A Week’s Diary part 2: LCMF

Wednesday 22 June 2022

I’m not buying into the premise of this year’s London Contemporary Music Festival, back after a Covid-induced hiatus, but after two hot nights beginning in bright light under the skylights at the Woolwich Fireworks Factory the third evening turned grey and rainy and I prepared for the gig by looking out over the bleak lower reaches of the Thames while a cold wet wind blew through me. The first act I caught was Andy Ingamells giving Nam June Paik’s classic Sonata Quasi Una Fantasia a dedicated performance that was still very British in its repressed melancholy. I’m going to focus on the compositions here, as the improvisations, poetry and videos left me wondering if I understand anything about them. (The videos were a mix of “spent an hour too long looking up something on Wikipedia” and a revival of the early 80s New York genre “I’ve been here so long I assume my personal fuckups are generally relatable”.)

I’ve now heard more Evan Johnson, as much as it is possible to hear his music. Richard Craig perfomed his solo bass flute émoi with a confidence that made its faint sounds seem sourceless, a low sighing between a breath and a hum that floated through the large, populated space just audible but undeniably present. A big moment was the premiere of a new Frank Denyer piece, commissioned by LCMF. Five Views of the Path matched soprano Jessica Aszodi with the Octandre Ensemble playing an eclectic mix of instruments ranging from baroque to homemade inventions. With Denyer, the exotic colouration is used as expressive material, sound as evocation. Aszodi had a thankless role sitting among the musicians, picking out high notes in vocalise that mingled with the trio of recorders and struck berimbaus. Strange colours and percussion were a recurrent theme, particularly on the following night. The Explore Ensemble gave the first UK performance of Clara Iannotta’s Eclipse Plumage, a complex woven rope of small sounds that intertwined to produce an ominously indefinite chord that continually transformed its medium and displacement. Percuissionists and normal musicians alike operated a large array of small percussion and amplified objects, backed by a grand piano rigged with an electromagnetic device to induce sinister emanations.

Also receiving its first British performance was Rebecca Saunders’ percussion duo dust II, an extraordinary work quite unlike anything I’ve heard by her before. Caspar Heinemann and Christian Dierstein gave a bravura performance as they moved from the audience to the front of the room, onto and eventually across the stage, managing a dizzying array of instruments. Saunders adopted a more relaxed pace than usual, allowing the intrinsic complexity of the sounds to provide her busier textures. Sounds were combined beautifully, with a strong focus on metallic semi-pitched sounds. The firm grasp on the material and the progression (in sound and movement) from one place to another made the piece work as music and not just a virtuosic exercise, even as the momentary effects were dazzling. To complement this, the evening began with Crystabel Riley‘s requiem of solo drumming, a prolonged study in fusing rhythm into timbre.

The Saturday evening gig began with another revived Fluxus piece, Ben Patterson’s First Symphony getting its first British airing. Someone asked me to sit on the left side of the hall for this piece, but I didn’t trust them and so sat on the right. There were four premieres that night, commissioned for the event. Cerith Wyn Evans’ …)(. finally got its complete airing, long deferred since the preview given in 2019 for its expected debut the following year. At that time, “the hieratic, slow-paced performance on piano and gongs was betrayed by a perfunctory and non-committal ending” and here the pay-off was a listless antiphonal chorale from the orchestra. Not the orchestra’s fault, given the heartfelt work they put into Tyshawn Sorey’s tone poem for cello and orchestra, For Roscoe Mitchell. Soloist Deni Teo and the pickup orchestra conducted by Jack Sheen played this beautifully scored and phrased work with rapturous solemnity, reminiscent of Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra but with fuller, less stifled voicing for the cello.

