Monday, 4 May 2015

The Tectonics Premieres

Candleriggs. Ph: flickr, StressedTechie
    Ne’er cast a cloot ‘til May be oot.
(Don’t bother taking off your coat until June.)

Or so they say. Glasgow in early May is not the most likely of places for a ‘refreshing weekend break’. The emphasis should be on ‘refreshing’, maybe. And as if to add more insult to the injurious Glaswegian meterological ‘punch-in-the-face’, weirdly, arriving as I did for this year’s Tectonics festival in time for Adam Bohman and Karen Constance’s excellent set, I’d thought I’d travelled up the country when I could have easily stayed put. Adam, who of course always does the same thing, lives about a mile from where I do in Catford.

But Peter Brotzmann’s set that followed was sure enough consolation though—and like Balkan folk by way of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Brotzmann’s music has become so virtuosic in its reference to other musics it sounds as if it is referencing whole worlds simultaneously.

The festival offered some great musical experiences—especially the concerts of orchestral premieres played with great skill and dedication by the BBC Scottish Symphony and conducted by Ilan Volkov. Volkov and Alasdair Campbell have to be commended for putting together one of the most exciting and encouraging festivals of new music anywhere in Europe, by all reasonable estimations.

Over the weekend the orchestra presented a swathe of premieres, by Joanna Bailie, Paul Newland, Christopher Trapani, John Croft, Cassandra Miller, Peter Ablinger, Enno Poppe (a UK prem.), Christopher Fox/Rhodri Davies, as well as two extra pieces by Daniel Padden and Hild Sophie Tafjord. There was also some highly significant new chamber music from Eliane Radigue. Much, then, to write about. I came away thinking just how wide apart not just approaches but even simple musical thought was among these composers and artists.

I thought I would write brief accounts of most of these pieces (I didn’t see Daniel Padden’s piece).

Ilan Volkov conducts. Ph: BBC 
i. Orchestral pieces:

[A number of these pieces are now available to listen to here and here on the BBCs Hear and Now programme.]

Joanna Bailie’s piece, To be beside the seaside, which opened the first orchestral concert on Saturday, seemed to me an extremely fine thing. Highly accomplished and sophisticated, it had a good dash of healthy irreverence. Split into three sections, the piece used starting points from Debussy, Beethoven and Strauss respectively. It occurred to me she had split her response to the ‘seaside’ location into three physical strands: water, sky and land. The first movement was a careful exploration of ‘sea harmony’, slowly transforming chords mostly sitting under an inverted pedal. Like other of Bailie’s pieces—notably Harmonising, for singers and field recordings[1]—one has the sense with her harmonic writing that these chords are ‘analysing’ the wider sonority of the world. Indeed careful spectral analysis of Debussy’s La Mer was what generated much of the harmony. But the movement combined the odd rigour of algorithmic expansion with a looseness born of attention to breathing and bodily swells, of ocean and human. The second movement too, located in the sky (with high string harmonics) concerned itself with the scherzo-like dancings of Beethoven 4. Birds and Doppler-shifting planes. At times silly, but buttoned-down somewhat. The final movement was I think an interpretation of Strauss’ Rosenkavalier waltzes, again stretched and bent by a process unseen. But here the orchestra is returned to the land—the schlocky, kitschy vistas of seafront pleasure, of dance-halls and Wurlitzer organs. The aromas of chip-fat and sweaty evenings one associates with, say, Scarborough or Eastbourne. The waltzes highlighted the kitschy core at the heart of the orchestra, it being (as Cassandra Miller had said earlier in the day) essentially an ‘nineteenth-century instrument’. Out of these dances came braying donkeys too—staple of the ‘land’ beside the seaside. This was a fine piece all told—in the end it was a good example of what Chris Petit has called ‘heavy entertainment’.

Paul Newland’s piece, Angus Macphee, was a portrait of the Scottish outsider artist, severely mentally damaged by his experiences in the Second World War. He became almost mute, only talking very occasionally, and began making exquisite weaved art objects out of grass. Newland’s piece was moving, but long, too long probably, and could have benefited from editing. Sections of it, where the orchestra plays in an unsynchronised way and sung too, were especially beautiful, and were reminiscent of the heterophonic congregational singing common in the Western Isles, called ‘snaking the voice’. But alongside this material came a surfeit of aphoristic, and thus rather tautological, chords in silence. A stroke one can only perform so many times, arguably. But an accomplished piece nonetheless.

