Archive for March, 2010

Angelic Gay Messiah

March 29, 2010

Tony Kushner’s Angels in America sits comfortably in the grand tradition of American transcendentalism. Lines can be drawn from the play through Updike, Barnett Newman and the Beats, right back to Whitman, Ives and Thoreau. Eddying at the threshold of revelation, profane and full of life, lyrical and dying, his characters outline a daring vision of a new America crowned by a secular, mystic, gay pantheism.

Peter Eötvös’ operatic treatment was premiered in Paris in 2004, finally arriving in the UK last Friday in a concert performance given by the BBC SO under David Robertson at the Barbican. Much of the original cast, including David Adam Moore and Julia Migenes, reprised their multitasking roles. The original play lasts seven hours. The opera runs at about 130 minutes. Yet the latter never short-changes the alternately earthy and revelatory strains of the former; the play’s phantasmatic frame is ideally suited to the artifice of the operatic apparatus. Its visions and dramatic elisions transmute vividly into music; in sonifying the text through an idiomatic admixture of Broadway and high European modernist styles, Eötvös achieves a uniquely hued sensibility that allows the breadth of the original to somehow come through in only a fraction of the time.

Loved to Death

March 26, 2010

King’s Place seem to have an uncanny knack for programming a consistently impressive range of music. Most of that music is contemporary and somehow or way off the beaten track, whether it be Philip Jeck and Janek Schafer playing around with aquatic themes, IRCAM alumni talking and playing us through some of their latest toys, or Grup Instrumental de València telling of the spectral secrets of Flamenco.

The British ensemble Counterpoise visit the venue this coming Monday. Counterpoise have made it their intention to found something of a modern genre of melodrama at a remove from Victorian cliché, a form into which contemporary music drama may at least in part flow. I interviewed the composer John Casken and the group’s trumpet player Deborah Calland ahead of the show. Both had interesting things to say about the group’s activities, about the state of modern music drama, and about the Casken commission, Deadly Pleasures, which forms the central part of the concert. Casken goes into some detail on the fundamentals of the piece, and much is revealed about his approach to the theatre. Go here to read the interview.

Ismène

March 16, 2010

George Aperghis is perhaps out on his own in the contemporary music field in terms of theatrical composition. Even his instrumental concert works inhabit a zone of politicised, spectral drama. Reminiscent at times of Kagel, at others of Sciarrino, even Furrer, Aperghis’s work is at its best more measured and more hauntingly modern in affect than any of them.

His monologic opera Ismène is based on the poem of the same name by his fellow Greek, Yannis Ritsos. Premiered in 2008 as part of Belgium’s Ars Musica festival, it represents a unique collaboration between actor/singer (Marianne Pousseur), director (Enrico Bagnoli), and composer. Read my full review of tongiht’s revival in Brussels’ Balsamine Theatre here.

Memory and Popular Culture

March 11, 2010

Is memory at the crux of popular culture? If it is right that, as Frederic Jameson (Antinomies of Postmodernism), Giorgio Agamben (Profanations) and countless others have suggested, recent culture is defined by a continuous present, by an inability to make new memories, it is also right that popular culture makes this failure its programme.

The topos of memory provides popular television, music, and film with a self-enclosed circuit of self-mythologisation, an easy access to powerful feelings of some ineffable horizon, deathly but safe, dazzled by time. Nowhere is the closed circuit of myth-making more obvious than in the Broadway musical, where broad spans of time and event are contained by a more-or-less successful schematic of action which pivots on the presentation, toying with, and finally re-interjection of the big number. This song encompasses the heart of the show at the level of symbolic economy, expresses the fall and rise of the love story necessary to most musicals of the Golden Age in three or four weighted minutes. Films that introduce actors alongside grabs from the action of the film at the credits, like those that tack a blooper reel at the end, toy with this same tension of automatic work-memory.

The inherent tragedy of the impossibility of making memories butting up against this desperate play for memory can produce great, sublime work. Is this not what hauntology, hypnagogic pop, and all the rest are about? The fuzzed, dissolving phantasmagoria of Broadcast, like their neon poetry lyrics, is a glorious musical staging of this tragedy. As Broadcast’s masterpiece, Tender Buttons, looks back through a never-eighties to the pathos-filled psychedelia of the United States of America and of post-Pet Sounds Brian Wilson, so Wilson looked back to a childhood then fragmenting in fading rainbow colours. Each artist looks with the eyes of others, searching for some truth, some stable ground of the Real.