Hard not to roll the eyes at the prospect of an orchestral premiere by Elvin Brandhi aka one half of Yeah You: this kind of crossover almost never works. Except this time it kind of did. Brandhi’s GIFF WRECK took her usual materials of noise and vocal aggression and displaced them onto a video screen of two vocalists sitting at home deploying auto-tuned effects, mimicked and counterposed by dense bursts of orchestral textures. Brandhi herself kept true to her peripatetic style, pacing round the perimeters of the hall occasionally adding her own amplified interventions. Oliver Leith’s
Pearly, goldy, woody, bloody, or, Abundance trended heavily towards the jokey side of his work and probably went too far. That was probably the point but it’s at the expense of the piece’s staying power. An exuberant mish-mash of triumphant fanfares, complete with aural pyrotechnics, its self-conscious humour is good fun but disposable in the manner of Wellington’s Victory, which again is probably the point.

Mariam Rezaei’s frenzied activity on turntables and samplers for her lengthy solo SADTITZZZ was a remarkable achievement, being a virtual skronk solo that had all the singlemindedness of your typical free improv muso while being more inventive and fun than about ninety percent of them. It also worked as a nice teaser for the concluding act of the night, when Roscoe Mitchell himself appeared. He’s eighty-one now, I think. Typically considered to be jazz, which is an all too limited understanding of his musical achievements. Having just subjected people to my jazz-deafness, I prepared for disappointment but didn’t hear it in that way at all. A slight figure but mesmerising on stage, he captures the audience through plain statements that he then eloquently expands upon into detailed arguments, extending motives in different directions and then relating them in ways that are intuitively clear without ever exact repetition. He also knows when to stop, and deploys silence to pointed effect. Solos on soprano and baritone sax were then followed by percussionist Kikanju Baku, who emerged from the back of the hall as a disruptive trickster figure. Once at his drum-kit, his relentless attack acted as harsh colouration with rhtyhmic variance. Mitchell played off and against this barrage, equally unruffled whether he was matching the flow or simply commenting with isolated notes. A captivating ending.

Evan Johnson: lists, little stars

Sunday 28 November 2021

Evan Johnson’s music is hard to hear. Does everyone say that about him? While other composers may reward your closer attention, Johnson just seems to compound your uncertainty. Are you sure of what you’ve heard? When it’s over, you remember the experience of listening, but the image created in your mind is defined by its obscurity. The music’s reticence is compounded when the medium is an instrument identified with the personal and intimate forms of expression, as in Ben Smith’s collection of Johnson’s piano pieces lists, little stars issued by All That Dust.

The prevailing mood across these pieces is one of extreme introversion, where even the titles seem to be deployed to deter further inquiry (the brief mon petit pleurant is succeeded by the cycle mes pleurants, two works use ‘dehiscences’ in their titles). The 2010 piece hwil is about thirty seconds of almost inaudible deliberation at, if not on, the keyboard. There is a proliferation of precise actions in each score, somewhat in the manner of Kurtág, but the aim is not on clarity of intricate details. Johnson’s music may be faint but it is not frail; at times it is almost crude in protesting its reticence. The greater part of the two pieces in Dehiscences, Lullay (“Thou nost whider it whil turne”) is smothered in a blanket of white noise, cutting out suddenly as though to catch the listener in the act of eavesdropping. The rare loud notes at the start of mes pleurants‘ “Se Zephirus” have a similar effect.

When the piano is heard, its statements are deliberately half-formed, unresolved, with even the more expressive flourishes smudged by claustrophobic pitch spaces. You hear the thought process itself, in all its agonising uncertainty, without the cleaned-up end product. The two earlier works heard here attempt to make their sonic content inconsequential, while the later pieces make strategic use of the relative presence or absence of musical substance. The largest work here, 2013’s “atendant [sic], souffrir”, lists, little stars, is a duet in which the fuller sound is balanced by more delicate playing, more a displacement than a dialogue. Despite, or perhaps because of its greater length, it’s an easier piece to follow; but this may also be due to acclimatisation through the opening tracks on the album.

The sound quality is particularly good, given the extreme dynamic range needed to catch a reasonable impression of the piano in performance. Ben Smith would appear to play with all the exactness and greater musical consideration needed to bring these pieces into tentative life, with a talent for letting each sound fade and die in their own way. As a further vote of confidence, he is joined by Ian Pace for the title duet.