Tuesday, 27 April 2010

What Is Composing?

What makes a composer a composer? The week that has caused this to cross my mind has taken in both Edgard Varèse and Howard Shore. These are very different composers writing different music at either end of the 20th century. What unites them is a strong, progressive visual sense to their music: Varèse was involved in experimental film as an actor and had a strong, possibly synaesthetic sense of his vision of his music; Howard Shore is a composer of film scores. It's unsurprising then that both men seem to be interested in sound design as part of their function.

But is it the composer's job to imagine new sounds, whether it be to fit a given vision or whether it's to try and crystallise a sound they have in their head in a manner that can be reproduced outside of that head (!)? Or is the composer's job a more formal, overdetermining function - to provide a framework to be interpreted by performers?

Varèse provided tape recordings of the music that he wanted in a concert but is this composing or is some other art, more akin to sculpture? The anthropologist David Fanshawe is famous for having written and collated a work called African Sanctus that is an original score juxtaposed with recordings he made whilst on his travels. Clearly this man is both, scientist and composer. Is Varese then scientist and composer? Certainly he was fascinated by scientific investigation which found its way into musical recreation in pieces such as Arcana.

Similarly it was sometimes a moot point where the sound design of The Two Towers ended and the score began. Yet Shore's cues - precise though they are - are clearly musical cues, of a part with the emotional and narrative warp and weft of the story, not recreations of acts of the characters on screen. For all that synchronising the music with the screening was kept in metronomic check, the performers still had autonomy over the music's performance.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Varèse 360 at the QEH

Last night I attended the first concert of this weekend of the complete works of Edgard Varèse. It was a classic example of carefully curated retrospective programming, with Déserts the expansive bulwark around which a half dozen of other works could be arranged.

My previous experience of Varèse's music is limited to an excellent, kinetic NYO performance of Amériques at the Proms two years ago. The first piece on tonight's programme, Ionisation, recalls Amériques with its siren and rhythmic insistence. Like much of the music to come, Ionisation is a succinct but tightly woven work which doesn't overstate its case - in its monumentalism I heard a sort of Janáček Sinfonietta for percussion - dragging the listener into its broad timbral envelope with its futurist dynamism...

... which is something that can't be said of the subsequent Density 21.5 for solo flute, which amounts to little more than an amuse bouche for the instrument (programmeless, I don't have a name from the solo performer who was taken from the ranks of the typically finessed London Sinfonietta). The subsequent Dance for Burgess (in a realisation by Varèse's former pupil Chou Wen-chung) was much more interesting, probing orchestration focussing interest where the dispersed tonality had left a void.

To end the first half, Sir John Tomlinson joined the ensemble to perform Ecuatorial, essentially a cantata in Spanish about which Varèse said
I conceive the music as having something of the same elemental rude intensity of [pre-Columbian art]. The execution should be dramatic and incantatory, guided by the imploring fervour of the text...
Well this is certainly what we got in that feral-sage manner that Tomlinson can summon. The piece is notable for the use of two Cello-Theremins, electronic instruments (easily confused with the Ondes Martenot that Varèse had used in Amériques). It was interesting to hear Tomlinson, no doubt following the score scrupulously, using modified vowel sounds to produce hyper-legato line, tantamount to glissando. This had the effect of blending across the middle ground between the traditional instruments of the ensemble and the ethereal, pure-toned Theremins.

I mention this as the second half opened with Etude pour Espace (another Chou Wen-chung arrangement), in which a soloist from the vocal ensemble Exaudi applied a similar technique of apparently modified vowels. The text is even more opaque, aphoristic and fragmented, and shared amongst ensemble and soloists with spatially adjusted amplification. It was nonetheless rather effective, largely due to the meticulous attention given to articulation and ensemble by the excellent Exaudi, defying the clarity-distortion of electronic mediation. The oxygen-starved pontilism of the solo soprano and the lyric characterisation of the formerly-mentioned solo contralto (again, nameless) were beyond reproach.

