Monday, 18 June 2012

Yoko Ono, Stockhausen and Light

Tomorrow sees the opening of an exhibition of Yoko Ono's work at the Serpentine Gallery. To The Light is part of the series of events that constitute the London 2012 Festival. As it happens, the exhibition's inclusion in that portfolio of events was not the reason I had been thinking about Yoko Ono's work in the same synapse-span as that of Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose opera Mittwoch aus Licht is being performed in Birmingham under the same umbrella. Neither had I twigged that Yoko Ono's exhibition bears the same name, Light, as Stockhausen's cycle of operas.

Instead, as a musician involved in the performances of Stockhausen's opera, I was trying to think about how one approaches the piece. For me personally - this is a blog and as such reflects my own opinion alone - the greatest challenge in performing this music by one of the previous century's most celebrated modernists is not to do with reproducing the notes of the printed music, difficult though it is. Rather, the challenge is one of understanding the aesthetic of the work: what it means and how the music tries to achieve that. That Yoko Ono is both a contemporary of a similar aesthetic stable and, in passing, a former collaborator of Stockhausen makes her history and work of particular interest.

My route to a better understanding of Mittwoch's position has been to try to learn something about Stockhausen's approach to composition and, consequently, his philosophy - the two are integrated. I have also tried to find out about the circumstances of the conception of Licht. All roads lead to a significant week in May 1968, when, during a personal crisis, Stockhausen turned to texts on the teaching of Sri Aurobindo. The immediate compositional consequence was Aus dem sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days). The relevance of this work is both in the philosophy of the Brahmin which permeates the Vedic-Christian concepts at play in Licht as well as the symbolic parallel of seven days (Licht is comprised of seven operas, one for each day of the week). This and the use of material from The Urantia Book which Stockhausen acquired in 1971 and which triggered the impulse to write the cycle, demand further investigation but probably in a separate blog post.

Above all, Aus dem sieben Tagen is a composition that is rendered entirely in text instructions. In pursuit of getting the performers to act purely on impulse, the score doesn't prescribe an object in notation. This approach is similar to that of the Event Scores of the Fluxus movement, of which Yoko Ono is probably the most famous practitioner. A post-Dada (or neo-Dada) import from Germany, Fluxus initially coincided with the chance compositional aesthetic of John Cage - a figure whom Stockhausen seems to have had a sketchy, equivocal relationship - before really establishing itself as a literary, visual and performance art movement, convened in New York in the early 1960s. Stockhausen joined the movement for various performances during this period, where he would have met Yoko Ono.

The basic idea concerned emancipating art from the formal straight-jacket of performance convention, space and prescription - i.e. notation. Interestingly, one of the more notable events in the history of the Fluxus movement saw the picketing of a performance of a work by Stockhausen, Originale, in September 1964. This performance, in fact:

Remarkably, hardline Fluxus members saw Stockhausen's intermittently careful scoring of the otherwise random events of Originale as contrary to the basic philosophy of Fluxus. One can identify certain technical consistencies extending from such a piece right through to Mittwoch; our music (Michaelion, the fourth scene of the opera) oscillates between being meticulously scored to being marked 'IRR', or irregular, demanding aleatoricism. Where the Fluxus with which Yoko Ono is associated is totally open to the circumstances of location and the involvement of others, the composition of a work like Mittwoch would seem to have an overarching formality.

Ultimately, both Mittwoch and the work of Yoko Ono (especially in the Smile project with which the Serpentine exhibition is concerned) have the same thematic umbrella, that of peace. The opera's narrative is one of conciliation and Yoko Ono's association and work with peace movements both formal and informal is well known, probably the chief reason for her high profile. Of course this was a powerful idea for change in the mid 1960s. The challenge is whether, for all the perennial value of wishing for universal peace and harmony, the counter-cultural message and artistic medium have any similar currency today. I'm sure a visit to the Serpentine exhibition may offer some answers to that.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

The Daisy Chain, Gestalt Arts, LSO Soundhub Showcase

Ahead of a full-length production at this year's Tete-A-Tete: The Opera Festival, I had an opportunity to hear an excerpt of The Daisy Chain at one of the LSO's intermittent Soundhub Showcases. This is a similar sort of event to the Panufnik Young Composers workshop I attended earlier in the year, also with members of the LSO. Then as now, I should mention first that there were two other interesting pieces on the programme: Darren Bloom's experimental Chaconne for Violin, Piano and sampled sounds (including Gamelan) and Elo Masing's Planes for string quartet and dancer, both works making conspicuous use of dynamic extremity. The Cagean opening of Elo's quartet (the loudest sound in the room were arms being crossed or the squeak of the dancer's foot on the floor) was probably not intentional although the (consequent?) demands on the audience to acclimatise to the unusual string sounds, there being much sul pont, harmonics, etc. meticulously indicated in graphic score, certainly were.

