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Friday, 18 July 2014

The 10th MWLTH: 1

Tim Parkinson and Adam Morris

Here we are again—has it really been an entire year? It seems recent that the past Music We'd Like to Hear concluded—and I intend to write again about this festival. While there have been other gigs since last year's concerts (the James Saunders portrait at City springs to mind, as does Christopher Fox's new piece for the Clerks) I haven't felt as needing to scribble anything much about them as much as mwlth.

No. 1: Tim. 

Tim's concert this year, a series of percussion/piano solo/duos, convinced me—if I needed much more convincing—of the curious hybrid variety and singularity that so characterises the mwtlh aesthetic. I suppose telling John, Tim and Markus's concerts from one another is relatively easy--but nevertheless the differing curatorial approaches, for want of a better expression, slide gracefully into one another such that extracting a total mwtlh is at least to me seductively easy. 

The opener this year Chiyoko Szlavnics' early piece, Her Teeth Were White (1999) was a surprise for anybody expecting her careful, linear-laminal music. Here instead some enigmatic aphorisms for solo percussion, separated by slices of silence. A short piece made long by a Wandelweiserian sprinkling of pauses—though Adam Morris' more liberally dramatic, fluid 'pause interpretation' seemed not that necessary for me. 

Makiko Nishikaze's piano pieces that followed I found more difficult (as I have done in the past with her music)—while I admire her amazingly disappearing material—one that evaporates entirely on the tongue as it is being tasted--its inherent lack of memorability remains a problem, despite its elegence. Kunsu Shim's trace, elements (iv) (2005) perhaps suffered from a similar syndrome, though here it was 'thinness' rather than 'tendency to evaporate'. This was music that wanted to say a lot with little but ended up saying little also. 

Christian Wolff's weird and at times silly duo For Morty (1987) was also 'thin' but in that wonderful way so much of Wolff's music is. Never repeating itself and occasionally landing on a very exposed material texture, or oddly tonal corner, this was an unexpected and unpretentious piece.

Matteo Fargion's piece float weave, percussion part

The strongest efforts for me were though Jonathan Marmor's Jonathan Marmor (1999/2014), a two-part process melody—impressively, his first composition--here arranged for piano and vibes. This is music totally self-organising, and quite energetic too. Charlie Sdraulig caught something of Fitkin in it (not sure Tim was pleased with this comparison)—though to me this was an accident of instrumentation—Marmor's other music is too weird to abide this comparison for long. This particular piece seemed to me closer to, say, Tom Johnson in its algorithmic rigour. 

Similarly strong was Matteo Fargion's float weave (1996), amazingly not heard since it was done, a marvellous singular extension of one rhythmic idea. The little I have heard of Fargion has been impressive (see the write up of Markus' concert also). Perhaps I was pleasantly surprised to find Tim favouring something so orthodox in its developmentalism—so much of Tim's music, like other pieces of Fargion, adopt a kind of 'ensemble' form, where material lives with other material despite unreconciled difference or irrelation. 

A good gig in all, then, and a very promising start to this tenth(!) edition of Music We'd Like to Hear

The final concert is at 7.30 tonight. Further write-ups will appear here shortly. 

Review: Martin Creed

Martin Creed - What's the point of it
Hayward Gallery

It might be easier to think of Martin Creed as a composer—that’s what, in any case, I felt having taken in the striking retrospective of his work a few months ago. The first thing that greets one is a quantity of metronomes, ticking away at various speeds. Anyone who’s fond of the analogue metronome will know the piece by György Ligeti Poeme Symphonique—for 100 metronomes—that are wound up and tick away to their hearts content, slowly unwinding themselves until silent. Creed’s piece is essentially the same, plagiarised even, only that it appears his metronomes don’t wind themselves down.

Perhaps this is the difference: in all of Creed’s work there is this ‘alternation’—big and small, on and off, to and fro, up and down. But it’s an ceaseless alternation: it doesn’t wind itself down, it only (merely) winds you up, or entrances you, until you leave. Another example: in the lower gallery one of the gallery assistants is tasked with the arduous responsibility of playing Creed’s piano piece. The pianist must start at the bottom and wander up the chromatic scale to the top, before waiting for a while, before going down again. Over and over.

Cage famously said, ‘if something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.’ It is this tradition in which Creed works. But Cage’s work, unlike his demeanour, was often quite severe—or at least austere. Creed’s early works sometimes had a Cageian austerity, but he never appears to have displayed severity; he’s always trying to charm us. Cage’s paintings (which went on a touring exhibition in 2011, also organised by the Hayward) are serene, repetitive painted drawings around stones, whose positions are determined by chance, exercises in self-dissolution. Creed’s paintings are much more playful, for want of a better word: he is blindfolded, or using brash colours, or of late very naïve. Creed’s repetitive paintings are not the Zen ensō calligraphy of Cage; they are broccoli prints in acrylic.

