Brand New You’re Retro: Elysian Quartet at Cargo

Friday 9 June 2006

One distinctive tic in my psyche is that scenes from the movie Highway 61 keep appearing, unbidden, in my consciousness. At one point the hero (for want of a better word), a rock’n’roll-loving hairdresser, is challenged on his choice of instrument to follow his musical dreams: the trumpet.
“I know,” he says bitterly, “it always ends up sounding like jazz.”
I am now working on a similar theory, that any attempt by a string quartet to play rock ends up sounding like Bartók. Before going offline for a week I went to the premiere of Gabriel Prokofiev’s String Quartet No.2, at Cargo in Shoreditch. It was a pleasant-enough piece, with the regular, propelling rhythms and static harmonies that have become commonplace in much of the music written over the last 20-odd years, since the commercial success of Philip Glass’ earlier musical innovations became too conspicuous for struggling composers to ignore.
Like much so-called ‘post-minimalist’ music written in the wake of Glass and his sometime mates, Prokofiev’s quartet wants to be identified with Glass at his most populist while simultaneously disassociating itself from its stridency – thus the simple, steady beat and harmonies were muddied with variations in mood and sour inflections which came across as, well, Bartók (188-1945).
It was only when I read the press release after the gig that I learned it was supposed to have been inspired by electronic dance music. If so, it was looking for its inspiration in the wrong places; adopting only the most superficial ornaments of techno instead of engaging with its unique substance, focussing instead on its classical foundation of traditional western harmony that, stripped of attitude, renders grime, metal, and pop indistinguishable. Any kid who’s tried playing rock on their school recorder knows this.
The Rambler has given a description of the kind of nights Cargo has been hosting: informal club performances of new music otherwise confined to the concert hall. As he suggests, the crucial element that makes these gigs engaging and enjoyable is the setting, which forces performers to interact with the audience. It is this, more than any slick visuals or appeals to hipness, that hooks in the smart and arts-savvy (or even arts-curious) punters.
“It seems like a simple formula, but it surely can’t be otherwise everyone would have been doing it for years already, right?” he asks. Well, the execution still needs some tweaking before it becomes as second-nature as laying on a rock gig. In particular, musicians and sound technicians are still learning how to properly amplify this type of gig to suit both the music and the audience. GéNIA’s set of electronically-enhanced piano music was diminished by the piano sounding muffled and dull. And the Elysian Quartet’s performance of Max DeWardener’s new work was spoiled by an electrical glitch making line noise and the players’ click tracks audible through the PA.
Despite these problems I hope this type of presentation of new “classical” music is a trend that will continue, as a way of bringing this music to an audience more likely to embrace it than the usual concert-hall subscribers. I can’t help but wonder how a performance of Rzewski’s Coming Together would come across in this context!
I took two musically-literate Rzewski neophytes to the performance at Trinity College the week before, in a carpeted, overlit rehearsal room hidden deep in the College campus. The piece came out strident and threadbare, and afterwards both my friends agreed: “That was so 70s!” Would the change of setting have changed their attitude? Would it have changed the performers’?