I grew up in a house in Woodford, in a house on one of the few unpaved roads in London. It was also in the middle of Epping Forest. Though to my knowledge this doesn't happen much these days, occasionally when I was a child I would see a group of cows wandering down my road and through down the forest path and out somewhere -- god knows where. It would be a lie to say that I thought a herd of cows wandering through the forest was completely normal -- though if anyone knows the area, cattle grids are abundant, so there would seem to be, as it were, the consistent 'potential' for cows to appear. But if anything my recollection is not so much of puzzlement that they were there at all, but rather admiration that they managed to find their way though by themselves. I cannot remember seeing the cattle-driver, who presumably must have existed; but then again, who's watching out for the man with the stick when there's a herd of cows going past.
Jonathan Marmor's piece Cattle in the Woods (2008) wanted the listener to be reapportioned relative to the material -- hear what is presumably familiar made new, or in a new setting. This was a strong piece musically, though it captured a more grown-up feeling of stolid, perhaps indefatigable nonchalance -- wryness, though serious -- that really has nothing to do with the childhood wonder I associate with the title's image. This piece instigated the kind of feeling one might get when seeing something very unusual occurring but nevertheless considering it normal -- to put it another way, the self-normalising effect, by accretion, of the strange. Usual things are just those strange things we've grown accustomed to.
The piece had been arranged for two reed organs (Tim Parkinson, Markus Trunk), cello (Anton Lukoszevieze), melodica (John Lely), and synthesiser (Angharad Davies), which produced an inspired combination of timbres. The music had a kind of flatness, that nevertheless moved in some direction (was not static). The material was tonal with typical voice-leading patterns, but with occasional microtonal inflections; the harmonic material was randomly arranged. This was unsettling, though quickly entirely normal music -- which perhaps made it even more unsettling.
Other pieces in this concert were notable, though none was quite as strong as Marmor's. Christian Wolff's Cello Suite Variation (2000), like others of his pieces, is a 'reworking' of Bach, specifically the first cello suite. Tim said that Christian had been asked to write the piece based on Bach, and of course never being able to live up to the original compositional standards, Christian was left in a somewhat grumpy mood. Perhaps this was the piece's downfall -- Christian in some ways takes Bach too seriously for his own good. It would, perhaps, have been better to just take the material naively and rub out bits of it, extrapolate it and cut it up. As it was, the music felt like it was 'derived in', but not made up of, Bach's notes. As such it attempted to raise itself above the level of collage but could not quite. By treating Bach's music as the product of a human being, as it were, one at once takes it too seriously and not seriously enough.
Matteo Fargion's 11 Notturni (1991) for piano, was pretty, though again, I wondered quite what he was trying to get at. I felt at times like the piece's gestures were done half-heartedly -- Fargion compared the piece to Feldman (though not as chromatic), and Chopin (though to my ears not as saccharine). In some ways the Chopin influence ought to have been more explicitly drawn, and hence the piece more provocative, rather than (admittedly this was an early work) some attempt to appease the Gods of post-Cagean minimalism whilst wanting to keep smiling and very much in control.
I thought Luiz Henrique Yudo's Five Palindromes (1997) was an excellent series, though. Based entirely on a single rhythmic schema (itself containing lots of non-retrogradable internal bits and pieces), the piece had an amiable brevity -- split into short movements -- and self-similarity which was very admirable. The practice of setting up quite a stable and constricted (for want of a better word) situation and then playing with it, very audibly, was nice. I was reminded at times of work by language poets -- for example, Christian Bok, whose Eunoia (2002), uses only one of the five vowels for each of its chapters.
The concert ended with Jurg Frey's 2 Stucke (1991) -- excitingly a world premiere (then again, he's written quite a bit). These pieces were not as laconic as some of Frey's later work -- there was an obvious link with Feldman again, though even at this early stage the material is quite pared down. Rather what was interesting -- in particular the second piece -- was the occasional and surprising bursts of busy-ness, which I very much enjoyed, as well as a dwelling on major/minor second monophonic appogiaturas in piano left hand and cello, a simple but very rewarding gesture in aural terms.
I think Tim and Anton, and Markus and John are all due tremendous thanks for continuing with this concert series and putting in the effort to keep it going and interesting. It remains an important addition to the new music goings-on in London and the UK in general, and I hope their able to continue, in this fantastic new Wren church of all places. I look forward to next year.