The Return of Music We’d Like To Hear: Ives, Couper, Haas, Barlow, Fargion

Tuesday 7 September 2021

There’s an alien character common to all quarter-tone piano music: the claustrophobially close intervals spelled out in clear tones once so familiar to the ear can’t help but call up the air of other planets. The big personal discovery on this night was Mildred Couper, whose ballet music Xanadu was composed in 1930 for two pianos tuned a quarter-tone apart. It’s a thrilling piece of flashing exotica and wide-eyed wonder, appropriate to the setting and the times (the piece was composed for the first production of Eugene O’Neill’s satire Marco Millions and apparently not used again). It has a bright, burlesque beauty to it, with any traces of tongue-in-cheek Chinoiserie validated by contemporary American modernism, effectively deploying steady pulses and stacked intervals that rose and fell giddily. It was the first of many microtonal pieces Couper composed and it made me feel sorry that I hadn’t known of her before this night.

The night was part of the year’s second series of Music We’d Like To Hear concerts at St Mary-at-Hill. Still working its way back from Covid, seating was reduced for these events and I’d stupidly left it too late to book for the July concerts. Friday was dedicated to piano music in quarter-tones, ably performed by Mark Knoop and Siwan Rhys on electronic sampler keyboards tuned a quarter-step apart. Thankfully, samplers these days are mostly adequate so as not to be a distraction, despite some harshness and incongruous sound location from the PA. As the concert series title reminds us, the important was that we can hear Couper and other composers played live and played well, despite current circumstances. The concert began with the obligatory Three Quarter-Tone Pieces by Ives, which on this hearing starting to make an impression on me for its compositional qualities over the pure sonic novelty which usually dominates. The free-associating patchwork of allusions to different musical styles came over well here, enough to make me wonder how securely each piece is held together.

Where Ives, like Hába, used quarter-tones as an extension of harmonic language, Couper’s Xanadu treats the microtonal scale as something new. Georg Friedrich Haas’s early set of three Hommages for quarter-tone pianos treat the base material of the scale as the subject. In each, a sole pianist is required to play both instruments at once, one hand each. The second piece was played here: in Hommage à Josef Matthias Hauer Knoop produced a continuum of arpeggiated clusters, ascending rapidly in constant repeated motion while rising in pitch only incrementally, producing a slowly varied cloud of overtones. Start and end points appeared to be arbitrary, the whole reminiscent of Ligeti’s then-uncomposed Coloana fără sfârșit, Ligeti having been the dedicatee of the previous Haas Hommage.

In the second half the lights were extinguished, but not for Haas, as Knoop and Rhys tackled Clarence Barlow’s daunting Çoğluotobüsişletmesi. This half-hour piece from the later 1970s used computer programming to calculate and distribute its arrayed masses of points, lines, layerings and trajectories across the piano keyboard. Barlow has postulated it as a work for solo pianist but performance typically employs four pianos to share out the layers. Two parts were pre-recorded here and played back, with Knoop on real piano and Rhys on sampler keyboard: four of the pitches in the scale are lowered by a quarter-tone. Even in this more practical form, each pianist was required to perform extreme leaps of register back and forth while reeling off unwieldy strings of single notes or involuted rotations around a clustered gamut of pitches. The voices enter one by one, at first sounding angular and ungainly but steadily acquiring a monumental presence. One or more striking details leap out for the ear at any given moment, suggesting other fleeting movements simultaneously passing beyond one’s attention. The retuned notes alert one to changes in material and pitch organisation, even within that welter of pianos. It’s ultimately overwhelming in its impersonal generosity, never exactly bludgeoning the listener because it is always clear that there are explicable principles of organisation at work for every moment, even as those principles remain opaque for the time being. I doubt we shall ever hear it as perfectly as we might imagine it, regardless of the forces involved, but this will do very nicely.

Saturday was given over to a single work, the premiere of Matteo Fargion’s String Quartet No. 5 ‘the nobby saddy quartet’. Written last year in lockdown and commissioned for the concert series, it’s an hour of affectionate indulgence of gentle melancholy. The slow, single movement, episodic structure, restrained timbre and extended sequence of cadences near the end all recall late Feldman, who indeed gets namechecked by the composer. The difference comes in the treatment of material, directed towards a self-aware caution of taking authenticity of musical expression for granted. All pizzicato at first, a repeated line descends chromatically over a fifth. It’s an inauspicious opening that stays around for long enough to start to feel comfortable. Like the best kinds of melancholy, it finds pleasure in its sadness and in doing so starts to forget itself; it deviates, lingering over one thought before flicking to another, then back again. As you would hope and expect, it cannot treat itself entirely seriously, even as it holds the idea of melancholy in reverence. This premiere was by Apartment House, in the same quartet manifestation last heard at Cafe Oto in May. They played it like Schubert, cold and tender. Punters claimed it felt like less than an hour; they always do, when it’s good. What struck me most about Apartment House’s playing was how slow each they could make each moment pass, without seeming too long or to be broadening out.

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.