Sunday, 30 November 2014

Reflections on HCMF 2014

The programme book with beautiful monochromatic painting by Jacqueline Humphries.

It’s odd what one comes to remember. With a situation as inundating as Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival one expects certain listening experiences to sail away into the distance, whilst others have a greater effect; but the level of this disparity in this case is surprisingly large, at least considering my own tired grey-matter. As always there was much to see, and I saw an awful lot—and even that was by no means everything, even half of what was on offer.
Before I say anything else about this festival, one thing ought to be cleared up right away: ticket prices. From those whom I’ve spoken to, insiders, listeners etc., the feeling was on the whole that prices were too high and perhaps have been for some time—too high given the quantity and intensity of available performances; and sometimes too high given the quality of certain performances. It seems likely that the ticket prices reflect a general lowering in the level of funding apportioned to the festival. But noticeable this year was the quantity of foreign funds—Norwegian money in particular this year did quite a fair bit of talking. The Norwegians appear to have more in the way of neuen Musik infrastructure than, say, England—this isn’t really an exaggeration—such that one wonders just how much of an adjunct to physical-resource money (er, fossil-fuel money) contemporary classical-land is. Redirect the flow of funding, or have a change of policy, as the Dutch have recently, and things can dry up overnight.
All of that said, the number of attendees was very considerable. Empty seats were difficult to come by—such that one wonders that concert price architecture may well have been designed to draw a particular demographic in. Additionally, being as I am endowed with relative youth, I could utilise the under-25s ‘cheapskates’ scheme—and I would suggest people who pass for this age give it a go as I was never required to display ID. Suggest but not endorse.


Elsa flanked by spectral violinists. Photo: Brian Slater

But, the music. I want to focus on two dramatic commissions, plus one re-performance. There were other important things I feel I need to mention—perhaps I will get to them in due course.
First, though, this ad hoc trilogy of ‘operas’. Sciarrino’s Lohengrin, Simon Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires and Tim Parkinson’s Time With People. There was an odd continuity, in some ways, between these items—despite great differences of style and approach. All three of these pieces are, or were, eschatological, or post-apocalyptic. They emerged in a space beyond history, or after a moment of great forgetting. They all implied a certain fundamental reconstruction, from first principles. They all included some aspect of, perhaps forcible, restriction. They all depicted individuals who were itinerant, homeless, lost; lost whilst not even realising the full extent of their lostness.
Lohengrin, like so much Sciarrino, is an attempt at one level to build a kind of language, and a failure to say anything at all. Sciarrino speaks in tongues even when he means to speak with neologisms. And not only that, but Sciarrino’s tongues are flat—they waft with great sophistication, they create great (to use Jacques Rivière’s choice descriptor) ‘sauce’—and as Bryn Harrison said to me ‘it’s a world I simply enjoy entering into’.
‘But is there anything there?’ I said.
Bryn paused; but then said, ‘no’.
It is of course unfair to frame it in this nationalistic a way, but Sciarrino’s music is, however one looks at it, deeply Italian. The abundant slow-sustain-to-fast-downward-cascade gesture in his music, present in the opening of Vanitas, and cropping up in nearly everything since then, is a kind of tic. It could even be a self-portrait: Saaaal-vatore… Sciiiii-arino (you get the picture).
This nevertheless is the flaw with Sciarrino’s work; why his least ‘dramatic’ pieces (like, say, his music for television Sui Poemi Concentrici, his efforts for the ‘flattest’, most time-extended medium) are his most successful; that for all his efforts to be dramatically otherwordly, he never escapes gesturing towards his own palette. Elsa in Lohengrin is a schizophrenic not because she is necessarily determined to be so, or because dramaturgically it is impossible for her not to be; but because Sciarrino wants an excuse to continue with his idiomatic stylisms, and to have a schizophrenic at the centre of the drama is terribly useful in this regard. She whispers not because she can’t speak loudly, but because Sciarrino likes the sound of whispers.

