Archive for August, 2012

A Caged Prom.

August 19, 2012

Whatever one might say about the stodginess of Proms programming, it is undeniable that giving over a full evening Prom to a celebration of John Cage in his centenary year was a brave and commendable move from the BBC and Roger Wright.

Even more commendable than this basic fact – which may after all have been accomplished with hedging of bets and fallings between stalls – was the full bore nature of the programme, devised and (where necessary) conducted brilliantly by Ilan Volkov, Principal Guest Conductor of the evening’s orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony.

Volkov’s programme included highlights from across Cage’s long and fruitful composing career, doing a good job of balancing variegated Cageian resources, even if proceedings could have done with being trimmed down by half an hour or so at least.

The programme featured longer pieces, such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and the melange of Cartridge Music with Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music, alongside various late or shorter pieces (101, Branches, Improvisation III, FOUR2, ear for EAR, But what about the noise of crumpling paper…, Experiences II), and a couple of curios; Christian Marclay’s fun and congruous rough choreography of an orchestra ‘sounding’ their instrument cases, Baggage, and the ill-balanced improv of David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and Keith Rowe. (Kosugi clearly wanted to pull the others into steamy and seedy electronic territory, a place, with the possible exception of Rowe, they seemed especially keen not to visit.)

Though the evening gave us the chance to contemplate anew and, in doing this, to celebrate the rich conceptual contributions of John Cage, it would, of course, be remiss not to mention the music.

Although some of the evening’s performances got a little lost in the large space, not least John Tilbury’s otherwise fluent soloistic part in the Concerto, many others utilised the set up of the Royal Albert Hall to great effect.

Exaudi gave gorgeous, crystalline readings of ear for EAR and FOUR2 (the first with an as-ever resplendent Joan la Barbara), spread around four of the entrances to the ground floor stalls, in a similar fashion to the arrangement for Improvisation III.

The many instrumentalists of But what about the noise of crumpling paper… and Branches, meanwhile, were arrayed around the ground floor (as were the soloists and some of the concertante performers for the aforementioned three piece melange), and the balconies, of the hall. Such spatialisation of the performing space both dramatised the processes of each piece, and implicated the audience themselves in some of the decision making, lending each piece a participatory feel that suited them well.

In a purely ‘musical’ sense (whatever that might mean), the highlights for me were 101 and But what about the noise of crumpling paper…. The first, opening the concert, winds out a burning, Central Park in the Dark-like string chord underneath gesticulatory brass interjections, for a narcotic twelve minutes. The latter, coming amidst a slightly less stellar second half of longeurs (the improv, whose slightly troubling programme note from Keith Rowe should probably not go unremarked!) and straightjacketed chance compositions (such as the Concerto), felt like a liberation, where sounds could be the strange attractors they so want to be, and musical discourse could dissemble so gloriously as it did. This piece, with its tiny, tumbling percussion sounds and its obscure physical gestures, felt like a ritual undergoing profanation. A ritual-absented-purpose, beyond the strange purposes of the aesthetic.

With these late pieces Cage the hardliner anti-improvisationalist softens, allowing much more spontaneity and grace into the sounding moments of his music. (I never quite got what the problem was with self-expression anyway.) And they proved the highlights of the concert: sound, even when it is transcending self-expression as best it can, has its own reality, its own set of attractions and repulsions, even if these often need to be mediated to some degree by human hands. Restricting these elective affinities as Cage sought to in some of his mature works only leads to a diminishment of artistic merit.

Besides the delicious pleasure of attending such a sustainedly Cageian Prom in the cavernous Albert Hall, Volkov must really be given credit on two counts for assembling the personnel he did. Generally speaking, the participation of artists such as Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and David Behrman (the first of whom gave Cage his first copy of the I Ching), all old associates of Cage, gave the evening some sense of a creative mandate. So too did the presence of Cage specialists such as John Tilbury and Aki Takahashi, and such consummate performers as Exaudi.

More personally, it was a pleasure to witness so many stalwarts of the underground and experimental music scenes performing, from John Butcher to Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance, the Bohman Brothers, and more besides. It may not have been quite the celebration Cage would have wanted, but it was a celebration in the spirit of his work, messy, unpredictable, arrogant, misguided, and often beautiful as it was.

Daniel Barenboim, Boulez, Beethoven and Kronos Quartet.

August 2, 2012

Daniel Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s Beethoven Proms marathon, in which the composer’s complete symphonies are being performed across five concerts, culminated on 27 July with the ninth. Preceding that performance were four concerts pairing two of the symphonies with a piece by Boulez, a composer whose music, like that of Beethoven, has long been a speciality of Barenboim’s.