Toby Young's opera The Daisy Chain (to a text by Thomas Conroy) is a reworking of the Grimm Brothers' fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin. The postmodern adaptation involves a counsellor trying to help characters from the original as the action oscillates between these meetings and a version of the fable itself. It's not really possible to say much about the drama of the opera at this stage. much like ROH2's Exposure evenings, we only get a snapshot of an aesthetic rather than a cogent dramatic stretch. However, in the rudimentary staging offered at this concert it's clear that the conceit is intended to be as fun as it is serious.

The music is also a mix. Toby was given a ten piece orchestra for which to prepare this segment of the score, string quintet with wind and keyboards. The opening, a short self-contained overture, has the pianist on a celesta, adding fairytale chimes to a sound that is at once neo-classical and American-folksy. The faint modality and open intervals of Anglo-American folk are the consistently identifiable constituents of the score. The music is mobile with internal rhythms - and snatches of nursery rhyme quotation - around which it is wound. This one in fact, albeit not on a space ship.

The singing lines play to the strength of the voice parts (not always the case with new operatic writing). We heard mezzo-soprano Clara Kanter as the marriage counsellor, also speaking an introduction to the scenario after the overture, an effective decision for the piece's texture. The three 'fictional' characters were sung with clarity and character by Christina Sampson (Daisy), Nicholas Scott (Miller) and Roderick Morris (Prince) of whom, as I understand it, only the latter is likely to perform in the complete production in August. The LSO ensemble played quite brilliantly for Mark Gotham, an ongoing highlight of these events.

postscript - this is an interesting adjunct about what the LSO Soundhub offers composers

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Bow Down, Spitalfields Festival

"This bloke thought he'd come to see an opera!" shouts a character from the stage, pointing at the front row. The hapless punter wasn't alone in being ambushed by the oddity of Harrison Birtwistle's Bow Down, in this production by The Opera Group for the Spitalfields Festival.  The girl next to me had crossed over from giggling to weeping with laughter. A large chap behind me snoring through the first half had his own sort of response to the show.

Bow Down is a fairy tale rendered in speech above song. Whether it is opera is questionable at best. There are sung passages but the sustained music comes in the recurrent and often complicated rhythms of speech, that this production's 'mumming' style of narrative offers. Certainly the voices weren't trained as their principal function. I chose to ascribe the extraordinary palette of microtonal tuning with which we were presented to the folk idiom of the tale at hand (though Rehana Brown's flute and Mana Shibata's oboe playing deserve distinct mention).

The chief characteristic of the work is that of organic storytelling. Birtwistle's publishers note the location specific flexibility of the work, which goes hand-in-glove with it's much-touted improvisation. As is often the way with even barely competent improvisation, it's difficult to tell where the score ends and the decisisons of the performers takes over, not least as this will have been in the rehearsal room. That said, there's a sense of ownership from the individual performers that one doesn't always achieve with an opera company performing a score. The object can get in the way.

I was initially perturbed by this distinction, having prepared to see an opera but, in the event, finding with a play. However, once I had made the transition in my own mind I found the work dramatic, striking and sincere. The rhythm of the words was as gripping a music - in this different art-paradigm - as any conventional score. This was just as well as the clear but cavernous and multi-chambered space of the Village Underground meant that I found I lost many of the words (many of which were in some sort of auld-English dialect).

