Music We’d Like To Hear: Systems

Sunday 26 May 2024

The latest Music We’d Like To Hear this weekend was a de facto launch for Scott McLaughlin’s album we are environments for each other, with the second half of the programme being a live performance of we are environments for each other [trio] by violinist Mira Benjamin and pianist Zubin Kanga. I’ve discussed the piece before, but experiencing it live reminds you that music heard purely as sound is a separate phenomenon from witnessing it being played. Benjamin, with a five-string electric violin, picks out tones to bow softly which either enhance or interfere with the pitch of the piano strings picked out by Kanga with a magnetic resonator. Kanga shifts the electromagnetic pickup to another string in response, leaving Benjamin to choose whether or not to stay on her pitch or move to another note. Heard live, the delicate exchange between the two musicians becomes clearer – in particular, their good humour as they trade pitches and plot their next counter-move against each other. It also shows how the piece depends on each musician knowing their instrument inside-out: literally, in Kanga’s case, as the keyboard is never touched, all activity focused on the selection of strings. With amplified violin, Benjamin’s own physical input is also minimal. Conversely, the audience’s attention becomes so captivated by the performers that it becomes harder to notice the subtle changes in pitch and timbre that make the musical substance of the piece (I may be speaking for myself here as I happened to be seated close to the action). The performance was considerably longer than the recorded version, partly as the live setting supports the slower unfolding of events, but it also helped in allowing me to settle in and start properly hearing what was being played.

The first half was a new composition by Rie Nakajima titled indecisive and perhaps, although she qualified this by saying it was “not really a composition, rather a situation”. Nakajima was working with a group of musicians with highly developed skills in improvisation – Billy Steiger, Marie Roux, Pierre Berthet and Angharad Davies – and allowed them to do pretty much as they pleased on the tacit understanding that they each shared a fine sense of responsibility and wouldn’t step all over each other. In a way, the piece was a social system like McLaughlin’s, only without set coordinates but with collective anonymisation. Nakajima is also a sculptor, with the concert coinciding with a solo exhibition of her work. Violins were present, but heard only occasionally and faintly: most sounds came from small objects or lightweight kinetic devices made by Nakajima, whose electric motors caused erratic soft noise. There was a lot of high-level craft on display in the use of sounds by the musicians as they moved around the space for the performance. It’s not because the sounds were all gentle, or the machines were clever in an almost whimsical way (an open umbrella with motorised wires irregularly tapping on the canopy), but this isn’t the first time I’ve come away from a Nakajima wishing for something more besides pleasant sounds. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting agnosticism over whether or not a piece should have a point and mistaking it for complacency.