Isolation Pianos (2): Lisa Ullén, Bobby Mitchell, Frederic Rzewski

Tuesday 30 June 2020

More odious comparisons: pianos, this time. This was going to get posted yesterday and include Alex White’s Transductions but I got a bit carried away about that one. I’m catching up on Takuroku’s weekly set of releases by musicians working in self-isolation over the past few months. Lisa Ullén’s Gold, 20-minute solo for prepared piano, was recorded in her living room on 1 June and I’ve just finished listening to it for a second time. Prepared piano is a difficult medium for musical expression; the overbearing timbres tend to push composers into resorting to extremes, either extravagant pyrotechnics or carefully isolated gems of sound. Ullén here stakes out a middle ground, and perhaps suffers for it. With paper threaded through the piano strings, she sets up a buzzing haze through which clear tones gradually emerge. From there, her concentration turns from timbral density to variety, picking out deliberate melodic fragments mixing muted and untreated piano notes. That middle ground of avoiding extremes makes it all feel a little safe, but then this piece isn’t about creating and resolving tension. It’s an extended study in contrasting timbres and textures, with the latter half cannily avoiding any perceptible shape to balance out the former.

Pianist Bobby Mitchell has given Takuroku something that’s as close to trad as the series will presumably get, with a suite of pieces from Frederic Rzewski’s Songs of Insurrection. A veritable Old Master of virtuoso piano composition, Rzewski shows that his compositional and motivational spark are as vital as ever with this piano cycle composed in 2016, drawing material and inspiration from popular songs of World War II soldiers, partisans and civil rights protesters. The slightly rough-and-ready recording conditions suit the idiom perfectly and Mitchell gets stuck in with the right attitude, playing with an athelticism that always lands with feet planted firmly on the ground, with a tenderness that’s never soft-hearted. There’s a great unity of purpose here between composer and pianist, each unafraid to get into some dense passages without fear of getting the listener muddled. Right now, there’s no other legitimate way to get hold of a recording of this piece so it’s kind of essential for late Rzewski.

The Presence of Julius Eastman

Tuesday 20 December 2016

For four years now, the London Contemporary Music Festival have put together the most exciting new music events in town. After last year’s eclectic extravaganza, LCMF 2016 was tightly focused and all the more revelatory for it. Three nights in another new venue (with a surprisingly good sound) dedicated to the work of Julius Eastman.

Eastman died in 1990, in almost total obscurity. Since the turn of the century, Mary Jane Leach has led a quest to rediscover, salvage and revive what remains of his music. Most Eastman fans probably first heard of him through the 3-CD set that resulted from this hunt for recordings, released ten years ago. The recovery process still goes on today: this year Frozen Reeds issued a tape of the large-scale work Femenine that had laid dormant for 40 years. These recordings reclaimed a lost strand of minimal music that was never fully pursued; a unique, vital voice in a style of composition that had seemed exhausted.

Over the last weekend, it became abundantly clear that these records were just scratching the surface, both in what listeners know about Eastman’s music and in how much more there is still to be revealed in his “classics”. Six pieces by Eastman were played, one of them a world premiere. That 1984 piece, Hail Mary for voice and piano, is still not mentioned on Leach’s list of known works. For a bit of perspective, Leach’s essay from 2004 mentions that she has obtained copies of scores for only two and a half works.

The rediscovered recordings have obtained something of an aura, of essential documents from a lost moment in time. The LCMF gigs refuted that idea and firmly established Eastman as a composer in a living history of music-making. Performed live by understanding, talented musicians, the pieces took on a life of their own, with greater emotional depth and pure sensory delight than can be found in the old tapes. This was most clear in the ensemble works. Apartment House’s Femenine benefited from greater accuracy and confidence, which allowed its increasingly outrageous digressions to hit the audience with an almost overwhelming force. Stay On It finally, actually sounded like a kindred work to the jazz and R&B Eastman spoke of. Other versions I’ve heard sound like a classic minimal composition derailed by an awkwardly sectional structure. At LCMF it really did start to heave and glide from one idea to another, subverting its lock-groove origins and risking anarchy, knowing it’s more fun to hang with Sun Ra than Steve Reich.

As the pianist Philip Thomas mentioned afterwards, “Julius Eastman’s music is music to be performed, heard, experienced and understood via the particular energies of live performance…. Nothing much to hold on to but everything to play with. So much revealed in the playing.” Special mention needs to go to vocalist Elaine Mitchener, whose free-form improvisation over Stay On It set the tone and led the work into new territory.

Mitchener’s voice also added a raw, disquieting edge to the otherwise hushed and restrained later works, Hail Mary and Buddha. The two pieces are almost unknown and I’d like to hear them again to appreciate their subtleties. The works for multiple pianos (here played as two pianos eight hands), Evil Nigger and Gay Guerrilla, were played with a brilliant clarity. The seemingly straightforward process behind each one took on twists and turns, at once angry, elegiac, triumphant and defiant. The unexpected ways that Evil Nigger subsides into stillness and Gay Guerrilla seems to endlessly rise are both glorious and disturbing.

Other composers featured at these gigs were Arthur Russell and Frederic Rzewski. Russell and Eastman were collaborators and kindred spirits of sorts, both outsiders to “serious” (i.e. unengaged) music. Russell’s almost inaccessible Tower of Meaning received an all-too-rare airing, in a special chamber arrangement. Its otherworldly blankness points equally to medieval music, Satie’s Socrate and Cage’s Cheap Imitation of it, as well as much “naive” music of the late 20th Century.