It also confirmed what I have felt in many of the Birtwistle stage scores that I have struggled with over the past five years or so (Angel Fighter, The MinotaurThe Mask of Orpheus and Punch and Judy, for example). For all that there are occasional cloud breaks in the orchestration, the sound is simply too congested, as if his inner ear gets the better of him. Of course, with only the occasional flute, oboe or penny whistle to work with the singing or drumming here that may seem a misguided thing to say. However, the overlay of voices when speaking is as tell-tale an indication of this character of sound-organisation. The prologue of the work lost vital words on a metrically regular basis as they clashed with organised spasms of noise. It may be argued that this is a fault of the performers, assuming responsibility in the improvisation of the music and even an issue of the resonance of the space. They are, nonetheless, issues that a composer - certainly one with this composer's pedigree - might reasonably have been expected to foresee.

Issues that could not be excused concerned the staging. The playground roundabout, lighting and final tableau were all well-designed and utilised. It wasn't great that the performance was at floor level though. Within the first quarter of an hour a woman in the third row got up to try and get a better sightline to characters lying on the floor, so one can imagine how futile it was for those of us seven or more rows back. The rake in the seating was less use than lip-service.

Worse, a late sequence involves the players moving around the audience, playing instruments. The balance at such a moment was totally overbearing in this close, hard acoustic against the text being recited on the stage and became unbearable when the score calls for a late crescendo... on a penny whistle. Next to our ears! Such thoughtless direction will always put off even the most well-disposed, open-minded audience.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Salome, Royal Opera

Played out in a 1920s upstairs-downstairs establishment, David McVicar's Salome for the Royal Opera amplifies all the moral polarities in Wilde's play and Strauss equally schizophrenic score. The cistern in which John the Baptist is kept is a truly deep-n-dark pit, given that the main stage is the basement of Herod's house. The bizarre characters that populate the main area range from the expected soldiers and lackeys to whores and a remarkable, solid character with a machete - the executioner. The side of pork hanging in the background is not a fact of the kitchen but more Bacon-like decoration. This is not just a foul place but a dangerous one, not only to inhabit but look upon. The big coup of the evening (for me) was the treatment of the formal dance, which takes place in an almost 2-d plane after the permanent set has been exploded. Salome dances through a sequence of rooms in which she is seen to grow up in body but little else. It's a fine, economical conceit, in keeping with the opera and benefiting from well-worked transition.

It takes some doing then to relate that the big impact of the evening is from Andris Nelsons in the pit. It's a glorious score, whirling to face the exotic, the horrible and the elysian and we get it all from the company's Orchestra. I found myself so tuned into the music that I realised I hadn't heard the texture of the pre-Psycho cello notes as the executioner goes to find the condemned prophet. Not so much stabs as dull glints of the sword in the gloom (Salome hears the sword clatter to the floor after the act, which is not reflected in the score - such is the imaginary half-consciousness of the music at this stage) it's music that has some sort of realism in its horror.

The only drawback is that, partly due to the singers and partly because of the nature of the work, the balance just didn't quite work. Nelsons was forced to hold the band back from the all-out hammer blow at climaxes so that characters on stage could be heard. Angela Denoke produced her best singing in still, intimate soliloquy, the best reflection of the child-woman contradiction that the show has to offer and the band faithfully tried to ally with that. Rosalind Plowright's Herodias was flawlessly executed, Will Hartmann's Narraboth a beautiful, lyric start to the opera and the Jewish lobby well sung and acted.

Friday, 8 June 2012


There's been a fair amount of discussion recently about (classical) artists miming to recordings in performance. The LSO have been told that, at the Olympic opening ceremony, they will be miming to music that they have already recorded. Tenor Jonas Kaufmann recently admitted to miming to a pre-recorded performance of the Champions League anthem at that tournament's final in Munich. And we all remember the chamber performance at US President Obama's inauguration in which the musicians didn't play live for fear of their instruments snapping in the cold.

This seems to have disturbed a lot of people, for a variety of reasons. Some are bothered that organisers of large events don't trust the musicians. Others attending the event complain of being short-changed, of being presented with an inauthentic performance. Conversely, there was no miming for the students of the Royal College Of Music on a weather-beaten barge during the Jubilee Pageant flotilla, when perhaps there should have been, for the sake of the artists.

It's a treacherous area. I myself was involved in preparation for a performance last weekend in which dancers from a local college were to perform to our live performance of a Bach motet. A final rehearsal was unsuccessful: the dancers had prepared their work to a pre-recorded track and dealing with the inevitable fluctuations of a live performance was seen as too great a risk. We were dismissed. It was a pity that we were unable to take part in the performance. There were also more serious concerns, as others in the choir turned to think of the reaction of the audience who might have come expecting a live performance - and the knock-on effect to the reputation of the group.

