Zoe Martlew's pick of the Christmas + New Year highlights (no Swan Lake)
Sassy, fast-paced, highly coloured, exuberant, innovative, virtuoso: these are a few of the words that spring to mind in describing vocal trio Juice. Singers Anna Snow, Sarah Dacey and Kerry Andrew have made a name for themselves over the past few years with envelope-pushing vocal pyrotechnics, pin-point rhythmic and tuning precision combined with experimental multi-media techniques. Many composers have written for the group whose performances have incorporated throat singing, electronics, improvisation, theatre and film. Reviewers (for what it’s worth) have linked them with Stockhausen, Berio and the Swingle Singers.
Thursday’s show promises us a typically eclectic ‘Juice-ian’ mix of Macedonian lullabies, deconstructed jazz standards, pygmy riffs, their own take on the Beach Boys and commissioned pieces by composers Piers Hellawell, Laurence Rowan and Juice member Kerry Andrew.
For those who haven’t yet been to the Forge, this is a great opportunity to check out the brand new performance space designed by star architects Burd Haward. They’ve really thought about acoustics and the complexities of audience/performer comfort and got it right in my view. You can sit round your candle-lit table sipping your glass of whatever, eat well-prepared Italian nosh, admire the way the sunlight falls on the fresh wood and listen to cutting edge music with perfectly balanced sonic spatial properties. Call me soft, but sometimes a few middle-class comforts can be just the thing to assist listening (Stravinsky would howl in protest) and, goddammit, it’s Christmas.
If you feel the need for stylistic purity to balance out the kaleidoscopic fizz of Juice, you get three chances to listen to this classy ensemble perform an intelligently constructed programme of Birtwistle arrangements of Ockeghem, Machaut and Bach, alongside his sensuous cello/piano piece Lied (2008) and a new commission by 25 year-old Christian Mason.
Medieval techniques have long fascinated composers, particularly in the second half of the 20th century and Ernst Krenek (close friend of Stravinsky) for example, called Ockeghem the “modern master of the 15th century” and a major influence on his approach to serial technique. One can see how a technical master like Birtwistle would have a longstanding interest in the medieval treatment of melody, dissonance and rhythm. For example, the techniques of hocketting and isorhythm in which melody is used structurally and is split up amongst the parts or hidden mid-register; or Ockeghem’s lack of barlines and conflicting metric textures. Birtwistle calls his arrangements of Ockeghem and Guillaume de Machaut’s “instrumental motets”. In this concert, they will be cushioned between his instrumental take on parts of Bach’s Art of Fugue. I usually make a run for the exit at the first sign of a fugue but there’s something truly compelling about this music seen through an uncompromising Birtwistle lens, especially when played with real integrity and attention to detail, which is something this ensemble do consistently.
By the way, I agree with Birtwistle’s sceptical comment on period performance practice: “Only by bringing something of the present century to it can we bring this music alive”. As Nietzche pointed out, “the really historical performance would talk to ghosts”.
And there’s a new piece by Christian Mason who is Birtwistle’s sometime assistant. What an amazing job! I wonder what you get to do? To hear?! There’s your man for inside info on how on earth H.B. goes about constructing vast edifices like the Minotaur. (Actually, I overheard a conversation when someone asked Birtwistle just that, and he replied in his inscrutable flat northern tone, “It’s like crossing a desert”. My other much-loved Birtwistle quote dates from Dartington summer school where he was in residence a few years back when a keen young composer asked him about the approach to a particular technical issue in his day. H.B. “It is my day. Fuck off”).
Mason is currently a pupil of George Benjamin and has studied with Julian Anderson and Nicola Lefanu, amongst others, attended Stockhausen courses and has recently been commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. I’m not yet familiar with his work, but the pieces I heard on his MySpace reveal technical assurance, a certain Messiaenic leaning and a clear sense of instrumental colour. I love that he lists “frogs, birds, cicadas and other insects” as influences; you can really hear this in his When Joy Mixed with Grief.
There’s a Rilke epigraph on the Birtwistle cello/piano piece Lied, which goes: ‘What is the instrument on which we’re strung? And who’s the fiddler that has us in his hand?” Good question Rainer Maria.
