Review: Noise and Complexity at LCMF

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And so to Peckham for the second weekend of the London Contemporary Music Festival. Because of holidays booked with the kids (middle-age problems) this was the only night I could really make. But the gods of calendars did well for me.

The night was billed as ‘New Complexity and Noise’, and the promo materials referred to ‘two radically different schools [that in the 1970s began to push contemporary music to the outer limits of density and possibility’. It’s a false dichotomy, of course, as shown in the forthcoming book Noise in and as Music from University of Huddersfield Press, co-edited, incidentally, by one of tonight’s composers. ‘Noise’ and ‘complexity’ are more like different paths from the same place.

And not always so different, as the concert itself made clear. Letting ‘these two worlds collide’ was the marketing hook, but the evening’s real success was to highlight similarities and connections. So Aaron Cassidy‘s ‘decoupled’ instrumental techniques matched Steve Noble‘s virtuoso snare-and-cymbals improvisation; Anthony Pateras‘s modular synth playing echoed the whirlwind note generation and fractured registers of Michael Finnissy’s English Country-Tunes.

A great piece of curating, in fact. Peckham car park is obviously a difficult space in which to put on music, with little seating, poor sightlines and abundant noise from the West Croydon line just outside. Everything has to be amplified to be heard. But it was interesting to note the relative robustness of the pieces to their surroundings. The Finnissy (played with characteristic verve by Mark Knoop) was especially able to cope with whatever sonic interruptions there were, even trains passing in its long, sparse passages. Cassandra’s Dream Song proved too fragile, however, although no fault of the flautist, Sara Minelli. (One wondered whether Unity Capsule, although far more demanding on the performer, would have worked better.)

Cassidy’s trumpet solo What renders these forces visible is a strange smile also coped well, and was given a refreshing performance by Peter Yarde Martin (see picture). Not as balls to the wall as Tristram Williams’ version, but it sounded to me like it was stretched over a wider dynamic and timbral palette, and to great effect. Unfortunately I was stood too far back to get much from Cassidy’s quietest piece, songs only as sad as their listener, played by trombonist David Roode. A rush of people for the upstairs bar arriving at the same time didn’t help, a rare organisational misstep.

Dropped between each composed piece were duo and solo improvisations by Noble (percussion) and Pateras (piano/prepared piano/modular synth). Both musicians were extraordinary – raw power channelled through seemingly limitless energy and invention – but the best of the five short sets were those with Pateras at the keyboard, in a percussion and prepared piano duo and an astonishing piano solo that exceeded the Finnissy for virtuosity and density of notes.

Russell Haswell’s noise set that closed the concert was an impressive onslaught, punctuated by booming snares and an eerily de-rhythmicised acid hi-hat, but in truth I’d had sufficient music for one night by then, so it felt more like a coda/curtain call than it probably deserved.

(Photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, used with permission. See his full set from this concert on Flickr.)

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7 comments

  1. Tim – isn’t connecting New Complexity and Noise a bit obvious? Glib? Doesn’t it tend to invite the sort of generalised listening (and in a super-noisy car-park – I went to one of the gigs at LCMF so I know what it was like) that is sucking the life out of music by reducing it to its most superficial elements? (You yourself write ‘an astonishing piano solo that exceeded the Finnissy for virtuosity….’ – but what is virtuosity in both these contexts? Are the two really compatible? Haven’t you just fallen into a bit of a trap here?) Does LCMF’s format/curation style promote deep listening? Is it even possible in that environment? Or is it about bums-on-concrete-floor and the cool vibe? My feeling was that with the right repertoire this way of presenting music could be great, but this struck me (as did the concert I attended) as REALLY not the right repertoire, for the reasons above.

  2. Hi James.

    I was expecting to feel something like you did – and when the Finnissy started (and the tinny amplification) I thought that’s how it was going to be. But I was generally surprised at how well some of these pieces stood up in the context. Like I say, some better than others.

    “generalised listening” – Yes, perhaps. But equally I think the setting can invite new ways of listening too; I don’t think we should make assumptions about the level or kind of engagement of a listener in either Peckham or the Wigmore Hall.

    Also, this is why I wrote “different paths from the same place” – with the suggestion that the journey and the point of arrival were different, despite certain underlying similarities in inspiration. So, hearing how Cassidy, Finnissy and Ferneyhough connected with Haswell and the Pateras and Noble improvisations was a way of listening through the music.

  3. Well I wasn’t there so I can’t take this much further; but I was there for Lachenmann/Morricone and it was desperately hard to hear some pieces at all (perhaps not so hard in a noise gig, I grant), and certainly not the nuanced sonic differentiations that especially Lachenmann intends us to hear. So actually we were forced into a pretty generalised listening experience, no matter what our intentions might have been (and of course the behaviour of audience around us influences this too if they are chatting, getting up and down to take photos, wandering around with pints etc.). It’s all down to the repertoire really – with some music the ‘new way of listening’ (or at least ‘being around the music while it’s being played’) we have in the car-park could be revelatory, for sure, but with a lot of music intended for quieter or more formal spaces you are going to end up with a superficial experience of the music and that is what I was trying to get at by suggesting that in this context, lumping noise and complexity together is dangerously close to a tabloid way of programming, all big headlines and misleadingly simplistic storylines. That said, I do think there is plenty of mileage in listening to the two side by side and I’m sure plenty of people do just that.


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