Someone please reassure me I didn’t dream this

Tuesday 27 March 2007

When finishing up the previous post (which had sat around unfinished for weeks, poor thing) I got to the bit about where artists’ ideas come from and remembered an anecdote I think I heard on the radio about 20 years ago, but have never encountered since.
Igor Stravinsky, when asked what he was thinking of while composing The Rite of Spring, once replied* “Fresh air and cheese, plus a lot of electricity.”
Incidentally, googling stravinsky +air +cheese +electricity will take you to a bunch of Frank Zappa sites.

* Allegedly! i.e. according to me.

Stockhausen, Sirius, and Self-Belief

Monday 26 March 2007

It’s the highfalutin’ equivalent of a fight breaking out on a football pitch: the premiere of Stockhausen’s Trans staggers to a halt amidst a chorus of hoots and hisses from the audience. Some incensed concertgoers jump the gun and unwittingly start booing before the end, quickly subdued by insistent shushing and the last, unexpected sounds of the orchestra. Once everyone’s certain it’s finally over, the crowd, impatient but still disorientated by the stop-start finish, rises in partisan crosstides of cheers and catcalls. For several minutes the two sides battle for supremacy, the boos and hisses drowned out by cheers, the cheers drowned out by boos and hisses – all of it preserved on the CD release, as though it were part of the music.
Edward Winkelman recently posted on his blog about the importance of self-belief in the arts, and whether all art is to some extent a game of confidence.
Reportedly, an influential Chelsea art dealer was asked once what characteristic she felt separated the artists who would feature prominently in the history books and those who would be lucky to be footnotes. Representing several who’ve already entered the history books, she responded that the ones who make it, wake up everyday, look themselves in the mirror, and say “I’m the best fucking artist in the world” before heading off to their studios.
Mind you, the heading off to their studios is no small part of their success, but the belief in the importance of their work is something I’m beginning to believe might be crucial to that level of success as well….
If not arrogance, then at least wholesale delusion seems to be an asset. Stockhausen, a composer confident enough to instruct musicians when they were playing correctly in the rhythm of the universe, was asked sometime in the early seventies that chestnut dear to clueless journalists, “Where do you get your ideas?” Unexpectedly, he answered in all seriousness that all his music was dictated to him by his ancestral supreme beings from a planet in the Sirius star system. He then spent the next thirty years of his life writing a seven-day opera detailing his cosmological revelations.
Trans, however, is a piece so unusual that even Stockhausen himself is incapable of explaining it, saying merely that it came to him in a dream he could transcribe but not interpret. It doesn’t get played very often, so I made a point of going to see it at Blackheath Halls last month, where students from Trinity College were staging it as part of a new(ish) music festival.
The orchestra is directed to play from behind a scrim, bathed in dim purple light – Blackheath Halls doesn’t have a proscenium on its stage, so instead of the scrim they filled the room with fog. Three tiers of string players faced the audience; in the violet gloom behind them, rows of other musicians could vaguely be seen, following a conductor hidden behind a screen. The string players created a dense veil of sustained tones that masks the sounds that emerged from the stage behind them. Occasional, mysterious solos erupted from the orchestra, for no explicable reason. A loud, shuttling sound thundered across the room at unexpected intervals, as a random punctuation.
Audience and orchestra, equally lost in the purple fog, partook of the event in a state not unlike the suspension of disbelief required to embrace the enactment of a myth. Its alien weirdness and denial of rational meaning suspended judgement, the music and its theatre an unquestionable, unalterable fact to be experienced. We all deferred to the indomitable arrogance of Stockhausen, an arrogance that was necessary to trust that he could put across a work he could not understand, without a safety net of explanation or justification.
As a piece of theatrical irony, the student orchestra looked nervous and uncertain of their place on stage, as though overwhelmed by the audacity of the work and plagued by doubts that they could successfully pull it off. At the end of the piece many of them had a stunned expression of disbelief at their success. The music itself had been powerful enough to transcend their lack of self-possession, treating them as vessels, receiving dictation from higher beings.

