John White 88 at Round Chapel

Sunday 21 April 2024

Last Sunday an afternoon of concerts was held at the Round Chapel in Clapton to commemorate what would have been the 88th birthday of composer John White. White, who died in January, is one of those figures of the British avant-garde whose work was, for certain generations, often more inferred from others than heard directly. That was certainly my experience when growing up in Australia and I suspect it wasn’t too different elsewhere in the Anglosphere, where a few glimpses could be deduced from reading about some tracks on out-of-print LPs issued on the Obscure label, or possibly even hearing them. Living in the UK helped to expand on this narrow view from half a century ago but even so, when hearing a selection of his music at Music We’d Like To Hear in 2022 I noted that his short, often oblique compositions condemned him to “being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist”. The Round Chapel audience skewed old, peppered with original longhairs and a handful of soft-spoken Maoists up from Surrey for the day.

Hearing this much of White’s music in a day helped to understand how weak my understanding is of his art. Selections from his hundred-odd Piano Sonatas appeared throughout the day, mostly played by Dave Smith. These ranged from the benignly self-undermining miniatures I’d associated with his overall style, to some more generous take-offs on various genres (these were played by Mary Dullea) and one stark, early Sonata of brusquely contrasting intervals played by Tim Parkinson. The creative impulse was pulled one way then another throughout the day, alternating between more conventionally emotive music for plays or cosier chamber works, and more abstract works like the Concert Duos from the early 1970s, originally written for the John White / Christopher Hobbs tuba and piano duo. Then again, even those supposedly colder pieces were built upon dance steps or concert-hall favourites, so that White was always tweaking his sentimental influences in some idiosyncratic way, with the distinguishing factor being the degree to which the work’s origins could be detected on the surface.

Then there’s the comedy. Parkinson and Catherine Kontz performed White’s 2014 piece Wine Connoisseur’s Shoot Out, a cheerfully inconsequential piece for percussive objects (including wine bottle), ditzy stylophone breaks and readings of descriptions from a wine catalogue. It was very British in the way its harmless eccentricity raised questions about satire, arte povera and Dada without the slightest interest in spelling anything out beyond the audience’s immediate enjoyment. It makes Satie – one of White’s chief influences – seem pointed. It also shows why White remained a marginal figure, as he never really mellowed into a sufficiently safe figure with an institutionally acceptable idea of fun (as the Poor Fart Harmony tape from 1988 demonstrated when played later in the day). Instead of composing soundtracks for lottery-funded movies, he was performing live sets with homebrew electronics in the backrooms of pubs. John Lely, frequent collaborator with White in electronic gigs, played a concentrated work with an off-kilter array of lo-fi objects as a tribute, as did Greta Kalteisen, Andrea Rocca and Richard Sanderson with a revival of White and Hobbs’ battery-operated electronic ensemble Live Batts!! Of course, there were also the Machines – Newspaper Reading Machine, Drinking and Hooting Machine, with Autumn Countdown Machine to end the event – which were highlights as usual, perhaps through their simple ingenuity, or perhaps because everyone’s appreciation of White is oriented upon those old LPs after all.

Number Pieces live (part two), plus John White and Mark Ellestad

Thursday 30 June 2022

(Part one here.)

It was wonderful to hear Cage’s Eight played live, in the round no less, at the Music We’d Like To Hear concert in St Mary at Hill. I said I’d found the version in the Apartment House box set from last year a relative disappointment, owing to the potential for dynamic contrasts in the piece that were passed up. Sitting in a small church, however, with the winds and brasses encircling you, the small differences in timbre and force of breath became alive. With greater spatialisation, Apartment House’s emphasis on sustained tones at the expense of short sounds set the flexible structure of Cage’s composition in clearer relief: having created anarchic harmony, he made anarchic antiphony possible as well.

The sounds in the church seemed particularly warm that night. Mira Benjamin and Anton Lukoszevieze played Mark Ellestad’s violin and cello duet In the Mirror of this Night, having recently recorded it for Another Timbre. In this setting, at close range, it all sounded particularly sumptious. As a communal listening experience, the piece’s wandering is less unknowable, becoming more of an exemplar of what Cage had called purposeful purposelessness.

