Thursday, 18 July 2013

Music We'd Like to Hear 2013: II

Wren's dome at St Mary-at-Hill. Photo: John Salmon

This concert, curated by John Lely, opened with what turned out to be a misperception on my part, though I found it thought-provoking nonetheless. A recital for Violin solo, its first half considered two pieces by Jurg Frey and some other works which I felt added to and enriched this established language. 

By way of introduction, we had Frey's WEN 3. The programme notes, gloriously short aphoristic snatches, were perfect -- Frey offers 'WEN means structure, responsibility, balence/feeling' / 'it's always the same'. But above this short description was the date 1999-2007. Initially, I thought this meant the piece, which was a short, one-page look at major seconds (G and open A string), interleaved with silence, took Frey eight years to write. A stunning concession if it were true! What was he doing in all of those eight years? Or perhaps it was revised, Frey having decided to (perhaps) add more notes, and then subsequently delete them.

Of course, somewhat predictably this was not the case. Rather, it is Frey's (latterly it turned out for me, as I had not encountered them before) whole series of WEN pieces, some of which are truly gargantuan -- WEN 24 for flute lasts 2h16'42" -- that took eight years to complete. These pieces are almost all solos, with occasional duets with percussion. 

In any case, this pointed to one thing I had been pondering before, which is whether or not there really is too much Wandelweiser music. Not being performed, I mean (though some people could make that argument; it doesn't stand up in my opinion), but rather, composed. The output of Frey, Beuger, Pisaro, is vast in number, and equally vast in duration. Perhaps because these pieces don't take long to write (though sometimes, of course, they do), and because the language is somewhat extendable, the catalogues seem to run on. Frey is an interesting case in point as, in Tim Parkinson's video visit to his studio, one witnesses his essentially diaristic way of working. In this sense it would seem, works grow out of each other; lines between works are not as clearly drawn as one might expect with other composers (even, perhaps, Cage; and Feldman certainly). 

But, the concert. The other Frey piece was A Memory of Perfection (2010), a stunning two-page piece, which seems to imply its own echoes. Played exquisitely by Mira Benjamin (of the Bozzini Quartet); the bowing technique is that incredibly light, almost breathy sound which there -- frustratingly from a composer's point of view --  isn't a convenient italian or other consistent term for. I can only suggest bisbigliando, or perhaps to avoid confusion with the harp technique, sussurrando. It's the kind of sound one gets when one does not put enough rosin on the bow, and the result is sublime.

The other pieces offered varying perspectives on sometimes quite different material. Cassandra Miller's for Mira (2012) was a highly rhetorical 'transcription' of Kurt Cobain vocals -- it sounded more like Stevie Ray Vaughan on the violin -- which felt like a interpolation. But it was a strong work, with an intriguing overlaid repetitive structure, that nonetheless did not lapse into Glassian sophism. 

Paul Newland's piece mukei (2001), and Richard Glover's piece Chords and Transformations (2013) seemed to run into each other in my ears. Both of them felt quite self effacing, with the Newland disappearing sometimes into pizzicato, and the the Glover feeling meticulous and somewhat studied. Chords slid into each other and were transformed -- and that was about it. Glover's short programme aphorism was 'it sees itself out', which, it is safe to say, most of this first half indeed did, and without being too shouty (Miller's piece excepted). 

After the interval, we had Tim Parkinson's violin piece (2006). Not everyone likes Tim's music, often it requires one to give it the benefit of the doubt, but if done so there is usually something charming about it. This piece, like others of Tim's, adopts what could be called the 'one-thing-after-another' form. To call it potpourri would be unnecessarily derogatory. What one's abiding relation to this music is one of thwarted expectation. The piece begins with a strong series of rising figures, intervals and pitch-world quite distinctive of Tim's music (it hovers somewhere in-between tonality and atonality, but not in the colourful way that, say, late Ligeti does -- Tim's pieces make a point of being plain and inviting one to see inner distinction in plainness). These are strong gestures, but once we've moved on to the next section, they don't come back. So memorable in places are the bits and pieces that one keeps expecting them to reappear, even somewhat transformed. Perhaps they do, but so transformed so as not to be audible to me. 

Tim's aphorism was 'it's all shapes and sizes', which could mean 'there is a lot of variety', could also mean 'this piece consists of patterns and proportions'. The latter interpretation I felt worked better, and the patterns and proportions of the piece were often quite audible. One section that was medium length would be followed by a short section of quick-ish material, and then a long section of more extended material would follow. Listening to structure in this music is like listening to structure in Feldman -- you think you've nearly cottoned on to something, but it turns out that that is about as far as you're ever going to get. 

