Reviews resurrected: EXAUDI at the Warehouse, October 2009

Resurrected because it features my first encounter with a couple of pieces on EXAUDI’s forthcoming disc for HCR – Stephen Chase’s Jandl Songs, and Claudia Molitor’s lorem ipsum. Not sure why I didn’t mention the pieces by either Gwyn Pritchard or Linda Catlin Smith at the time, and now of course I can’t remember anything about them.

Originally published on Musical Pointers.

Don’t forget the launch concert and party for EXAUDI’s CD, this Saturday, 4th May, at the Only Connect Theatre, Kings Cross.

exaudi

EXAUDI, dir. James Weeks

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmer
James Weeks: from Mala Punica
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour
Claudia Molitor: lorem ipsum

The Warehouse, London, 29 October 2009

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

The obvious exception was Agrimbau, and it’s not entirely unrelated that I found his the least satisfying piece of the evening. Instead of establishing for itself a position in critical relation to tradition it preferred to dwell overlong on a series of new music tricks and treats. The dense accompanying notes didn’t help much – the music itself didn’t seem correspondingly dense. On the contrary. Perhaps the philosophical underpinnings would reveal themselves on subsequent hearings. Another puzzle was the relationship between score (described as highly graphic, and featuring emoticons) and the sounding result (which was precisely ordered and didn’t betray any aleatoric origins). Maybe EXAUDI had undertaken a substantial act of David Tudorism in translating the graphics to conventional notation, but then, one has to ask, why the graphics in the first place? All in all, a baffling piece.

The rest were much lighter in tone. The middle movement of Hoh’s mantra:imagine was a Zen-like setting of ‘Pepsi Cola’, but it was the first movement that especially struck me, a series of dense harmonic textures, interrupted by chunks of silence, rather like Ligeti cut into large panels and pegged out on a line.

Ligeti was also recalled inthe group’s director James Weeks’s three pieces from his Mala punica. Each was constructed around canonic procedures that derived great complexity from simple materials. The result was simultaneously airier than Ligeti, but more robust and unsettling. There was a sort of dark madrigalian quality to the individual part writing too, which suggested a greater interest in the Latin texts than Ligeti ever showed in his Requiem or Lux aeterna.

The two stand-out pieces for me were those by Chase and Priestley. Chase’s six Jandl Songs belong to an in-progress series of settings of the avant-garde Austrian poet. The texts themselves are curious, experimental verses, the flavour of which Chase captured perfectly in his clean, but deceptively clever settings. It was impossible to pin down why they worked so well – an explanation sat just out of view – but work they did, extremely well.

Priestley’s Unloose to the Murmer, a sort of deconstruction of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by way of Cageian Musicircus ritual, may have had loftier ambitions – and it didn’t quite reach them as satisfyingly as Chase’s songs – but it was nevertheless a successful and revealing piece. The Orfeo extracts were chopped and tossed together to form a series of choral refrains, which each degraded in turn into aleatoric passages governed by giant sheets of manuscript covered with transparencies, on which were graphic notations for more indeterminate interpretation. The performers were distributed about the space, with a sheet each. After each refrain they removed a transparency each and the cycle began again until all the transparencies were gone, leaving a slow, underlying cantus firmus. The graphic transparencies seemed to suggest movement as well as sound, so the indeterminate sections became miniature theatre pieces. It is more complicated to describe than it was to experience: the effect was actually quite direct, yet with an element of mystery, exactly like Cage. I thought Monteverdi was a good choice for such a treatment: his sectional constructions, melodic simplicity and harmonic and rhythmic robustness mean that he can be bashed around quite a lot without losing his fundamental identity. These are qualities shared, incidentally, by many British composers you might hear at the Warehouse, for whom questions of material and its malleability are central to their aesthetic – Molitor and Weeks, in different ways, might be two more. Priestley, on this evidence, sounds like she shares this interest, and I suspect she will go far with it.

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