Just what London needs

London-Ear

Last week saw the first edition of the London Ear Festival of Contemporary Music, a new showcase for serious modern composition. It’s surprising that such a festival should be necessary in a city like London, which prides itself on its world-class musical offerings, and its wealth of venues and performing ensembles. But, sadly, it is.

The bigger venues – like the Southbank, Barbican Centre, and so on – have become adept at Total Immersions, birthday parties or fairground attractions. But works that are harder to programme in this way don’t often get a look in – works for smaller ensembles or soloists, or works that don’t have an easily packaged hook. Work that constitute the bulk of new musical activity, in fact. Since the demise of the BMIC’s Cutting Edge series a few years ago, it has become even harder to hear such works live in the UK’s capital.

Which is why LEF is so welcome. Yes, you could complain that these were small works played in small venues to relatively small audiences (although the numbers were good for the venues chosen). But the intimacy and quality of the musical experience for those who did go was greater, I would suggest, than that for some more obviously glitzy events elsewhere.

Prior commitments meant that I was only able to attend two concerts (out of an impressive 11), on Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. On Saturday I saw the Norwegian ensembles Nordic Voices and Bit20 in a split programme of works for voices and/or percussion by mostly Norwegian or Norwegian-based composers – Arne Nordheim, Rolf Wallin, Cecilie Ore, Lasse Thoresen and Craig Farr – alongside pieces by Peter Ablinger and Giacinto Scelsi. I enjoyed in particular Nordheim’s Response IV for four percussion and tape, proggy, indebted to its time (1977) and no less joyous for that; and Wallin’s xylophone and marimba duo Twine, which wove atmospheric, minimalist-y textures with skittering runs and arpeggios in increasingly complex patterns.

The best work, by common consent it seemed, was Ablinger’s Studien nach der natur, 10 short pieces (of 40 seconds each) that each attempt to transcribe a natural or man-made sound for six a cappella voices. The scores (available via Ablinger’s website) have the sort of of detail you would expect from a composer so deeply engaged with the processes of transcription, and the resulting performance was extremely realistic.

studien2-cropped
From Studien 2: Das Meer

But – like oh so much of Ablinger’s music – there was more at work here than mere gimmicry or mimicry. The redundancies that are built into the process of painstakingly notating the sound of the sea, or a motorway, or an electrical hum, and then painstakingly rehearsing and performing it, are obvious, but they bounce the listener’s attention on to alternative questions of efficacy, value, meaning and form. Our idea of place, for example, or of reproduction or capture, or the tiny – almost tragical – narratives that inevitably form: why the squeal of tyres as the car accelerates into the distance? Why did the fly stop buzzing? Why was the sea, suddenly, no longer heard?

The Sunday evening concert was given by the excellent Ensemble Phoenix Basel, and made a fitting climax to what, by all accounts that I heard, had been an extremely successful few days. Unlike Nordic Voices/Bit20, Phoenix brought just four pieces, of roughly 15 minutes each. This made for a more rounded programme. Switzerland was represented in the second half by Hanspeter Kyburz (Danse Aveugle) and Franz Furrer-Münch (Skizzenbuch), while the first half featured Wayang, by LEF co-director Gwyn Pritchard, and a new piece by Alexander MoosbruggerFonds, Schach, Basar. After Pritchard’s knotty, uncompromising, but carefully coloured Wayang  an investigation of shading and shadows, rather than anything specific in Balinese culture – the concert gradually grew in momentum. Moosbrugger’s new work introduced a turntable, playing a crackly recording of András Schiff, in between dark ensemble writing and passing (nostalgic?) hints of Baroque harmonies. It didn’t grab me on first hearing, I confess. Maybe its heterogeneity and transitions between live and recorded materials would cohere better on disc. Danse Aveugle was typical Kyburz, a vibrant, energetic, shape-shifting stream. Perhaps not his best work, but enjoyed here. Furrer-Münch, a composer I had talked up a little before the festival, and whose music I have really enjoyed discovering over the last few weeks, closed off proceedings.  Like many of his works seem to be, in unexpected ways, Skizzenbuch is a peculiar piece. Which is what has attracted me to his work. Its four short movements take the sketchbook idea seriously, being not only partly sketched themselves, but also relating to one another in only the very loosest ways, almost as though entirely separate leaves from that book.

The performances in both concerts I saw were very strong, and given the calibre of musicians performing on other dates I imagine they were throughout the festival. But on top of interesting, original music, seriously treated, the festival managed to pull off a special intimacy, among the audience, composers and performers. By being focused on two small venues just round the corner from each other, and by incorporating other perks such as extremely reasonably priced food and drink in the festival club, pre-concert events, late night shows, and so on, a London festival was able to achieve the warmth, openness and community vibe that you only usually get in smaller regional towns. Lauren Redhead (who has written her own appreciation of LEF) compared it to the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, but I’d say it goes even further than that in its villagey atmosphere. This really is a unique asset, and one for which the festival’s organisers are to be greatly commended. There are rumours of a second festival in a couple of years. Fingers crossed that that happens, and that the London Ear is able to build on such a strong start.