In the end, the performance I was to be involved in excluded the live musicians for expedience's sake. The principal draw of the concert was the dancing troupe, not the choir. Colleagues with more experience in performing for choreographers tell me that working to live performance is a notoriously tricky area. Performing to a track is not only simpler (fewer people in the space, less technology/mics/mixing) but also more dependable in terms of fluctuations of tempo, of timing.

This is one of the reasons why the LSO will mime to their music at the Olympics, to give more security to the temporal organisation of the event. This is not to say that the LSO, or any top level orchestra are incapable of playing to a given pulse, even without a click track. I can imagine that one of the reasons the organisers got cold feet is that - as in my experience with dancers - they are preparing to music recorded with a different conductor to that whom they will have at the ceremony. Yet, like a top orchestra, a top conductor is capable to reproducing a pulse simply from a marking.

Moreover, the technology exists for extremely accurate reproduction of timings in music. In the past I have been involved in live performances of film scores designed to synchronise exactly with the film. Performances of Howard Shore's score for the Lord of The Rings alongside the film (here's the inevitable cameraphone video) were achieved with a video counterpart to the score for the conductor. This is necessary as the fluctuations of tempo are almost insanely complicated: not only does the written music change meter [sic] with great frequency but the pulse of the music changes within that meter. Such is the mature of live music making, which, once recorded with the film, comes to be regarded as fixed.

Despite this the trend continues for the event organiser to try to find ways to control the music underscoring spectacle. Naturally, hiring a group of musicians is more than simply adding the frisson of live performance. There are other issues of finding time to balance or sound check, hosting the artists (and their instrument) and catering. One hardly need mention the cost. However neutralising or replacing live musicians not only ignores but actually questions the ability of those professionals who have been contracted to perform. This is all part of a nebulously interconnected trend to do with amplification and balancing, auto-tuning and a general ignorance of musicianship (not to mention the character of individual and ensemble music-making) which is a worrisome cloud on the horizon of professional music making.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Moonrise Kingdom of Benjamin Britten

Wes Anderson's delightful new film Moonrise Kingdom is a coming-of-age yarn set in 1965 New England. In an idiosyncratic film, one of the characteristics fighting for attention is the use of music associated with youthful reverie and narrative and principally the use of music by the British composer Benjamin Britten.

The film opens and closes with the Young Person's Guide To The Orchestra, a set of variations (on a theme by another British composer, Henry Purcell, who lived and worked at about the time that New England was first colonised towards the end of the 17th century).

Variations are an apt form for a coming-of-age or rite-of-passage film as the form usually dictates a return to the opening theme at the end - just as Anderson returns to the house interior of the opening shot at its close - but with the variations on that theme still resonating and suggesting that nothing can be the same again. This piece in particular has a strong connection with the central conflict of Anderson's film, that of confrontation with authority and the perils of patronising the young: for a long time after its composition it would be referred to by its alternative title Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Purcell as broadcasters and performers struggled with the contradictions of a virtuoso orchestral work aimed squarely at engaging a 'young person'.

Two more pieces used in the film which Britten wrote as a young man - and which radiate that youthfulness - are the Simple Symphony and the choral suite Friday Afternoons:

Both pieces were written as functional music for amateurs or children to perform. Britten composed both in the mid 1930s prior to leaving for America (in 1939) as a conscientious objector to the War. Clearly this is music that has no freight to it, music intended to be enjoyed on its own or as an exercise in collaborative music-making. Even the Young Person's Guide of 1946 only carries with it the (entirely reasonable) internal fire of freshly-minted national pride at the end of the war and many would argue that the triumph of the final return of the theme has no national resonsance beyond its provenance, and that any triumph is simply the nobility of the theme rising from the chaos of the preceding fugue.

This changes with the two operatic works - i.e. music that is intended to support points of narrative - that Wes Anderson chooses to use in the film, a chorus from A Midsummer Night's Dream (1960) and, explicitly, Noye's Fludde (or Noah's Flood, 1958).

