Les introuvables de Henning Christiansen, cont.

Monday 12 October 2020

New releases from the Henning Christiansen Archive continue to build up a much more comprehensive understanding of the sometime Fluxus artist’s achievements as a composer. The links between music and all aspects of Fluxus should not come as a surprise, but the growing body of recordings now available to the public should refute and prior concepts of Christiansen’s music as an inadvertent by-product of action art. Op. 201 L’essere Umano Errabando La Voce Errabando is a striking case in point. This 1991 composition for intoning voices set against an ambient backing of sea drones and pulses occupies the grey area between European expressionism and American impassiveness. The voices declaim unconnected words in various attitudes into and indifferent, resonant space that takes on the condition of weather, evoking distance, alienation from the self and erasure of national boundaries – signs of true journeying. Such thoughts of effacing the centre come from our conception of Eastern spirituality, and here Christiansen approaches the idea from both directions at once. The power of the music’s disingenuous simplicity is Christiansen at his finest and it’s incredible that this piece has been out of earshot for nearly thirty years.

A collection of four shorter, earlier works puts us on more familiar ground. In Op. 41 BADET Charlotte Strandgaard reads her poem “The Bath” on location, as it were, while Christiansen accompanies her on melodica and generally splashes about. It’s a somewhat melancholy documentation. The homemade quality of Christiansen’s music prevails here, with two tape collages from the early 70s adding a brighter element while still retaining a sinister aspect. The six brief parts of Op. 72 Bondeføreren Knud Lavard were made as incidental music for a school play, of all things: instrumental playing of folkloric naïveté is rapidly juxtaposed by abrupt switches in mood. Kom Frem For Satan collages together a similarly disjointed narrative from sound effects, found street music and instrumental interludes. The set is rounded out by a recording of the lament from the notorious Horse Sacrifice performance, in a mournful rendition sure to bum out every listener.

Finally, something new: SAVE THE NATURE – USE FLUXUS documents a performance in the car park of The Box gallery in Los Angeles last November, given to mark the opening of a Henning Christiansen / Ursula Reuter Christiansen exhibition. Christiansen’s music is not heard directly, but through his legacy; most directly in his son, Thorbjørn Reuter Christiansen’s performance in which he combined recordings of his father with a new sound piece on Henning’s instruments. It’s a heavily reverberant, percussive piece, steadily encroached upon by nature sounds that are less demonstrative but no less compelling. All four sides (if you’re listening to this as an LP) share an attribute of giving the listener an engaging, if at times abstract, soundscape that holds attention even when the exact business of the performance at hand is obscure. Paul McCarthy, with daughter and gallery founder Mara McCarthy and Chiara Giovando perform and equally percussive work, with vocalisations constantly disrupted by McCarthy père banging the back door of the gallery with a 2 by 4. Bjørn Nørgaard reworks elements of his collaborations with Christiansen and Joseph Beuys simultaneously with Mai Dengsøe Hansen performing Christiansen’s EURASIENSTAB fluxorum organum op. 39. It’s perhaps the most opaque work here, as was many of all the artists’ collaborative performances in the 60s and 70s, with multiple references and meanings self-consciously piled atop each other in a way that was both decayed and oversaturated, ensuring failure of explication. “Serious but not hopeless; or, hopeless but not serious.” The set ends with Mark Harwood’s Chile Metal Freedom, a sound collage from his recent trip to Chile that coincided with widespread protest and unrest. A relentlessly tumultuous piece that recalls Nono’s Non consumiamo Marx without the stultifying dogma, in hindsight it appears to be prophecy, giving that LA audience a glimpse of what 2020 would bring to their country.

Music by Henning Christiansen: The Executioner and Den Røde Skov

Thursday 10 May 2018

Most musicians don’t trust artists. Too focused on content, on saying stuff. Not enough emphasis on technique, always the risk that someone on stage might make sounds the wrong way or, worse still, someone in the audience will hear them the wrong way. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. Let an artist into music and it starts to give the game away, that all the rules are arbitrary and nothing in itself makes sense. Far easier to banish it to the netherworld of ‘performance art’ where it won’t affect anyone.

People like to send me cool stuff and so I got advance rips of two new releases of Henning Christiansen’s film soundtracks from Penultimate Press. The label’s been specialising for a while in bringing out unreleased or long-lost work by unjustly neglected artists and has been championing Christiansen’s music for a while now. Neither of these soundtracks has been issued to the public before. Despite being a major figure of recent European art, and one who was particularly dedicated to music, his music has largely been marginalised in the UK and, it seems, pretty much everywhere else. (A notable exception is the ensemble Apartment House, who have presented performances and arrangements of his work whenever possible.)

