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.
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.
I finally had a C-type print made from one of my photos. There was an old picture frame left by the previous tenants, which was doing nothing except housing a rather grubby Fidel Castro calendar for 1997. It had to go.
The trouble is that I’m so pleased with it I want to make another variation and get it printed, too.
This is going to mean finding another frame exactly the same shape and style, or starting all over with two matching frames. I spent months getting round to this and I still think I rushed it.
I got to see two nights of the London Contemporary Music Festival, up at the top of that multistorey car park in Peckham. (I was also there on Sunday afternoon but ended up spending more time bumping into friends and drinking on the roof than paying attention to music, so I can’t make fair comment on that day.)
After that little kerfuffle about the piano’s demise at the end of the festival, it’s interesting to look back at the other pieces played on it in those preceding nights. One of the festival organisers mentioned that the instrument had taken too much of a beating over the two weeks to be much more use to anyone. I can believe that, after seeing Mark Knoop and Anthony Pateras respectively work it over on Friday night. The evening began with Knoop’s blistering performance of selections from Michael Finnissy’s English Country Tunes. At times the amplification used in the car park scarcely seemed necessary, although the passing trains did intrude during one rare moment of repose.
This was the “New Complexity” night, which took the predictable mix of Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough, mixed it up a little with the very different complexity of Aaron Cassidy‘s music, then mixed it up a lot by throwing in improvisations by Pateras, Steve Noble and Russell Haswell. When Pateras’ solo set followed Knoop’s it felt like the gig was turning into a piano duel, with Pateras’ explosive improv style challenging the ferocity of Finnissy’s exacting notation.
Right from the start it was clear that the combination of the PA and the low, cavernous concrete space were contributing to bass-heavy overtones that lurked ominously behind much of the music played. This worked best with Haswell’s shattering electronic set at the end of the night, every bit as visceral and confrontational as his superb gig in Bexhill but with an added precision to the beat that both enticed and defied the possibility of a rave breaking out.
The venue naturally served Haswell’s music best, and the softer, more introverted pieces by Ferneyhough and Cassidy worst. The piano and percussion works seemed strangely appropriate, particularly with the urban brutalism adding another point of cognitive tension to Finnissy’s Country Tunes. The night before, the small bar at one end of the car park was used as a makeshift stage set. This was “Immersive Opera” night, with the singers planted amongst the punters milling around at the bar and the tables. Writing that made me cringe a little as I recalled how easy it is for this type of approach to feel forced and awkward, so it’s amazing to me (and my low threshold for vicarious embarrassment) that the whole thing came off naturally and effectively. The low-road, straightforward approach to the production and the obviously temporary venue helped the staging from drawing attention to itself.
The other factor was the strength of the music and the performers. The baritone Charles Rice, sweating in his light suit as he slumped over the bar in midsummer London, ensured he became the centre of attention as he prowled around spouting cod-philosophy in the premiere of Kate Whitley’s Roma, a setting of the bar-room soliloquy at the start of Glengarry Glen Ross. I only wished the immersion and the duplicitous undertone extended into Rice’s singing seguing into a sales pitch on some unsuspecting ticket holder.
Some punters had in fact taken up the offer to be served dinner, only to find themselves cast as extra’s for Allison Bell’s turn as Madame X in Gerald Barry’s monodrama La Plus Forte. Confronted by an unresponsive rival, innocent diners, curious onlookers and hipsters looking for a drink, Bell’s Madame X led us through her emotional crisis by the strength of her voice and physical presence in the crowd. The (pickup?) orchestra conducted by Chris Stark sounded pretty damn fine too. I think the low-end boost of the space helped bring out the menace of the wind section.
I didn’t see all of the London Contemporary Music Festival. On Saturday night I was at the South London Gallery for a talk by Thorbjørn Reuter Christiansen about his father, Henning Christiansen. As part of the evening Christiansen showed the video of Bjørn Nørgaard’s Horse Sacrifice. I didn’t see the Sunday night performance at the LCMF of Philip Corner’s Piano Activities either. A cultural editor at The Guardian called the dismemberment of a piano “ugly” and “a violent act”, but when I compare it to Nørgaard’s ritual slaughter and dismemberment of a horse I can’t help but think Ben Beaumont-Thomas is being just a little bit precious.
I didn’t want to write about the Guardian article, because the arguments it purports to raise seem to originate only at the service of a fundamental dishonesty, typical of the lazy, pernicious attitude so much of the media takes towards what passes for “arts journalism”: that nothing is a worthy “story” unless it can be codified as a Scandal, a Controversy with two sides, For and Against. The Guardian presents itself as one of the more ‘cultured’ newspapers. The LCMF presented two weeks of free concerts with a wide range of music. None of it was reviewed by The Guardian until it’s outburst of righteous indignation over a “morally dubious” artwork.