This is SUCH an important part of the UK’s new music scene, encouraging excellence in the field of contemporary classical music in a series of recitals given by rigorously-auditioned young players. There will be 11 concerts featuring music by, amongst others, George Benjamin, Brian Ferneyhough, Nicolas Maw, Anna Meredith, Julian Anderson and Ligeti. Park Lane performances are known for the passion, attention to detail and energetic flair of new young soloists, who one hopes will continue to keep the new-music flag flying here and abroad. When I did my PLG gig about 20 years ago, there were almost no instrumental teachers around whom one could ask for advice on how to tackle extended techniques, quarter tones, irrational rhythms, and so on, and we were all pretty much left to work it out for ourselves. Even now I hear the odd story (true) from the main UK music conservatoires about Debussy’s Cello Sonata being too modern for the performers’ course. Hopefully, this generation of PLG performers will have had a little more guidance, which in turn they will be able to pass on.
Stravinsky always spoke of true virtuosity being about the expansion of instrumental and vocal techniques, rather than the mindless gymnastic display common to the concerto rep we all chugged through at Music College. (New Music Police niggle: Not sure about Kodaly and Bartok being contemporary rep. I would be interested to know what the PLG chronological cut-off point is.)
This is a must for anyone even vaguely into electronic music. Numerologists will also be pleased with the significant 1111 performance date, signifying new beginnings on at least four counts.
Drag yourselves out of the inevitable New Year despondency to hear studio wizard Jon Hopkins in action. Here’s an incredibly gifted musician whose combo of dark edgy bass loops, treated piano and long, winding melodic lines over ambient synthetic sonic-cushions have attracted collaborations with the likes of Herbie Hancock, Coldplay, King Creosote, Massive Attack and Brian Eno, assorted film-makers and last year, choreographer Wayne McGregor for his Random Dance Troupe and touring piece Entity. Perhaps his early beginnings as child piano prodigy have given him the discipline with which he clearly hones his craft and the ears to hear it.
Also playing is the curator of bi-monthly experimental club-night Blank Canvas, Will Dutta. Will Dutta is an impressive mover and shaker in the world of cross-genre collaborations, one-off contemporary music events, interesting performance spaces and the cultivation of new audiences. His many collaborations include electronica power-duo Plaid and Max de Wardener who joins him for the premiere of their new work for piano and live electronics.
De Wardener’s music contrasts nicely with Hopkins broad landscapes. His exquisite sonic details with cut-up electronics can be heard in his wonderful piece Minutia, which feels like the aural equivalent of a film doc about deep ocean microscopic creatures, electronics mixed with precise instrumental gestures.
London Sinfonietta round out the evening with some of their Sinfonietta Shorts, written especially for the Sniffers (as they are sometimes known) for their 40th birthday by composers including John Woolrich, Tansy Davies, Django Bates and Sir Harrison Birtwistle. We’re not told yet which composers will be donning the ‘Shorts’ for the evening, but we could be looking at Pierre Boulez
or Mira Calix.
Now there are two people I’d like to hear in conversation…
Another two people I’d love to have heard in conversation (although I’m pretty certain they never met) are Sun Ra,
King of psychedelic Afro-futurism (wooo..) and Karlheinz Stockhausen.
Both claimed to be of angel race, sent to earth to serve mankind from other planets: Saturn (Sun Ra) and Sirius (Stockhausen) from where their music was dictated in dreams. Both were obsessed with the Book of Urantia, a huge tome (2,097 pages) of material allegedly received and brought to earth from celestial beings and delivered in channelled messages to one Dr. Bill Sadler, noted physician and psychiatrist in 1934. The purpose of the book is claimed to be a clarification of man's “divine and eternal destiny.
Anyone who’s ever heard Sun Ra’s Cosmos Darkness from the album Nidhamu and Dark Myth Equation (now there’s an album title) or parts of Liquid Continual Space Opera, to pull just two random examples out of the vast recorded Ra legacy, could be forgiven for momentarily thinking they’re listening to extracts from some seminal ensemble and electronics work from the great 20th century German musical visionary. A little online faffing about revealed (disappointingly) that I’m not the only one to have connected the two composers and there was an album released earlier this year called Sirius Respect featuring the works of both Karlheinz and Sun, played by The Respect Sextet.
Stockhausen based his vast opera cycle Licht on Sadler’s Urantia writings, and I was bowled over by the concert performance of Lucifer’s Tanz at the fantastic Stockhausen festival at the South Bank in 2008. To give an idea of the sheer scale of the thing, Lucifer’s Tanz is a good hour long and represents one scene from one Act of one Day (Saturday) of the seven-day opera-cycle. This scene is an unforgettable spectacle of large wind band plus percussion arranged in the shape of a huge face, which is “manipulated” by tenor Lucifer. An eyebrow appears to waggle up and down as a whole section of clarinets, for example, move in carefully choreographed unison whilst playing, “forming a kind of bizarre kinetic sculpture”, as the programme note describes. I found the sound of the piece as spectacular as its visual component with exquisitely heard, utterly original chords and instrumental textures, alternating like some monster squeeze box. It must have been amazing to see the fully staged version with a 20 foot Lucifer on stilts presiding over the band tiered on tall scaffolding.