Finally - and fully prepped in the sonic and textural continents of Varèse's sound world - we moved on to Déserts. I must admit here to having been rather irritated by the light designs of Zerlina Hughes, casting the stage in gloom possibile and wilfully going to blackout after every piece. Like much of the music in the programme though this must have simply been warm-up for the final work as the light & projection seemed well-appropriated to the music here. This is not least as three sections of the work are pre-recorded, industrially clanging soundscapes that put me in mind of tracks in Portishead's most recent album Third.



I must confess that the intrigue of alien sounds, particularly those attempted in the live ensemble wore off half way through the work - I ached for some lyricism or formal overdetermination beyond the precipitate sections of toe-tapping rhythm. David Atherton deployed his customary - and effective - technique of conducting beyond the end of the work to ensure silence in the space beyond the final bars, as the lights inevitably died again.

I enjoyed much of the concert, particularly the opportunity to hear music investigating the new frontiers of sound with the introduction of electronics. It's been interesting to hear this music of the late 1920s having seen Fritz Lang's silent masterpiece Metropolis recently, a spiritual brother in design if not purpose. I can also understand why people have been linking Varèse with the subsequent work of Messiaen (although Messiaen's compositional rigour was what this music clearly lacked) and indeed Johnny Greenwood's orchestrations for Radiohead as well as his own music.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot at The Curve, Barbican


His installation for The Curve will take the form of a walk-though aviary for a flock of zebra finches, furnished with electric guitars and other instruments and objects.
No, really. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot's installation is a charming piece made all the more entertaining on the occasion that I went by there being a number of toddlers and young children wandering around ('Daddy they've sat on your head twice but they haven't sat on ME!').

The first half of the gallery space is darkened, with semi-strobic projections of the Les Paul guitars used in the piece being played by humans. The idea, one imagines, is to deter the birds from flying out of the gallery. Actually, it doesn't seem quite so necessary once one has encountered these tiny but perfectly happy tits going about their business: chirrupping, eating & drinking (food and water in upturned ride cymbals), fighting, flirting and attempting to nest on one of the half dozen guitars with local, discreet amplification. Still the Lynchian walk from the entrance to the brightly/as-natural lit space manages to effect a useful separation between the installation and the outside world, where people queue for twenty minutes or so to keep cap on numbers in the space. And this crowd management works - the exhibition is remarkable for the proximity with which one can view the birds who seem entirely unruffled by our presence.

The art itself has little pretention towards metaphor or statement. It is what it is, the birds creating a close-up 3-D revolve of industry and inconsequential dialogue, leaving behind only droppings and the occasional power chord.

Saturday, 10 April 2010

Farnsworth/Lepper at the National Portrait Gallery

Room 12 of the National Portrait Gallery is a pleasant but potentially inhibiting place for a recital; full of portraits of 18th century artists, fine likenesses of Handel and both JC & JS Bach stare down impassively, self-absorbed. Still, it's neatly tucked away at the heart of the Gallery, minimising distractions, and, being an open-ended atrium is, practically, a bigger space than reporting an audience of 60 or so might make it seem.

This first of two recitals devised by the pianist Simon Lepper featured a cycle of Schumann songs, the 12 Gedachte, Op.35 on poems by Kerner. Before this, baritone Marcus Farnsworth opened the programme with three fine songs by Brahms, Wie bist du, meine Königin, Lerchengesang and Von Ewiger Liebe. His quiet, confiding singing of the second song intimated the quality of his sound and the dry-but-not-dead quality of the room, with Lepper notable for his discretion. Farnsworth's German is also carefully honed and benefits from well prepared vowels which give his legato singing good line (maybe the singer was on best behaviour having clocked the German lieder expert Richard Stokes in the audience).

The Schumann is not a cycle with which I'm familiar but it's full of good music and fine settings. It's also got a few hazards, which Farnsworth negotiated rather well, making music out of them rather than simply coping. A case in point would be the opening, lower register-heavy Lust der Sturmnacht followed straightaway by the devotional Stirb, Lieb und Freud in which the words of the Virgin Mary are set in extraordinary, pop-out tessitura at the upper limits of the baritone range. And as quietly as possible, naturally. Farnsworth's head voice emerged as cultured in such moments. There are such gear changes within songs as well - Auf das Trinkglas sets off in a graduate vein, ebulliently praising the now-empty glass that has been an evening's companion, only for night's canopy to overwhelm the imagery of the scene. Kerner is at his best here and Schumann responds with perfumed music, nicely evoked by Lepper, and with Farnsworth discreetly turning the focus inward.

