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.