The iPod meme update: my dad clarifies the situation somewhat

Monday 26 February 2007

After posting a lengthy piece of filler about the contents of someone else’s iPod, my dad has written in to supply the missing information about the mystery orchestras.
The Beethoven is Nikolas Harnoncourt conducting The Chamber Orchestra Of Europe – this is part of a boxed set of the 9 symphonies and was released by Teldec in 1991. The 4th was recorded live 29/06/1990.
The Villa Lobos is the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française, conducted by Villa Lobos himself! The soprano is Victoria de los Angeles (Nos. 1 & 2), the original recording is from 1957, digitally remastered in 1987 by EMI France.
He adds that he is relying on the Gracenote database for some of this information, and if Gracenote was good enough to out Joyce Hatto as a fraud then it’s good enough for me.
My dad also confirms that, sadly, he no longer has the John Betjeman LPs and so had to source these tracks from, uh, “elsewhere”. However, he remains silent on the whole Rammstein/Lavigne/Farnham business, preferring instead to opine, erroneously, that “Undecided” is inferior to “Turn Up Your Radio“, and to gratuitously diss Tom T. Hall for no apparent reason before signing off. Clever smokescreen, there.

Shuffling with someone else’s mind

Thursday 22 February 2007

It had to happen by accident if it was going to happen at all. Every year I receive a shoebox containing several relatively high-end consumer knick-knacks from my dad, as he casts off his superseded technology and upgrades to the next generation of electronic gadgets. The box always arrives unexpectedly, the contents are always a surprise, and have a large degree of difference in usefulness. If you have unwanted battery-operated items lying around your house and cannot be bothered firing up eBay, I am considering expanding this service beyond members of my immediate family.
This year’s shoebox contained an iPod Nano so Dad, I hope you’re enjoying that new 80GB video iPod you’ve got yourself. I’ve never used a personal music player before, figuring that I’d always be switching it off every few minutes to hear something going on in the outside world. (The ancient Discman in the photo is patched into an amplifier, and in any case doesn’t like being moved. It’s another paternal cast-off.)
My Dad sent me his iPod with all his music still loaded on it, so before I do anything else with it I’m going to hit shuffle and report on the first ten tracks it plays. This experiment enables me to do simultaneously two things I’ve never done before: use an iPod, and take up a meme that has appeared on other blogs. Please note that I am using the latest definition of “meme”, which has now been extended to include “copying the Random Rules column in The Onion’s AV Club”.
Unlike other participants, who have prefaced their reports with disclaimers as to how the music on their iPod may not necessarily be representative of their actual tastes, I won’t resort to such a cop-out, and will boldly affirm that whatever tracks come up on this device are an unequivocal indicator of my dad’s personality.

1. “Ich Will (radio edit)” by Rammstein

OK, I wasn’t expecting that. Perhaps he’s given me my little sister’s iPod instead.

2. Symphony No.4, 3rd movement, by Ludwig van Beethoven. Nikolas Harnoncourt conducting somebody or other

Sorry, I don’t know who the orchestra is because I haven’t figured out yet how to get all the track details to display properly. That’s one problem with MP3 players: they’re overengineered in the way they present music. CDs, tapes, records: they don’t much care whether you fill them with symphonies, Buddhist rituals, lectures, or radio broadcasts. It’s all the same to them: stick a label on it somewhere and everyone can work it out for themselves. But iPods expect every track to be one complete unique song by a unique singer and get all grudging with the information when the real world doesn’t work out that way. Also, the little headphones keep falling out of my ears.

3. “Too Much To Ask” by Avril Lavigne

Uh, Dad, that picture is too small to be of any use to anyone.

4. “Now’s the Time” by Charlie Parker

I have a great big deaf spot when it comes to jazz. And I was too preoccupied with trying out different ways, none of them successful, of sticking the headphones in my ears without them falling out, to concentrate on the music.

5. “Longfellow’s Visit to Venice” by Sir John Betjeman

Now this is the stuff. For the sake of full disclosure, it should be noted that up until now I have been doing what I imagine everyone does when undertaking this exercise and skipping through each track instead of listening to it. I’m sorry if I sound terrible slow in coming to the party on this point, but I’ve truly just realised that the great benefit of iPods is that they enhance your ability to identify with your selection of music, without subjecting you to the inconvenience of having to hear it.
I was just reminded about the existence of these records last year (via The Rambler): eccentric hybrid recordings combining the then Poet Laureate reciting his verse over charmingly sympathetic musical accompaniments, specially composed by Jim Parker. I remember enjoying the LPs my parents had of this stuff when I was a kid, and apparently I wasn’t alone. “There’s this comic gravity that I’ve certainly found inspiring regarding my own work,” enthuses fellow fuddy-duddy Nick Cave in an article about the history of Betjeman’s records in The Guardian. Further investigation is required before I can verify the Guardian’s claim that there is indeed “dope bass action” and “fat, funky basslines” for DJs to dig on in these tracks. It’s better than Gerrard Kennedy’s efforts, at any rate.
Did my dad dub this from his vinyl, find it on CD, or is it for sale at iTunes? Or are the l33t w@r3z kids sharing Sir John B on teh bittorrentzz?

