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.

1 comment:

Tim said...

I really liked Miller's piece. In context, I think the concert needed it - it could have been too austere, even for MWLTH. Thanks for all the words on TP's piece too. I've got to say, I found this one hard going, so I was interested to read your response to it.

On the subject of Wandelweiser and quantity, there are one or two interesting things in Nicolas Bourriaud's writings (esp. Post-Production, I think) on this subject, to do with the compulsion towards constant, excessive creation as a way of fighting the 21st century's effacement of identity. He's talking about visual artists of course, but I think it applies equally to Ww.

(I had the same thought as you about the dates for WEN 3, btw!)