Johanna is tried. Photo: Brian Slater

But for everything that was stylish about Lohengrin, the antithesis was to be found in Simon Steen-Andersen’s Buenos Aires. The piece didn’t necessarily begin well—one senses that Steen-Anderson doesn’t much like song; certainly not opera, so the commission might on first glance seem a poor idea. The main character of Johanna, who is a kind of audience-cypher, is drafted into a dreamlike recording session—laden with heavy discussions about the nature of operatic expression as such. One can feel Steen-Andersen’s mind-cogs clanking—but it’s a dummy, a feint. Shortly, Johanna is transported to a dystopian parallel existence, where, apparently, all this damn singing is justified. The piece exists to reconfirm Steen-Andersen’s fascination with reconfigured action; with confined-ness and chambered-ness. But here it is Johanna as a dramatic character, a person, rather than just a body on legs, who is chambered. Her voice-box removed, her body transplanted to an accidental post-apocalypse, it is her character which suffers, with apparently no explanation.
As it goes on Buenos Aires gets better and better. Steen-Andersen’s now apparently ubiquitous use of small cameras as extensions of the performers bodies doesn’t feel forced. Indeed the piece transcends the feeling of gimmick present in much of his earlier work; there is a great impenetrable darkness here, and the piece in the end has little to do with what is actually asked of the players or performers.
The Argentinian city, where Steen-Anderson lived for some years and studied, in the end comes to represent for him the origin of the world—in the sense of Courbet perhaps. But it is also the place where the world goes to find out if it’s still alive at all—one thinks here of Huxley. As a place defined by its having been ‘confined’, succumbing to censorship by the regime, it represents the Latin American origin of what might have been assumed to be a post-Protestant tendency in Steen-Andersen’s work. The transformation of the malicious studio producer character, into tyrannical judge, into the pro-censorship academic (read: Richard Taruskin) is a marvellous piece of dramatic chicanery.
The piece in the end felt like a very sophisticated fringe-theatre event—not an opera or musical in any conventional sense. And stylistically there was plenty to be a bit irritated by (the piece continues Steen-Andersen’s studenty love affair with the imagery of the computer age—though here, possibly unintentionally, it has a kind of ‘90s revivalist tinge so modish presently). On the other hand, I found it welcome, and hilarious, to ask members of the elite Stuttgart Vokalensemble to sing Rossini through shop-bought voice modifiers and high-pressure air hoses. But these gimmicks, such as they are, were transcended in the end towards the service of a much more substantial thematic world; they weren’t the point of the piece. It certainly seems to me to be the best thing he’s yet achieved.

Beavan Flanagan and David Pocknee answer questions. Photo h/t Mira Benjamin.

However it was really Tim Parkinson’s ‘opera’ Time With People that was why I was excited for this year’s festival. I had seen Act 1—where two people answer questions to an incongruous soundtrack of astringent beeps and Rossini—performed a few times, not least by Parkinson Saunders (i.e. the duo Tim has with James Saunders), but the rest of the ‘opera’ remained a mystery; to everyone else as well no doubt. Oddly though, even though James wasn’t involved in this performance, it is really as an extension of Parkinson Saunders that this piece lives. The idea of ‘any sound-producing means’, and by extension, object detritus, is central both to Time With People and Parkinson Saunders.
Here however, there is a much darker turn—as least, as far as I could see. While performances with James have in the past been frivolous, nonchalant, quietly critical, even cynical at times, they remain fundamentally fairly bright. While there is a whole topic to be broached of darkness in James Saunders’ own late ‘instruction’ pieces (think of the Milgram experiments), Tim’s work has always been more difficult to pin down. Indeed his instrumental music remains so. But it isn’t so with his ‘opera’. Time With People might be the blackest thing Huddersfield has ever programmed—certainly in the way Philip Thomas arranged the performance, but I’d argue even beyond this. After the initial entrée of questions-answered (deadpan, but here the thought arises: to whom is one addressing these answers?) an itinerant band of onlookers slowly makes its way across a landscape strewn with years of accumulated debris. They drift like ghosts or victims of some epidemic. What follows is a foray into Tim’s rhythmic colloquy writing, and prosaic language, akin to Stein (along the lines of ‘I like to be with you and you like to be with me and both of us like to be together’… drumhit). But there are onlookers. We all like to be together, watched.
From here the scene collapses. Objects are hit rhythmically; until after some fizzling out and rearrangement, this band ends up singing what they hear over headphones. There is an incessant drumkit pattern. They bark descriptions of the sounds they hear (again, who for?); guitars are played; there is revelling, a dance. Occasionally a sound will ring across the floor causing them to lie down, only shortly to get back up again. And finally what emerges is the detritus-objects themselves taking over. These people must assemble them in boxes and drop them rhythmically onto the floor, to a soundtrack of Handel (and occasional barked words ‘we all together/alone’ etc.). The objects getting smaller and smaller until, all the music over, tiny things of, as Parkinson puts it ‘1g or less’ fall to the floor. Fade to black abruptly.
This is a world in which music is a kind of memory—something that must be reconstructed from the ground up, and afterwards returned to the same ground. Only three LPs (the analogue record-grain-noise remains on the recordings used) are left. Music is reduced to complete first principles—in the end, the downbeat alone. This was music that brought to my imagination A Canticle for Leibowitz, or perhaps more extremely, Mick Jackson’s Threads. And, not surprisingly, Time With People does somewhat colour what Tim and James have been doing all along. Their songs (see below) one imagines might have been dug up out of the ground like the copper tablets in Will Self’s The Book of Dave.
And certainly Time With People should be done in London some time soon, at least so we can all come and stare again at the abyss of nihil that Tim has so dextrously created.


