A Week’s Diary part 2: LCMF

Wednesday 22 June 2022

I’m not buying into the premise of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival, back after a Covid-induced hiatus, but after two hot nights beginning in bright light under the skylights at the Woolwich Fireworks Factory the third evening turned grey and rainy and I prepared for the gig by looking out over the bleak lower reaches of the Thames while a cold wet wind blew through me. The first act I caught was Andy Ingamells giving Nam June Paik’s classic Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia a dedicated performance that was still very British in its repressed melancholy. I’m going to focus on the compositions here, as the improvisations, poetry and videos left me wondering if I understand anything about them. (The videos were a mix of “spent an hour too long looking up something on Wikipedia” and a revival of the early 80s New York genre “I’ve been here so long I assume my personal fuckups are generally relatable”.)

I’ve now heard more Evan Johnson, as much as it is possible to hear his music. Richard Craig perfomed his solo bass flute √©moi with a confidence that made its faint sounds seem sourceless, a low sighing between a breath and a hum that floated through the large, populated space just audible but undeniably present. A big moment was the premiere of a new Frank Denyer piece, commissioned by LCMF. Five Views of the Path matched soprano Jessica Aszodi with the Octandre Ensemble playing an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from baroque to homemade inventions. With Denyer, the exotic colouration is used as expressive material, sound as evocation. Aszodi had a thankless role sitting among the musicians, picking out high notes in vocalise that mingled with the trio of recorders and struck berimbaus. Strange colours and percussion were a recurrent theme, particularly on the following night. The Explore Ensemble gave the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta’s Eclipse Plumage, a complex woven rope of small sounds that intertwined to produce an ominously indefinite chord that continually transformed its medium and displacement. Percuissionists and normal musicians alike operated a large array of small percussion and amplified objects, backed by a grand piano rigged with an electromagnetic device to induce sinister emanations.

Also receiving its first British performance was Rebecca Saunders’ percussion duo dust II, an extraordinary work quite unlike anything I’ve heard by her before. Caspar Heinemann and Christian Dierstein gave a bravura performance as they moved from the audience to the front of the room, onto and eventually across the stage, managing a dizzying array of instruments. Saunders adopted a more relaxed pace than usual, allowing the intrinsic complexity of the sounds to provide her busier textures. Sounds were combined beautifully, with a strong focus on metallic semi-pitched sounds. The firm grasp on the material and the progression (in sound and movement) from one place to another made the piece work as music and not just a virtuosic exercise, even as the momentary effects were dazzling. To complement this, the evening began with Crystabel Riley‘s requiem of solo drumming, a prolonged study in fusing rhythm into timbre.

The Saturday evening gig began with another revived Fluxus piece, Ben Patterson’s First Symphony getting its first British airing. Someone asked me to sit on the left side of the hall for this piece, but I didn’t trust them and so sat on the right. There were four premieres that night, commissioned for the event. Cerith Wyn Evans’ …)(. finally got its complete airing, long deferred since the preview given in 2019 for its expected debut the following year. At that time, “the hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending” and here the pay-off was a listless antiphonal chorale from the orchestra. Not the orchestra’s fault, given the heartfelt work they put into Tyshawn Sorey’s tone poem for cello and orchestra, For Roscoe Mitchell. Soloist Deni Teo and the pickup orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen played this beautifully scored and phrased work with rapturous solemnity, reminiscent of Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra but with fuller, less stifled voicing for the cello.

Hard not to roll the eyes at the prospect of an orchestral premiere by Elvin Brandhi aka one half of Yeah You: this kind of crossover almost never works. Except this time it kind of did. Brandhi’s GIFF WRECK took her usual materials of noise and vocal aggression and displaced them onto a video screen of two vocalists sitting at home deploying auto-tuned effects, mimicked and counterposed by dense bursts of orchestral textures. Brandhi herself kept true to her peripatetic style, pacing round the perimeters of the hall occasionally adding her own amplified interventions. Oliver Leith’s
Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance trended heavily towards the jokey side of his work and probably went too far. That was probably the point but it’s at the expense of the piece’s staying power. An exuberant mish-mash of triumphant fanfares, complete with aural pyrotechnics, its self-conscious humour is good fun but disposable in the manner of Wellington’s Victory, which again is probably the point.

Mariam Rezaei’s frenzied activity on turntables and samplers for her lengthy solo SADTITZZZ was a remarkable achievement, being a virtual skronk solo that had all the singlemindedness of your typical free improv muso while being more inventive and fun than about ninety percent of them. It also worked as a nice teaser for the concluding act of the night, when Roscoe Mitchell himself appeared. He’s eighty-one now, I think. Typically considered to be jazz, which is an all too limited understanding of his musical achievements. Having just subjected people to my jazz-deafness, I prepared for disappointment but didn’t hear it in that way at all. A slight figure but mesmerising on stage, he captures the audience through plain statements that he then eloquently expands upon into detailed arguments, extending motives in different directions and then relating them in ways that are intuitively clear without ever exact repetition. He also knows when to stop, and deploys silence to pointed effect. Solos on soprano and baritone sax were then followed by percussionist Kikanju Baku, who emerged from the back of the hall as a disruptive trickster figure. Once at his drum-kit, his relentless attack acted as harsh colouration with rhtyhmic variance. Mitchell played off and against this barrage, equally unruffled whether he was matching the flow or simply commenting with isolated notes. A captivating ending.

anthem, an album

Friday 10 June 2022

As someone who instinctively distrusts curatorial conceits, this new album from the Birmingham Record Company should be welcome. anthem is an LP-length collection of five works with no common composer, ensemble, event or location; the presence of each piece becomes its own anomaly, which is kind of refreshing in itself. The sleeve notes are distractingly apologetic, in the British manner. A couple of pieces are ‘meta’-music, while others could claim to be but are not.

