Australia Now and Then

Monday 18 April 2016

I’ve been listening to a lot of music which I should talk about, both live and on CD. The CDs will come up later; for starters I’ve been thinking about this concert at the BBC Studios in Maida Vale a couple of weeks ago.

Brett Dean was conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra on a programme of modern Australian composers. It’s the type of programme I’d normally shy away from – because of, not despite, being Australian and having heard concerts organised on the same premise back home. When a large institution is involved – an orchestra, a national broadcaster – things usually attempt to be overly safe and overly “representative”. The latter principle manifests itself in trying to cram in a number of slighter, lesser works by a broad variety of composers which don’t really gel together. Like new music in the UK, Australian music in Australia still needs to defend its own small space.

Regardless of any national slant, Dean’s programme of works was beautifully focussed, illuminating a particular thread of musical thought found in a group of diverse Australian composers working today. The introduction to the programme notes made this intent clear, to look beyond the customary identification of Australian art with the unique nature and landscape it inhabits. More importantly, the concert portrayed Australian music as being distinguished by an engagement with the rest of the world, building an increasingly complex dialogue with other cultures.

For a long time, the question of identity in Australian art was often framed as a debate between two sides, pro- and anti-. On one side, “internationalists” would deride parochialism (and imitate any new avant-garde trends in Europe and America) while “nationalists” would chauvinistically promote a local vernacular (and imitate one particular trend in Europe and America). It’s a mindset that’s hard to shake off, particularly if you make decisions for a funding body.

The concert opened with one older work, Richard Meale’s Clouds Now and Then from 1969. It’s a significant work, with its musical language derived from Messiaen and its static, contemplative form inspired by Basho’s poetry. Incorporating ideas from Europe and Japan, it floats between worlds rather than seeking dependence on one or the other. This give-and-take continued through the concert, both musically and biographically. Some of the composers – Thomas Meadowcroft, Anthony Pateras, Lisa Ilean – now live in London or Germany, while Georges Lentz was born in Luxembourg and moved to Australia in his twenties.

Ilean’s Land’s End drew upon a similar sound-world to Meale, enhanced with microtones. Meadowcroft’s Peacemaker Tattoo and Dean’s own Engelsflügel confronted European composers directly, Mahler and Brahms respectively. With Dean, it was a passionate exploration of musical ideas; with Meadowcroft, a modest, somewhat deflating side-step, equal parts deference and aversion. Lentz’s Caeli enarrant… III is an eclectic procession of disparate elements unified by the composer’s personal spiritual vision, combining Christianity, Tibetan Buddhism, astronomy, serialism, chance and silence.

Both Meadowcroft and Pateras in his violin concerto Immediata appeared as performers, using an open-reel tape deck to record, play back and manipulate sounds in real time. (I’m an old friend of Pateras so I’ll try not to get too enthusiastic.) Immediata was built out of an eclectic, disruptive improvisation, elaborated by divergent combinations of instruments. Pateras recorded soloist Thomas Gould’s amplified violin and proceeded to speed, slow, warp and distort the sounds, at times going off into cadenzas of his own, in a manner reminiscent of the electronic interpolations of Varèse’s Déserts. There’s a tension between the music that’s fixed and that’s ephemeral, between the notated and improvised both in origin and performance, and of preservation and loss where, perversely, the tape recording is discarded and the piece must persist through performance of the written score.

I think BBC Radio 3 expects to broadcast this concert in August this year.

George Maciunas, Musical Scoring Systems

Tuesday 24 February 2015

I was always annoyed by the insincerity of the art world; I mean the way it pays lip service to stuff it says is important and then ingnores. That’s what makes projects like the ensemble Apartment House’s new CD of music by George Maciunas so important.

Every art history and not enough music histories discuss Fluxus, but the work itself has been neglected, disappeared from the cultural exchange. This silence prevents the art from considered as an artistic experience. A complacent assumption sinks in that these works are of interest only as an historical footnote, unworthy of further examination.

Sadly, I missed a repeat performance of the Scratch Orchestra’s Nature Study Notes last weekend. The performance last summer was excellent. There’s another example of music being rediscovered after a generation in the wilderness. Last Tuesday I was at a concert given by the new music ensemble at City Univeristy, where they performed Paragraph 7 of Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning and an octophonic version of Takehisa Kosugi’s Micro 1. Both wonderful pieces, both set aside as artefacts of their time. So much of what has happened since the Sixties seems less like moving on and more of a retreat.

Having been born a little too late, I grew up with the second-hand impression that so much had changed from the pre-1975 cultural scene not because it was old hat but because people couldn’t handle it. It’s been a long time waiting but these childhood impressions have increasingly been proven correct.

Here is the fairly standard photograph of people performing George Maciunas’ In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti. This is usually as far as anyone gets with Fluxus performance, a photo half as old as the grainy snapshots of the Cabaret Voltaire. What is this piece? Each performer devises a list of actions and assigns each action a number. They then must perform each action in a sequence determined by the numbers found on a discarded roll of paper from an adding machine. The means is historical; the method is still contemporary.

On the Musical Scoring Systems CD, Apartment House play In Memoriam to Adriano Olivetti: the first by an ensemble making diverse sounds, the second by a string quartet. John Cage is always cited as a large influence on Fluxus, but Maciunas’ piece anticipates Cage’s last compositions by 30 years, pieces like Four 6 where performers are free to choose sounds but not when to make them. Other works by Maciunas such as Music for Everyman use similar methods, of sounds placed into subdivided grids of time, Musical Scoring Systems.