Weaved objects by Angus Macphee. Ph:
Christopher Trapani’s piece Rust and Stardust somewhat passed me by. Adopting the kind of ‘colourism’ one might come to expect in recent orchestral music, it put predictable focus on percussion, along with gestural ‘rips’ and yelps from the trumpets. Of course many of these timbral things were very striking, but to my mind they aren’t really enough to sustain such a piece on their own. (Given the propensity of so many composers to write pieces like this, many would disagree, apparently.) While there were also interesting rhythmical aspects to the piece’s explorations—particularly in the latter sections, scraping and shuffling and scooching and sliding—the piece might have benefited from redrafting and stripping-down in some way. Occasionally there would be a glimpse of an idea that could have been really pushed, but hadn’t been.

John Croft’s piece too I felt accomplished but too ‘diverse’, prose-ish, to take a grapple-hold of me. Everything that happened, happened only the one time, and by the time you’d registered its happening, something else was going on. There is of course much music like this—music one is inclined to say ‘just hang on a sec’ to. And I’m sure it will benefit from repeated listening. Essentially, a kind of concerto grosso for the horn section (which put up a valiant job whilst being somewhat defeated by the difficulty of the material), the piece …che notturno canta insonne, as the title suggests is a kind of nocturne. Again, like Bailie’s piece, there was a (perhaps unintentional) sea topic at work here. One was reminded of the famous horn-and-cello section from La Mer. For Croft the horns are instruments redolent with microtonal possibility—they did much sliding from natural just harmonics, via hand stopping, to weird new chords. The sonority leaps right out of the orchestral mush, pulled as it were, like a sheet of paper out of a ream. The harmonic structure of the piece expands outward, loosely, from an opening sonority eventually to a wide overtone series. But the process is not especially ‘immediate’, though in some sense audible—as I say, perhaps repeated listens will reveal it more fully.

Peter Ablinger. Ph: Charlotte Oswald 
On the Sunday, the second concert began with a wonderful new work, QUARTZ, of Peter Ablinger’s. It was especially nice to be able to meet him too—shy, but jovial, and particularly careful about saying things. Even speaking to little me, in a second language, there was no sloppiness of expression of any idea. He doesn’t say ‘you know’ or ‘I guess’. I asked him: ‘So is there a kind of machine this time, with this piece?’ He paused and said: ‘Well yes, but then there is always a machine. Tonality is a machine. … But it’s not a single-button machine piece. I have to oil it and adjust it.’ Like others of his pieces, this piece is a kind of instrumental rendering of ready-to-hand sound. This time, it was the sound of a watch—a quartz watch—ticking, but as such mechanisms do, ticking ever so slightly irregularly. Each section of the piece applies a different ‘grid’ to the rendering, meaning Volkov had to conduct, sometimes furiously, at a very different tempo to the rough ‘quarter = 60’ aural result. As such it was extremely distracting watching the musicians—this is music to listen to, first and foremost. The piece made quite fiendish demands on the players who excelled themselves playing material that requires as much conceptual as physical dedication.

Enno Poppe’s piece Altbau, which followed, was a UK premiere, and was a Donaueschingen commission from 2008. A curious piece—completely lost on Jennie Gottschalk who was sitting with me—it seemed at times to playfully and rather gratuitously rip on a number of late-20th century orchestral classics. The opening movement nicked whole bits of Messiaen’s Chronochromie, and later was highly indebted to Bernd Alois Zimmermann in its jazzy eclecticism. The second movement began by nicking Ligeti’s stock middle-period opening harmonic movement, outward from a second, and kept on nicking bits of Clocks and Clouds. And again, Zimmermann seemed a strong influence, absurdist trombones to boot. I’m sure there were other things mixed in here that I missed. It was like being at a dinner party, with all these fellows invited, and Poppe stealing all their best jokes, safe in the knowledge that the old codgers are too past it to remember they came up with them in the first place.

