Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Reviewing HCMF & LCMF 2015 — ‘So when did you last make a social sculpture?’

Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (21–29 Nov) and London Contemporary Music Festival (11-17 Dec)

La Monte Young via Stockhausen

In case you didn’t know, underneath Madame Tussauds there’s an enormous room full of ventilation ducts called the Ambika gallery—which, a few weeks ago I found myself in listening to a scena from Dienstag aus Licht. Quite possibly the only bit of Licht that has been mounted in London in the past few years—aside from the Welt-parlament from Mittwoch, which when it was done in the Albert Hall a while back appeared to be a large and loveably psychedelic English garden party. Anyway, on stage on this occasion were Lore Lixenberg, bedecked in Virgin Mary purple (the scene was the Pieta), and above her flugelhornist Marco Blaauw in a black shell suit, with ‘MICHAEL’ written up his sleeve. All underlaid by the most wonderful, unintentionally kitschy 80s DX7-esque synth accompaniment. I suppose it’s a shame David Lynch never got Stockhausen to write soundtracks his films, it’ve worked great.

Amidst this Blaauw’s flugelhorn would ski, in stock Stockhausenian fashion, between stupidly low pedal tones and stupidly high altissimo. Karlheinz evidently liked his mountain-ranges. But it occurred to me that there could be few other musicians who would be capable—scratch that: allowed!—to perform both Stockhausen and La Monte Young in two different festivals in the space of a month. From memory (naturally), in both cases. The idea that a single musician could somehow shoulder the gargantuan weight of these ‘titans’ and their verlags is something to contemplate. Indeed, such is the weight of Stockhausen’s verlag that one of the sound diffusion people was minded to inform me that I was sitting on a dais two feet too high for the performance, and would have to relocate myself in case of reproach by the Stockhausenpolizei.

One of the highlights of Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival a couple weeks previous had been the performance, led by Blaauw and Ben Neill, of a section from La Monte Young’s Four Dreams of China. Namely, The Melodic Version of the Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China. For all the people who are not LMY fanboys out there, this was in fact the Fourth Dream of China, not as you might think the Second Dream, as it is the Third Dream which is in fact the First Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer; but despite this being the revised Melodic Version (1984) of the Fourth Dream, this was not one of the Twelve Subsequent Dreams of China, or as they are now called simply, The Subsequent Dreams of China.

Documentation of a recent performance of the same piece by the Theatre of Eternal Music Ensemble in Warsaw this year

The performance, which was given by the Theatre of Eternal Music Brass Ensemble (they were playing trumpets with harmon mutes), was about an hour of purply lit, incense-bathed droney medicine. (What is it with purple?) Audience members were helpfully supplied with what I can only describe as a slab of programme notes—which actually I found terribly useful, as there are essays by Young and Ben Neill and Charles Curtis dating back to the 80s. This sort of material, I am reliably informed, is snowed on to visitors at the Dream House in New York—though of course I’ve not been to the Dream House and neither have I seen any Young live, along with pretty much all of the audience.

One of the striking parts of the essay-booklet/slab is an article by Ben Neill from 1991—‘Performance Practice as Social Sculpture’. This terming, taken from Beuys, was astute, and not only in discussion of La Monte Young. Of him, Neill says: ‘Young insists on having his music performed in situations where he can personally interact with the musicians extensively during the rehearsal process, thereby asserting greater influence over the evolution of his music’s performance practice than other composers.’ Beuys suggests that ‘social sculpture’ is a second sort of art, not ‘the traditional art, which is unable to change anything in society’, but rather ‘another kind of art, which is related to everybody’s needs and the problems in society. This kind of art has to be worked out from the beginning: it has to start from the moulding power of thought as a sculptural means.’

One could take this relatively straightforwardly as some kind of definition of conceptualism—ie, that the art object resides greatly in the thought-concept, as opposed to its physical manifestation. But Beuys’ words are apt, and double-sided. The ‘moulding power of thought’. Indeed, that is what was plain to see in this performance—a group of people exercising group-doing, group-thinking. There are rules. ‘The nature of the rules’, writes Neill ‘is such that each performer, in addition to his/her individual responsibility … must know what every other performer is playing at all times and be ready to adjust accordingly to prevent proscribed combinations or progressions’.

Most musicians tend to hide behind their professionalism when faced with issues of this kind. Orchestral musicians, in the midst of acres of incompetent drudgery, tend to cling to rather received (or, shall we say, ‘philharmonic’) ideas concerning, say, ‘good violin writing’. Their ownership over what ‘good violin writing’ is gives them the requisite professional as well as personal ownership over ‘goodness’, as well as distance from any incompetence or ignorant ‘badness’. Obviously what ‘good violin writing’ is differs according to training and taste—but it’s arguable that at least some notion of ‘good violin writing’ is always present, albeit in differing forms, whether you’re Pinchas Zuckerman, or Irvine Arditti, or Clemens Merkel.