Wes Anderson has cited his involvement in a performance of Noye's Fludde as making a particular impression. For me the moonlit dream-kingdom (all these symbols referred to in the title) is most immediately conjured by the chorus of child-fairies in his later opera after Shakespeare (above), music that is as evocative of the experience of creating a narrative for a child as that of the journey of Sam and Suzy, their reading of books and all the children's involvement in the staged narrative of  Noye's Fludde, itself, of course, a direct impression of the simultaneously occuring storm that rages across the island, causing an actual flood.

There's one other element which may be worth mentioning if not necessarily investigating. Britten's involvement with children is clearly profound and professional. It was also personal and complicated, if not outright dubious. The chaste but nonetheless explicit first blossoming of love between the children which finds its reflection in the dysfunction and flowering of the adults' relationships is also woven into the music.

This is not to suggest that we are hearing the aural equivalent of voyeurism. Certainly David Hemmings, best known for his work in cinema but who was a solo boy treble in the first performances of Britten's operatic treatment of Henry James' The Turn Of The Screw, written in 1954 just prior to the two pieces here discussed, always denied that his close relationship was ever improper. Rather that the impulse to physical love and its management are not hermetically sealed in a separate part of life, adulthood. It is clear that Anderson's understanding of growing up takes in everything and this is undoubtedly part of what the director means when he says that '[the music] is the colour of the movie, in a way'.

If you have yet to see the film, I recommend that you stay during the credits, during which the final fugue of Britten's Young Person's Guide, not heard during the film proper, is performed (not to mention additional music cue composer Alexander Desplat's own homage to it).

Friday, 1 June 2012

Caligula, ENO

In the end I'd really no idea exactly to whom I was listening. Was it Camus? Was it Detlev Glanert's librettist, Hans-Ulrich Treichel, or the translator for this production in English, Amanda Holden? Was it even the ghost of Tinto Brass, director of the notorious 1979 film? Certainly there were cinematic elements in the staging, recalling anything from Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover (1989) to the apocalyptic scenes of Brian de Palma's Carrie (1976) and even an allusion to Baron Saha Cohen's current film The Dictator.

The voice matters because it might have made sense of the fragmented spray of buzzwords and unfinished dialogue snippets that constituted the narrative. One of the most frustrating parts of the evening was trying to catch a wave, to find and join the dramatic impetus. It was just too elusive. A put-upon looking populace (the excellent, and one might add, game ENO chorus) is no drama in itself, neither the ruling collective of cowed ministers who oscillate between whinging and sycophancy. Hope blossomed every time Carolyn Dobbin came to the front of the stage, not only for the consistently fine quality of her singing as Scipio but also as she seemed to have the most developed character both on the page and in the playing of it. The young patrician's poetic sensibility would lead him into a false sense of intimacy with the mad despot despite hating him for killing his father. Similarly Caligula's obsession with the dead Drusilla (a courageous Zoe Hunn, naked throughout the show) showed a weak underbelly to the maniacal emperor.

The frustration is in a failure of making these things pertain to one another. Just because it's terrifying for the characters on the stage to be confronted by an absolute ruler who can't connect his thoughts doesn't mean that this should be visited on the audience. It would appear that this was being justified by its timelessness, by its particular relevance to the current privations in society caused by financial turbulence at home and conflict abroad. As satire though this was a dead production, with lukewarm humour, and recognisable phrases spat out to mollify the audience struggling to grasp the longer thread: 'we're all in this together!' says Caligula and everyone laughs at the contemporary reference, at the emptiness  of the tableau, the regeneration-plan stadium in half-light (the Olympics legacy!), populated with characters from big capitalism to vapid game shows. But that, like many, was a laugh because the audience is in it together with the performers and needs to contribute to try and get the thing moving, to cohere. When it didn't silence reigned once again.

Detlev Glanert's music is a thick force of modernism. The consistency is that of Birtwistle, thick and murky of palette - but with the occasional break in the cloud cover for a beautiful trio (Scipio, Cesario and Caligula in Act 2) or a dark, covered chorus offstage in Act 3 (4?). Yes, the opera was at its most affecting when quiet, intimate, rather than when playing to the crowds with slogan-sized text bites. The orchestra played precisely for Ryan Wigglesworth and I needed a drink afterwards.