Emily Abdy’s anthem begins the set well by thwarting expectations and raising apprehensions. Abdy, armed with electric guitar, chants a repeated phrase that grows in intensity even as it folds in upon itself; behind her, the Thallein Ensemble play a swirling crescendo. It all collapses like a facade, retreat followed by a giddy mess of inarticulate revelation and dismissal. The whole thing takes on the rhetorical devices of “empowering” art and deploys them in the opposite direction of the genre’s null certainties. I hope I will never understand it.

I’ve described one piece by Andy Ingamells before (in collaboration with Maya Verlaak). In Petting Zoo, his method is similar to Tape Piece in that the ‘music’ is created through the inadvertent consequences of competing activities. Ingamells is emcee and narrator, describing the process by which he made, or didn’t make, the piece while inviting members of the audience onto the stage to pat, stroke and otherwise gently molest the musicians in Apartment House as they play. It can occasionally err on the side of trying to bluff its way through its own self-consciousness, but leaves open the question of whether an attempt to fail at making music constitutes a failed attempt.

Genevieve Murphy’s suite of five short pieces F.I.N.E (it stands for Fucked Insecure Neurotic Exhausted) comes from a concert by the Nieuw Ensemble in Amsterdam in 2015. As with the other pieces mentioned so far, it’s a live performance with audience reactions apparent throughout. For the recording, we are of course disconnected from the experience, and the album shrewdly excises the applause from the end of each piece to preserve their status as isolated musical artefacts for contemplation. F.I.N.E is a pop-art style of redolent fragments, both found and created, juxtaposed in apparently arbitrary fashion to create a whole. Musical topics are touched on at arm’s length, through spoken permutations, hymn tunes and recorded conversations. Again, the question rises as to whether the nature of music is being interrogated or swerved.

Maybe a composer should just sit down once in a while and write a piece of music. Between Petting Zoo and F.I.N.E, Ryan Latimer’s orchestral bon-bon Gorilla and Orange Sun drops in like an uninvited guest, appearing all the weirder for it. The City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra give it the refined enthusiasm it needs to fulfil its mission. Its qualities – full, colourful, innocuous and short – make for an archetypal BBC Proms commission, but took a wrong turn here and landed in Huddersfield by mistake. The closing track, Corey Mwamba’s kr-ti-sa, compounds the bewilderment by not being a concert recording at all. Mwamba withdrew from live performance a few years ago by way of protest and now makes his jazz through overdubbing himself in a home studio. I cannot meaningfully comment on jazz as all I can hear is that it sounds like it is meant to sound. In that respect, it shares a quality with a Proms overture.

Maya Verlaak & Andy Ingamells: Tape Piece

Friday 23 October 2020

Art gags: don’t you just hate them? Especially when they’re made by artists. If it’s going to work at all, you’ve got to commit to it – ideally by just keeping on pushing the idea past all decency until it becomes funny out of spite. Maya Verlaak and Andy Ingamells’ Tape Piece is an uncommon creature, being a composition made in 2012 which has since been performed on repeated occasions. It’s a duet in which each performer wraps themselves in a roll of adhesive tape and then, having accomplished this, break free of their self-imposed bonds. A cute pun, an amusing gimmick and it makes an entertaining little piece. I think I’ve seen a performance myself, but while trying to confirm this started to doubt that I really had. This hazy and possibly false memory speaks both to the work’s conceptual simplicity and its lack of substance.

Now, Verlaak and Ingamells have released a recording of the piece and have done it a great service by pushing the idea further. This is an entirely analogue production, recorded direct to tape and then dubbed onto a limited edition of cassettes. (Digital download is available for the less fashion-conscious.) More than an obligatory act of documentation, the recordings take on a new life as music, without the distraction of the theatrical gag. It also helps that the sound here is loud and detailed, which was mostly lost in my (fanciful?) experience of the live performance. You can truly enjoy it as a piece of old-school electronic noise – a genuine tape piece. The recordings are direct and unpolished, with each sound brutally impersonal, even the vocalisations during some of the more diffult ‘escape’ sections. Tape Piece is evidently one of those odd ideas that persists in the creators’ minds, that takes on greater significance and necessity as wider implications become clear. The composition is in three movements (each using a different type of tape), summoning up various associations and comparisons both within the piece and to other compositions; it is specifically a duet, which opens up greater sonorous and structural complexity while also inviting unspecified cultural allusions.

It’s a brief piece: four realisations have been collected here for the listener’s discernment. The brand names of tape are identified in the notes, but unfortunately not the recording dates or venuesyou have to look at the inlay card and read the recording dates and venues, it’s printed right there you dope.