The previous evening, members of the Plus Minus ensemble played works by Sarah Hennies, Alexey Shmurak and John White. White is a composer who should be appreciated now to avoid the rush. The pieces selected – involving piano, clarinet, double bass, percussion – were characteristically short, such as the two examples of his piano sonatas, Nos. 105 and 143. Less Scarlatti and more a late bagatelle by a Beethoven who interests have turned from tonality to oblique commentary, the piano sonatas exemplify the dual traits of White’s music appearing both benign and threatening. Each miniature, neatly assembled and considerate of your attention, conceals a nagging interrogation of the assumptions upon which it rests: a forced extension, a moment of stiffness, an unresolved lapse. In another time and place, his brief, pleasant pieces would have had him gaoled as a subversive. In this time and place, he instead suffers the small mercy of being regarded in much the same way as an outsider artist, despite his significance and achievements. He’s what, eighty-five now? The compositions heard were composed between 1989 and 2004, with the exception of his old party piece, Drinking And Hooting Machine, where Plus Minus were joined by volunteers from the audience to alternately drink from and blow across bottles, running down to empty.

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall

Monday 29 February 2016

You get a funny crowd at Wigmore Hall on a Saturday night. Some punters come just because it’s am awfully nice venue and they fancy an evening of refined entertainment. There was a slight but steady rate of attrition throughout Apartment House’s programme. The visiting American and her English hosts in my row were bemused at first but in the end seemed to enjoy it enough.

At least they didn’t have to deal with any stereotypical “ugly modern music”; nor did they have to appreciate any efforts by “accessible” contemporary composers which they could say were nice enough but not as good as the real 19th century thing. The gig started in a puzzling enough fashion, with the première of Luiz Henrique Yudo’s 2007 piece A QUARTET FOR CLAUDE MOLLET. Like the Yudo piece I heard at the last Apartment House gig, it’s a grid of not-quite-exactly-repeating figures. This time, a string-quartet see-sawed back and forth between notes, gently but obstinately. The patterns seemed to change a bit between pauses. Probably. Later in the evening, another Yudo piece, A QUARTET FOR FRANÇOIS MORELLET from 2012, apparently made use of chance and presented a smoothly shifting web of overlapping chords.

This is why I keep writing about these guys; they play stuff I’m interested in hearing for myself. There’s the emphasis on music as an artform, in which technique (both in composition and performance) is not an end in itself but a means to eliciting a profound response in the listener without appeals to literature or drama. There is the element of discovery and of rediscovery. Apart from giving first hearings to the two Yudo pieces, each several years old, the programme included three other world premières and a couple of older, obscure works. The older pieces, by Henning Christiansen and John White, were redolent of the cultural context in which they were created, Fluxus and the Scratch Orchestra, respectively. Both represent schools of composition too often dismissed today as historical relics, fit for discussion but not to be experienced.

Christiansen’s Modeller were written in the mid-1960s but not performed in Britain until now. They seem strangely ahead of their time: short fragments, provocatively simple. Mostly performed by a solo pianist, with occasional interruptions from the strings, harmonium and percussion near the end. One part, of unadorned oscillating thirds, effectively anticipated Philip Glass’ piano music by 20 years. The familiarity was an odd sensation, but that didn’t last long. The Modeller never stayed around long enough for the listener to get fully comfortable. At the end, the ensemble repeated an ascending arpeggio in unison, whether by accident or design imitating the beginning of the Blue Danube Waltz without ever progressing, with an increasing sense of finality.

White’s Newspaper Reading Machine (circa 1971) amused my neighbours, being pretty much what the title implies. Any sense of the piece being a dadaist stunt was tempered by a musical system clearly underpinning the performance. They also liked Egidija Medekšaitė’s Pratiksha. The new works all suggested a common heritage of assimilating the more vital musical philosophies from the last century and synthesising them into something different. The use of systems, of chance, awareness of visual arts, of music as a social activity, the rejection of dogmatic allegiance to a particular system of organising pitch and harmony, all appeared in various guises.

I’d never heard anything by Martin Arnold before. The way people were talking about him before the gig suggested that I’d been missing out. They were right. His new piece Stain Ballad is incredible; striking in its mysterious ambiguity, fragile but indelible. The music shared an aesthetic that Morton Feldman aspired to, of “having mood” without being “in a mood”. As I typed this, Philip Thomas, the pianist that night just tweeted he was listening back to the piece and is “in tears… fresh, complex, meandering, intricate, lovely.” Looking back, I’ll still remember this piece as one of the highlights of the year.