Also in this piece is a fleeting irony -- there is a section where the violin plays long notes (of varying lengths), followed by a short rest and then the same note in pizzicato. It's a little difficult to describe the effect of this, but to me it felt such an almost stupidly simple gesture that it obtained an extra something. I suppose I was laughing at Tim 'getting away with it' as it were. 

I'm not sure whether Tim gets away with his music -- I would hope so -- and I know that some of his pieces can have quite significant effects on people. But of course different people think different things. Tim said to me before the concert that he didn't much like (though I think now he's changed his mind a bit) writing beginnings to pieces. Or, to put it another way, he didn't like having written something that would always have to be a beginning, sitting as it did at the start of a piece. Hence his exploration with mobile forms in some pieces. I think this insight is significant. Tim's music doesn't really 'introduce' or announce itself, it just starts; and even if you might think it's announced itself, one shouldn't be fooled; all it's done is started. And it's not a Elliot-Carter-esque rhetorical 'in media res' (not something I'm so fond of I have to say); rather we land in a flat place that is the middle and the start and the end all at once. Tim's music is just 'there'. And in some ways it's more 'there', or tangible, than more minimal Wandelweiserish music (the second of the Frey pieces in this concert, for example), which disappear into the aether or point 'to the beyond'. Pisaro is even better at doing this -- his music a lot of the time tries to take one 'out of oneself'. I'm not sure Tim is interested in doing that. Listening to his music consists in noticing what the music is doing. Noticing that it's doing something and only going to do it once, noticing that it's moved on, noticing that it's in the middle of things, and then later, finished. 

Congrats to Mira and John for a really nice and thought-provoking concert. 

Music We'd Like to Hear III is on Friday.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Two new pieces

I thought it might be worth something to put a few scores up on this blog, feedback of course welcome. Composition like most other broadly creative work seems to come in waves and currently it looks as if there's a crest going by, so perhaps it's worth publishing what I'm doing.

There are two pieces here, one for organ and one for piano.  The organ piece's form feels vaguely baroque (along the lines of toccata and fugue, although the latter section is of course not a fugue); the piano piece adopts a form to me reminiscent of Janacek, though more extended. The harmonic/melodic material of these pieces is for me a new area of investigation, fairly fast-moving post-tonal fields, often related to diminished 9ths or octatonic sets. Both, then have fairly conservative forms, though I'm increasingly feeling that such labels, implying some kind of historical linearity, are red herrings.

mp3 here

That said both these pieces incorporate recent interest in silence, though these are rather 'manicured' silences, sandwiched between statements. The other question that these pieces explore (and my work in general currently) is the relation of music to rhetoric. I would hope to align oneself with a broadly 'non-rhetorical' school, along somewhat experimental lines (hence the interest in silence), but this perhaps wouldn't be all that audible. I suppose one could even divide a rhetorical approach along the lines of transformation of statements, on the one hand, and 'expression' on the other. My personal feeling is that expression ought to be a by-product, not something sought. But ultimately the results of the compositional process are going to be most of the time only tangentially related to intention; and in addition it would seem silly to get hung up on where one would want one's music to 'fit'. One writes what one wants to write.

mp3 here

(This last point seems like a truism, but I think since the war modernism has been about at least ostensible ideological or aesthetic purity. But as Tim Parkinson reminded me a couple of days ago, there is no purity in the audience--the audience spontaneously generates an anarchy of responses. It would seem naive even to assume the purist can even theoretically exist, let alone consider it practical adopt such a position. Though Tim said Kevin Volans--whose music I have some time for--would disagree with this sentiment.)

If anyone, by the way, would be interested in doing these, I'm contactable either through this blog or through twitter. More new pieces are forthcoming.


Friday, 12 July 2013

Music We'd Like To Hear 2013: I

The church at St. Mary-at-Hill

So back to posting.

It has been a very long time since writing anything seriously here; there were a few reasons for stopping, but it feels now like a good time to get back to it. So perhaps a good place to re-start is this years new season of Music We'd Like To Hear, curated by Markus Trunk, John Lely and Tim Parkinson.

I've written about these concerts before when younger and a bit less familiar with this music--now, this kind of music feels more familiar, even though the concert series is itself in flux. And in a new church, rather amazingly.