I was put in mind of these things when watching an episode of the US Office. In the episode, Jim and Pam, two of the leads, finally get married. In doing so, their friends and family perform the famous JK Wedding Entrance Dance that received massive exposure on YouTube last year. The Dance involves various members of the congregation coming down the aisle in a tightly choreographed sequence set to Chris Brown’s ‘Forever’. The original clip, though sweet enough, had left me with a slightly unpleasant feeling, vaguely thinking about the desperate desire for validation and public exposure that characterises so much contemporary media, even when the participants are innocent contributors. Yet in the joyous retelling on the Office, the impossibility of use (in Agamben’s phrase, a phrase that gestures at the simulated aspect of so much discourse), becomes the source of a gorgeous nostalgia impossible to resist. Set implicitly to memories of Jim and Pam’s touching romance, and explicitly to memories of events untold, out of sequence, temporally fractured and therefore emotionally rich, where we see the two going off for their actual wedding, in secret, in order to counter what they knew would be the crassness of their friend’s celebrations, the re-ritualised dance pulls directly on the core of popular memoradelia. The music, a slice of mediocre autotuned electro-pop, becomes here a soaring modern torch song, glistened by the pall of lost time. The Wedding Episode is effective in its comedy and its form, but it is the strange geometries of memory and nostalgia called up by the staging of the JK Dance that set it apart as an apotheosis of its kind.

Popular culture is in a dreamcycle of self-lament, circling itself in beautiful, failing shadows of permanence. ‘High’ forms, classical models of art, of course mythologise no less the uncanny nature of time and memory, but the peculiarly synchronic memory formation of certain examples of popular culture seem singularly charged.

London Round-Up

March 3, 2010

I’ve been back in London for the past ten days or so, where I heard a whole host of wonderful music and other fine things. Most of the reviews are now online, and can be accessed via the links below.

Philip Jeck and Janek Schaefer played a date as part of King’s Place ‘Arctic Circles’ series, which seeks to explore the resonance of music with water in a sort of oblique, memory-infused way. Jeck and Schaefer are excellent candidates for such a subject, and sure enough Jeck’s bespoke An Arc for the Listener made stunning use of oceanic, mired textures of overloaded bass and crackling revanance from turntable. His shimmering, queered ukiyo-e film that served as backdrop was almost as captivating as his music. Schaefer didn’t quite reach Jeck’s heights of vivid time-haunted flow, but his Cageian piece for FM transmitter, radios and booming PA did well to evoke an eclectic and colourful Amazon of the mind.

The revival of Glass’ Satyagraha was even more impressive than the production was on its original run. The music is transitional in terms of its composer’s style and ambition, failing as it does to capture the bold spirit of Einstein (although boasting a serene beauty all of its own), but the peerlessly subtle and attentive production style more than compensates. The large-scale puppetry and other such wonders really need to be seen to be believed. The intelligence of the drama and production animate a glacial, opaque work with a dynamism of perfect measure.

Fresh from a stinging and hopelessly reactionary attack on contemporary composers (which was gloriously censured by Philip Clark in this month’s Wire), James MacMillan was in attendance at the Barbican for a barnstroming performance of his 2007 St. John Passion with the LSO, Colin Davis, and Christopher Maltman. Despite the best efforts of the performers, however, the fundamental futility and emptiness of the work could not be countered.

Perhaps the highlight of the whole trip was Florian Hecker’s exhibition at the Chisenhale Gallery. Using one large exhibition space and various multi-channel arrays installed in different dispositions abou the hall, the show creates a swimming, hallucinatory sonic architecture full of fracture, fractal, and fun. My review will be in the next issue of the Journal of Music.

Grup Instrumental de Valencia, Spain’s leading new music ensemble, visited the ever-wonderful King’s Place on Monday for an astonishingly inventive concert of Spanish pieces (and one from Britain – Tansy Davies’ reliably compelling Grind Show). Of many sparky and coarse inventions, it was Mauricio Sotelo’s dizzying yet fresh and distinctive yoking of flamenco and spectral music, with cantaora Isabel de Juive on full flaming form, that was the most impressive. I’ve never seen tradition and innovation parsed so convincingly.

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Finally, Kaffe Matthews gave an inspiring tour of her practice, discussing the social and musical ideas underlying her sonic beds (see above), bikes and benches, and giving a peek into future, underwater sonic explorations. Her dictum Music for Bodies indicates the wonderfully egalitarian, physical nature of her spacious and ear-catching sound art.