Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.
This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)
The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.
This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)
Cornelius Cardew is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.
Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.
At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.
Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin.
This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.
On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust.
When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”
Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.
Overheard gossip in the foyer: Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!
Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.

A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.

* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.