Further things to mention that caught my ear this festival…

Philip Thomas. Photo: Andrew Stavely

Philip Thomas’s wonderful piano performances—of a new(ish) work by Michael Finnissy, with a devastating ending (as only his endings can be), which I deeply want to hear again. He also presented a new piece by Christian Wolff, Sailing By, which indeed did in its amiable way. The multiple pianos a few days later were also wonderful, including Wolff’s amazingly unperformed-since-the-premiere Sonata for Three Pianos and Feldman’s beautiful Piece for Four Pianos. (He also did a sterling job herding the Edges Ensemble through a maze of dug-out Scratch Orchestra pieces in the Hepworth Wakefield—an overwhelming experience, at least for myself not least because I’d never seen any of the Hepworth’s amazing collection of visual work either.)
There was further Wolff wondrousness in the presentation of For Magnetic Tape II by Robert Worby and the Langham Research Institute. This is a totally wonderful piece that surely deserves to be heard on record. In terms of sheer quality and bravado it’s certainly there with Williams Mix; in fact I might even prefer it in its similar brevity and even greater wit and timing.
Laurence Crane’s expanded Some Rock Music for Alan Thomas and the UK Premiere of Sound of Horse were highlights of the Monday free-day. Sound of Horse we can add to Crane’s late ‘weird’ pieces—though amazingly for Crane, at points it seems long-winded(!). It left me wondering just how Laurence will tackle longer forms—[edit: I've written a long essay about this very thing, see above!]

I haven't included Christopher Fox's Widerstehen in the above discussion, but I could have done easily. There is much to say about it, and like so much of Christopher's work it is sophisticated and moving. All of that said, there were specific problems with it, on the level of dramaturgy, that I felt were unresolved. It remains a beautiful work nonetheless.

Martin Arnold with the Bozzini sisters. Photo: hcmf

The contribution of Quatour Bozzini was also a highlight for me. Not only were they featured in the continuation of their project ‘Composers’ Kitchen’, with a new, and rather pretty piece by Leo Chadburn (aka Simon Bookish), a fairly major work by Jimmie LeBlanc (new to me) and further new pieces by Stephen Chase and Luke Nickel, which I missed sadly.
Not only that, but they also performed a marvellous concert, featuring Marc Sabat’s very interesting Euler Lattice Spirals Scenery, and a wonderful quartet, Contact; Vault, by Martin Arnold. Arnold, who had been mentoring the composers in the ‘Kitchen’, was, shamefully, entirely new to me. As it turns out, he is the most important living Canadian composer and uniquely talented, one should think a pretty major voice internationally. He—to my amazement, as this is perhaps a language I’d been searching for but thought impossible—is that unique composer who links the melodic world of folk music and monody with the quietism and durational extension of Wandelweiser. Antoine Beuger and Jurg Frey, for example, are admirers and the latter has performed his music with the Bozzini Quartet. I guess one finds out about people in one’s own time; and in my defense, Arnold is criminally under-recorded and under-documented (he lacks, for example, a Grove article despite many more minor and younger figures being represented). Nevertheless, catch him while he’s in the country—as Arnold is giving a talk at Brunel University on the 4th December.

(I must also say thanks to various people in Huddersfield for being accommodating hosts and putting up with my incessant mewlings on this or that: Richard Glover, Philip Thomas, Bryn Harrison, Mira Benjamin, Stephen Chase, John Fallas, Simon Reynell, and others, as well as Sam Wigglesworth, Alex Nikiporenko; and also Chloe Glover and Rita Kybaite. I look forward to joining the department next year—it was great fun to meet lots of new people…)

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.