The coupling of Beethoven and Boulez feels just right in some respects, both men being musical colossi of their respective ages with a passion for musical ‘innovation’ and an unwillingness to compromise. However, the musical procedures and emotional atmospheres of the music heard in this concert differ to such a degree that their juxtaposition succeeded through contrast rather than correspondence.

The two Beethoven symphonies, the eighth and the seventh, bookended a brave, if a little brusque, solo performance of Boulez’s Anthèmes 2 from Daniel’s son Michael Barenboim, on violin. In the context of such familiar and warmly-welcomed repertory works as these symphonies, particularly amidst a packed and cavernous Royal Albert Hall, the Boulez felt as strange as it possibly could, slightly hackneyed and rudimentary signal processing and all. Although the piece’s clearly delineated architecture and electronic special effects (managed well by IRCAM’s Gilbert Nouno and Jérémie Henrot) were seemingly not enough to impress some in the audience, many seemed rapt by Barenboim’s virtuousic cadenzas and the hypnotic, spectral, glassy chords heard as a refrain throughout.

That the symphonies were well-received was not a surprise. And yet, the sheer range of pliable expressivity and depth of command of argument which Barenboim brought to them was sometimes a wonder to behold. Although there were a handful of shaky ensemble moments, with the brass being culpable on more than one occasion, as for example with the sluggish climaxes in the eighth’s finale, or the exposed trumpets in the fanfares at the start of the seventh, more generally the orchestra’s responsiveness to Barenboim’s demand for slow-burning dynamic swells and ripples was striking. Time and again Barenboim effected waves across the ensemble, pulling out a detail here, gradually unfurling a climax there.

The music was consistently guided into fresh new shapes, even in familiar or commonplace contexts, as with the Allegretto of the seventh, or the ‘slow’ movement of the eighth, both of which sparkled and rolled as if fresh. The orchestra’s tone colours were richly velvet throughout, with the placement of the low strings above the rest of the band lending the sound a depth and warmth well suited to these vivid, intense, and surprising scores, even if the overall string sound was sometimes a little muddy.

The late evening concert featured the Kronos Quartet, who, incredibly, were here making their Proms debut. You would have imagined that the Quartet’s sometimes uncomfortable blend of folk music, minimalism and other contemporary styles should have been grist to the Proms’ middlebrow mill, but somehow they have failed to appear until now.

As it happened, Kronos’ inconsistencies were on stark display in a concert that should have been theirs for the taking. They picked an uninteresting, derivative modernist piece on the one hand, Gubaidulina’s arid String Quartet No. 4, and on the other leaned too heavily on somewhat insubstantial and gimmicky music. The latter was present in the form of a basically bland arrangement of music by the usually electric, grainy and fervent Omar Souleyman; in Nicole Lizée’s occasionally striking but generally unpersuasive tribute to the BBC’s seminal Radiophonic Workshop; and even in Aleksandra Vrebalov’s earnest, robust, richly-dramatic, but sometimes characterless piece which staged the syncretism of Serbian and Albanian cultures, …hold me, neighbour, in this storm….

Though the Quartet’s full bag of tricks was on display, with drums, ethnic instruments, shouts, electronic effects from reel-to-reels, kaoscillators and more featuring, the concert only periodically took off.

The fourth string quartet of Ben Johnston, a composer with whom Kronos have enjoyed a fruitful relationship, came midway through the programme, finally imbuing proceedings with a sense of musical fullness. Idea, execution and expression were here suddenly aligned, the music’s eldritch but effulgent rendering of ‘Amazing Grace’ making the strangest sense, giving us a glimpse into a world subtly beside our own. Although Kronos’ performance could have conveyed the shifting sonic kaleidoscopes of the piece’s three just intonation tuning systems with more clarity, and additionally could have been carried off with a little less slapdash, it nevertheless provided the concert with a richly-heard centre.

Only the short, but gorgeous, Martin Hayes-like arrangement of the Scandinavian song ‘Tusen tankar’ matched the Johnston for vividness of expression. The encore, Clint Mansell’s Death is the Road to Awe from the film The Fountain, was unspeakably bombastic and shallow. Although it works very well as an accompaniment to the film, here it just felt compositionally and dramatically hollow, especially with the horrible intervention of the backing track and lights towards the close. Even this failed to rouse the crowd to the expected pitch, although Kronos received a generous reception nonetheless. Must try harder.