Music We’d Like to Hear, 2023 (part 3 (there’s no part 2))

Thursday 20 July 2023

Stupidly, I missed the Friday night concert of Music We’d Like to Hear dedicated to pieces by Tim Parkinson, but I did get to the Saturday’s Amber Priestley gig. Pretty sure this is the first time I’ve experienced her work performed live; everything else so far had been heard over the radio. It’s not exactly like you’re missing out when you don’t see it, but the visual, or theatrical element to her compositions are intrinsic to what makes them work in their own way as music. Yes, it’s playful, and the theatrical elements are reminiscent of the jokey aspect present in work by other contemporary British composers, only without as much of the defensiveness or the regulated fun. More importantly, Priestley takes these stage antics beyond their usual sideshow role and deploys them as compositional techniques. The performance of her string quartet Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day demonstrated this most fully on the night. It was the most conspicuously active piece played – individual musicians sent in turn foraging around the room for additional score materials, crawling away to play in isolation on the floor, engaging audience members in square dance calls or just peacing out with a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer – and so nominally the most distracting for the aural component, but this was part of the point. The inspiration for the piece was the disruptions encountered in everyday life, where simple tasks are thwarted by complications introduced by someone else. The ensemble never had a moment of coherence for long before someone got up, turned a fellow musician’s score to a different page and affixed an overlay or instructions that sent her on a digression. It resembled some of Luc Ferrari’s chamber pieces, in that musical progress is replaced by obligatory deviations: the clash of disparate textures and idioms suddenly changing or disappearing produced a kind of clotted antiphony through inadvertent accumulation of consequences. Moreover, these interruptions and obligations made you question whether any of this was in fact ‘fun’. At least you felt the audience were enjoying it more than the performers, which is as things should be.

The quartet themselves were game and able, both in running, walking, dancing and crouching with Priestley’s ideas, and in bringing out notable characteristics in material that might easily have been obscured. That substance was more evident in the other string quartet played that evening, And Yet Something Shines, Something Sings in that Silence: two pages of quasi-canonic passages which the musicians are required to interpret in a different tempo and loudness in each new iteration. At the end of each pass they pause, rotate the page 180 degrees and start over; repeat. This piece offered a loosely similar interplay of voices, but with greater consistency. The musicians were a mix of experienced players on the new music scene (Mira Benjamin on violin, Chihiro Ono on viola) and performance postgrads at Goldsmiths (Amalia Young on other violin; Kirke Gross on cello). After the interval they were joined by clarinettist Pete Furniss, Clare Spollen on piano (plus accordion) and James Creed on electric guitar to play Repeat yourself until friends are embarrassed…, a 41-minute work where the material is pre-pulverised. Goldsmiths’ students left musical doodles and sketches on large sheets of paper in the University corridors; these were then collaged by Priestley and the collages filmed and transformed to produce a video containing the resulting collages and other structures divided into quadrants on screen. The video may also function as a distraction, although the lack of spectacle to it diminishes that possibility. Musicians were scattered around the room, making music that on this occasion felt pretty low-key and sedate, at times more resembling an AMM-type group improvisation. The lack of a focal point may have been the issue, with all of the alienating factors of Priestley’s process fixed on tape in advance, with musical activity dissipated by the deliberately thinned-out density of musicians playing at any given time. Priestley herself was making occasional contributions here and there on various novelty handbells, having earlier been ushered into a brief impromptu violin part in Ev’ry evening, ev’ry day.