The Executioner, from 1971, is the first film made by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, Henning C.’s partner and collaborator. Disclaimer: I know nothing about either movie and am going by the soundrack LPs alone. From the start of the record, the music is disarmingly backward-looking; a soprano with piano accompaniment sings a sentimental melody. It’s a nostalgic world of domestic 19th century culture – if there is any irony here, then it is possibly in juxtaposition with the images on screen. In Christiansen’s music, these simple gestures are genuinely felt, but their effect is more complex. The romantic salon melody takes on the characteristics of a folk tune, tapping into sentiment even older and harder to define. This recurs throughout the album, as soprano and piano are later blended with whistles and other folk instruments. The music segues into collages, field recordings of natural sounds, ritualistic droning on organ keyboards. If you’ve heard other works by Christiansen then you’ll be familiar with each of these elements, but probably haven’t heard them combined in such a way, or directed toward such an overt expression of mood and emotion. Some of this may come from the soundtrack editing, which combines sound and dialogue from the film into a montage that works as an audio drama and not as a collection of music cues.

Den Røde Skov is another film by Ursula Reuter Christiansen, from 1986. This is the most developed sound work I’ve heard by Christiansen, with much more studio work and use of overdubbing and electronics. Again, the tracks segue into a complete, coherent work. Some may be due to editing but there is a stronger presence of collaborators in the material itself, particularly the sound work by Ernst Kretzer. It’s all recognisably Christiansen’s work, but showing a side I’ve never realy heard before. The collages combine modified field recordings with electronically-generated sounds, with voices calling out and echoing over each other. Nature sounds and acoustic instruments are recorded and manipulated into surreal soundscapes. For all those ritualistic qualities present throughout the album, all sounds here remain in flux, morphing and crossfading from an ominous rumble to birdsong and insects underlaid with restless electronic doodles, and again to plaintive flutes and glass sound sculptures. The lengthy track Wolf song is particularly dense with a rush of aural images that range from natural to uncanny, but the entire album is packed with details that will be savoured over repeated listenings.

More than just bringing to light two previously unavailable works, each album works particularly well as a listening experience. It seems that either would make an unusually good entry-way to Christiansen’s music, presenting key aspects of his thinking in a variety of guises. (Based on personal experience, first contact with recordings of Christiansen can sound too single-minded, tied to a particular artwork, or documentation of a performance, where too much context is missing.) I’m judging from digital files but the sound quality seems particularly good, even as it deliberately shifts between studio recording, outside documentation and found sounds. It seems these two titles are only limited edition vinyl for now but hopefully digital alternatives become available later.

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall

Monday 29 February 2016

You get a funny crowd at Wigmore Hall on a Saturday night. Some punters come just because it’s am awfully nice venue and they fancy an evening of refined entertainment. There was a slight but steady rate of attrition throughout Apartment House’s programme. The visiting American and her English hosts in my row were bemused at first but in the end seemed to enjoy it enough.

At least they didn’t have to deal with any stereotypical “ugly modern music”; nor did they have to appreciate any efforts by “accessible” contemporary composers which they could say were nice enough but not as good as the real 19th century thing. The gig started in a puzzling enough fashion, with the première of Luiz Henrique Yudo’s 2007 piece A QUARTET FOR CLAUDE MOLLET. Like the Yudo piece I heard at the last Apartment House gig, it’s a grid of not-quite-exactly-repeating figures. This time, a string-quartet see-sawed back and forth between notes, gently but obstinately. The patterns seemed to change a bit between pauses. Probably. Later in the evening, another Yudo piece, A QUARTET FOR FRANÇOIS MORELLET from 2012, apparently made use of chance and presented a smoothly shifting web of overlapping chords.

This is why I keep writing about these guys; they play stuff I’m interested in hearing for myself. There’s the emphasis on music as an artform, in which technique (both in composition and performance) is not an end in itself but a means to eliciting a profound response in the listener without appeals to literature or drama. There is the element of discovery and of rediscovery. Apart from giving first hearings to the two Yudo pieces, each several years old, the programme included three other world premières and a couple of older, obscure works. The older pieces, by Henning Christiansen and John White, were redolent of the cultural context in which they were created, Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra, respectively. Both represent schools of composition too often dismissed today as historical relics, fit for discussion but not to be experienced.

Christiansen’s Modeller were written in the mid-1960s but not performed in Britain until now. They seem strangely ahead of their time: short fragments, provocatively simple. Mostly performed by a solo pianist, with occasional interruptions from the strings, harmonium and percussion near the end. One part, of unadorned oscillating thirds, effectively anticipated Philip Glass’ piano music by 20 years. The familiarity was an odd sensation, but that didn’t last long. The Modeller never stayed around long enough for the listener to get fully comfortable. At the end, the ensemble repeated an ascending arpeggio in unison, whether by accident or design imitating the beginning of the Blue Danube Waltz without ever progressing, with an increasing sense of finality.

White’s Newspaper Reading Machine (circa 1971) amused my neighbours, being pretty much what the title implies. Any sense of the piece being a dadaist stunt was tempered by a musical system clearly underpinning the performance. They also liked Egidija Medekšaitė’s Pratiksha. The new works all suggested a common heritage of assimilating the more vital musical philosophies from the last century and synthesising them into something different. The use of systems, of chance, awareness of visual arts, of music as a social activity, the rejection of dogmatic allegiance to a particular system of organising pitch and harmony, all appeared in various guises.

I’d never heard anything by Martin Arnold before. The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.