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Birtwistle Games, South Bank Centre

[Festival still ongoing, more details here]

Birtwistle, Scelsi, Feldman, Queen Elizabeth Hall, 28/10/04, London Sinfonietta

And thus London’s official celebration for the 70th birthday of our leading composer begins. The Queen Elizabeth Hall is hardly a large venue, but even so it’s at least a third empty. For the opening concert of a 3-week-long festival, this is quite a low-key programme – the big crowd puller was on Sunday with Pierre-Laurent Aimard playing Antiphonies alongside Earth Dances. There’s also a feeling that perhaps, in this anniversary year, we are becoming a little Birtwistled-out; and of course there’s the simple fact that for 40 years Birtwistle has long drawn disfavour from audiences who think this is still the 1940s, or cannot forgive him for blowing an exuberant 30-minute raspberry at the establishment with the Proms commission Panic.

For all that he sticks in the craw of the English musical mass, Birtwistle’s music has always sounded English to me. It’s something to do with its harsh verticality – a memory of flint. Granite in November rain. His genius has been to meld this with pagan ritual, extending Stonehenge and the Saxon barrow back to ancient Greece, singing it through the interlocking pulse patterns of change ringing or grandfather clocks in hallways. Tonight the Sinfonietta make the second half of that formula click, but at times they step back from the edginess. My companion – who knows the piece better than I – describes Silbury Air as ‘flat’. It sounds too timid perhaps – drifting into that picture postcard image of England. Vaughan Williams, not Walton. Secret Theatre is better, although I’m not convinced by Birtwistle’s composed stage management – here or in Ritual Fragment, which opens the concert. In other pieces – such as The Silk House Tattoo – this works well, but here I found the movements of players in and out of the orchestra more distracting than enlightening, and in Ritual Fragment especially all too predictable.

Of the other two pieces, Scelsi’s Kya was disappointing. It started well, gently evolving strands of sound, but revealed itself, inexplicably, as a three-movement work – the second two of which introduced a soloistic clarinet part, but felt more indistinguished because of it. Feldman’s The Viola in My Life II was, well, wonderful. It’s a very hard trick to fill a musical space with such small ensembles – especially when you give them so few notes to use as Feldman does – but Feldman manages it by working with the grain of the instruments, never against it. This is most obvious in the viola writing, which is so spare that it allows its performer (Paul Silverthorne on this occasion) to invest it with maximum lyricism, naturally filling that space with secure, rich tone. We’ll probably never see the day when Feldman gains the mass acceptance of Tavener or Górecki, but with works like this it remains a mystery why not.

Birtwistle, big band jazz, Royal Festival Hall, 31/10/04, Royal Northern College of Music Wind Orchestra and Big Band

It strikes me, while waiting for the concert to start (jazz first, then Birtwistle), that Panic is beginning to take on a role as an establishment football. And not just in relation to The Establishment, the outraged flag-waving Prommers who protested Panic‘s appearance on their Albert Hall turf in 1995. Because, for all the work’s shortcomings, it also represented a tremendous victory for the modernist establishment. There was one of our lot, cocking a snook at all the fuddy-duddies in their Union Flag bowler hats.

The marvellous thing about the piece itself is that it’s so comprehensively divisive. Simply as a result of that Proms performance, you have to have an opinion on it. And for those that believe people should be listening to Birtwistle (they should be, but Panic is certainly not the place to start) it has become a symbol of unity, the means to bring together the opposing groups under a common musical banner. This was the thinking behind programming it on the Last Night, alongside Jerusalem, and Pomp and Circumstance.

But it didn’t work then, because its very nature is aggressively divisive. It is a literally shattering composition; time and again knots of energy are built up and exploded into shards of noise. This evening’s programme is another attempt to reconcile the definitively non-establishment Panic with another realm – this time the big band jazz of Stan Kenton and Lester Young. At first I thought it might work. From a distance it looked like a wickedly brave bit of programming, and it drew in a curious crowd – with the obligatory ‘I’ve been cheated’ walkouts five minutes into Harrison’s explosions. Of course against the warm string sounds of a Promenade concert, Panic sticks out; with 15 minutes to tune our eyes into the particular sound world of brass and percussion, perhaps it would seem less of a shock.

I’m happily surprised to report that it was not so. Although an initially weak wind orchestra sound took some of the snap out of the gear-change, the Birtwistle still sounded as uncomfortable and discomforting as ever, and gained momentum throughout. The two soloists – Rob Buckland and Ben Grey did particularly well; Grey, who had also drummed for the big band set, looked much more in his element here, and as pivot between the two ensembles in part justified the programming. Ironically, the Birtwistle gave him much more opportunity to swing, and at points his playing was nonchalantly and pleasingly louche.