What MWLTH represents for Londoners is a rare opportunity to engage with this particular kind of experimental composition. Much has been made of the influence of the Wandelweiser composers on improvisors, and others have contextualised Wandelweiser reductionism in the broader context of the various improvised silences waving over Japan, London, Berlin, and later, Seoul. Nevertheless, despite the influence of composers, the majority of experimental music of this variety being played in London is improvised. One wouldn't wish to diminish the value of this improvisation, but there is also a vast array of composed pieces, most of which go neglected. MWLTH feels like a caesura.

Markus' concert began after his introductory sermon (which is pretty much what it was) and centred on Eva-Maria Houben's some tunes (2006-7). They are free in instrumentation, vast in number (at least five volumes) and while diatonically melodic, aren't really tunes, given their non-repetitive structure. We were also treated to--somewhat shockingly--Laurence Crane's (who performed one of the pieces) first ever performance on organ! Which was, suffice it to say, pleasant enough, though now I want to hear a recital of his own pieces arranged for the instrument.

The concert's opening gambit, Craig Shephard's Four Voice Canon (2010) was a deliciously, if monotonously, diatonic introduction, Shephard's writing ingenious and very square. A piece like this--incidentally, played on melodicas--could veer into feyness, though I didn't detect this much.

The central portions of the gig, interspersed with the Houben pieces, were given over to four pieces using as their starting point paper, books and cardboard. Mieko Shiomi's Wind Music (1963) was predictably fluxusual, and funny, as Henri Vaxby and Angharad Davies attempted to keep sheets of paper falling off their music stands (the wind was generated by a fan operated by Markus). As with so many fluxus pieces, it cannot work if it succeeds or fails entirely, but must hang in stasis between success and failure. It would be the kind of activity engaged in an affable purgatory.

Tim Parkinson's Two Cardboard Boxes (2003)--which he said to me afterwards he was surprised to see on the programme--came later. One of those few unrecordable pieces that are, nevertheless, not really about the real-world thing they centre on. As happens often in his duo with James Saunders, found objects are not fetishised--the objects happen to be something specific, but could be anything. They are signifiers of not just real-world waste, but contingency, expanse. The boxes piece might work just as well on wooden cubes, or cupboards, or earthenware or god-knows-what-else. Whatever sonic specificity there is feels secondary--but it's not abundantly clear what it's secondary to. Structure is visible, though one might expect that the two performers would exchange material (they read from separate parts), creating some kind of arch form. Indeed, no. What happens is, you listen to the piece as it progresses, and keep thinking there's been a return to earlier material, when in fact there hasn't.

This seemed to sum up the feeling created by the pieces in this concert. Daniel Wolf's piece The Long March (2009) (which was last in the programme) has in its programme note: '[t]he sequence of [sounds] doesn't follow any predictable pattern but are nevertheless part of a clear continuity'. Quite. Continuity is perhaps the name of the game, but we don't hear anything over again. Wolf's melodicas (as in the opening piece) elide the grasp of the listener, trying to figure out the pattern; one can sympathise with Wolf's association of the piece with Galois in his mathematical 'Long March' towards enlightenment: though, admittedly, Galois's Long March was concluded by the time he was 20, and at the end of it he got some results.

Similar was Kunsu Shim's BUCH (2006), which consists of three players rubbing books together, and whose structure kept eliding the listener (viewer). Later, I noticed it was a poetic--as opposed to instructive--text score, but its abiding musicality was that of structurally irreducible continuity.

John White's Newspaper-Reading Machine (1971), the best piece in the programme, was perhaps the exception. Here a number of vocal performers read through a newspaper article in a number of predetermined ways (silently, whispered, murmured, emphasising the's and and's, commas and full-stops, with different enunciations), and have these different readings combined and echoed. The result is a tantalising series of textures, with, in the end, a quite careful expression of aural structure.

A good, if occasionally problematic, gig.


It was also great to meet Tim Rutherford-Johnson, and talk about his upcoming book, which sounds very exciting, and will hopefully materialise at some point within the next year or two. Focusing as he is on contemporary composition since 1989, it is, it almost goes without saying, shocking just how alone in the field the book will be. For all the many thousands of composers working now, inside and out of the academy, there seems to be alarmingly little recognition of their existence as far as musicological publication goes. There's also a September concert he's curating. Then, later in October, I'm participating in a concert mostly of Michael Pisaro at the round chapel, Clapton--which will be not worth missing.

Music We'd Like to Hear II is today.