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.

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