Charles Curtis and Ilan Volkov perform Cassandra Miller. Ph: BBC 
            ii. Concertos

On the Sunday, we heard Christopher Fox’s new piece Topophony, written for the orchestra and improvising harp player Rhodri Davies. I was excited and curious to hear this piece, as I love both of these musicians deeply, they’re both extremely gifted. But aesthetically they seemed quite far apart—this, in any case, added to my curiosity. I hesitate to say too much about this piece—after all my opinions, such as they are, can only be subjectively my own—but I don’t think it worked. Fox had written a longish series of rather lush chords for the orchestra; from the sounds of it, most were under fermatas. Davies hadn’t really heard it until the day. Fox’s voice-leading is of course wonderful, but these chords, this style, were so alien to anything I’ve heard Davies do in the past, I was puzzled. It’s not as if including Davies is like including any kind of ‘ordinary’ harpist. Like other musicians from the improvising scene, the harp for Rhodri is a sound-making object; it is quite ‘unphilharmonic’. He isn’t interested, necessarily, in received ideas about how the harp is (to be) played. The electroacoustic improvisation scene around the world is still, for the most part, quite antiromantic. It’s suspicious of outward displays of affectation. For Fox, romanticism is framed by historical distance, historical irony too, and therefore essentially welcome; and in any case, his music is so diverse that almost any kind of expression can be included. Not so for Davies—and what we saw here was a musician, Rhodri, confronted with a kind of orchestral style which required a different sort of harp material than he could really bring himself to give over, honestly. He would listen intently, and add something to the texture—and then often decide against it shortly after having done so. Not that there was much ‘space’ for things to fall into. Fox clearly thought he was giving Davies space—by most accounts he was!—but space under a fermata was in the end no kind of space at all, not the right kind of space. What is required is silence, basically. Davies needed to be able to determine the texture, and the orchestra—Fox—needed to listen to him more. But after each thing Davies did, he would bail, give up, sometimes dejected, sometimes defeated, sometimes hopeful, sometimes baffled. He moved to the larger acoustic harp and spent an age preparing it with pegs (something he could easily have done beforehand), but spent a fraction of the time he spent preparing the strings actually playing them. At one point it felt as if he was going to give up the ghost, and go for broke, playing bisbigliando crescendo swells in the upper register. It was as if the rippling harp that the orchestral music so ‘desired’ was going to come out. But it didn’t come. In the end it was a kind of tragic piece—moving, though for the wrong reasons I dare say. 

Excerpt from Duet for Cello and Orchestra

The highlight of the festival for me (aside from Eliane Radigue’s music, see below) was Cassandra Miller’s Duet for Cello and Orchestra[2], a quite unbelievable piece. It’s difficult to describe this music without lapsing into hyperbole, but those who know her music will know just how fine it is becoming of late, and this is the best thing I’ve heard of hers.[3] It’s that good. Based on a very detailed transcription of an Italian folk song, Maria Carta’s Trallallera, it was a piece which had really only one idea—an idea that was pushed further and further until one felt it was impossible for it to be pushed any more, and then further still it went. The cellist Charles Curtis began by alternating slowly between tonic and dominant, at a kind of breathing pace, accompanied by a bass-drum rumble and a quietly portentous tubular-bell roll. And then this bright, violently Mediterranean song is called out by the ridiculously virtuousic trumpet section of the orchestra. One can hear the tiny inflections of the Carta refracted and quantised and re-rendered by Miller’s meticulous transcription, and each phrase ends with a long—sometimes very long—held note, followed by a rapid slide upward or downward, diminuendo. And back we go to tonic and dominant alternation.

This folksong-derived material was harmonised triadically for each section of the orchestra. It slowly expanded, in canon with itself, from trumpets, to cellos and violas, to winds, to violins, over the course of some ten minutes or more. After each phrase, and each held note, and each slide, we returned to the tonic and dominant material, often for quite a long time. Each time the tonic-dominant alternation returned, it was ‘endeepened’ by adding further bass instruments, again in canon, fifths and fourths away.

Maria Carta's Trallallera

Cassandra had said that the piece was about ‘masks’—and certainly it was. The cellist represented a stoic protagonist, a figure carrying-on-regardless, whilst the great mass ‘behind’ him, in the form of the fanfare-like folk material, is akin to something of the character’s inner psyche, blown up as if by rear projection. Miller’s music often exhibits an ecstatic mood—which this piece certainly did on occasion—but she is not really a romantic composer. She’s an experimentalist; like other Canadians, highly influenced by the estetiku divnosti of Rudolf Komorous, and especially the plentiful weirdnesses of Martin Arnold. But in this ecstatic mood she is closer at times to Ben Johnston—and in this case, it was the tragic ecstasy of the southern Mediterranean, of Sicilian Banda music say, or Sevillian holy-week pageantry, that this piece seemed to reference. It is both about masks and masques.