Creed’s car, the Ford Focus out on the Hayward terrace, is played like an instrument. After sitting there blithely for a minute or two, it suddenly springs into action, all of its functions delivered at once. The doors open, the wipers flick, the engine starts and the radio blares. Then it ceases, ready to go off again. One is reminded of Cage’s 1962 score 0’00”: ‘in a situation with maximum amplification and no feedback, perform a disciplined action’.

Like a composer, Creed has everything in a catalogue. In the nineteenth century, musical Gesellschaften were set up to edit and catalogue the works of the great composers for their new audience—composers’ scores, what had been seen as a functionary, disposable blueprint for performance by patrons half a century before, were increasingly seen as the gateway to eternity. By collecting everything together and giving it a number, it was newly locatable in this world of bourgeois publication. By the twentieth century composers were doing this themselves; but visual artists have not be subjected to the same kind of ‘catalogue-mania’—perhaps because the dissemination of plastic artworks is still vaguely feudal, artworks inherit provenance records, and often are spirited away outside of the public gaze. No one knows just how many Warhols there are, least of all, in all probability, when he was around for his fifteen minutes, Mr Warhol himself.

All this makes Creed’s numbering system all the more enticing—he’s almost the only artist who does it—and it emphasises his intense productivity. His catalogue numbers a quantity already up there with the Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, both of them having produced more than 1000 works. But of course, Creed’s work is not latter-day Bach; aside from its sometimes being single sentences or scribbles, its mode of valuation is radically different. Creed’s new organ piece (or should I say, Work no. 1020) is being premiered on the refurbished Fesitval Hall Organ, alongside a complete programme of Bach pieces. Any composer in their right mind would be terrified by such a prospect—but Creed’s art-making is simply in a different kind of place. Not necessarily an ahistorical place, but a place that looks at the procession of history with an indifference bordering on mild curiosity.

My abiding sensation coming away from this exhibition was not, predictably, how charming and whimsical (and who wouldn't hate that description) this work is. Instead, this is work which is vaguely but noticeably worrying, even sinister. The unending bouncing up and down, turning on and off, opening and closing, going in and coming out. It is unending alternation from which there is no escape. Indeed, why would you want to escape? Lest you forget, everything is going to be all right.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Skogen vs. Skogen

 Skogen – Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long, Another Timbre, at71, 2014 [1]

Dowland's 'If my complaints could passions move', published by Peter Short, London, 1597. This is actually a consort table-book, as can be seen from the fact that the Bassus and Altus are rotated. Below the Cantus is lute tablature.

The problem with going to concerts of improvised music is that you can remain puzzled by what you just heard, with very little to help you get out of this puzzlement. This is, of course, also one of their major attractions. The music disappeared—it doesn’t exist any more, and if you need a greater amount of time to understand it, to go over it, tough.
     My experience of Skogen and Magnus Granberg’s Despairs Had Governed Me Too Long ought to be seen in this light. On the 24 February, at the album launch concert organised by Simon Reynell, an ensemble made up of Granberg, Angharad Davies, Anna Lindal, Erik Carlsson, and Henrik Olsson—all of whom are in the established line-up of this ensemble—was joined by Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, Samuel Rodgers, Tim Parkinson and Oliver Coates.
      This shouldn’t matter—as they were playing a composition. These are serious musicians, supervised by the composer no less. Granberg’s piece derives its material somewhat obliquely from Dowland’s song If my complaints could passions move, and is in several sections which, on the night, were determined by a large television monitor positioned behind the audience. It wasn’t in the end clear to me whether this meant there was a ‘mobile’ form or not—it looked to me as if Tim Parkinson’s piano material was all in order of sequence—but in any case, one ought to be able to play the same composition with several different ensembles. Right?
      Well, there’s a problem. Was Skogen—the band that performed—the same Skogen I’m listening to here? Do they need to be, for consistency's sake? This goes right to the heart of the composition-improvisation nexus that’s frequently cropping up today, not least as represented by Simon’s label. Who is the author of this CD? By way of comparison, we might ask: who is the author, so to speak, of the resulting sounds generated by Manfred Werder’s 2005(1)? Werder’s contribution consists of the direction:
[place, time, (sounds)][2]

