A late late report from the London Ear

Gwyn Pritchard and Andrea Cavallari hadn’t planned on running a second edition of their contemporary music festival, the London Ear, quite so soon after the first. Yet that proved such a success last year that they consented to do something like an edition 1.5, a halfway house before a larger event, perhaps in 2015 or 2016. But the process overtook the planning, and before long a four-day programme of events was in place and the Second London Ear was on its way.

Taking place a month ago now (sorry …) this was an event that very much built upon its achievements last year. The festival seems to to have found an audience for itself – one that I’m pleased to say includes many unfamiliar faces. The three young performers who were introduced last year – Jenni Hogan (flute), Stephen Upshaw (viola) and Tom Bayman (cello) – were given a second opportunity to show their work, in the festival’s opening reception concert. Once again we were hosted by the Warehouse and Cello Factory in Waterloo, this time surrounded by the paintings of Gillian Ingham. And once again there was a very convivial, I guess ’boutique’ atmosphere that comes from this being a compact festival that places a premium on interaction and engagement.

As well as the three young performers, this year the festival players were accordionist Eva Zöllner, violinist Victoria Johnson, the London Sinfonietta, 7090, We Spoke, Uroboros, and an impromptu trio of three soloists from Berlin, Antje Mart Schäffer (soprano), Franka Herwig (accordion) and Matthias Bauer (double bass). I was also involved in a small way, hosting first a preview show on Resonance FM a week before the festival, and then chairing three composer roundtable conversations before the evening concerts on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

 

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(l–r: Georg Katzer, Gwyn Pritchard, me, Eric de Clercq, Andrea Cavallari, talking before the Saturday evening concert)

I missed the daytime concerts by Zöllner and Johnson, as well as 7090 and We Spoke’s joint brunch concert on the Sunday, but I still made it to six more in the four days. Too many pieces and too many performances for me to give a detailed run-down of everything, but here are some of my highlights:

  • Georg Katzer’s Three Disparate Essays in the London Sinfonietta’s Friday night concert was truly startling. Just so imaginative, accommodating without ever being obvious, clever without being smug, and quite quite beautiful. Possibly my favourite single piece of the weekend, and really sensitively played by the Sinfonietta’s Timothy Lines, David Alberman and Rolf Hind. (Katzer was also a good sport in taking part in all three of my pre-concert roundtable, and an interesting man.)
  • Bauer was one of the festival’s star soloists: on Friday night his brilliant (and funny) clown-like double bass and voice improvisation almost stole the show. He was as good again the following evening in Helmut Oehring’s bass solo, Baudelaire (envirez-vous!).
  • I liked both Oehring pieces in that concert – the other being the accordion solo gestopfte LEERE.
  • In fact, that early Saturday evening concert – shared by 7090, the Berlin soloists and Serge Vuille (percussion) – may have been the festival’s best in terms of the strength of its pieces: I liked Pritchard’s Three Songs of Mass and Motion, and Cavallari’s Ieri ho sofferto il dolore matched its origins in the troubling life story of poet Alda Merini; both pieces specially written for the festival. Strange Desires by Trevor Grahl, a “bizarre quasi-cabaret” well suited the personae of the three 7090 players, and made an interesting companion piece to the two extracts from bas&koen&nora that we had heard from the same players the night before. Kagel’s Tango Aleman, also part of the same concert, maintained the buffo-serio mood.
  • Of the final concert, Heinz Holliger’s 1966 Trio was the stand out piece, and made a fittingly high quality conclusion to the festival.

Lots of good things then. But with the festival looking ahead to its third instance, it’s not inappropriate to cast a more critical eye too. One thing that does characterise the London Ear is its reliance on smaller pieces, generally for just one, two, or three instruments. Besides helping with certain structural and financial impositions, this has some artistic benefits: the festival is able to shine a light on some overlooked areas of the repertoire that don’t attract much support from the larger institutions. It is also able to include an attractively wide spread of composers within a relatively short space of time. And the listening experience itself gains a certain intimacy when the concerts are on this scale, as I have already suggested. These things are all great, and are essential to the festival’s style.

However, at the same time this approach does mean that many of the composers who are featured are represented only by their slighter compositions. When so many of these are so rarely heard in the UK at all, it seems a pity not to be able to profile one or two of them to a deeper extent. The same might be said of some of the better-known composers too. It was a shame, for example, to have 7090 more or less in residence at the festival, but to have them only perform two pieces from the bas&koen&nora set that Michael Finnissy had written specifically for them: these were the first UK performances of any of these fascinating pieces (I believe), and given that the work is so closely associated with 7090 themselves, we may have to wait a while to hear the whole thing in this country. (You can buy a recording, however, which I recommend.) A little more variation in concert format might help accommodate this sort of thing – rather than every concert containing lots of shorter pieces. This would have helped break up the rhythm a little and, ironically, helped give the whole festival a little more focus.

Another awkward case was Serge Vuille’s performance of the flashy percussion solo Assonance VII by Michael Jarrell, as part of the 7090/Berlin trio Saturday evening concert mentioned above. Most of the music took place in a small space at the centre of the stage, between the piano and two music stands. But one end of the stage was occupied by a very large percussion set-up that visually dominated the space yet was only used for the one piece. (Here’s a video of Vassilena Serafimova playing Assonance VII in Eindhoven to give you an idea.) I enjoyed the piece, and Vuille’s performance was outstanding, but its presence on this occasion really unbalanced what was otherwise a programme with a very distinctive character of its own. The fact that this concert – which otherwise involved no Swiss players or composers – was the one supported by the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia, and was followed by a reception hosted by the Swiss Embassy, did give one pause for thought, however, about the delicate but inevitable balance between the artistic and the pragmatic.