An example of Italian Banda music: from Banda Ionica's album Passione (1997)

It’s not as if the cellist is a sacrificial lamb though; the cellist isn’t Christ. The piece is more about the experience of our lives more generally, those enormous inner, oceanic feelings we carry about with us inside us, and which there is nothing to do with but carry around. Indeed a more Schopenhauerian piece one could not want. The world of this music is Will (orchestra) and Representation (cello). But ecstasy is so close to tragedy. And at the end of Schopenhauer, we have the inevitable ‘renouncing’, or really, reabsorption into, the Will. The final section of the piece is devastating. After the full orchestral tutti is achieved, slowly the tonic-dominant alternation of the cello is transformed into a chordal alternation in the orchestra. It repeats for a long time, these chords breathing, but slightly too fast for comfort. The kind of relentless heavy breathing one does when fearful or joyful. The cello is tacet for this. Gradually everything is reduced down to two soli orchestral cellos. But still, for ages and ages, the solo cello is silent.

And then—and it is a shock, but one, in retrospect, you have been prepared for all this time—the solo cello plays its final call. In the high harmonics, a melody of plainness and at the same time total intensity. Total renunciation, after all possible finitude. Not forte nor piano, it nonetheless flies out of those strings, out of Charles Curtis’ fingers. It is a melody we have come to expect—after all, the solo cello cannot just sit on dominant and tonic forever—but whence does it come? Where does it fly? To what does it amount? In order to have arrived here, we have had to throw off all the shackles of everything we had come to know beforehand. We have had to engage in such breathless waiting. It is a moment of enlightenment, tragic enlightenment. And its ending too, with its rapid slide upward, is inevitable, from that damn folksong, but still indelibly breathtaking. The tragedy of this piece is that its conclusion is set up right from the fore. But it takes us such an age to get there, to arrive at the reabsorption into Will, for the mask to dissolve away leaving the nothingness that was always never there.

Is it a pessimistic piece? If it’s a self-portrait, then maybe. But like Schopenhauer there is complete, total joy—the purest kind of joy there is of any—in this renunciation of the Will. It is the moment of harikiri, but it is also the moment of Nirvana. Fine music.

            iii. Eliane Radigue

Over the two days of the festival there were opportunities to hear a variety of pieces by Eliane Radigue, for a specially assembled ensemble. This was a group of some of the most sensitive and accomplished players around. Robin Hayward has for years been based in Berlin, and has created a unique practice in tuba playing—with improvisers and with composers as well. Rhodri too has fundamentally reinvented his chosen instrument. There are few players like each of them, really. I’d only encountered Daphne Vicente-Sandoval, a bassoonist, at Huddersfield last year, but she’s amazingly sensitive, and well attuned to the aesthetics of minimal improvisation (in Huddersfield she was playing some very quiet music indeed, with Ferran Fages, Lali Barrière and Angharad Davies, sister of Rhodri). Charles Curtis meanwhile, though not an improviser, is perhaps the foremost cellist associated with experimental music anywhere in the world, for years working with La Monte Young, as well as being a principal cellist to the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg. A good group then.

Curtis had premiered the first composition of Radigue’s for an acoustic instrument, the hour-length Naldjorlak I (2004)[4], and has performed and recorded quite a bit of it since then. All of Radigue’s acoustic music goes unnotated. It is developed in close collaboration with musicians, directly; and as she is nowadays too frail to travel, this happens as it can only, in Paris. It also means that the music is all performed from memory (there’s nothing Radigue has written down, though the musicians might make notes) and perhaps more importantly from the point of view of the audience, it is performed without stands. From this point of view it is an oral tradition, akin to Indian classical music—and in theory these musicians will be able to continue with this tradition themselves, teaching it to further musicians.[5]

The musicians performed nine pieces over the two days (some of the pieces were repetitions, but then the music is never quite the same twice). Radigue’s music is interested in the extension of single tones, of single harmonicities. Certainly one can see the affinity with the Indian tambura. And one can also see parallels between her work and the one-colour paintings of abstract expressionism, of Milton Resnick, Yves Klein, Barnett Newman, Ad Reinhardt, Agnes Martin. Despite her materials being of a minimal character, she isn’t really a minimalist. Like some of the monochrome artists, she’s a kind of expressionist. For the musicians each piece begins—and, as Robin Hayward said, such a French way to begin—with an image. From there an approach to the tone is found.