I find myself writing about it because friends and others have been discussing some of the issues raised, but so much of the article’s argument is specious. The tone of outrage, swiftly followed by a disingenuous insistence that the whole affair is so passé, really while still obviously worked up about it is a pattern familiar to anyone who’s read critical reactions to Olympia, Ulysses, 4’33” or The Naked Lunch. Beaumont-Thomas’ third paragraph begins “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” and you can probably guess the tone of the rest of that sentence. It is the argument of a critic who wishes a troublesome artwork would Simply Go Away. A similar attitude can be observed in music writers who express exasperation that people persist in playing Cage and Stockhausen even though the personality cults that supposedly sustained their careers have ended.
The common misunderstanding to all these works is that they were created simply to shock, and that once the shock has faded the work itself should dissipate, too. Many such pieces do indeed lose their relevance over time, but the fact that Piano Activities was programmed as part of a serious concert of music, fifty years after its composition, should tip off a cultural editor that there are deeper issues for consideration here. Beaumont-Thomas attempts to dismiss the presentation of the piece as “utterly conservative” on the grounds that it is “decades” old. Possibly, but it is not as conservative as the mindset that assumes anything more recent than Mahler but older than the new Daft Punk album has nothing to say to the world today.
For all its posturing, too often The Guardian displays a philistinism little different from that of the Daily Mirror when it belatedly noticed Carl Andre’s pile of overpriced bricks. Beaumont-Thomas has his own little if-they-can-put-a-man-on-the-moon moment when he rails at “welfare cuts, permanent environmental change, information overload, banality” as the real enemies de nos jours against which the Festival directors should devote their energies. It is a simplistic idealism which which can easily entice the enthusiastic into endorsing a new Zhdanov doctrine. No time for ballet, Comrade, the people of Maidstone need compost toilets; they just don’t realise it yet.
I just read back that last sentence and thought it might be excessive; but then I checked Beaumont-Thomas’ article again and noticed that he thinks the Corner performance was “indulgence bordering on immorality”. Remember, he’s talking about a piano being dismantled at a free concert held in a car park in “one of the most deprived areas in London”. Outside the car park, in the High Street there are kids paying through the nose for designer streetwear endorsed by Lil Wayne. On the Guardian website you can read the breathless coverage of the relative orgy of consumption that is Glastonbury, with a headline act as old as Piano Activities itself. The inverse snobbery is palpable. To use a very Guardian analogy, Beaumont-Thomas is criticising benefit scroungers while ignoring corporate tax avoidance.
(On the other hand, I had to laugh when I read “destruction is a privilege and comes from a position of luxury.” Practically every Guardian editorial on the subject desperately wants to convince us that it’s precisely the opposite.)
Since we’re talking about morality, this game of motes and beams played by Beaumont-Thomas, particularly as it purports to consider a wider social and economic context, is an intellectual sin; but not nearly so great a sin as the theme that runs through his article. “While censoring them would indeed have been wrong,” he can think of an awful lot of reasons why it might have been right. It’s a paradox that with the proliferation of debate through social media, accusations of “shutting down debate” are increasingly common. Yet this is precisely what the Guardian critique attempts to achieve: it doesn’t argue the merits or demerits of the Philip Corner piece (seriously, Philip fucking Corner is the ugly face of materialist excess!), it argues that it shouldn’t have been done at all. While claiming a wish to open a debate on what the piece means, he diverts discussion into a tedious argument over why we should be allowed the debate in the first place.
Like I said, I really didn’t want to write this; I wanted to write about the music I actually did hear at LCMF. Luckily, that can wait until another time, as the music won’t be going stale in a hurry.
I always have a reason to dislike summer. The past month has been crammed with Work and Real Work and Work Work, but I’ve had two great evenings out at the Proms this year: a killer performance of Lachenmann’s Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (played in the UK at last) and a reminder from Ex Cathedra of how Stockhausen never stopped being a great composer.
In between all this, I’ve been trying to finish off this unforgiveably large and unwieldy piece for piano. With luck it will be presentable sometime in August. It starts off pretty sparse…
… gradually gets more dense…
… then denser still, more quickly…
… until it reaches maximum density…
… whereupon it continues in the same vein for another eighteen hours.
I saw this tweet from UbuWeb last year and took it as a challenge.
John Cage's music will never be used to sell cars.
— UbuWeb (@ubuweb) November 15, 2012
Two things immediately came to mind: John Cage’s anecdote about his own brush with advertising, and the Volkswagen microbus which he bought with his winnings from an Italian TV game show, for the purpose of driving the Merce Cunningham Dance Company from one gig to the next. The choice of host vehicle was obvious, and I found two suitable advertisements fairly quickly on YouTube. The only rules I set for adding music were (a) no editing and (b) post-1951 “chance” music only.
