A Post-Cage World: Antoine Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets

Wednesday 28 June 2017

In my mind I’ve worked up Antoine Beuger as my personal nemesis. Never met him, but his music has always aroused a vehement antipathy, sufficient for me to have resolved to avoid further encounters wherever possible. (The only other composer I’ve singled out for this treatment, more or less arbitrarily, is Wolfgang Rihm.) Whatever I’ve heard has always struck me as being imprisoned in theoretical purity, beholden to presenting an idea at the expense of any musical considerations; a dry, academic routine left to run its course. I found it devoid of aesthetic interest, but never in a way that challenged or provoked, and so felt no need to pursue it further.

So, when Another Timbre sent me their new recording of Beuger’s Ockeghem Octets last week, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to demonstrate my impartiality by getting really stuck in. I’m happy to report that those hopes have been dashed. This is quietly intriguing music. Maybe I needed to hear more Beuger after all, but what seems to set this piece apart from previous works I’ve heard is that the idea here focuses on musical considerations.

Each page of the score contains two lines of four tones. The tones are all to be played long and softly. Four of the musicians play one line of tones, each in their own time, and the four others play the second line. This recording realises twenty-five of the fifty pages of the score.

There’s a simple scheme in play here, not unlike some of my preferred music by Eva-Maria Houben. From this simplicity, a pleasing subtlety is allowed to emerge. As the title suggests, the piece is an homage to Ockeghem and Beuger observes that each page of the score “constitutes a kind of double canon”. The structure of the piece – musicians independently playing shared material within loosely-defined time-frames – bears a clear similarity to Cage’s late ‘number’ pieces. Indeed, the sound-world of soft, overlapping pitches strongly resemble many of those works.

There are distinct differences, however; borne out of differences in musical thinking. Firstly, Cage wasn’t one to think in terms of canons. Each page is circumscribed as a miniature, self-contained piece. Where Cage allows some interpretive freedom, Beuger stipulates long and soft notes throughout – those ‘lines’ of four tones take, in this recording, 2-3 minutes each. With potential for harmonic and textural complexity thus reduced still further, other qualities come to the fore. The instruments (flute, alto flute, melodica, concertina, harmonium, accordion, cello, e-bow zither) divide differently between the two lines on each page, producing strangely sophisticated tone-colours. The mix of instruments used here, combining “high” and “low” cultures, brings out unexpected beating frequencies and other acoustic phenomena. It’s a work that lovingly exemplifies the beauty of instrumental sounds, all through simple play that removes any faint traces of didacticism that linger even in Cage’s most beguiling works.

It figures that I must have been missing something all this time. Still wary of diving into Beuger’s back catalogue, but now because I’m worried I’ll spoil the mood.

Konzert Minimal play Antoine Beuger and Catherine Lamb

Thursday 25 September 2014

I’ve been getting to know Catherine Lamb’s music. Listening to the CD of her trio three bodies (moving) from Another Timbre has been one of the year’s high points, along with her vocal work Dilations and recent orchestral piece portions transparent/opaque. The immediate point for comparison is Morton Feldman’s music: apart from the obvious preoccupation with a similar soundworld of hushed stillness, there are similar concerns with the contradictory impulses towards feeling and form and the tension in maintaining a balance between the two. She also says, rather reassuringly, “I am open to the bland”. There’s this quality many composers have struggled to define, of impassive beauty in stasis, non-demonstrative; the quality Feldman sought when he “tried not to push the sounds around”, that Cage praised in Satie wanting to make Socrate “white and pure like antiquity”.

Last Thursday Konzert Minimal played Catherine Lamb’s material/highlight at Cafe Oto, so I had to be there to hear it live for myself. They also played Antoine Bueger’s meinong nonets, which I was eager to hear for a different reason. I wrote a bit about hearing Beuger’s en una noche oscura last year and how it left me unimpressed. Sadly the second chance at hearing Beuger live only reinforced my opinion. I described last year’s exposure as “stilted and precious, disappointingly inert” and came away with much the same impression this time.

The Lamb piece didn’t work for me on the night, either. There’s bland and then there’s bland. Worse still, material/highlight, which was played first, sounded pretty much as what I remembered the Beuger sounded like, which the subsequent piece then confirmed. I’m looking at the reviews of three bodies (moving) and I find this: “a feeling of richness and harmonic depth that separates Lamb from most of the music of the Wandelweiser composers.” It’s a pity that distinction is missing from material/highlight.

I’ve got a problem with Wandelweiser (of which Beuger is a co-founder). I’ve got a problem with any art movement really (a sure sign of lots of distracting chaff), but what I’ve heard of Wandelweiser that impresses me the most is the way so many composers have found so many ways to write music that sounds the same. Long, soft tones. Pauses. It’s not just those stilted, precious, inert qualities that in themselves make the music uninteresting; it’s the sense that everyone’s working very deep within a comfort zone, that nothing is open to risk of any sort. It’s like a collective failure of nerve that’s permeated music over the past few decades: holy minimalists, lower case glitch musos, post-Feldmanites, Wandelweiser, all struck dumb in awe of their meagre materials, held in abeyance for fear that a false move is worse than no move at all.