The Schumann of more celebrated songs is in evidence here and there, most notably perhaps in the overt love songs (a classically Romantic cycle, there's as much here about nature, far off lands and ageing monuments as the missing sweetheart). Stille Tränen toys with the idea of the extended piano postlude, as familiar from Dichterliebe, settling for an elaborate coda after a reprise of the final verse. It's interesting that this most stirring song starts in the same key and manner as the act 2 love duet from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, yet 16 years from being written, but takes in the same ur-Romantic themes of assumption of paradise through sleep, waking from night etc. (albeit inverted by Wagner to coincide with his own philosophy).

The duo ended with an encore of Ivor Gurney's Sleep ('we thought you'd had enough depressing German music, so here's some depressing English music' Farnsworth offered), a welcome constitutional before heading out into the weekend West End.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Richard Hamilton at The Serpentine

This is a modest, selective retrospective of Richard Hamilton's work, concentrating on the politically motivated art from 1967 to the present. The works are amalgams; prints and collages, occasionally with applied paint. In general, I found it rather dry to be honest - I'm sure that this equivocal reaction on my part is down to my ignorance of the political facts and climate in which the art was made.

There are essentially four rooms. The first is part of the work itself, an Orwellian construct, Treatment Room (1983-84), A dispassionately sermonising Margaret Thatcher condescends from a TV over what might be a bed or an operating table. It's a strangley anachronistic work, as if everyone has long since left the building.

My favourite room is that of a series of dyptichs concerning the British occupation of Northern Ireland. The right panels show familiar figures - a soldier in The State, an Orangeman in The Subject (right) and Bobby Sands in his filthy cell in The Citizen. The left panels are related but distorted stylings, with the strange, Close Encounters-type soft focus lights of The Subject the most disturbing.

To the right of this central room is a miscellaneous collection, including Hamilton's own photos of his television showing pictures of the Kent State shootings, and a print series in twelve 'stages' bringing on of these images to life. The exhibition is about nothing if it doesn't concern itself with the nature of the public image and its authenticity. None of the images on view is a straightforward reproduction of a photograph. These shots of Hamilton's TV immediately recall the secondhand reproduction so often to be found on YouTube as the enterprising try to circumvent the copyright restrictions of simply uploading unprocessed televisual content. Hamilton says:
In the Fifties we became more aware of thee possibility of seeing the whole world at once, through the great matrix that surrounds us, a synthetic, instant view.
Maybe this record of this democratised, commodity-art foreshadows the DIY media democracy of media-sharing and social networking via the internet - a new medium for a half-century old revolution.

The fourth room, to the left of the dyptichs is entirely devoted to Swingeing London 1967, a famous image of Mick Jagger and Robert Fraser cuffed together in the back of a police van. Hamilton, clearly preoccupied by the iconographic content of the image, produces a number of reprints, like an increasingly deteriorating photocopy.

It also fired my hitherto stalled imagination. I was drawn to thinking of Gerhard Richter's prints from the same period (Schwimmerinnen (1965) is my favourite), which also deal with authenticity and memory. Equally, James Scott's film Richard Hamilton (1969) in the foyer of the gallery (which shows news reports of Jaggers' trial) also shows images of Marylin Monroe to a narration concerning Hamilton's preoccupation with authenticity. This immediately made me think of the recent Citroen 'Anti-Retro' advertising campaign, which not only uses Monroe's images but re-appropriates them to a different voiceover, further distorting the veracity of the video - but here for vague irony rather than raising questions of truth and value.


As I thought about this some more, the images of the film moved on to Cadillacs and my mind moved on to this remarkable film from 1956... the year of Hamilton's seminal piece, widely hailed as the first work of Pop Art, Just What Is It that Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? It would seem that Richard Hamilton's work does have considerable reach and influence, and the man's impression of what would become important in our culture also seems very much to have come to fruition.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Alex Prior & Guests at the Barbican

Clearly reality TV feeding it's way back into the concert hall, this programme featured the subjects of a recent Channel 4 documentary, The World's Greatest Music Prodigies: five preternaturally accomplished musicians in four soloists and the composer/conductor/main draw Alex Prior.

