Piano: Annea Lockwood and Luc Ferrari played by Xenia Pestova Bennett

Monday 4 November 2019

Circumstances and temperament conspired so that I hadn’t been to a gig in ages. Broke the drought last week with two piano recitals: Philip Thomas with the launch of his celebrated Morton Feldman box set at Music We’d Like To Hear (more about these later), preceded by a free recital at City University by Xenia Pestova Bennett.

It was a great programme, focusing on the lesser known piano pieces of Annea Lockwood and Luc Ferrari (no she didn’t set fire to the instrument.) She opened with a startling interpretation of John Cage’s Dream, careful to articulate clean stops and occasional abrupt changes in rhythm, making it more disturbing and harder to grasp than the usual fey wash of sweetness it is typically presented as these days. Lockwood’s RCSC and Red Mesa are more obdurate works, built out of sequences of discrete gestures and sounds using a variety of techniques. It takes a fine sense of timing and balancing of contrasts to make these pieces work as cohesive musical experiences, and Pestova Bennett managed this admirably, even as she was obliged by the composer to rapidly alternate between sitting at the keyboard and standing over the strings to pluck and scrape.

Ferrari’s Collection de petites pièces, ou 36 enfilades from the mid 80s remains a mystery. I’ve had a CD of this for years and treated much like some of his other work for musicians and tape, an episodic magazine of events and recurring themes; but it’s so hard to pin down and my memory of it always remained vague. Hearing it live both helped and hindered. Some pieces last only a few seconds, while others feature no piano at all. The opening piece reappears in several variations, but give only the illusion of continuity. The tape (cued directly by Pestova Bennett on a laptop) alternates between verité field recording and obnoxious pop – again a Ferrari custom, but the fragmented nature makes it all seem deliberately directionless. You get used to finding his grandiose musical non sequiturs evading a deliberate point while suggesting something bigger and more elusive, but this appears to be a rare occasion where any possible connections are deliberately cut. Pestova Bennett played with the deftness that a good Ferrari performance seems to require, making his trivial motifs seem just that, while hiding the difficulties of making such mercurial music seem facile.

Luc Ferrari, Tautologos, Situationism, Entropy (beginning, not to be concluded)

Thursday 21 February 2019

A map of the 16th Arrondissement drawn by Debord’s friend Paul-Henri Chombart de Lauwe, traces the routes taken by a student over the period of a year as she circulates between the School of Political Sciences, her residence, and the residence of her piano teacher.

Only got to one of the events as part of the Stereo Spasms festival, a week-long celebration of the life and work of Luc Ferrari. It was a good one: Tautologos III is one of my favourite pieces, heard before only from David Grubbs’ reissue of the 1971 LP version. Grubbs was on hand at Cafe Oto to join in with Apartment House and introduce the piece, first in ‘version 4’ as played on the record and then in the 2001 ‘Chicago version’. (Brunhild Ferrari joined in on piano for the latter.)

Grubbs reminded us of Ferrari’s particular definition of tautology, a repeated cycle of activity, as practiced in daily life, which was here transferred into artistic activity. While acting alone, yet necessarily as part of a group, individuals going about their business may interact with each other, on a regular or irregular basis. In doing so, their cycles are altered, which in turn may then intersect with and alter other cycles.

The music teeters on a precipice separating order and anarchy, and you’re never quite sure which side is solid ground and the other void. It’s a duality that seems representative of life in Ferrari’s native Paris, that particular understanding of liberté, an absolute freedom circumscribed by an innate sense of social order. A person is free to move anywhere, yet soon settles into a recognisable pattern. In Tautologos III, each performer is autonomous yet bound by obligations to others and thus the music begins to develop a logic of its own. As when reading a Perec novel, one becomes aware of persistent but elusive rules working beneath the surface, shaping a structure that at first seemed natural.

(Also played on the programme, the charming trio Bonjour, comment ça va? Bass clarinettist, cellist and pianist play interlocking repeating patterns, disrupted from time to time when each musician in turn is compelled to perform the social nicety of doffing their hat. Whether these breaks in each musician’s flow makes for an interruption or an ornamentation is a question left to the listener.)

For further consideration: in each version of Tautologos III it becomes clear that each cycle is contingent, subject to alteration. This mutability is a given condition of each performer’s loop. It’s a critical difference from other ‘minimalist’ works built on repetitions. There is no pre-existing, initial state for the material to be subjected to variation. The context of each performer’s interactions with each other becomes the defining force of the material. Everything is provisional.

In version 4, played first that night, the music started out varied and elaborate, and steadily reduced in melodic range and texture into a near unison of voices see-sawing between a handful of notes. As information*, any ‘message’ being conveyed was distilled to an essence, with increasing redundancy and lower entropy. As things became more and more familiar to the listener, was the music winding down, or becoming more forceful? Whichever may be true, would it be a good thing or bad?

* As with life: “Whether this information is valuable or worthless does not concern us. The idea of ‘value’ refers to the possible use by a living observer.” Leon Brillouin, Science and Information Theory.