The pieces in this album are all from the early 1960s, at a time when Cage was starting to explore the limits of chance and indeterminacy. It took Cage a couple more decades to achieve such a level of directness in his composition as shown on this CD. In the right hands Maciunas’ music is as open in its sound-world and transparent in its organisation as Cage’s.

There’s an important distinction here, summarised by Cage’s friendly advice: “Permission granted, but not to do what you want.” Cage wanted his interpreters to exercise self-discipline and longed for self-imposed order. Maciunas, for all the irreverence brought into his musical scores (balloons, mouthfarts), is also bringing discipline and order into play. All those everyday actions, for all their apparent spontaneity in music or in life, are constrained into a strict, predetermined sequence of events. In Maciunas’s music the composer’s relationship with the performer, allowing the players to choose the order to be imposed upon themselves, is made more evident and gives away the lie behind the ideals Cage was extolling at the time.

Solo for Rich Man is performed here, one of Satie’s oblique parables translated into actions. The paradoxes of the connections between money (or lack of it) and freedom (or lack of it) pile up in this simple score. Like all scores, its effect as an object itself is limited; it must be enacted.

The Apartment House CD comes with no pictures of scores or descriptions of individual works, but it does come with an essay on Maciunas’ musical thinking. To be taken as seriously as any other music it is to be heard on its own merits. Solo for Rich Man is five minutes of ringing coins and crumpled paper in a montage of methodical transactions that are meaningless. Other than the Cagean connections, fifty years of exposure to New Music has allowed listeners to catch up with Fluxus. Deprived of theatrical spectacle, Solo for Violin (for Sylvano Bussotti) changes from a Dadaist stunt to a darkly comic caricature of a sonata by Helmut Lachenmann. The poor instrument’s protestations cannot help but recall the textures of the preceding Solo for Balloons (for Jean Pierre Wilhelm) – another palette of sounds which has since been fully claimed by avant-garde percussionists.

I’m told this project was a labour of love. I’m extremely grateful for the Lithuanian Music Information and Publishing Centre, Apartment House and Anton Lukoszevieze for making it happen. (I’m also grateful to the last for sending me a copy.)

Forty Years of the Arditti Quartet

Monday 28 April 2014

We are now living in a post-Arditti age of composition. Future generations of musicologists will refer to a school of composers which emerged around the turn of the century with aesthetic and technical values attuned to the Arditti Quartet’s strengths.

I spent Saturday in that new theatre at the Barbican, taking in three concerts given by the quartet to commemorate their 40th anniversary. The fifteen pieces played ranged from the first piece written for them (Jonathan Harvey’s first string quartet) to three world premieres, with an emphasis on music from the past 20 years. Each concert ended with one of the signature pieces from their repertoire: Helmut Lachenmann’s Grido, Ligeti’s Second Quartet and Xenakis’ Tetras.

It’s almost facetious to say that these last pieces stood out way above much of the rest of the programme, but that’s what pretty much everyone felt, myself included. I’m more interested in why we felt that way.

The Arditti Quartet has brought exceptional virtuosity to chamber music and commissioned hundreds of works. They’ve opened up seemingly limitless possibilities, giving composers the impression that anything is possible. The effect has been similar in many respects to the recent explosion in the capability and accessibility of computerised sound processing. The end result is kind of the same, too: a large, glittering body of work somewhat lacking in substance, and strangely homogeneous in the way each new composer is eager to try out as many of the same set of cool new tricks as possible. The assimilation of spectralism into intonation, microtones as colouration, rapid passages of leaps and glissandi, scratch tones, were all combined into a general ethos of respectable expressionism and assigned various weightings in the pieces by Hector Parra, Georg Friedrich Haas, Hilda Paredes, Pascal Dusapin and Toshio Hosokawa. Similar manifestations of this style could be heard at Huddersfield last year in quartets by composers ranging from Alberto Posadas to John Zorn.

The aspects that stood out in the old-ish classics on the programme were not simply quality, but contrast. The new work by Hilda Paredes would have sounded more striking had it not been bookended by Parra and Haas. The Harrison Birtwistle premiere was an occasional piece but distinctive in its refusal to add gestural ornament to its substance. The remaining premiere, James Clarke’s Third Quartet, was only five minutes long but a tour de force of concision, putting technique at the service of a sculptural intensity lacking in so many of the other works. The mixing of contrast and flow echoed the presence of the Ligeti movements heard in the same concert. The exploitation of dynamics as musical material was one of the more obvious examples of techniques used for the sake of music, not just musicianship.

I was going to end this post by quoting an anecdote involving Arditti and Alvin Lucier, but I just googled for it and holy poo get a load of this:

The string quartet was the university computer-music-studio of the 1940s and 1950s… It is a characteristic of the string quartet to emphasize moving the bow back and forth. The more the better.

Insert: Mr. Arditti, of string quartet fame, complained to Alvin Lucier, in the presence of a large number of people, that he didn’t like to play Alvin’s String Quartet, because there was very little bow movement, which lack of bow movement made his arm tired. To which Alvin replied, “Why don’t you play it with the other arm?”

This is from a lecture by the late Robert Ashley, who of course had this all sussed out long ago. Go read that whole blog post.