Well, it was certainly an exhibition of prodigious musical performability. The first half amounted to a procession of showpieces. I won't bother to list them all (follow the programme link above). In general what we got was a pretty impressive game of tag-blurry-fingers as scales and arpeggios on the piano were replaced by flashy fretboarding and really very accurate harmonics. Simone Porter (13) attempted probably the trickiest of the selection with the Bizet/Sarasate Carmen - early lemon-chewing intonation may be attributed to nerves. You get the idea.

The opener of the first half was my favourite, the RPO nicely fresh for The Chairman Dances. There's lots of Gershwin in John Adams' concert fave, which I'd not really noticed before. Alex Prior's conducting style is frighteningly energetic, an an over-meticulous cueing of the band soon gave way to something more realistic but totally secure.

He was, in fact, right in the zone by the time the second half started, in which he conducted his own music. We heard the London première of Velesslavitsa, a quadruple concerto for the soloists at hand. The first movement is the most successful, pond-hopping with its folk-song melody and open harmony. The second also has this folkiness, taking it further east and punctuated by Lark Ascending style interspersions, but the ideas have gone by this point. One can hear the inevitable influence of modern film music and I think Prior gets a little carried away with the tidal use of strong brass. Yet it's a rhythmically tight score and I must commend Prior for his stamina in not only keeping the whole thing together but powering it along - as well as confidently dealing with the odd glitch from the youngest soloist. Such techincal competence is where a great hidden value in such a pageant lies.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds

I struggled. I might say, I struggled manfully, just as the schizophrenic John Clare struggles to literally fight his way out of the asylum that is the nebulous embrace of the book. Or the struggle against the peculiar narrative coils of fate that the worthy doctor Matthew Allen finds himself up against.

It's a rich book full of well-chosen words and descriptions that eschew contrivance but don't slip into fancy. This I appreciated immensely - as I did the sequences in which John Clare enamours himself of the Gipsy group camped out in Epping Forest, episodes that read as utterly authentic.

No, my problem came in objectifying the narrative, visualising these people and their relationships and purpose. Foulds nestles the characters in the crook of his arm but never lets us stand back and really look at them. I felt that I was often watching a film shot in exquisite close-up. Andrew Motion suggests that Alan Hollinghurst is a close comparator but I found The Line Of Beauty a more straightforward read. For all that I liked the calligraphic attention given to his text, I often felt like this extended to the narrative and sometimes felt a little stupid for not being able to precipitate something as prosaic as a story from it. And to make the reader feel inhibited is a very dangerous side effect of any prose.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Jane Bown Exposures at the NPG

It's been the final day of this exhibition of Observer staff photographer Jane Bown's work. I say exhibition. It's really more of a small selection of prints designed to promote her book of the same name which is now on sale in the National Portrait Gallery's gift shop.

Still, it's nice to see Bown's photos in exhibit-print size. I have one of the Glyndebourne 75th anniversary posters which makes use of Bown's beautiful, spontaneous photo of an opera-goer in the grounds of the opera house during the 60s. Indeed, the exhibition, for all its brevity, demonstrates why Bown was used by the paper, an organ of reportage. Easily the most successful photo in this selection is the 1976 portrait of Samuel Beckett. It looks carefully composed, a close cropped head shot of the playwright, scrutinising his Auden-creased face and distilled countenance in one. Yet the picture was an opportunistic snap, one of only three frames caught by Bown, picketing the entrance to the Royal Court Theatre after Becket had changed his mind about giving The Observer a more formal portrait (the print is also a different crop to that of the reproduction in the book).

Friday, 2 April 2010

South Park Series 14

We are currently three episodes into the 14th series of South Park and I'm happy to say that the irreverent animated satire is on as good form as ever. Episode 1401, Sexual Healing, is a great opener, a tour de force of litigious daring, taking out Tiger Woods, interactive computer games, golf, sex education and innumerable discretion-denuded celebrities like a sniper with a gun full of shot. The second and third episodes cast us straight back into the sewer of their best work, with running gags concerning vomit and distended testicles. It sounds gross. It is. And it's satirically clinical. Long may it continue.