I’m quibbling. I realise it’s very difficult to execute both things that I’m asking for here: a coherent, focussed programme that is also diverse, original and multi-faceted. The fact that it’s all done (still) with no support from any of the major UK arts organisations is a fact both remarkable and shaming. The London Ear remains an excellent new venture that I hope will cement a place as an essential part of the London new music calendar; if it can do so without having to depend on the generosity of overseas embassies, so much the better.

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Talking up, not down: London Sinfonietta’s new Blue Touch Paper series

I was lucky to have been invited last night to attend a preview of the London Sinfonietta’s three latest projects in their Blue Touch Paper scheme.

The main part of the evening involved work-in-progress previews of around 20 minutes for each piece (they were all projected to last 45–60 minutes when finished). This was followed by an after-show discussion – we  divided into three small groups to take part in a guided critique/dialogue with the creators of each piece. The three pieces were: 

There were things I liked about all three. Half of Me (pdf) retold the myth of Demeter and Persephone through puppets and music. I liked it most for its dramatic and narrative technique and its characterisation, in particular of the capricious child Persephone. The interaction between puppets and musicians was nice, and as a work of collaboration it had the most fun with its interdisciplinary overlaps. As a production for children of 10+ (which it is) it should do very well. 

The Revenge of Miguel Cotto (pdf) was, for my money, the most musically complete of the three. An exploration of the ‘sanctioned violence’ of boxing it was set out in a series of contrasting panels (rounds?), some of them connecting clearly with violent and physical theme, others more contemplative. (I half imagined these as post-endorphin come-downs, or as the fighter’s moments of clarity when decisions are made to punch or block, left or right.) There were lots of great musical effect in a score that always held your attention, but the best was two percussionists marking the beat in one section by alternately thwacking a pair of punch bags with giant plastic tubes. As well as the obvious sonic and theatrical verismo, there was an interesting musical function too. Punchbags are imprecisely made by the standards of modern orchestral percussion, so some thwacks came sounded high, some low. Like a metronome, the high ones sounded like accented beats, the low ones off-beats. So despite the relentless crotchets, the metrical pattern kept shifting, giving an unpredictable edge to the whole ensemble sound.

The piece I found most problematic, or at least most difficult to assimilate on a first pass, was 100 Combat Troupes (pdf). I think this was in part because this was the most ambitious piece: theatrically it had the most things going on, it was conceptually rich and it danced among such a wide range of reference points. Inspired by Borges’ short story ‘The Circular Ruins‘ and presented as a critical shuffle through the detritus of modern life, it incorporates clowning, Hegel, Balkan music, cereal nostalgia and Disney, as well as (perhaps inevitably)  Benjamin’s Angel of History. There’s probably more that I didn’t notice or wasn’t told about. Each scene was highly constrasting; some were very short, others (the clown/ages of man monologue, memorably played by Adam de la Cour) up to 10 minutes long.

My initial response was that there was maybe too much happening, without a corresponding sense of complexity. That is, for all the different worlds we were being shown, the different ways of being, even, there was a singular socio-political message: capitalism has destroyed everything that is good and beautiful, and we are left only to pick through its rubble, our fake smiles barely hiding our rage and sadness. I missed any alternatives, a critical engagement, or perhaps a sense of hope or humanity. The Angel of History might stare horrified and powerless at the rubble piling up at his feet, but he endures, and there is nobility in that, which is reflected in both Klee and Benjamin’s portraits.

And yet. Work like this needs every dimension to be completely polished and convincing. It is a martyr more than most to its execution. So a preview event in a blank-canvas space like Village Underground, rather than the finished product at somewhere like the Linbury (with the improvements in staging, lighting, costumes, etc. that come with that) is going to be a little compromised. I’m cautious of placing too much weight on my first reaction here because of that. And in the final moments of the bleeding preview chunk that we saw, there were moments on stage that suddenly opened up the possibility of more complex connections. So we wait and see.

By a process of random selection (I actually missed the announcement about which group was which), it was the 100 Combat Troupes discussion that I ended up taking part in. Which, when I realised this and given my ambivalent first reaction to the piece, made me a little anxious. But I needn’t have worried. For a start, the discussion was expertly moderated and carefully structured, so opinions, criticisms and questions all had their place, as well as positive reactions. Secondly, my fellow discussees were intelligent, perceptive and articulate, and not afraid to wade in to things. And, thirdly, Steve and Kélina were very open, generous in their responses and spoke interestingly about their work, and what they were hoping to achieve in both general and quite detailed specific terms.

Oh, how good it was to hear an artist talking within what was ostensibly a public/staged/institutional context about nitty gritty matters like durational structures, the density and texture of words, the role of narrative … Maybe it is just that Steve, and especially Kélina, were comfortable talking about their work in this way, but I thought the format for the discussions helped. I certainly appreciated greatly the opportunity to engage with both artists on this kind of level (and I want to thank them both for putting up with my sometimes abstruse interrogations). More importantly, it made me think through my response to their piece in much greater detail than I might otherwise have done. I certainly want to see it again, and I want to see how it develops.

Talking up, not down, actually made the work more, not less, accessible. Now there’s a thought.