With La Monte Young there is (like Partch) an attempt to do away with this. This is not ‘philharmonic’ music. There is harmony—harmony only. There is harmony among the tones. There will be harmony amongst musicians. As Charles Curtis puts it: ‘We endeavour to play together not as a group of twelve instruments but as a single instrument with twelve separate resonating bodies. If we could act too as a single interpreter, as an interpretive unity, all musicians being, as one says “of one mind”, this would be nice.’

It’s easy to overemphasise all this—as I’m doing. It’s much too easy to point, with the hope of deflating, Young’s rather quaint boasts about his own significance (and in his defence, most are others’ words, and most are arguably true), or the more religiose elements of Just Intonation. Nevertheless, for Young, musicians aren’t really individuals. Or if they are, they don’t get to be individuals in the way that individuals usually experience individuality. They’re individuals in his terms. The right sort of individuals. They are to be watched by the right sort of audience. They are to be heard by auditors enacting the right sort of listening. This isn’t ‘ethical’ music so much music for ‘personal and moral improvement’. Young would have done well as a Victorian.

‘The first beatnik I’d ever seen’ — Henry Flynt on meeting La Monte Young in 1960

Like Stockhausen, Young’s music is there to tell us that actually we know nothing very much about individuality. That our ideas, whatever they might be, concerning individuality, are actually pretty shallow. A revised notion of the individual has been uncovered and is being presented by the author in conjunction with a universe of infinite assistance. In both cases, the aim is not (or not only) to ‘play’ some unitary instrument, via the performers (the performers being rather corrugated, bits of steel and social sculpture), but to play the universe itself. The universe plays the universe. For Young and Stockhausen, the universe of their music isn’t ‘their’ universe, it’s the universe.

Whether one gets on board with this is evidently moot. But I would hope that one could hear and appreciate such music without being or becoming a proselyte or apparatchik. Andrew Clements’ recent review of LCMF’s opera night was one displaying a thoroughly card-carryingly Stockhausenian bent. Everything else on display that evening was music of lessers—small music, made by mortals and pussies. I do not subscribe to this position.

Jürg Frey via Jürg Frey

Jürg Frey interviewed by Tim Parkinson

I recall someone (Christian Wolff?) once saying Wandelweiser was at root knock-off La Monte Young. It’s Young one can perform without having to involve oneself in the logistical and social faff of actually performing Young. Certainly it adopts similar characteristics—extended duration, limited means, discipline, self-control. But most Wandelweiser is different inasmuch as it doesn’t represent an exercise in concerted thought-moulding. And while it might interest itself in notions, previously disparaged by the classical avant-garde, as beauty, perfection, tenderness, harmony, it’s rarely religiose. It attempts to find ‘openings’, it is interested in the topic of ‘openness’ (even if it might not actually be especially open). It doesn’t adorn itself with compulsorily distributed interpretive slabs of documentary essay. It is interested in individual personhood; it is interested in friendship. In general, while this interest may be vain or silly (especially given its interest in other impositions), nevertheless, it is interested in modesty.

Jürg Frey—who this year was composer in residence at Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival—is, of these characteristics, exemplary. While it is arguably impossible for any artist to actually be modest (as Joe Kudirka pointed out to me, every composer deep down knows themselves to be the best composer in the world), there are differences associated with the value ascribed to modesty. Modesty might well be avoided, affording as it does the danger of becoming the modest person who ‘has a great deal to be modest about.’ But being an Atlee (about whom this was said), as opposed to being a Churchill (who said it) has its advantages. It presents its own subtle and attractive methodology of social artmaking.

Graham McKenzie should be applauded for his inviting Frey to the festival—but whenever he mentioned Frey’s music, or described it, I wondered just what music he’d really been hearing. In particular he emphasised timbre and ‘sound’ in Frey’s pieces—as if these were pieces that presented exquisitely wrought sonic architecture or even sound design. This was puzzling. Frey’s pieces are quiet, but that doesn’t make them automatically ‘about’ their quiet timbre. Frey is interested in listening, but he’s not really interested in sounds, in the way that most auricular people seem to be interested in sounds, or sonic textures—exotic sounds, sounds which themselves are delicacies. Frey isn’t primarily interested in sounds that draw attention to themselves—and as Wandelweisery wisps of quiet have attracted more attention as the 2000s have gone on, Frey has moved away from them. His pieces are quite ‘loud’ these days, by Wandelweiserian standards.

Frey is more interested in rather traditional things, such as harmony, melody (or buried melody), continuity, and perhaps above all, musicianship. He is interested in how ensembles—how people—come to play together. His concern with verticalities (much of his music is assiduously chordal) presents some combination of the diligence of a Helvetian collector with a musician’s fascination with ‘togetherness’. Frey’s music is the music of a social antiquarian. He collects chords, and collects people to play them together.

Like Christian Wolff, Frey’s music can make a delicate sound, but that’s not its reason for being. It is music made for musicians who are, to put it positively, enjoying their own refined musicality. The picture of refined musicality that it presents is one that is often studiously plain. This differs from a more default Wandelweiserian ‘delicacy’—Wandelweiser approaches aesthetics rather like branding, as much as in its musical substance as its physical packaging of records and scores. This is shibui music, music for those who like plain white walls, and plain cardboard boxes. Music in the white cube, for the white cube. It is music for those who wish to meditate but do not hold subscriptions with the shrubbery and incense of meditation. It is La Monte Young without the purple. But with Wolff and Frey there is a further shrugging off of over-wrought delicacy; too much delicacy—too much silence, too much whispering—is excessive, and this is music which is not about excess.

Ultimately Frey’s music is not about ‘sound’, but about playing. The attempt is to try to make a music for players which is genuinely musical, not narcissistic and not a series of etudes. Wolff’s Exercises parrot the lingo of the etude, but aren’t. The same is true of Frey’s WEN series, or Circular Music pieces. The aim is to try and obtain some ‘higher’ musical that is located not in the universe but in and amongst the players. I think Frey’s latest pieces really grasp this—a sense of play, of discontinuity and curiosity. String Quartet no. 3, which was premiered by the Bozzini Quartet, is thoroughly romantic. It is a kind of completely nineteenth-century cabinet of musical curiosities refracted through the language of the twenty-first’s white cube. These pieces’ cardboard plainness also belies the kind of play familiar to minor bureaucrats or lexicographers or philologists—this is music which encapsulates the play of the pencil-pusher. String Quartet no. 2 presents itself as a kind of ‘beautiful expanse of delicacy’—this is how it no doubt is received by most of its listeners—but really it is a series of chords whose continuity and dis-continuity is constantly being played with. These tiny movements of voice-leading—or not leading—turn the piece into something which is playing with this movement on a microscopic level, or behind the curtain of the radiantly delicate surface.

I wondered just how much Frey’s music benefitted from all the exposure afforded it at Huddersfield. Certainly there were intense emotional moments. But his music is also engineered to provide respite in the context of a usually wider programme. Rarely does Frey write concert-length pieces; these are pieces that expect to find themselves in the company of pieces by other composers, even using these other musics as a foil to their different, uniquely personal organisational principles. His pieces are often of such privacy for their performers (I felt this especially when Philip Thomas played Frey’s piano music) that pushing them all out in a big concert feels like showing a crowd round one’s bedroom. Frey is a composer who benefits from audiences and performers thinking him distant, a fragile enigma. His music, like his personality, is sometimes naïve, but also an object of fascination at a distance. Overexposure can damage this fragility. It can come across as bloodless, or precious, or monotonous, or boring. One needs a serving of something indelicate, just here and there, to fully appreciate fragile delicacy.

Other thoughts on operas: Ryan Trecartin—George Lewis—Ezra Pound

Ryan Trecartin/Lizzie Fitch — Center Jenny (2013)

Though, clearly, there’s hardly want of indelicacy. (Actually this Christmas, watching telly for the first time in ages, I was genuinely—genuinely—alarmed by just how much gambling is on the box. But I digress…) At LCMF, on the same evening mentioned above, Ryan Trecartin’s video opera Center Jenny was about as indelicate as anything could really get. This was quite something—and while it’s watchable online, having the piece force itself with all its shrillness into a real room certainly gives it an industrial-strength zhuzh. It’s one of the few music-theatre-video pieces I’ve seen that owes, and acknowledges (as far as I could tell) a real debt to Robert Ashley; the idea that one could write music theatre without knowing what Ashley made and contributed seems a bit stupid to me.

But while Ashley’s operas could be nocturnal and sardonic, caustic, none of them has the kind of acidic glare—and misogyny—of this piece. In it, Trecartin (working with Lizzie Fitch) imagines a kind of hellish, claustrophobic future dominated by, apparently, sorority girls. It is a side of US, specifically Los Angeles culture which is familiar from TV but still completely alien even in its naturally occurring form (or on MTV, My Sweet Sixteen, etc). To have it presented with all dials turned up to eleven, hyperactively edited: the first minute of exposure hits one trucklike. But as the piece progresses one sees a more intricately constructed scenario, where characters represent archetypes—or cut-outs—whose intersecting scenes drift and merge. These are characters who could never have internal lives because they are projections; all are psychologically vacant, but only as vacant as Trecartin seems to suggest all such people are. Trecartin seems to want to present a post-capitalist dystopia as metaphor for present totality; but in truth the piece cannot escape its own bounds in amongst art-world snobbishness.

