Music We’d Like To Hear, 2019 season (part 2)

Tuesday 6 August 2019

(Part 1 here.)

Music We’d Like To Hear‘s latest season continued their bold approach to reappraising recent music. The second concert began with a live performance of Timing by Phil Harmonic (aka Kenneth Werner) – a piece which had only existed up to now as a recording of a one-off, unscripted studio performance in 1979. Two performers on electric keyboards play chords, each telling the other when to change. It seems like nothing more than a simple excercise, but the performance revealed deeper implications. Each musician, and the music, is dependent on the other’s actions; yet neither can control what the other may do, only when they shall do it. Each knows what to do, but not when they may do it. In one way it is like one of Christian Wolff’s open scores where the musicians can only progress by consensus, but with an adversarial element. Each musician has the power, should they choose to do so, to subvert and disrupt as well as to collaborate. The spoken imperative to “change now” takes on a greater burden for the audience. Francesca Fargion and Tim Parkinson’s performance used a transcription of the same chords from the recording but in this piece, timing is everything.

I went to a fine performance of Alvin Lucier’s Chambers at one of these gigs a few years ago so it was slightly surprising to see it get another airing, except this was a completely different interpretation. The basic concept of filtering sounds through different, small acoustic spaces was reinterpreted by Rie Nakajima and Lee Patterson in a much broader way. Much of the sound was non-electronic and unamplified, particularly Nakajima’s. Any concave object or surface was considered as a potential acoustic filter for the transmission of sounds; even the sound of an open or hollow object against another surface is determined by the shape, down to a bottlecap pushed across the floor.

The gig ended with Enrico Malatesta performing Éliane Radigue’s Occam XXVI, circumnavigating a pair of cymbals with a violin bow, occasionally holding a frame drum to resonate above the cymbals’ surface. There’s a kind of meticulousness in these pieces in which the perfection of the player’s gestures in producing an immaculate surface of sound becomes fascinating in itself. Here, the music again seemed like a technical exercise but this time I struggled to find anything deeper. Radigue’s long history of work with synthesiser drones should mean that the apparently simple surface of harmonies reveal a more complex interplay of shifting overtones, but perhaps here the lack of precise control over the instrument’s harmonic spectrum and the overfamiliarity of bowed percussion sounds work against the odds of the listener finding an aural epiphany.

I have problems with drones (part 1)

Monday 18 July 2011

As an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what a ‘drone’ might be.

It’s true, of course, that “time” passes while music is being played and while it is being listened to. But in non-timeline music (the drone) the time passing is not “attached to” the playing or the hearing. Time passes in the consciousness of the listener according to internal or external markers.

I have called this new idea the “drone,” because there is no better term that is not a neologism – like non-timeline music. I have said that I use the term “drone” to mean any music that seems not to change over time.

Listening to Radigue’s Jetsun Mila at St Stephen Wallbrook, and especially to the acoustic pieces like Occam I and Naldjorlak, I did not have this feeling of timelessness. As a new sound entered, or a persisting one changed, I wondered: why that sound now? Why was that last sound held so long? If the music is timeless, why did this sound have to give way to another? If it is not timeless, why was the sound held for that particular duration? Each change felt like a tiny admission of defeat, a futile attempt to delay the inevitable end. I suspect Radigue’s music, or at least a significant amount of it, doesn’t really fit Ashley’s definition of the drone, despite his inclusion of her in his brief list of drone composers.

It Is Two Weeks Since I Saw Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak Trilogy

Thursday 7 July 2011

Still thinking about it.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.

When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.

How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.

The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.

At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.

Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.

Two kinds of craft: Max Eastley v Eliane Radigue

Wednesday 15 June 2011

I’m getting fed up with this persistent fad of holding concerts in churches. Even when the acoustics don’t suck, there’s zilch soundproofing between the “hall” and the outside world. In the first in a series of concerts dedicated to Eliane Radigue at Christ Church Spitalfields last night, any pretentions to the sacred nature of the music were punctured each time a police car went up Commercial Street, and the end of Elemental II was accompanied by a car alarm in the side street.

Before attending church I was at Raven Row, a couple of blocks away, to see Max Eastley perform. It was pretty much what I expected: a new music veteran playing with his amplified monochord and a semi-autonomous sound sculpture. A casual observer would call it ‘tinkering’: small adjustments to the sculpture, waiting to hear the effect, another small adjustment. Similarly with the monochord, small gestures, slightly varied. It’s intriguing to watch the type of craft that goes into making this music, its contemplative and reflective nature. It shows a deep understanding of the instrument and its sound, of the rich variety of sound that the slightest change in gesture can produce.

On the other hand, I worry about the self-conscious quality of this type of music-making. Surely there are improvisers all over the world, in every culture, who feel and know the capabilities of their instrument without the need to pause and consider every twist and turn their music takes.

Later that evening I watched Kasper T. Toeplitz perform Radigue’s Elemental II and saw a similarly careful approach to making music. Rhodri Davies had just premiered Occam I, slowly bowing overtones on his harp, a study in stasis and concentration. The focus on a single string of a harp hinted at the sort of problem both Eastley and Radigue share in harnessing the potential of a new, relatively untested medium. Radigue’s earlier career in electronic music was devoted to the capturing of delicate feedback effects, an activity fraught with the risk of being plunged suddenly into undifferentiated noise. Radigue herself described her work with analog synthesisers as “caressing the potentiometers”. In such static music, a tiny mis-step can destroy the work.

Thus Toeplitz spent the best part of an hour making the smallest gestures possible on his fearsome-looking double-necked electric bass: gently tapping the back of the neck, pressing his finger to the head stock, trembling a metal bar against the strings. His laptop processed the guitar into an unbroken wash of sound that slowly evolved as each new guitar gesture crept into its software. Was the guitar necessary at all? Yes. The same piece had been performed at the start of the concert by a laptop trio, less successfully. It wasn’t just the visual or conceptual experience of watching a musician ‘work’, it was the lack of ease in gliding from one sound to the next. The guitarist may be just a little too loud, a little too soft, a little too rushed, a little too hesitant in introducing each new sound, and so each sound takes on a new life of its own, subject to a host of infinitessimal adjustments. The difference may be barely perceptible, but these are the slight differences on which music, like all art, depends.