re lined up along the back wall of the stage, playing first into the floor, then up into the air, then over to the piano, and then wandering (carefully!) around the stage, playing long, dense chords over the piano’s rampage. Finally, they get chair facing off opposite the piano for some diabolically intertwined sliding tones, before a final crossing of the floor and face-off with the resonant insides of the piano. This piece had everything to please the punters: keyboard pyrotechnics, theatre, wacky stunts, a real spatialisation of sound that Alax couldn’t provide, and a dramatic pause right near the end the caused some overexcited punters to start clapping too early. Haven’t heard that happen for ages! Wildly enthusiastic applause from just about everybody, including those who were sheepishly fleeing for the exits; not because they didn’t like it that much, but because years of exposure to British public transport turns you into a twat.
Theatrical highlights: Harpsichordist Elisabeth Chojnacka’s red afro, sequinned vest and facial expression that suggested she was under strict medical instructions not to smile, presumably from a very expensive Swiss doctor at the Ponds Institute with a beard and white laboratory coat. And her habit of dumping each page of the score onto the floor when she was done with it.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: None whatsoever. For the whole weekend.
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: Someone shouted me so I didn’t get the price, but if you get it in a plastic cup the Royal Festival Hall lets you take it into the auditorium just like it’s the band room at the Corner Hotel, although I doubt this is to minimise harm if you get into a stoush with the band and/or your fellow audience members. Or is it?
Readers’ notes: The previous posts about the Xenakis gigs are here and here. A post that was meant to be about Xenakis but mistakenly ended up about Stockhausen is here: do not read this if you want news only about Xenakis. Also, the link I posted to Rolf Hind’s shirt doesn’t work: apparently James Bond fansites are picky about linking to their pictures and would prefer you to just steal them outright, so here’s a nice photie of Mischka, or Grischka.
Pretty much that but with better hair. Oh, and without the knife, unless the piano recital needs some Keith Emerson keyboard-stabbing action to liven things up.
I’m afraid this is badly written, but I can’t fiddle about with it forever…
Did I mention that these gigs were almost all sold out? That you can fill a hall with people who want to hear nothing but Xenakis, except maybe for a bit of Feldman and Messiaen* to break things up a little? It’s not often you get to hear live performances of music by composers who wrote stuff which requires musicians to put an effort into getting it right. Most of the time, when a 20th-century composition does get programmed at a concert, it’s something dull that performers and audience alike can safely doze through pretending it’s either Brahms or Gershwin and not caring too much if they get it wrong. Then they fill up the rest of the program with 2nd-rate Brahms, under the assumption that the subscribers will like it (they won’t, but they won’t complain about it either). It seems I’m not the only one who’s been hanging out for a concert where I don’t have to leave early, or arrive late.
Rolf Hind knew how to keep the punters happy at his piano recital, starting and finishing with two of Xenakis’ blockbusters for the solo instrument: Mists and Evryali. Don’t mistake the title of Mists – this is not a soft-focus montage of dewy impressionism, but an implacable study of thousands of motes in a constant roil of Brownian motion. The sheer sonic fireworks of Xenakis’ piano music, coupled with the theatrics of a pianist playing music of such obvious, stupefying virtusoity, makes for superb entertainment. It’s very hard to pretend you’re appreciating the intricacies of Xenakis’ use of arborescences and number sieves in these works when the sound just blows you away.
Evryali is, if anything, even more dazzling – long barrages of rapidly hammered 10-note chords ranging far and wide over the entirety of the keyboard. Given a quick look at the score for the piece, you’d think it was written for four hands; after closer examination you’d still need convincing that one person can be capable of playing it. It’s a great way to finish a concert, especially for an audience who are thinking “This cost me less than half the ticket price of watching Stockhausen operate a tape deck.”
A good way to impress the crowd is to play Evryali immediately after Morton Feldman’s Palais de Mari, a work as soft and still as Evryali is loud and frantic. I went to this recital as much to hear the Feldman as the Xenakis – he’s just about my favourite composer, yet I hadn’t heard this piece before. I was surprised at how overtly beautiful, even romantic, this piece was – at least as Hind performs it. It was written right near the end of Feldman’s life (he died in 1987), between compositions of deep, hermetic ambiguity and spareness of almost opressive austerity (but still beautiful, just not in such a showy way).
Of course, it would have been more impressive to bash out the Xenakis and then sustain the delicacy of touch needed to play Feldman right. Roger Woodward actually did this at the British premiere of Mists, using it as the opener for the premiere of Feldman’s 90-minute long Triadic Memories – although this may explain why his interpretation of Feldman is as mad as a two-bob watch. The biggest problem about this part of the concert was that the punters wre so pumped up by the preceding music that they got restless and fidgety – moreso than usual during a Feldman piece, in which the quiet atmosphere really amplifies those squeaky chairs.
(Tomorrow: last instalment, promise! Now I have to post a picture of a cigarette packet.)
* WARNING: Hideous 1996-style website design. Kids, learn how Gorak saw the web!