In the Radigue pieces, while there certainly is tranquillity, the partials and overtones dance and waver, glimmer, are terrifically busy, restless even. Each piece in the series being performed fell into three sections, not always of equal length. The first would be a fairly ‘plain’ introduction, often with gaps (in the pieces for bassoon and tuba this was the case). This might be quite didactic, quite rough even. Like other composers, part of Radigue’s aesthetic project is to teach you how to listen to the piece during the piece itself. Pieces would start with vegetables, and progress towards dessert. In many of the pieces performed, one would settle down into the tone, think to oneself ‘oh, I see what’s going on here’, whilst the partials danced around a little—only to find about three quarters of the way through that a new section of utmost delicacy and distinction had been arrived at. ‘Oh!’ one would think. Indeed, in the way these concerts were arranged, this was typically the effect of the entire programme—as the pieces progressed, the aural result became ever more impossible, ever more unreal.

There were partials and overtones in these pieces I’ve simply never heard before, and not likely to hear again in a hurry. Curtis would generate a difference (under?)tone a fifth lower than the low C string. Vicente-Sandoval could produce tones from the bassoon that included minor ninths above the fundamental, a surely impossible sonority. Davies would bow the lower strings of the harp and produce sonorities of such richness and distance. And Hayward, sometimes in the same piece, might play a high middle C on the tuba, or might play a C three octaves below. Not just individual sonorities, but the pace—determined by the musicians, naturally—and the subtle gradations in tuning were subjected to fine control. And in addition, the particular pitches and their timbres and their entry points. Towards the end of the last concert, the result of a particular bassoon entry into a texture was enough to elicit a simultaneous gasp from me and Luke Nickel, who was sitting a couple of seats away. The additive properties of these pieces are subtle in the extreme—but you have to give yourself to Radigue. You have to let her teach you how to hear again.

Rhodri Davies. Ph: BBC
We have this word—‘monotonous’—which is used in commonplace parlance to describe the boring, the overbearing, excessively repetitious. But even in these monotone pieces there is nothing monotonous. It is a deep critique of the idea of monotony; more than that, Radigue sets out to destroy our very conception of monotony. We know nothing, we must relearn.

It’s fitting, then, that Radigue has today become something of a guru figure, to whom a few people make pilgrimages. This is music that requires aesthetic devotion on an almost spiritual level. And yet, oddly, or not so oddly, it is terribly fashionable these days too. Everything ‘drone’ is departing from its previously carved out niche and enjoining in a wider party of latter-day soixante-huitards and other Dalston types. But we have to be careful, I feel. Radigue has the old-fashioned didacticism associated with the ‘traditional’ avant-garde. There’s nothing ‘ambient’ about her music, it’s not music to ‘space out’ to. Whether her aesthetic will live on in all its fullness will be down to whether musicians take all this seriously, and perhaps moreover, whether audiences realise this. We won’t know until later, in all probability.

Recordings from the Tectonics Festival will be broadcast on BBC Radio Three’s Hear and Now programme, on three consecutive Saturdays from May 16.

Cassandra Miller’s Duet for Cello and Orchestra can be heard again in Bologna at the AngelicA festival later this week, alongside a new work for the Bozzini String Quartet, and some Italian premieres of Laurence Crane by Anton Lukoszevieze and Apartment House.

Thanks to Luke and Jennie and Cassandra and Gregor for being such great company this festival!

[1] This piece was featured in on of Bob Gilmore’s recent podcasts, ‘Field recordings and new music’,
[2] Or was it Cello Concerto as put in the programme? If Cassandra has retitled it ‘Duet’ then I think it’s a shame, as the piece is really a concerto, not a duet. The orchestra is a chorus, not a partner.
[3] James Weeks’ article on Cassandra Miller’s music ‘Along the grain’, in Tempo vol. 68, issue 269 (July 2014) is here:
[4] The three Naldjorlak pieces (2004-9) were recorded and released on SoundOhm last year.,-II,-III/pid/21019/
[5] An interview with Charles Curtis where he discusses working with Radigue can be found on Paris Transatlantic here: