Reviews resurrected: György and Márta Kurtág and Hiromi Kikuchi, Wigmore Hall, 2006

Resurrected because this concert is essentially being reprised on 1 December as part of the Southbank Centre’s TRIN-fest. Here’s what I wrote back in 2006 when the Kurtág piano duo and violinist Hiromi Kikuchi came to the Wigmore Hall.

Originally published in New Notes, the now-defunct magazine of the now-defunct SPNM.

One behind-the-scenes tidbit: I’d spent the few days before this concert in New York, and had stepped off a red-eye flight back only that morning. So the whole performance was experienced through the haze of jet-lag and a lot of caffeine.

1_gyorgy
Kurtág 80th Birthday Celebration
Wigmore Hall, 9th November 2006

György Kurtág (pianino), Márta Kurtág (pianino), Hiromi Kikuchi (violin)

György Kurtág: Hipartita, Játékok

The György and Márta Kurtág piano duet is one of the great shows in contemporary music and, as expected, attracted a capacity audience to the Wigmore Hall. Their chosen programme – selected from the composer’s 8-volume Játékok series for piano and Transcriptions from Machaut to J.S. Bach – has remained relatively consistent for more than 20 years. However, tonight we were treated to a different cross section of works from the set. Several favourites – ‘Knots’, ‘Study to “Hölderlin”’, Dirge – remained, but there were also surprises. Unusually there were none of the ‘Flower’ pieces that form a backbone to the series, and there was the inclusion of one non-Kurtág work, Bartók’s ‘Canon at the lower fifth’ from Mikrokosmos volume 1.

As a duet the couple are unique performers. Kurtág’s music of delicate gestures seems perfectly matched to husband and wife, full as it is with private jokes, recollections and shared experience, a near dance of crossing limbs and touching hands. At one point in the choreographed performance the composer stands like a stern instructor behind his wife’s shoulder as she performs the sole Játék dedicated to her; this is a quintessential Kurtág moment, taut, tender, and not a little oppressive. A parallel might be made with Milan Kundera, whose erotic, intimate writing is as dark as it is light. Yet for all the theatre Kurtág’s genius is to make it all about the music and nothing more.

The first piece on the programme, Hipartita for violin solo, given a stunning UK première by its dedicatee Hiromi Kikuchi, revealed a different side of Kurtág’s art. Unmistakable in its foreign-familiar harmonic and melodic language it hinted at a new-found easiness of style. Completed in 2004, Hipartita is one of the composer’s most unified pieces, maintaining a notable consistency of character in contrast to his earlier multi-partite works; this is not to say that his expressive range is diminished, however. Several of the nine movements were distinguished by well-balanced, long-breathed phrases suggesting that Kurtág is, in his later years, fully embracing the lyricism that he previously allowed to dwell only at the edges of his music.

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I’m curating a show (and shaking a tin)

Exciting times here at Rambler Towers. As well as putting together plans for my first full book, I’m also curating a show at Kings Place in September as part of their autumn OutHear series. I’m thrilled that the amazing Apartment House will be playing.

The concert will be on Sunday 22nd September, starting at 4pm – a very civilised late afternoon sort of time. More details, ticket information and all that jazz to come, but in the mean time please check out the Facebook page.

I’ve called the show ‘Some Recent Silences’, a title borrowed from the Cage tribute article I wrote for NewMusicBox last year. The article itself was an inspiration, but the concert follows some angles of its own:

G. Douglas Barrett – A Few Silence
Gregory Emfietzis – DIY 1
Mathias Spahlinger – 128 erfüllte augenblicke

INTERVAL

Ben Isaacs – allone
György Kurtág – Dumb Show
Charlie Sdraulig – Close
Michael Pisaro – Fade

There are some nods to the post-Cage/conceptual work discussed in the NMBx article, particularly in Barrett’s A Few Silence, which begins the concert with five minutes of silence, followed by a five-minute transcription of that silence played by the four musicians. Pisaro’s Fade for solo piano takes us slowly back to silence through a series of long, slow decays.

In between, however, I’ve shifted the emphasis slightly towards more music-theatrical uses of silence. The Isaacs and Sdraulig pieces thematise, in quite different ways, the production of sound at the edge of silence. In Sdraulig’s Close this often leads to ‘sonically redundant’ gestures that are composed, and have a musical content of a sort, but that don’t result in the production of an audible sound (bowing slightly above the string, for example). Isaacs’ allone is more effortful and activity-filled, but drawing on a similar repertoire of performer/instrument interactions. Kurtág’s very short Dumb Show, from Book 1 of his Játékok series, takes this a step further into the absurd, notating a complete piano miniature, including dynamics and articulation markings, but with the instruction to touch the keys only very gently, without depressing any of them. In another piece for piano (or pianist?), Greg Emfietzis uses an on-stage lamp as a silent partner in the music, contributing to and interfering with its development.

And at the heart of the concert is Spahlinger’s 128 erfüllte augenblicke, among other things a study in the relationship between silence and sound at the extremes of musical fragmentation. With the wonderful Lore Lixenberg singing, this will surely acquire a certain dramatic aspect too.

Over the coming months I will be posting quite a lot of material related to this concert; there will be some 10 for ’10-style composer profiles of the four younger composers in the concert, as well as some new entries to the Contemporary Notation Project. Probably one or two other surprises along the way.

Of course, putting something like this together costs money, and in the UK at least funding for one-off concert projects – particularly ones that are devised around an idea, rather than to showcase brand new commissions – is hard to come by. After some consideration, I am taking the step of asking you, my readers, for your help. I’ve always resisted on principle the idea of monetising the Rambler: I write here for the love, I get a lot out of doing it, and I don’t feel obliged to any standard of professionalism, which frees me up to write stuff that would be difficult to place elsewhere.

That principle hasn’t changed, and isn’t going to. However, if you do enjoy what you read here, and particularly if you come to enjoy the various posts I’ve got lined up in relation to the Some Recent Silences concert, then it would be a massive help if you would consider a small donation towards the costs of putting this show on.

Any money raised will be exclusively reserved for the players; none of it will end up as profit for me. In the event that I actually raise more money than the players are asking for (you never know …), it will still go to the players; they’ll just get a bonus. In the interests of transparency, I will of course make the accounts available to anyone who asks to see them.

If you would like to make a donation, of whatever size, please send it to the dedicated PayPal account at:

ramblerconcertfund@gmail.com

If you would like or are happy to have your name included on a list of donors, please make a note of this with your payment.

Thank you.

Silence redux

Richard Osborne has been pondering a Top Ten of silent pieces in the New Statesman this week. As someone who has not long ago written about silence in the post-Cage world, of course I had to take a look.

It’s a nice list, skewed towards pop (befitting Osborne’s own work), but I find it rather one-dimensional in its summary of what silence is or might be. Of the ten pieces listed, seven are political in spirit – as acts of remembrance (West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band) or protest (John Denver, John Lennon x 2, Sly and the Family Stone, Orbital, Slum Village) – and the remaining three are homages to Cage.

Which is not to denigrate the expressive power some of these tracks might have in their context (although, speaking personally, I find Ciccone Youth’s silence simply an annoyance on an album that veers dramatically in quality). As has been observed, there are three basic silences in music, all of them different: the silence before a note, the silence after a note, and the silence between two notes. And there are many more besides these three. Context is everything.

But Osborne’s list does reflect a somewhat limited outlook on the ontological possibilities of silence. Indeed, as Kyle Gann describes in No Such Thing as Silence, Cage’s own revisions to 4’33” altered the silence that it frames. The “silence” of 4’33” does depend quite a lot on which edition you are using. Within the quadripartition of composed music (composer–score–performer–listener) there are numerous points at which the responsibility for creative definition might enter, even when any sounding content has been eliminated or remains incidental, and thus numerous ways in which the nature of that silence might be formulated. Nine of Osborne’s examples were made for and exist only as recordings, suggesting that once you eliminate the score from the equation, you greatly reduce the aesthetic and philosophical possibilities.

In a work like Sergei Zagny’s Metamusica, the score is entirely defined, but the burden of interpretation lies with the listener, who internally performs it as they read. The fact that the score is recognisably based on Webern’s opus 27 Variations for piano – it’s the same piece, but with all the notes taken out, leaving only rests and articulation marks – adds something to that realisation. There is a resemblance here with the first version of 4’33”, which was essentially a series of rests, written on a conventional piano stave. (The length of each of the three movements derived from the accumulation of these chance-determined rests.) As David Tudor has made clear, the act of reading the score in real-time, as it were, contributed greatly to his early interpretations of the piece.

In certain works by Klaus K. Hübler, György Kurtág, Sofia Gubaidulina, Helmut Lachenmann and many others, performance actions are specified that can have no sounding result (by a process either determinate or indeterminate), creating a kind of dumb theatre. Here the silence occurs within a performed (sounding) context, and so might be considered more silent than Cage, since external sounds are pushed beyond the sphere of legitimate audition, and thus ignored.

In other works the boundary between performer and listener is dissolved entirely, with the listener assuming full creative responsibility for its realisation. This might take place in a private sense, as in the case of Metamusica, certain of Annea Lockwood’s River Archive pieces, Amnon Wolman‘s “imaginary pieces,” or David Dunn’s Purposeful Listening in Complex States of Time (all of which take widely different approaches to the level of specification in their scores). Or it might take place communally, as in certain works by Pauline Oliveros. And then there is the work of Peter Ablinger (whose 3 easy pieces, as presented in Prague in 2007, is shown above), in which every conceivable parameter of the “listening piece” is explored.

Quite a lot of these works are text pieces (several of them discovered in Lely and Saunders’ Word Events), but not all. The fact that silence can be composed in words and graphics in itself suggests at least two axes of difference.

When I was writing my NewMusicBox article, I drafted a typology of silent music as a reference for myself. It proved surprisingly difficult. Such was the complexity of performing/composing/scoring/listening permutations available that it took many attempts before I settled on a way of representing the array of scores that I’d gathered on a two-dimensional diagram. There’s a lesson in there about the richness of Cage’s original concept.

If you find this sort of stuff interesting, keep reading. I’m hopefully curating an event next year in London that explores some of these ideas in a more practical way. More details to follow in the coming months.

Contemporary Music on YouTube: collection updated

I’ve made a number of new admissions to the Rambler’s collection of YouTube videos of contemporary music. These include the following:

BerberianStripsody, performed by Diana Gamet.

CzernowinSeed 1 and Seed 2, performed by Either/Or ensemble.

Kurtág – ‘Quarrel’, from Játékok. Played by the composer and his wife Martá.

LachenmannGuero. Played by Nick Tolle of the Ludovico Ensemble.

LachenmannMouvement, part 1, part 2, part 3.

I’ve also deleted or replaced some links that had gone dead. To enjoy the full collection, including more new videos than are shown here, please go here.

(Photo of film canisters by atomicjeep on Flickr.)

Vivier webcast, Penderecki talk

Too much to do – real content will be forthcoming. Until then, here’s an article on Psappha’s upcoming webcast of four pieces by Claude Vivier. The Vivier concert is the central item in a series of three concerts by the ensemble being broadcast online in February and March: the first focuses on György Kurtág and the third includes pieces by Gordon McPherson, Edward Cowie and Steve Mackey. More info on all three here.And, if you wish, you can come and see me at the Barbican Centre giving the pre-concert talk on Penderecki’s 8th Symphony, which receives its UK première with Jiri Belohlavek and the BBC SO next Thursday, 28th Feb. More info and booking here. I may use the words “stylistic environmentalism”.

Some links

An article in the Financial Times Deutschland argues that most of what we call ‘avant garde’ art is actually behind the times, not leading them: Après-garde, not avant.

An interview with Charles Rosen on his receipt of the Musical America Annual Directory’s “instrumentalist of the year” award: A Reputation in Music Built As Much on Writing as Playing. Kaija Saariaho was selected as “composer of the year“.

November is nanowri month; Daniel Wolf is working on a compositional version – a new piece every day throughout November. The score of each is published on Renewable Music: The score so far.

The Boston Globe interviews Kurtág: The Purist. (Small correction – before heading to Paris in 1957, Kurtág wrote a fair bit of bombastic socialist realism of his own; see Beckles Willson, ‘Culture is a vast weapon, its artistic force is also strong’, Contemporary Music Review, xx/2–3 (2001), 3–37 for a survey of this period of Kurtág’s output.)

And although their hectoring tone is really irritating, I rather like the Howard Stern/Zs clips that Alex posted: Horse of a different color. You see, even as they’re throwing brickbats and insults at the Zs, Stern and crew unwittingly end up exposing some of the compositional steps that the band themselves will have worked through (with, of course, greater intelligence, inspiration, musicality, etc). Witness how long it takes to nail down who’s going to play what; what exactly it means to ‘play whatever you want’; should you be aiming for dissonance or consonance; and what about rhythm?; and who should start anyway? And isn’t playing something (easy) different from recreating it (hard)?

Some odd things I found today

Another long day in Colindale newspaper library. It’s scary, and probably not something I should admit, but I feel like I’m doing more research in this final year of my PhD than I did in my first…

Anyway, two amusing things discovered amongst the rolls of microfilm.

1. On 3rd March 1971, organist Xavier Dorasse had to pull a performance of Ligeti’s Volumina from his London concert because when he first hit that all-notes, all-stops blazing chord at the beginning, he blew the organ’s fuses.

2. On 22nd November 1973, London audiences were faced with a choice that looks agonising in retrospect, but of which they likely weren’t aware at the time: go and see John Tilbury playing Feldman, or Zoltán Kocsis playing Kurtág? 33 years later, either of those gigs would kill. Wow.