Trecartin owes something to Matthew Barney—another American filmmaker who presents MTV-age dystopias, giant sexual allegories, bright colours, dirt and shit. This piece coincided with Barney’s own River of Fundament (finished in 2013), but one can’t help but notice the druidic, ritual circle of toilets that surround the writhing girlies during one of their set-ups.

Trecartin is perhaps the worst sort of antifeminist—the antifeminist who believes himself a feminist saviour; the sort who thinks he is presenting a grand synthetic portrait of the feminine; the feminine that grows out of the corruptions of patriarchy and whose corruptions can be exaggerated, ad absurdum, for artistic effect. But in truth, the premise upon all this is based on a plain misogynistic attitude—perhaps even fearful attitude—towards girls. It’s at root all still thoroughly male-gazey—even though it admits as much with the silent extra camera-men circling around like vultures.

Texturally, Trecartin’s work is attractive, but its misogyny I found impossible to extricate. But the piece, patronising as it is, does not constitute a tragedy. George Lewis’ opera Afterword, presented a HCMF, truly did. This was a piece put together on a subject of some import—the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the Chicago association of avant-garde and jazz musicians. Lewis has pedigree, musically speaking—though these days, he is known somewhat more as an academic (he literally wrote the book on the AACM). But no matter—this would lend treatment of this important part of American music history a certain sensitivity. Wouldn’t it?

What we were presented with was a vast—nearly two-hour—expanse of mid-century dissonant counterpoint, with tam-tams, snare-drum rolls, crashing exposition and crunching scenes of committee meetings. All conducted in the most classical, warblingly established operatic voice (the three singers were rather stunning in their ability, but what they were being asked to sing was bafflingly terrible). There was no attempt—no apparent attempt—at differentiation from moment to moment. Every sentence was as apparently dramatic as every other. Characters talked to one another in announcements and proclamations, in every scene, wherever it occurred. There was seemingly no emotional shading, no attempt at word painting, or even rudimentary characterisation (apart from the most crunchingly obvious—martial snare-drums when a character announces his grandfather’s martial past).

So much had been invested in this piece—time, generosity, resources, hopes, musicality, physical effort—and the final result was so embarrassing, so much like a car-crash, that one’s only hope was to become fascinated as one might with a car-crash. The whole thing was a complete mess. What had happened here? How had someone with, apparently, great musical and personal sensitivity managed to produce something so crude? I still don’t know—but someone ought to appoint or chair an inquiry.

While Lewis’ opera was a surprise—not a great one—I was also greatly surprised by hearing Ezra Pound’s opera La Testament de Villon. Pound is not someone with whom I sympathise—and musically (according to William Carlos Williams) he was tone-deaf. Whatever the truth of that, I find it difficult to believe after hearing this piece. This was music which reached back to fourteenth-century polyphony, and had an originality of form and approach which must have been completely unknown in the early 1920s. This is music of fluidity and continuity, of two or three bare polyphonic parts which run in parallel, without cadence. The medievalism is rich and strange, even in a situation today where such medieval music is more familiar. In the 1920s this must have sounded like music from outer-space.

The 1926 original version of the piece—the most idiosyncratic version—has been only recently edited, and this performance was the UK premiere. The performance also sounded quite different—with a different, reduced instrumentation—from the Hughes and De Leeuw recordings. One aria was accompanied by violin and two double basses; most others by violin alone. A stunning prologue for crumhorn was the opening material. Friends of mine weren’t so keen on the piece—especially overshadowed as it was in an overlong programme—but I think it was a significant accomplishment, and the ensemble (led by Chris Stark) and singers should be really commended.

The revised 1931 version of the piece, recorded live by the ASKO Ensemble and Reinbert de Leeuw in 1980

HCMF was curated by Graham McKenzie. LCMF was curated by Igor Toronyi-Lalic, Sam Mackay, Lucy Railton and Aisha Orazbayeva. Marco Blaauw’s most recent CD is Angels, on Wergo. Jürg Frey’s String Quartet no. 3 is on Edition Wandelweiser. Frey's piano music, played by Philip Thomas, is on Another Timbre. Ryan Trecartin is represented by Andrea Rosen. Ezra Pound’s opera was edited by Robert Hughes and Margaret Fisher, recordings available on Other Minds.

No comments: