John McGuire’s dynamic stases

In light of my post some days ago on altered times and altered spaces, it feels appropriate to be listening to the music of John McGuire right now. I’m doing so in a work context, but the dynamic stasis that McGuire creates in, for example, his Pulse Music III seems to speak, obliquely, to our current moment.

McQuire is a fringe figure in American minimalism (although I hope the project I am currently writing for will move him a little closer to the centre). He’s the sort of composer who gets mentioned in lists of great, overlooked minimalists (Kyle Gann offers one such list in his overview essay in The Ashgate Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music), but is rarely encountered elsewhere. Perhaps the fact that he studied in Germany and the Netherlands (with Stockhausen, Penderecki and Koenig) plays some part in this. He learnt a lot from serialism, but found a way to realise its concerns with continuity and discontinuity, parametrism and pulse, and the spatiality of time within a minimalist aesthetic. The relation of his pulse compositions to Gruppen (a comparison the composer himself makes) reminds me of the relationship of Music for 18 Musicians to John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass: a pixellated abstraction that reveals a new or hidden world beneath.

The dialogue between discrete units and extended continuities, which in turn creates a multi-dimensional musical space, leads me, not for the first time in recent weeks, to Bergson’s concept of durée. I haven’t yet read Bergson, although Time and Free Will is now on my reading pile. I simply leave this here as a thought. Under lockdown – a succession of days relatively undistinguished from one another – the quantitative and qualitative aspects of time, central to Bergson’s theory, have begun to blur into one another. It’s an experience anticipated, it seems to me, in McGuire’s hypnotically beautiful constructions of algorithmically controlled pulse streams.

There was a performance of McGuire’s 48 Variations for Two Pianos at Music We’d Like to Hear in 2017, a concert I now regret not attending. You can hear that piece (though not that performance) here:

Alinéa Ensemble – festival launch and trailer

Last week I spoke to the members of Alinéa Ensemble (Tyler Bouque, Robbie Bui, Emma Burge, Alex Garde and Matthew Henson) as part of their forthcoming online festival, Everything But the Kitchen Sink, which will be running throughout summer. We chatted about lockdown, listening, composer interviews and general new music stuff. It was great fun, in spite of my internet connection behaving at its absolute worst throughout. (Thank you for your patience, guys!) There is a trailer (my first!) here:

Everything But the Kitchen Sink will appear as weekly episodes, starting this Friday. My episode is first, but once you’re over that hump you can look forward to work and words from an incredible line-up: Chaya Czernowin, Marcos Balter, Rebecca Saunders, Hans Thomalla, Aaron Cassidy, Du Yun, Ashley Fure, Michael Finnissy (featuring a virtual premiere), Liza Lim, Evan Johnson, Beat Furrer, Ming Tsao, Richard Barrett (featuring a virtual premiere), George Benjamin, Georges Aperghis, and Cat Lamb.

 

One new horizon

This afternoon I had my first post-hospital virtual clinic. Normally this would have happened on the ward, a few weeks after discharge. But Covid-19 temporarily shuttered the CF clinic at my hospital, the Royal Brompton and Harefield, and all but the most essential contacts were put on hold as the Brompton became one of the elite frontlines in the fight against coronavirus.

All in all, the experience was a good one: a clinic visit that would normally have taken a couple of hours, plus the same again in travel, was all done and dusted in around 20 minutes. Almost as soon as it was over, the hospital pharmacy called to confirm my prescriptions: these would arrive in the post in the next couple of days. The cherry on the cake – no long wait at pharmacy either! Here’s hoping that innovations like this, which were being researched but have have been fast-tracked by the pandemic, can become part of standard clinical care, not only for CF but other chronic conditions too.

But the really big news was that my doctor said I could go out once more. Not to the shops, or to travel, or to work; just into the open air. I have to take every precaution, and I must stress that this advice should not be interpreted as wider guidance for anyone else on the vulnerable list; everyone’s case will be different. But in my doctor’s judgement the risk is negligible in an open space, and the benefits to my well-being far outweigh that. In fact, she said, I should go out.

I had asked in hope, much more than expectation, and I had asked for an honest answer, laying the ground for a no, even wishing for one. Part of me didn’t want to know it was OK. At home I’m safe, and there’s no risk assessment to make. Having the option to go out again would require decisions, would complicate things.

But instead the answer I got was, ‘Go outside. Get some vitamin D. See the sky.’ Of course, I need to be careful. I should go somewhere open, away from people. Don’t talk to anyone, stay more than 2 metres away from people. Wear a mask if I have to go past a group of people. Get a T-shirt, suggested my sister-in-law, with the words ‘Stay the Fuck Back’.

I’m going to walk down to the Thames, I reason, along the path to the Barrier. I’ll go early in the morning. The day before, Liz can do a dry run to see what conditions are like, I suggest, saying everything I can to show I am treating this unexpected possibility with appropriate care. The main areas of concern will be the junction at the end of our road, by the station; and crossing the Woolwich Road.

When I’d finished the video call I hung up and took a breath. I went upstairs to Liz and, half-whispering, as though it was too fragile to be spoken out loud, I told her the news. As she hugged me, tears welled up. I hadn’t expected such a strong reaction in myself. I’ve been handling lockdown pretty well, I think, but I realised I had been bottling up more than I knew. Something rushed in, the taste of a different air, a coolness, a memory, and it all caught up with me. Quickly we made plans. I hedged at first, tried to avoid this new reality. But we soon started dreaming of a day – not long away – when my family could show me all the secret places they have been visiting these last few weeks.

For now, I’m just taking one walk, on my own, down to our grubby, unloved stretch of river, with its weeds, its disused piers and its dusty scrap metal yards. It will probably blow my mind.

Music We’d Like to Hear + Another Timbre 150 + Apartment House at 25

Last month, the music series Music We’d Like to Hear was due to hold a concert in celebration of two other great institutions of the UK experimental music scene: the ensemble Apartment House, celebrating its 25th anniversary, and record label Another Timbre, celebrating its 150th release.

Of course, that concert couldn’t take place. But in its stead, the curators at Music We’d Like to Hear have produced a two-and-a-half-hour podcast, offered for sale through Bandcamp, to raise funds for the musicians affected. The podcast is available for download by voluntary donation, and all proceeds will go directly to the musicians who were supposed to have played at the April concert.

Presented by Mira Benjamin, violinist with Apartment House, and Tim Parkinson, co-curator of Music We’d Like to Hear, the podcast features a playlist of works curated by Apartment House’s founder Anton Lukoszevieze and Another Timbre’s Simon Reynell. Included are alternate takes of pieces from Another Timbre’s catalogue and rarities from Apartment House’s recorded archive by Morton Feldman, Ryoko Akama, Christopher Fox, Luiz Henrique Yudo, Louise Bourgeois, and more. There are also interviews with Lukoszevieze and Reynell: both men are some of the most thoughtful and committed actors in British new music, and their thoughts on sound, performance, recording and music are well worth hearing. Purchase the whole collection through Bandcamp here.

In addition to this, Another Timbre has produced a pair of playlists – again downloadable through Bandcamp – compiled to raise funds for musicians affected by the Covid-19 crisis. The first is a five-hour compilation of tracks from Another Timbre’s back catalogue, compiled to raise fund for musicians who have played for the label; the second is a one-hour mixtape, produced to raise funds for London’s leading experimental music venue, Café Oto.

Altered Space in Altered Times

The lockdown is doing strange things to time. Time in lockdown is moving both faster and slower; boredom is simultaneous with an inability to keep track, to keep on top of, to keep up with. More time has meant less time. The time for what one used to do has been taken up by what one ought to be doing: reading more, making bread, learning new skills. New shoulds for old shoulds. Yet friends report that they find it harder than ever to concentrate, to hold on to threads. It can take weeks to reply to an email. I’m forgetful over drug doses, much more than usual.

Less acknowledged, it is doing strange things to space too. Confined to my house for two months now, I crave landscapes and architecture. Rock formations, walking between buildings, horizons, enclosures, passages and transitions, arrangements of things.

I think about other spaces I know well – the walk to my son’s school, my studio, the river, a familiar beach, a woodland, London Bridge – and my skin tingles erotically with the feeling of different walks, the airs of other rooms.

Another landscape: on Friday a friend held a birthday party, DJing in his garden for about 30 people. A glimpse, electronically mediated and Zoom-chambered, but I drank it in. My friend and his wife dancing in their garden; a space I know; watching and listening to them in it, now, at the same time as everyone else on that 5×5 grid of screens; people dispersed in space but together in time; a landscape, flattened.

I’ve found myself listening more structurally to music in recent weeks. I wonder if this comes from the same longing for landscapes? Musical space substituting for actual space? Or is it an illusion? Lockdown has burdened everything with significance, saturated the world with too much meaning. As our experiences – day by day, person to person – start to lose definition, so every difference starts to stand out. I appreciate the spaces of my home more than ever, but I am also exhausted by them. Perhaps this is why I’m hearing things with greater clarity and force: everything is foreground now.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 4

This weekend’s listening is one, all-new playlist. It’s related to a recurring fascination of mine – one that has been growing in recent months – of contemporary composers’ attraction to the music of Schubert. There will hopefully be a much larger project to come out of this one day, but for now I’ll just observe that composers’ responses to Schubert appear to be very different, and very much more personal, than they are with regard to – say – Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or any other classic whose works are regularly mined for material and inspiration. I’m very taken with remarks made by one composer on Facebook some years ago, about Schubert’s perfect ear for register; likewise Richard Barrett’s observation (see my forthcoming article in Tempo) of the ability Schubert’s music has to evoke a particular aesthetic in a very short time (perhaps related to the comment about register and voicing); and of course Feldman’s beautiful lament about ‘Schubert leaving me’.

The list contains perhaps less familiar Schubert-related works by composers from Alwynne Pritchard to Edison Denisov (whose completion of Schubert’s Lazarus is not featured here), as well as well-known examples by Zender, Berio and Bernhard Lang. I’ve made some attempt at sequencing, and many of the longer works are represented by single movements to help keep the length down; it’s still three hours long, but the original was nearly seven. That said, I am always on the lookout for works to add to my collection – I’m sure it is nowhere near complete! Please feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

Sounds Outside

I’ve been finding that as I’ve been isolating, sounds have started to take on heightened meanings. A cough in the street, a cry from a neighbouring house, an ambulance siren: in the first week sounds like these became especially poignant, even harrowing, the sounds of a world in pain, fractured into remote, isolated bits.

Yet two kinds of sound have done more, for me, to dispel that sense than any number of Zoom meetings, phone calls or YouTube workouts. One can be heard at the front of my house, the other at the back.

The one at the back is particularly apparent at the weekends. It is the sound of Victorian terrace gardens in the sun. But as though one has time-travelled back to, say, the 1950s, a time when ambient mechanical noise is all but gone: no planes, few trains, hardly any cars. A time when the soundscape is almost entirely organic: produced by insects, birds, people and air. I made this recording on my phone on Sunday afternoon:

This sound is a living palimpsest, every species occupying its own sonic biome, a phenomenon that can be heard in much greater complexity in a rainforest, and that was introduced to me by the ‘Arboreal’ movement in Richard Barrett’s Life-form for cello and electronics. Without the broad-spectrum filters of trains and traffic hum, every layer of that soundscape can be heard clearly once more. As with the air, particulates and pollution are dropping away. Sound and breath both arrive in higher fidelity. This week, British seismologists have noticed that the ‘cultural noise’ of the earth has started to quieten too. As the ‘anthropogenic din’ of vehicles and machines subdues, they say, their equipment will be better able to detect small tremors throughout the UK and further afield. Even as we draw ourselves inward, it seems, we become more widely connected.

The birdlife seems more active than ever too – a product of the time of year – every bird marking its territory, calling for a mate or just shooting the avian breeze. And every person is at home, rather than making costly excursions in the hope of running down another Sunday afternoon. The sonic imprint of every family can be heard: the young children banging pans two doors down, our elderly neighbours making lunch, the dogs, the teenagers, the DIYers, the gardeners and the chatterers, all of us sounding and being heard.

If that’s all a bit R. Murray Schafer-esque nostalgic, I wonder what he would have made of the second sound, the one at the front of the house, the one that happens every Thursday at 8pm. #clapforourcarers has quickly become a national ritual of solidarity, gratitude and emotional release. For several minutes, everyone opens their front doors and claps, whistles, cheers, rings bells, bangs saucepans, makes all kinds of noise (this week someone on our street was blowing a horn of some kind) in recognition of the extraordinary work of NHS staff at this time. I’ve never experienced anything like it: a pure prayer, sent out loud into the air. The relief it produces is immense: for me, staying strictly indoors, it is the only moment in the week when I really feel part of something bigger than my immediate family. To stand outside my front door and see the faces of my neighbours left and right is very treasured. Even more is to hear the glorious noise of grief and longing, celebration and defiance.

Playlists for the Long Distancing 3

We’re going to be indoors for a long time now. In case it helps ease the pressure, I’m revisiting my back catalogue of new music playlists and posting things here every weekend. Some of these lists regular readers will have seen before; some of them will be new collections. (Or at least ones I’ve had knocking around privately for a while.)

For this weekend’s listening, I’ve collected together the (small but growing) number of composer-chronology playlists I have been compiling over the last six months or so. So far each of these has been created in response to a piece of writing on my desk related to that composer, but I have a couple more partly ready that don’t relate to anything much yet; I’ll add them to this post in due course.

Richard Barrett

George Benjamin

Oliver Knussen

Liza Lim

Original post here. This list now includes Axis Mundi for bassoon, and the extraordinary Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus, from this newly released and essential CD.

Luigi Nono

Original post here.

I’ve also added a new playlist to this collection, for Krzysztof Penderecki, who died last weekend. Judge for yourselves the degree to which his later (post-1977) style was prefigured in his earlier works, or not. It’s a chance, too, to listen to some of his overlooked very late works, which exhibit a simplicity and clarity rarely encountered in his earlier music. Missing from the list – because recordings aren’t available – are the operas, the early electronic works and a handful of occasional pieces. I haven’t bothered to include many of the arrangements that Penderecki made of his own music.

 

Krzysztof Penderecki, 1933–2020

I heard the news about the death of the Polish composer and conductor Krzysztof Penderecki yesterday evening. He was 86, and although one of his carers had recently been diagnosed with Covid-19, there was no suggestion that his death was related. He had been ill for a long time.

Penderecki’s music was once very close to me. A couple of decades ago, when I was contemplating starting a PhD, his name emerged, along with those of Kurtág (whose music I had already studied for my masters thesis), Górecki (subject of an ardent youthful passion), and Ligeti as a possible case study for a wider investigation into East European new music during the Cold War. In the end, it was Ligeti and Penderecki who formed the two pillars of my dissertation, with numerous of their Polish and Hungarian colleagues clustering (ahem) around for support. I collected countless reviews of Penderecki’s music in British journals and newspapers; I wrote a substantial analysis of the St Luke Passion, tying its particular soteriology to a quasi-Schenkerian analysis of its pitch centres (including a novel explanation for that work’s outlandish E major ending, one that probably doesn’t bear all the weight it needs to, but felt satisfying at the time). I wrote a less satisfying analysis of Anaklasis too, although that didn’t make the final cut post-viva. St Luke in particular is a work I lived with for several years and although I can’t say I ever loved it wholeheartedly – although I found that you could probe very deeply into its construction, it never quite rewarded those investigations with the sense of a revelation gained – it was nevertheless very important to me. And when I had the (now rare) opportunity to experience the piece live for the first time, a couple of years later, at Canterbury Cathedral, it was an unexpectedly moving experience. There was a great sense of personal fulfilment, but the work too made a much greater impression on me in the flesh than I had anticipated. That ending, by the way, makes so much more sense live than any recording possibly could.

So moved was I that on my way home I phoned the arts desks of every paper, asking if they would like a review. None of them did, although I was eventually able to place something in the very conservative magazine Musical Opinion, where it was completely out of place and probably barely read (I gave it away, too). For its concision it remains one of my favourite pieces of writing. I reproduce it below.

Because of my PhD, Penderecki has shadowed my career ever since. Some of my first BBC programme notes were on his music. My first pre-concert talk was at the Barbican, on the occasion of the UK premiere of his Eighth Symphony, a sort of eco-aware Pastoral Symphony on the subject of loss and environmental destruction. The Eighth is a work before its time in some ways, although in Penderecki’s hands one human catastrophe was much the same as any other. It is one of his better late works, I believe, but there’s little in the music that distinguishes its themes from many other pieces of his.

Yesterday, as I thought about it for the first time in a while, Penderecki’s music felt very distant from me. I clicked through some tracks on Spotify to add to my Twitter response: surely a composer so preoccupied with death would have something appropriate to say at this point? The best I could come up with was the Lacrimosa from the patchy, but occasionally inspired Polish Requiem.

I think part of the problem is the morbidity of Penderecki’s music. Those deep, mumbling choirs, portentous cries and clanging gongs, tearing strings, and lamenting, descending chromaticisms, leave no room for redemption and light (even in the St Luke Passion, where salvation is supposedly the driving force of the entire work). The sonic and emotional spaces of Penderecki’s music always seem to be collapsing inwards and downwards. It is, when it is at its best – in Threnody, the Dies Irae, Utrenja, and the First Symphony – powerful stuff; some of the most emo music in the classical canon. But it is not suited to all times: the death of its composer apparently one of them; the unfolding Covid-19 crisis perhaps another.

I wonder what piece Penderecki would have written about all this, in a year or two’s time, had he had the chance to? No doubt he would have done: he was never afraid to tackle a big subject. Listening to his music now, though, as I am, it feels just a little close to the bone; and also, missing the curious mix of anxiety, passivity, intimacy and remoteness that seems to characterise the Covid-19 experience (for those of us fortunate enough to have so far avoided its worst effects). What we crave are open spaces not infected air and indoor surfaces; whispers and closeness not shouts across the void. Penderecki’s music spoke to and of a particular time. But maybe not this one.

Incidentally, Keith Potter was my supervisor for that PhD. I am proud to see that he was also the Guardian‘s chosen obituary writer for this occasion.

Polish National Radio Symphony Orchestra/Penderecki

Canterbury Cathedral

The Eastern Bloc revolutions of 1989 were about culture as much as politics. Penderecki, Poland’s musical memorialist, played his part in the 1980s, but it is still the cult success of his St Luke Passion of 1966 that exemplifies his knack of combining religious awe, musical freedom and political stridency. This giant oratorio has become a much rarer bird since its first performance in Münster and this revival, conducted by the composer in the sort of space for which it was first written, attracted a capacity audience to Canterbury.

It was not without risk, however. St Luke’s eclectic mix of pseudo-chant and avant-gardist noise has long attracted controversy, its religious fervour can seem anachronistic, and the pacing suffers badly in slow, indulgent performances. Which way would Penderecki’s conducting instincts pull him? Within moments the prospects were good, as the Polish orchestra unleashed an overwhelming, almost profanely sensual bass. Their sonorous power did not waver until the shattering E major conclusion 90 minutes later. They were matched in commitment by the combined choirs and, in particular, Jerzy Trela, whose spoken Evangelist was easily the most heated I’ve heard.

Has St Luke stood the test of time? Its dissident impact is now irrelevant and its religious symbolism seems crude. But although it was an important precursor to the late 20th century’s revival of large-scale religious compositions – from Górecki to Golijov – it is mercifully free of cheap platitudes. It is a deeply flawed piece, but this performance was the most convincing argument in its favour one could imagine.