What was the point of this exercise? Now that it’s done, I realise it’s partly a tribute to Cage’s idealistic thinking, and his belief in the necessity of doing things previously considered impossible. More importantly, it’s about maintaining a true, critical measure of Cage’s achievements and assessing him properly as a composer, not as some supposed paragon of virtue.
I don’t know why I was surprised by the amount of chatter over the Rite of Spring centenary. It was the perfect story, as far as Arts Journalism is concerned, combining sterile controversy and What Passed For Entertainment For People Before Television. What I find more interesting, even if they are little more than incidents for gossip, are the times when people walk out of shows these days.
The London Sinfonietta performance of Kagel’s The Pieces of the Compass Rose was a particularly satisfying example, with a small but steady trickle of punters throughout. Even after the interval, some people returned to their seats for a second helping only to walk out again one or two pieces later. If you’re enjoying a concert, there’s something particularly gratifying about seeing that it’s Not For Everyone (see also They Must Be Doing Something Right).
One of the finest nights out I’ve ever had was for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s performance of Ocean some years ago. This piece had a truly remarkable rate of attrition, which remained constant throughout the evening. Ten minutes in, twenty, the amount of exposure had no apparent effect on the less faithful audience members’ resolution to stay or go. At least one couple sat through eighty minutes or more, no interval, before chucking it in a few minutes before the end; even though (or because?) the stage was encircled with digital clocks counting down the seconds until it would all be over.
Last week I saw Akio Suzuki and Aki Onda play a two-hour improvisation at Cafe Oto. Their performance was largely a study of processes within an allocated span of time. You could walk in and out without thinking you’d missed anything, any more than if you’d departed from a landscape.
I walked out of concert, at the interval, a few weeks ago. Nothing wrong with the music; it was one of the very rare balmy summer evenings we’ve had so far this year and I suddenly did not want to be inside a recital hall. One of the rules I’ve always tried to remember when making music: Everyone has a reason not to be at your gig.
Just a quick update to say that I AM THE PRESIDENT OF CAPITALISTS INC. now has a proper page of its own on the website. An update with the thrilling sequel to this historical non-re-enactment will be coming as soon as I get my hands on a decent slide scanner.
Also, you can now hear for yourself This Is All I Need, my contribution to the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project. This was the concert of new music made especially for listeners with cochlear implants, who can understand speech really well but have a hard time making sense out of music. People without technological augmentation can enjoy it just as much. I’ve gone into some detail about the project and the thinking behind the music.
Almost forgot to say I had a nice day out last month at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, for the Editions Mego gigs. (As it happened, I was on the same train as that reviewer, but I was proffered disposable coffee cups of prosecco instead of cans of Bloody Mary.) Any cool cred I may have had was lost when I found a hardback of A Suitable Boy for 50p on the way from the train station to the Pavilion and lugged it around for the rest of the night. I was so preoccupied with it I forgot we got a free CD with the entry ticket. I’m sure it’s around here somewhere.
I agree with most of the Quietus review, particularly for Russell Haswell’s set, but for me the Mark Fell set was the most disappointing part of the event. Everyone else seemed to love it. Why?
Fell’s set was unique amongst the acts at the event. While everyone else worked with noise, i.e. treating sound as a fluid, plastic artform which can be stretched, squashed, twisted and moulded, Fell’s piece was nothing but notes and beats. Synthesizer pads and drum machine claps, an assembly of prefabricated parts. There’s nothing wrong with that, but while everyone else enthused over the construction I got bogged down in details. The unvarying sounds felt dead and dull, the cheesiness of them seemed like self-congratulatory irony. It didn’t help that the shuffle play on my ipod that morning had served up some library music with what sounded like the exact same synth patches.
Some people went around saying it was a deconstruction of rave. I guess that’s also part of my problem and why the experience left me feeling flat. Raves suck. Don’t bother arguing with me, because you’re wrong.
As for the other musicians on the day, the whole event strongly reminded me of what should have been a very different gig the week before, when the Arditti and JACK quartets played together at Wigmore Hall. Even though the whole gig was acoustic, the pieces played by these two string quartets showed how pervasive the influence of electronics and computer-manipulated sound has become on modern composition. Each piece placed its emphasis on the same musical concerns as the electronic noisemakers in Bexhill: timbre over pitch, texture over harmony, a sculptural sense of balance. The musicians created densely interwoven glissandi, ground their bows into the strings to create complex tones. The concluding work by Mauro Lanza made this method of working explicit, creating a musical argument that crossfaded back and forth between coherent sound and incoherent noise, instead of the old drama of divergence from a harmonic norm and the inevitable return home.