If you play this piece, are you the ‘author’ of the sounds that emerge, or is Werder? Can you listen to an environment with your own two ears and hear it as ‘authored’ by Werder? The ambiguity here is deliberate. Traditional models of composition tend to differentiate performance from authorship. A performer is author of their performance; a composer is author of their composition. But in Skogen and Werder’s case there is a blurring—a deliberate blurring, one that is part of the aesthetic.
      There is a reason the CD is credited to ‘Skogen’ and not, as it were, to ‘Magnus Granberg’. One might imagine what this reason is—that Granberg perhaps regards his composition to be of the same essential creativity as those improvising musicians playing in the group alongside him. One might conceive of this as analogous with popular music, say. Radiohead’s songs, as most people know, are mostly written by Thom Yorke. But—and this is important for legal reasons—their authorship is credited to all of Radiohead. In popular music it’s perfectly reasonable and frequently the case that performers are part authors. But there’s an additional problem—while popular musicians can ‘cover’ others’ work, they can’t re-author it themselves. Subsequent performance, by others, does not constitute an additional legal intervention—royalties must be paid.
      With improvised music, what happens to this scheme? Is the musical object ‘authored’ by Skogen this particular CD itself? Or does Granberg pre-emptively include their authorship ‘within’ his composition (i.e. that Granberg isn’t offering Despairs on the ‘open market’—it’s not as if anyone can come along and play the piece, paying a royalty to him). What then, to go back to the 24 February, did I witness?
       I should be clear. Oliver Coates (a cellist, not usually associated with this kind of music, but still very sensitive and experienced and a great musician) remarked to me before the concert that it was ‘very different’ from the CD. So much had been said by (presumably) Granberg in rehearsals. We listened to the piece—and the performance was delicate, careful, and slightly sentimental. Actually this was a word that kept cropping up in my head as I listened. Skogen means forest—and my thoughts ran to scenes from Scandinavian noir television so popular for the past few years. Of course in these programmes the stony, grey exterior is just a mask, for crime material just as emotionally charged and, for want of a better word, sentimental, as the British standard fare. Distancing, ‘artsy’ Verfremdungseffekt is generated through the use of subtitles and scheduling on BBC4. (This perceived sentimentality was probably not helped by Oliver’s more or less constant, wispy flautando vibrato. Of the kind of music Another Timbre puts out, one can be fairly sure that strings mostly play senza vibrato—it’s an aesthetic position as much as it is a stylistic habit.)
       The CD is different. While the pitch material is noticeably the same, it is on the whole much drier, much less ‘boggy’, less ‘atmospheric’. The electroacoustic interventions from Petter Wästberg and Toshimaru Nakamura are dry, stony. While this is a very beautiful CD, and less austere than many others issued by Another Timbre, it is more austere than the performance I heard.
       One wonders whether or not the lyricism present in the February performance was the ‘essential’ quality to this material. Without wishing to essentialise, nonetheless, the performance I heard walked closer to Semper Dowland, semper dolens in its outward character. The CD is, in temperament (though not pitch structure), like Skogen’s previous release, more akin to Feldman than Dowland[3]. There is of course a Dowlandian melancholy but one wonders whether its lyric aspect was (unconsciously) minimised for the purposes of recording, for certain imagined audiences etc.
       The Skogen disc nonetheless presents us with some intriguing suggestions—one ‘way out’, as it were, of the corner improvisation sometimes finds itself in (in other words, the ‘stagnant’ corner commentators frequently bang on about). It is this lyric aspect which is so enticing. From the point of view of reductionist improvisation, it’s pretty radical thinking.[4] Even this CD’s diatonic modal material (mostly derived from Dowland) is itself risqué, aesthetically.
       It is my feeling that occasional and abrupt stylistic diversion is needed, almost as an aesthetic shock to the system. There isn’t a sense in which this CD does this—it’s a calm, at times pretty addition to the Another Timbre catalogue—but it points the way towards something more radical. Antoine Beuger with triads, perhaps. 

[1] Magnus Granberg: piano, clarinet, composition; Angharad Davies: violin; Leo Svensson Sander: cello; Anna Lindal: violin; John Eriksson: marimba, vibraphone; Ko Ishikawa: sho; Toshimaru Nakamura: no-input mixing board; Erik Carlsson: percussion; Petter Wästberg: contact microphones, objects; Henrik Olsson: bowls and glasses
[2] See realisations here, uploaded to UDP here:
[3] This was something suggested of Ist gefallen in der Schnee, 2010. See One interesting comparison both to that recording and this one is Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen’s beautiful composition Schnee—itself a very delicate mixture of reductionism, melancholy, and modal inflection.
[4] In this relation, I'm thinking of Cathnor's release Mune from a couple of years ago Richard says it is '[i]ntense, powerful music that will annoy as many as it delights.' If it can really do both these things, this music must have something going for it.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Apartment House at Wigmore Hall, 15/01/2014

Apartment house

Anton Lukoszevieze next year will have been running Apartment House—the ensemble—for twenty years. While sheer longevity is not necessarily a virtue considered on its own, anyone who is at all familiar with their performances over that time will be aware of the tremendous stamina, control, not to mention quality, with which they have continued to realise the music that is their specialty. Laurence Crane pointed out in an interview[1] recently that in a number of European countries there simply isn’t any musical output that could be labelled ‘experimental’ in the way that certain of the independent trends in British music can—in the sense that any Musik that could be described ‘Neuen’, strange or what-have-you, is gobbled up and protected by some state- or institutionally-affiliated body. Such a situation simply cannot afford the independence of spirit encountered in Britain—though those of us on the breadline know just how hollow that ‘independence of spirit’ can be.
What to make, then, of Apartment House’s recent outing at Wigmore Hall? Wigmore is hardly the pinnacle of some hypothetical musical establishment[2], but it is a venue heavy with background administration (their programme is printed glossy). It is also quite a big room, and as such, when full, contains quite a lot of people. This programme—opening with Laurence Crane, and visiting works by Mathias Spahlinger, Christopher Fox, Peter Garland, Amon Wolman, Rytis Mazulis and George Maciunas—wasn’t particularly opaque but wasn’t an introductory primer either. But suffice it to say the room was full.
Laurence Crane’s Sparling 2000, which opened, could be quintessential Crane (he has reworked the same material in different instrumentations). The clarinet humming away to itself accompanied by a string quartet issuing simple and subtle chromatically voice-led triads. Wistful but not quaint. But Christopher Fox’s Memento (piano and string quartet) was however lacking in transparency in places: muddy, wallowing, mooing sirens; and its strikingly Webernian ending does not preclude its slightly soggy middle. And Mathias Spahlinger’s 128 Erfüllte Augenblicke—of which only a selection was played—landed in the room with something of a thump, despite Spahlinger’s amazing craft and the ensemble’s subtle dexterity and skill in presentation.
What was going on? This was a programme whose character was discernable arguably only if one knew the subtle contexts for many of the musical statements being made—Christopher Fox’s other piece, blank, is a studied essay in austerity; white chalk lines drawn on an ashen background. If one understood the context for this kind of musical statement, then one could understand its force—but these pieces, when put together, did not shout their aesthetic priorities at you as so much other contemporary music does; neither did they whisper for rhetorical effect; rather they talked somewhat straightly. They relied on a certain willingness to give benefit of the doubt; this was acquired-taste-music.
(Amon Wolman’s bizarre Dead End, for clarinet and toys, sailed past this auditor. An overlong and wandering clarinet solo was accompanied by a series of wailing and whining emergency-service children’s toys, hurrying around the stage in their tiny way, whilst Andrew Sparling did a commensurate job of continuing with the clarinet music regardless, gradually turning off each toy until, after some twenty minutes, we were left with silence. Laughter, sometimes forced laughter, seat-shifting and head-scratching, and not a tremendous amount of listening. On my part I was wondering whether the piece—composed as it was by an Israeli composer, clarinet material referencing klezmer, including as it did curiously godlike intervention by big people directing constantly whirring emergency service vehicles who themselves kept bashing into artificially created barriers—had anything to say about Israeli politics, but I digress.)
There were some exceptions. Rytis Mazulis’s Canon Mensurabilis, with its microtonal pulsation and unremitting exploration of the material it begins and ends with, was a proper world within which to dwell. And George Manciunas’ In Memoriam Adriano Olivetti, with its fluxus-era stand-up-sit-down sillyness was testament to the humour sedimented in much else that had proceeded it. But most of our audience was here not, arguably, to enjoy the second performance in London of Spahlinger’s Augenblicke in three months (the first had been at King’s Place in late 2013[3]); they were here for many reasons, not least to do with the fact that the Wigmore Hall entitles a certain automatic caché through pricing and precedent, and also (as Tim Parkinson pointed out to me) that this was a ‘new year’s resolution crowd’.
Except, as has been pointed out previously, experimental and contemporary music can and does draw audiences, even outside of the capital. One only had to witness the festival held last year in Peckham multi-storey car park—5000 tickets sold out in a few days. Those tickets were free, but they could quite easily have been priced and the festival would still have been well attended (as many other such festivals are). Experimental music does demonstrably interest a wide range of people; but we who are most often involved are used to it being, if not anti-establishment, then just simply marginal, might find that large audiences of anyone-and-everyone are as wonderful as they are unsettling.

[1] ‘An Hour 11’, interview with Ophir Ilzetzki, originally broadcast 09/02/2010
[2] Reviewing the list of performances on Apartment House’s website this is the only time they have yet performed there.
[3] That concert, ‘Some Recent Silences’, 22 September 2013, King’s Place, had also been performed by Apartment House with Lore Lixenburg, and curated by Tim Rutherford-Johnson. It may well have been the UK (and almost certainly London) premiere of that piece.