In Melbourne I was a regular customer (if you can call hanging around in and listening to stuff rather than actually buying it) at Synaesthesia Records. Apparently their biggest seller was (and possibly still is) a CD of electronic works by Iannis Xenakis: it seemed to be a disc in which the free-improv, Japanese noise, avant-garde, computer-glitch and outsider fans could all find some common ground.
Xenakis’ life and work has been condensed in the public mind into a neat little quasi-mythology even tighter than Stockhausen’s, and without the loony parts: ethnic Greek Romanian, socialist partisan fighter in the war, got half his face shot off, exile in Paris, assistant to Le Corbusier, Philips Pavilion, use of number theory and stochastic calculations, the contrast of theoretical sophistication with the raw visceral impact (make sure you use the word “brutal”) of his music. Throw in the word “polytope” and you can pretty much write your own program notes. The front cover of this concert series’ program uses the phrase “builder of dense and dazzling sonic masses” in large type on the front cover.
There is, however, one dirty little secret about Xenakis that is never directly acknowledged. While the ingenuity and power of his greatest works are indisputable, he also wrote a quite a lot of duds. I think the critical consensus acknowledges that his output from the mid 1980s onwards can get pretty flaky, but we’re only now getting to grips with just how many dead-ordinary pieces he turned out, and it looks like a much higher proportion than other composers of his (deserved) stature. What’s even more perplexing is how utterly superfluous these substandard works appear to be: their failures are not interesting failures, and their successes are better heard elsewhere.
Milling about in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall (non-Londoners, imagine something slightly more ambitious than the assembly hall of a large high school built in the 1960s – a concrete testament to the nation’s postwar self-doubt), it was slightly disappointing to be part of a crowd all of the same mind about Xenakis’ strengths and, apparently, his weaknesses. I missed the sad old man who sat behind me though a stonking take on the piano concerto Keqrops (Roger Woodward/MSO, if you’re interested) and then held me transfixed as he spent the entirety of the intermission bitterly complaining about it; his central thesis being the classic observation that it wasn’t music, it was just a collection of sounds.
I was disturbed – but no longer surprised – to find everyone in the room agreeing with me.
At the first gig (I went to five) I finally got to hear Nuits, a wordless piece for 12-voice choir from 1967. This is everything Xenakis is cracked up to be: gripping, dramatic, and totally uncompromising. Dedicated to “the thousands of unknown political prisoners”, it’s a lament that turns between terror, outrage and defiance. I typically find this kind of mid-20th century vocal exercises precious and faintly ridiculous, so anyone who can make me believe in it gets marked down as some kind of genius in my books.
They (the BBC singers) also performed Sea Nymphs, a setting of the “Full Fathom Five” lyric from The Tempest, the latest work (1994) played for the whole weekend. Cannily, they peformed this piece first, so that it was only retrospect you would realise how derivative it is from its illustrious predecessor.
The other highlight of the first night was Shaar, a work for 60-piece string orchestra that really should have been the crowd-pleaser to close the evening. It has every indulgence you could hope for: big, pulsing clusters of sound, wild sweeps back and forth across the orchestra, eight double-basses, everybody playing something different at the same time.
The other concerts in the series all made a point of finishing with a bang, however for this night the closer was an anticlimactic performance of Stravinsky’s Canticum Sacrum, a choice which can only be explained by a need to find something else for the BBC Singers to do, having already cruelled their Friday night. I don’t care much for Stravinsky’s music, so it’s become almost fascinating to be exposed to the lesser-known corners of his work and hear music that is surprising, eclectic, and inventive, that I would not care in the least if I never heard again.
Apart from that, some members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra played Alax, the first of Xenakis’ pieces to be heard over the weekend to feature lots of long, plodding unison passages of quasi-baroque honking which was starting to wear very thin with the regular concert-goers by Sunday night. There’s always something satisfyingly excessive about music written for multiple orchestras, even though Alax is written for three relatively small ensembles and only needed one conductor, which feels like cheating. However, the stage they played on was so small that all three groups had to sit right next to each other, which rendered the whole enterprise rather pointless. The best entertainment to be had was from watching the three harpists (a hapless role in any Xenakis composition) struggle to be heard over the three percussionists – drums and all – and nine french horns on stage.
For the sake of completeness, I’ll also mention the remaining piece played at the first concert: Varèse’s Intégrales. It’s very satisfying hearing avant-garde from the early 20th century getting played these days, being sufficiently old that orchestras can now usually do them without getting the notes wrong, playing them as if they actually like them, and knowing their way around them sufficiently well to give some thought to interpretation. And Varèse still has what it takes these days for a sufficiently nerdy high school kid to really piss off their parents.
Theatrical highlights: The singers periodically tapping tuning forks against the backs of their heads (coming in on the right note when singing 12-part atonal harmony is a right bastard).
Conductor Jac van Steen pausing to smooth down his hair during a quiet bit near the end of Alax.
(To be continued tomorrow…)