Keeping the theatrical tone, I recently saw a video of Beckett’s seminal monologue Mouth, having heard a broadcast of the premiere of Mark Anthony Turnage’s tribute piece, Five Views of a Mouth, with star flautist from Ensemble Modern Dietmar Wiesner and the BBC Scottish S.O. There was an un-staged performance of the Beckett in the same concert by Fiona Shaw. What an EXTRAORDINARY piece of theatre the Beckett is! Click here for the classic performance by Beckett veteran Bille Whitelaw. Deeply disturbing, and generally considered to be one of the most notoriously difficult pieces in the rep to perform, the disembodied spot-lit mouth of the actress (literally strapped down in order to keep the mouth in a fixed position) appears to float 8ft above the stage, and speaks “at the speed of thought” a traumatized stream of consciousness.
It’s interesting to see the text with its fanatically precise pause and breath marks indicated by differing numbers of dots. Not unlike musical notation. Apparently Irish actress Lisa Dwan delivered a staggering performance earlier this year at the South Bank centre, in a record- breaking 9 minutes and 50 seconds, shaving some 6 minutes off the average total performance.
Call me old fashioned, but it’s hard to beat a good performance of Xenakis’ Psappha. Although this YouTube video is a poor substitute for the electrifying effect of a good live performance, Steven Schick does a pretty good job here with precise cross rhythms and butch virtuosity. Makes me want to go out and bash lots of kitchen things loudly in a virile way.
Vaguely related to Psappha, in that it involves percussion of sorts, is the music-theatre work of Georges Aperghis, which had a huge effect on me when I first heard/saw it at the QEH in a mini Aperghis festival about 15 years ago. Although not a huge fan of his purely instrumental music, I find his theatre pieces mesmerising; I love that they allow so much scope for the individual performer’s interpretation whilst maintaining the integrity of the original idea.
The pieces I’ve seen or worked on have involved deconstructed language linked with specific physical movements described in partially-notated graphic scores. In one piece, I remember, the performer had to get from A to B via a glass of wine (C) using sound to propel the movement, if you follow me. The effect was hilarious and also breathtakingly virtuosic, requiring huge feats of memory, as well as highly refined vocal/rhythmic/acting skill from the performer.
Here are a couple of pieces by Georges Aperghis I found online which reflect the originality of his work and, for me, beg the question why it is so rarely performed in the UK: firstly the theatrical Machinations in which vocal fragments are linked with hand movements, lighting and video. And the equally theatrical percussion piece Les Guetteurs de Sons. Finally, here’s a spectacular excerpt from 14 Recitations, performed by the unmatchable Donatienne Michel-Dansan. This is really is vocal virtuosity post- Ligeti/Berio taken to new heights. There can’t be many sopranos ready to pull this one out of the bag.
PIN-UP COMPOSER OF THE MONTH
"Ben relaxes at home in Paris" Unforgettable toned lycra chic from the composer of this year's BBC Prom commission "In Trumpet". Triathlon medal the perfect accessory for any serious day to day modernist.
I’m 2/3rd of the way through the second volume of Steven Walsh’s admirable book on Stravinsky, which apparently Robert Craft is none too pleased about (he´s currently working on his own definitive Stravinsky book and must be anxious to redress any less than laudatory Walsh observations about his relationship with the master). I was a bit put off by his somewhat lofty moral tone at the beginning (he clearly disapproves of Igor´s pre-war extra-marital shenanigans) but I am becoming more and more engaged with Walsh’s subtle brush-strokes describing encounters between the enormous artistic personalities of the time. For example, the time that Vera Stravinsky, “disconcerted”, flushed a bowl of chocolate pudding down the loo that the less-than-cleanly house-guest, Auden, had left in the bathroom. How did the conversation at dinner go when the mistake was discovered? Endless speculation…
Happy festive season one and all. I leave you with a last word from Sun Ra, which in headier moments I would have loved to say and mean myself: "I never wanted to be a part of planet Earth, but I am compelled to be here, so anything I do for this planet is because the Master-Creator of the Universe is making me do it. I am of another dimension. I am on this planet because people need me".
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