6. Bachianas Brasileiras No.9, 1st movement, by Heitor Villa Lobos. Orchestre National de la R..

One of these was bound to turn up. There are nine works in this series, each broken up into movements, so the odds are heavily stacked towards some fragment of them appearing near the front end of any shuffle. Again, the machine will not tell me the full name of who’s playing this, making the orchestra name look like that of a licentious marquess from a saucy 19th-century novel.

7. “Thrice Told Tale (Take 1)” by, uh, me.

Suddenly I’m listening to something I composed five years ago. I suspect he whacked this on just before shoving it in the jiffy bag just to impress me. Still, he would have ripped it from the audio CD I gave him, so there’s been some effort put into it, which is nice. Even though it’s unquestionably brilliant I’m skipping through it anyway, because it’s half an hour long.

8. “Horny” by Mousse T vs Hot’n’Juicy

Daddy, we hardly knew you.

9. “Undecided” by The Masters Apprentices

At last, something else I don’t want to skip through. Amazingly, this little garage nugget just keeps growing in stature over the decades: what began as a quickie bit of filler is now teaching us all an important lesson in how much Jet sucks. I suddenly feel very old. Not because I know this song, I mean because I remember Jet.

10. “You’re The Voice” by Johnny Farnham

This whole exercise – right from the invention of the iPod, down to the act of deciding to write this post – has been a cruel, elaborate trick played by fate at my expense.
Next five: “I’m the Lonesomest Gal in Town” by Ella Fitzgerald; “Yesterday When I Was Mad” by The Pet Shop Boys; “Kometenmelodie 1” by Kraftwerk; “Tiger Feet” by Mud; and something by my ex-girlfriend – hang on! We split up before there were iPods, which means…. (throws iPod out window only for it to bounce back when headphones remain stuck in ears).

Truly, this man was the Jesus of Cool.

Wednesday 21 February 2007

There haven’t been enough pictures here lately, so here’s one I nicked from Straight from the Tated&nbsp.

Pianophiles, you’ve been Hattoed

Tuesday 20 February 2007

From the sublime to the ridiculous: the previous post came out of my researching this one.
National pride is all well and good, but British classical music buffs are notoriously partisan. No praise is too fulsome for a doughty wind band from Bournemouth or church organist in Beccles, all of whom are favourably compared to their foreign counterparts and their somewhat suspect techniques. No wonder so many music critics were beside themselves when they discovered the late-blossoming career of the Cambridge-based pianist Joyce Hatto.
Over the past year the British Gramophone magazine has been one of the most ardent champions of the 100-odd CDs recorded in the last 15 years of her life, after illness had forced her to abandon her concert career; alternately praising her and denouncing her critics in its quaint house style.
Gramophone, December 2006:

Hatto takes her place among the greats. Joyce Hatto’s CD legacy may be mired in controversy (“the forgeries of jealousy”?) but there is nothing controversial about recordings which surely place her among an elite of women pianists (only six artists of comparable stature spring to mind).

Gramophone, 2006 Awards:

Doubting Thomases, of which there are apparently many, may well wonder how Joyce Hatto achieved such unalloyed mastery and musicianship when tragically beset with ill-health. But others will surely celebrate an awe-inspiring triumph of mind over matter, of the indomitable nature of the human spirit.

But then came 15 February 2007, when Gramophone published this sad revelation on its website:

It would take many weeks of intensive work to examine all of the Hatto recordings, but it seems clear that at least some of these great performances are identical to other performances available from other recording companies.

According to Andrew Rose, who investigated the hoax for Gramophone, the list of CDs by other pianists plagiarised by Hatto (or plagiarised in her name by her record-producer husband) is growing every day, as enthusiasts track down the matching source material.
The cranky old men who populate on Usenet have descended into even wilder name-calling than usual, with hilarious use of quotations of previous Hatto praise to deflate some of the more obnoxious resident egos.

More cogent discussions are being tracked at Iron Tongue of Midnight.

Opera Chic offers her typically pertinent observation on the scandal, being the first to call out Hatto’s “Jetsons-style” bouffant.

Filler by Proxy XLVII: Great Drinker, Great Thinker

Tuesday 20 February 2007

The late, great James Tenney’s For Ann (rising) wins the inaugural Black Torrent Guard Most Annoying Song Tournament (found via Soho the Dog). Luckily, he includes an mp3 of the piece as well, but get it quick because I think it’s one of those temporary links.
For some reason I didn’t mention Tenney’s passing last year: he was one of the sharpest musical thinkers and composers of the latter part of the 20th century. He’s often pigeonholed as a musical version of a conceptual artist, but his music beautifully embodies his understanding of the nature and perception of sound and, in turn, his theoretical writings illuminate the ways in which we do and don’t “get” contemporary music, in ways that conventional talk of harmony and structure fails.
In one of the nerdiest seductions ever, I once turned a girlfriend on to the avant-garde by taking her to a performance of Tenney’s Having Never Written a Note for Percussion. (That piece is usually more of a knockout than the Sonic Youth performance in the link, but I like the way they take an idea and run with it.)
Some short pieces by Tenney are online at the CalArts site (Firefox users: dodgy website alert!) including the classic tape piece Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”). People’s memories of Tenney piled up at PostClassic.

Hardest Way To Make Easy Living etc: Philip Glass at 70

Sunday 4 February 2007

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, Sequenza 21 is hosting a debate on whether Philip Glass is overrated or underrated. Part of the discussion has centred on why his later music seems to be so often driven by monetary more than artistic motives.
UbuWeb has both audio-only and video available for download of the Philip Glass episode of the 1975 series Music With Roots in the Aether, in which Glass, in a magnificent shirt, sits surrounded by small children eating pizza while being interviewed by Robert Ashley, in an even more magnificent shirt. The interview begins with Ashley speculating on why he hates children, before Glass explains his current financial situation.
Glass is equally lauded and derided as the most successful “real” composer alive, so it’s interesting to hear this thirty-eight-year old man reflect on just how far his career has gotten him to this point:

When we’re not being paid for concerts, we’re on unemployment. So that makes it, that’s the way things are now. Unemployment seems to have become a permanent fact of everybody’s life now…. We’re into the second year of unemployment….When we’re not getting paid a cheque for a rehearsal or concert, we get the unemployment. So if you figure it out, that comes to about, we get the maximum, which is 95 a week.

Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough, and Kurtág; or Francesconi, Kurtág, Ferneyhough, and Dusapin; or Kurtág, Dusapin, Fransesconi, and Ferneyhough.

Wednesday 31 January 2007

After the interval, Irvine Arditti addressed the audience. “I gather that many of you haven’t the faintest idea what it is we’re playing.” He then added, “We often feel the same way.”

The program for the Arditti Quartet’s gig at Wigmore Hall last week claimed we would be hearing Dusapin, Francesconi, Ferneyhough, and Kurtág, in that order. Then, before the concert began, a silver-haired gentleman mounted the stage and announced that in fact we would be hearing the second piece first, the last piece second, the third piece where it was, and the first piece last. He then added, as an attempt at clarification, that this meant the running order was now Kurtág, Dusapin, Francesconi, and Ferneyhough. No, we said, after checking this against our programs, but the gentleman had already disappeared, leaving us to our confusion.

Interestingly, out of all the composers’ names, the one the locals had the most trouble pronouncing correctly was the Coventry-born Brian Ferneyhough.

I was glad I was too cheap to pay £3 for the program, seeing as it was useless for finding out what was playing when, and because I later learned that the notes for these compositions, by the composers themselves, were similarly confusing and unhelpful. They were in the much-parodied academic-speak beloved of the institutional avant-garde, who write everything as though it were a conference abstract.

Ferneyhough’s Fifth String Quartet is a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities”; completely unlike his Second Quartet, which “realizes the projected possibility of a gradual coming together between objective coherence and receptive spontaneity”. Chalk and cheese, really. Both are significant advances over his earlier Sonatas for String Quartet, with its “dialectical tension between the elements with a deliberately rationalizing character and others of a more spontaneous gesture”.

I wonder if these types of program notes in today’s intellectual climate seem more quaint than alienating. This sort of hyperintellectual analysis doesn’t upset me as much as it does others: just about every artist is intellectually beholden to some personal philosophy that, on contact with the outside world, proves to be more or less bogus. Whether it’s poststructuralist discourse or catholicism, I don’t have to buy into the ideas that make a piece of music I enjoy listening to.

Oh yeah, the music was really nice. Contemporary classical music is alive and well etc. As Ferneyhough put it himself when discussing his Third String Quartet, “the multiplicity of values in the text rests on a coherent structuring procedure regulated by the relation between silence and eloquence. Such a postulate of art for art’s sake gives birth to a work that can only be conceived by self-reference: first in a metaphorical sense, but finally in a literal sense.” Which I take to be a particularly thorough way of saying: it is what it is.

What’s big in composition right now: sustained passages of rapid movement, played very quietly. Every new piece these days has to have at least one, it seems.

Wigmore Hall is Rock’n’Roll!

  • One punter reeks of piss!
  • Another punter reeks of stale booze!
  • Yet another is swigging straight from their single-serve bottle of wine without using the glass provided!

Filler by Proxy XLV: Grapple With It

Monday 29 January 2007

If there’s a reason my compulsive CD buying has stopped over the past 12 months, it’s because of sites like UbuWeb, the Other Minds Archive, WFMU and ANABlog making available all sorts of wild stuff I’d heard about, but never actually heard.
Lately ANABlog has been working through mini-retrospectives of music by underrated composers of the 20th Century (their latest project, Ben Johnston, is definitely worth a listen) but amongst all this they have uploaded George Harrison’s much maligned second solo album, Electronic Sound.
This is the album he made (or didn’t make, depending who you ask) entirely on his shiny new Moog synthesiser in a couple of days. I don’t know which is more surprising, that someone has bothered to upload an MP3 of this record, or that it was once issued as an 8-track cartridge.
If you’re at all curious, get it soon, because it won’t stay around for too long. (Short, shameful confession: I haven’t downloaded it because I bought a slightly battered 2nd-hand LP of it some 15 years ago.)
Also: Forget the Beatle! I just checked UbuWeb and they now have a collection of readings by Jas H. Duke. This is the guy who would have changed the history of poetry, if only (a) he wasn’t Australian, (b) the cultural custodians acknowledged his existence, and (c) he didn’t fall down the Melbourne General Post Office steps in 1992.

Saturday Drones Club, Part 2: Stockhausen

Saturday 27 January 2007

“This piece goes for 70 minutes!” my friend groaned, looking through the program. After an hour or so of Phil Niblock’s drones at Sketch earlier in the day, we were at another free concert: a performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1968 composition Stimmung, in which six singers hold a single chord based on overtones of a low B-flat for the duration.
The piece is an excellent example of the combination of rigorous logic and loony inspiration that comprises much of Stockhausen’s music; its esoteric and irrational material harnessed by a meticulous design. Names of the days of the week, gods from religions around the world, and slightly goofy self-penned erotic poetry, are given means to be incorporated into designated rhythmic patterns at times decided upon by the singers, which in turn generate subtle harmonic combinations as these patterns are imitated or diverged from amongst the other singers.
Unlike the Niblock performance, there were no couches, drinks, or quiet conversation. The singers, three male, three female, sat around a table, facing each other, with microphones to provide slight amplification to better bring out the harmonics in the drones. We sat surrounding them, in hard plastic seats arranged in rings around the cavernous room. A small speaker in the centre of the floor softly played the low drone, to keep the singers in tune. Clearly this would have to be a meditative experience.
My only worry about going to this gig was whether the singers – a group called Intimate Voices, who all have non-music related day jobs – would be any good. Singing softly and holding the same pitch for long periods of time is not at all easy, and excessive deviations in intonation or loudness, or confusion in moving from one pattern to the next, could make the experience interminable. The performers have to learn a new singing style, and jointly work out their own structure for a coherent interpretation. It wasn’t surprising to learn this night was the culmination of 18 months of rehearsals.
I’ve heard the Singcircle recording of Stimmung, and this performance was a bit rougher, as you’d expect in a live setting. However, Intimate Voices gave an interpretation that showed more variety in atmosphere and attitude from one section to the next, unlike Singcircle’s consistently unruffled approach, even during the dirty poems. Intimate Voices’ interpretation was more episodic, with more pauses and breaks between sections: I’m not sure how acceptable this is to the composer. The electronic drone could still be faintly heard throughout the concert, which both filled the gaps in the singing and revealed when singers began to stray from correct intonation.
Despite these small issues, the singers in Intimate Voices made a subtly beautiful, flowing and well-shaped interpretation of Stockhausen’s score. The open form of the work meant that hearing other performances did nothing to prepare me for how the work would unfold, so it was very satisfying hearing the familiar elements arranged into a new form with its own dramatic sense. The visual aspects helped: watching the singers signalling to each other when they were introducing new material, and hearing how it was incorporated into the music.
My friend, who has taken singing lessons and sung in a number of choirs, appreciated the difficulties of the piece and liked the way the six singers kept it together, adding her own statement of approval: “That felt like only 50 minutes!”
A reproduction of the score, and a more detailed analysis of how it is constructed, is available here.

Everybody thinks Tubby the Tuba; nobody ever thinks Ludwig the Tuba.

Wednesday 24 January 2007

In the bit of my Gubaidulina review where I ranted about how so many composers don’t know how to write music for certain instruments, so they just copy what some famous composer did before them (and so everything written for that instrument ends up sounding the same, and so everyone thinks that instrument always sounds the same…), I was referring to something Morton Feldman used to complain about. I forgot to mention it.
Kyle Gann has been discussing Feldman again on his blog, with two anecdotes I’d not heard before, regarding the need to be aware of how complicit you are in acceding to convention, be it social, historical, or personal. He doesn’t mention whether there is an intentional subtext about Jewish minds thinking alike.

Morton Feldman used to have a standard assignment that he gave his students: “Write a piece that goes against everything you believe.” He found that his students wrote their best pieces denying all their usual reflexes. (Sort of like the Seinfeld episode in which he decides, since everything he does turns out badly, that he’ll do the opposite of his reflex habits from now on – and it works.) Feldman also had a standing offer to buy dinner for the student who could come up with the worst orchestration – and no one ever won, because the more they worked to come up with bizarre instrument combinations, the more interesting the results.

Saturday Drones Club, Part 1: Phill Niblock

Wednesday 24 January 2007

I swear that scoring free drinks at Sketch was only an afterthought when I went to the opening of Phill Niblock’s The Movement of People Working. The main reason was hearing and watching live performances of his music.
As far as anyone is concerned, Niblock does two things. First, he writes music which requires a solo musician to hold one note for as long as possible, over and over again, and then overdub that with more of the same, over and over again. A loud, dense drone, rich with shifting overtones, is produced.
Secondly, and this comes as a surprise to music-oriented people when going to see a performance of his music, he makes films of people around the world doing rigorous manual labour, and these are typically screened during his musical performances. At Sketch we were surrounded by people repairing boats, harvesting seaweed, dismembering carcases, making noodles, ploughing earth, flaying hides, winnowing grain, scavenging garbage.
The films are open to political, social and economic interpretations, but these considerations are subsumed within the prosaic documentation of people performing practiced, necessary actions, devoid of aesthetic artifice. If the juxtaposition of sound and image comment on each other, it is through the musician’s playing, stripped of expressive subjectivity, performing a disciplined series of tasks. The necessity of the work shown on film, however, is missing from the music. Largely, it appears that both appear together because they’re the two things Niblock does. The incompatibly impersonal approaches to the two media make film and music oddly neutral accompaniments to each other.
The square, high-ceilinged gallery at Sketch showed three videos projected high on each wall, showing randomly-selected sections from the hours of film Niblock has shot over two decades, above a pit of fashionable bohemian types busily networking and quaffing free pinot grigio. (“I’ve seen your website,” was the first piece of overheard conversation upon entering the room.) There was a palpable irony in the disconnect between the scenes in the lower and upper halves of the room; yet amongst the milling crowd – the muddled conversations, the drinking, the social climbing, the little group of small children, one wearing a strikingly painted helmet, who ran around and occasionally butted into the small bar, sending glasses flying – there were people at work: a couple of flustered drinks waiters trying to clear tables and keep the glasses intact, and in one corner a flautist and a guitarist alternately playing Niblock’s music, which filled up all available aural space in and around the crowd noise. They were doing their job, mostly ignored, and hopefully getting properly paid for it.
Later that day I went to a performance at Goldsmiths College of Stockhausen’s Stimmung, a large work for six voices singing harmonic overtones of a low B-flat for seventy minutes. Like the Niblock gig, it was free! But no booze. The write-up will have to wait until part 2, tomorrow.

Will I regret not spending an hour travelling out to Croydon last night to pay 28 pounds to see Steven Seagal play guitar with his blues band?

Monday 22 January 2007


Gubaidulina at the Barbican, Wolfie Adams at the Lakeside

Sunday 21 January 2007

The year has begun in its traditional way, with the confluence of darts finals on the telly and the Barbican’s annual weekend with a not-quite-dead composer. It seems I missed a nailbiting final, as this review describes in satisfying detail what makes watching people watching darts so enjoyable (“That’s the brilliant thing about darts – the honesty.”)
This year’s composer was Sofia Gubaidulina, whose music I’m not sure about. I’d heard a few pieces, which ranged from great (Offertorium) to tedious and pedantic (Sieben Worte), so this seemed like a good time to skip the darts and find out which of these works was the exception to the rule.
The big Friday night concert presented all of Gubaidulina’s orchestral ‘Nadeyka’ Triptych for the first time. The first piece, a violin concerto called The Lyre of Orpheus, contained some of the attributes that makes Offertorium such a strong piece – a sombre capital-B Beauty, and an imaginative use of tonal colour, such as the combination of violin and percussion instruments – on a more limited and modest scale. This law of diminishing returns continued to assert itself as the evening wore on.
After the performance of the second piece, ‘…The Deceitful Face of Hope and of Despair’, one reviewer called the solo flautist “mannered”, because he didn’t have enough space to print “evil wind-up Bridget Fonda doll who thinks she’s the conductor”. The music didn’t help, giving her lots of free time to mince around on stage in between aping the opening gesture of Varèse’s Density 21.5 over and over again. This is a problem that recurs with the lesser, academically-acceptable composers: they don’t know what to do with instruments less familiar than piano and strings, so they all tend to write for the same instruments in the same way. Gubaidulina is not the only composer to copping flute gestures from Varèse’s piece and generally faking along with other flute clichés like trills and whirling chromatic runs, strung together into the semblance of real flute music.
In case the title of the previous piece wasn’t portentous enough for you, the final work, for large orchestra and tape, was called A Feast During the Plague. For the better part of half an hour the orchestra heaved and groaned through a sludgy, turgid, overbearing score that played like a parody of Serious Modern Music. The tape (deliberately incongruous techno breaks interrupting the orchestra) was poorly executed and carelessly played through speakers either side of the stage. Combined with the orchestra’s bombast, it left everyone in the audience feeling bemused, belaboured and mildly embarassed.
I can more or less agree with the start of this review:

The more one listens to Sofia Gubaidulina’s music, the less one likes it. Such disenchantment comes, it should be added, from hearing it in quantity. Performed in isolation, her works often give the impression of stark originality. However, placed end to end in this year’s BBC composer weekend, they revealed startling limitations of emotional range.

Music not being sentient, I don’t care about its perceived emotional range, be it limited or not. Xenakis stuck to one level of expression for pretty much his entire life and I don’t have a problem with his music the way I do with Gubaidulina’s. It’s not that perpetually pained religiosity, that has helped so many eastern European composers find favour with western critics, which I find objectionable; just that it is used to sustain poorly-constructed, numbingly literal music.
The afternoon concerts at St Giles at Cripplegate of Gubaidulina’s string quartets showed both her strengths and her weaknesses as a composer in a better light. Quartets allow less room for bombast, and these pieces were allowed by the composer to relate to listeners on musical terms alone, rather than asked to bear a heavy, ungainly spiritual message that neither the medium nor the composer could sustain. The musical ideas were interesting and quite unusual, but each successful passage seemed to hang around a little too long: she always seemed too intrigued by the effects to properly integrate them into a cohesive composition.
Finally, by way of a wholly gratuitous and unenlightening anecdote, I feel compelled to observe that Gubaidulina, present at all the concerts, wore the same damn shirt on each of the three days.