The entire programme opened with Rzewski’s Coming Together; a key work in understanding Eastman’s musical approach – of minimal rhythms, harmonies and repetitions as a framework for looser improvisation – and his engagement with politics, revolution and their conflicts with his sexuality. These themes were pursued further on the second night when Rzewski himself performed his own De Profundis, a setting of Oscar Wilde’s text for reciting pianist. This was the other highlight of the Festival. Rzewski, now 78, may have faltered on occasion but his voice, playing and percussive gestures (including rapping on the piano lid, scratching himself, beating his skull with his fist) all spoke with an unmatched directness and clarity. It was a gripping performance, letting the words drive the music and the music serve the words.

John Cage’s difficulty, according to Frederic Rzewski

Thursday 29 April 2010

When asked tonight why his description of Cage’s ideas seemed to contradict Cage’s own essays, Rzewski replied: “Cage was not a master of language. He obfuscates. If people have been playing his music badly for decades then it’s his own fault for being so unclear.”

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’?

Political music. No wait, come back!

Tuesday 23 May 2006

Percussionists have a rough time of it: they get lumped with all the musical odd jobs nobody else wants, or is allowed, to do. This can include appearing before a small audience wearing nothing but a pair of briefs and banging your head against a table. You can’t fake it: each thump on the table, or slap or scratch to your thighs and stomach, has to be sufficiently loud to carry through the hall at the loudness specified by the composer. It can’t help matters if you can hear someone in the third row nervously stifling giggles.

This was the task for percussionist Chris Brannick playing Frederic Rzewski’s Lost and Found at a concert in Rzewski’s honour at Blackheath Halls last Friday. Rzewski has often set spoken texts to music, but in Lost and Found the music has been stripped away, the performer stripped down, sitting alone at a table, tentatively recounting a story from military service in Vietnam. (The text is from a letter by Lieutenant Marion Kempner: I couldn’t find the letter online, but this one gives you a good idea of his scathing, cynical tone.)

The deliberate pacing, awkward pauses, his physical isolation at the far end the table, and his often violent movements created a sense of alienation matched by the bitter irony of the text. The music produced – voice, skin, table, chair – arose from the theatricality of the performance; and the theatre focused attention on the sounds produced by the performer.

This technique is analagous to Rzewski’s ability to unify the expression of his political beliefs with his musical talents, without one occluding the other. The term “political art” is usually applied as a derogatory term by all cultured people, and I avoided a performance of John Cage’s Song Books the following Monday precisely because the program promised the inclusion of “political compositions by students” (brrrrr!)

Cornelius Cardew is often held up as the example of the composer led astray by politics: radicalised in the 1960s, became a Maoist in the 1970s, renounced his bourgeois “avant-garde” compositions and dedicated himself to writing ersatz folk settings of Marxist-Leninist diatribes until his tragic death in 1981.

Cardew’s Mountains for bass clarinet was played before Lost and Found, a late work from 1977. It does have a poem by Mao appended to the score, but thankfully it is not read out for our edification. What politics may be found is worked into the music itself, the aspirational difficulties in the leaps and bounds of the melody, and its basis in Bach.

At the time, Cardew was working on studies of classical music with the People’s Cultural Association, and believed the best way to reach the working classes was through the more familiar forms of classicism, rather than “decadent” innovation and experiment. (On the other hand, Rzewski has said he unrepentantly aims much of his music at the concert-going middle and upper classes, who are in more need of radicalisation.) Mountains is an enjoyable and technically satisfying piece but, politically and musically, it falls far short of Cardew’s most ambitious work, The Great Learning, which involved large numbers of non-musicians performing in self-organising groups.

Cardew’s ideas about music in the 1960s grew to some extent out of Christian Wolff’s. Wolff understood that musicians playing together constitutes a form of social activity, and began writing pieces that took the social and political implications of this situation into account, allowing musicians a great deal of autonomy in deciding what to play and when to play it. Wolff’s music still tends to be discussed more than it is played, so it was good to hear one of his early works, Serenade for flute, clarinet and violin.

This is one of the pieces that first established Wolff’s reputation, before his more indeterminate works, being fully notated but restricting itself to just three notes*. The clever use of this restricted harmonic range showed how music can be beautiful and expressive by relying on the qualities of sounds for their own sakes, rather than in the context of grand melodies, dramatic key changes, etc. These days such ideas are taken for granted (except in music schools) and it sounds inoffensive enough, but it’s still a good effort considering he wrote it when he was 16. Smartarse.

On the up side for percussionists, they also get to do some of the most fun things in music, like hitting stuff (other than themselves). Black n’ Blues by Stephen Montague – who was in the audience along with Rzewski – was a shameless show-stealer, being that rarest of concert pieces, a “fun” piece that actually was fun. A pianist and Brannick alternated playing a fast, spasmodic blues riff with rhythmic assaults on several percussion instruments, various parts of the piano itself, and a large pillow filled with chalk dust. When it was all over Rzewski leaned over to Montague and stage-whispered, “You should run for Congress, at least.”

Theatrical highlights: Chris Bannick braining himself, duh! Also, the members of the Continuum Ensemble playing Rzewski’s Pocket Symphony (a jolly nice piece of what Frank Zappa called “music music”) peering at each other through a thick cloud of dust created during the prior performance of Black ‘n Blues.

Overheard gossip in the foyer: Apparently Rzewski had never encountered a bass recorder before, and needed an explanation from the recorder player talking to him. Don’t get recorder players started on the lesser-known aspects of their noble but underappreciated profession!

Boring Like a Drill Cultural Beer Exchange: £2.80 for a plastic pint of Becks – yes, you could take it into the auditorium. Watch out for the bar staff, who sometimes had trouble keeping a grip on those cups when serving.

A writeup of the whole Rzewskifest is here.

* E, B, and F# if you’re curious.