Review: Noise and Complexity at LCMF


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.)

Mark Knoop repurposes the piano


News of a tasty looking concert at the start of next month:

Mark Knoop presents new works which each take existing musical material as their starting point. From de la Cour’s Stockhausen ‘imposter’, through Beaudoin’s microtiming, to Finnissy’s Brahms-style choral preludes based on Norwegian and American folk songs, each work proposes an intriguing method of negotiating with the past.

Richard Beaudoin: nach Webern, nach Pollini (2010)
Richard Beaudoin: The Artist and his Model I—la fille floutée (2010)
Richard Beaudoin: Now anything can hang at any angle (2011)
Adam de la Cour: Piano piece 10 (2011-12)
Michael Finnissy: Koralforspill (2012)

There will be a pre-concert discussion with the composers at 7:00pm.

I’ve written before of Knoop’s performances of Beaudoin’s music. Adam de la Cour is a founder member of squib box, whose Neil Luck featured on these pages only the other day. Finnissy is always good value, both in music and speech; Koralforspill is a brand-new 40-minute work, so should be worth catching.

The concert also ties in with the release of Beaudoin’s new double CD Microtimings, which features works for piano and string quartet played by Knoop and the Kreutzer Quartet.

More details.

Latest news from Richard Beaudoin

Just over a year ago, Mark Knoop brought the intriguing piano music of Richard Beaudoin to London’s Kings Place. Mark played three pieces from Beaudoin’s Études d’un prélude, which I described in my preview to that concert as follows:

These take as their material Chopin’s E minor prelude, op. 28 no. 4; in fact, more than that, the material is specifically a 1975 recording by Martha Argerich, analysed using the LARA ‘acoustic microscope’. From the data thus collected – precise attack points, decibel levels, etc – Beaudoin derives compositional strategies that build upon the specific energies of Argerich’s recording, an approach he compares to photorealism in painting.

Those Kings Place performances have been available – with iffy sound quality – on YouTube for a while (see below), but Mark has recently added a clean recording of the virtuosic Black Wires to his site that you may be interested in hearing. (Direct download here.)

Black Wires will be included on a forthcoming Knoop disc featuring other Beaudoin piano works that apply the ‘acoustic microscope’ approach to Maurizio Pollini’s 1976 recording of Webern’s Op. 27/II and Alfred Cortot’s 1931 recording of Debussy’s la fille aux cheveux de lin. Furthermore, the Kreutzer Quartet have recently recorded two more Beaudoin pieces, again derived from the Argerich and Cortot recordings. For more details see Beaudoin’s website.

Mark Knoop plays Shlomowitz and Finnissy

Mark Knoop

Update, 19 Nov: Stay tuned for a 10 for ’10 interview with Matthew Shlomowitz, coming very soon.

Another great concert at Kings Place next Monday. The Huddersfield festival will already be underway,  but any new music lovers still in London won’t want to miss Mark Knoop playing Michael Finnissy’s classic English Country-Tunes and a big new work for piano and sampler by Matthew Shlomowitz, Popular Contexts.

Here are the details:

Date: Monday 22 November
Time: 20:00
Venue: Hall Two
Price: £9.50

Matthew Shlomowitz Popular Contexts (2010)

Michael Finnissy English Country-Tunes (1977/1982-85)

Tickets can be booked through the Kings Place website.

If you don’t know English Country-Tunes, or would like a refresher, there are various versions on YouTube, but you can’t go far wrong with this rare footage of Finnissy himself playing the piece in 1984, accompanied by the dancer Kris Donovan.

Brilliance and Brown: Stockhausen’s Mantra

Mantra formula

Brown. My synaesthetic response to Stockhausen’s music is so often brown. Unlike his teacher and youthful inspiration Messiaen, who began from a metaphor of light, combining and splitting colours in and out of whiteness, Stockhausen mixes a painter’s colours: combination tends towards a uniform brown. Messiaen composes a dazzling transcendence, whereas Stockhausen sticks closer to earthy realities.

That might sound a strange comment to make of the composer of Trans and Inori, to say nothing of Licht, but it strikes at something of the problematic paradox of the mystical music Stockhausen began writing in the 1970s. There’s something tragicomic about this misstep: an all-too human failure at the heart of Stockhausen’s maddening enterprise to construct a home-made cosmology.

And yet … there are the works. That brilliant string of pearls. Mantra, for two pianists prosthetically extended with percussion, electronics and voice, is one of the later greats. A 70-minute magnification of serialism’s two conflicting realities: perpetual change and perpetual homogeneity. The 12-note series (plus a recapitulatory 13th) is blown up to 13 statements of the ‘mantra’ formula.

The procedure, as Stockhausen describes it, sounds, well, formulaic. But in practice the composer uses the almost ritualistic returns to very basic materials in order to open doorways from the prosaic and academic into the real and global. So the ring-modulated drifts surrounding a piano chord might admit a passage of imitation Javanese gamelan; or repeating pulses admit a glimpse of Japanese Noh theatre. At one striking moment those repeating pulses in the piano fracture into both morse code transmissions and ritual chimes.

Holding all of this together, while remaining sensitive both to the piece’s moments of comedy and its seriousness of intent, must be a huge challenge. Chadwick and Knoop were more than a match for it, especially in respect of Mantra‘s extraordinary imaginative scope. It is, still, music of a strange flatness, somehow suppressed even as it explodes galaxies of sound around the monochromaticism of a piano duet. That tension is key: it’s what keeps you listening and it’s how Stockhausen’s music achieves its strange drama.

The short piece by Newton Armstrong that preceded Mantra, Study in Tiled Light, was a more deliberate study in interesting flatness, a series of chords that gained its dimensions through stereoscopic division of the chords between the instruments and a subtle terracing of touch and timbre within.

Stockhausen’s Mantra at Kings Place

Ensemble Plus-Minus come to Kings Place next week for a performance of Stockhausen’s two-piano masterpiece Mantra, performed by Mark Knoop and Roderick Chadwick. The concert also includes a new work by Newton Armstrong.

Here are the details:

Monday 20 September
Kings Place, Hall Two

Part of the Out Hear Series at Kings Place.
Tickets and further details here.

If you’d like some further reading, I’ve reviewed Knoop playing Armstrong before; and Roderick Chadwick features on the excellent Trajectories CD of David Gorton’s music.

Mark Knoop: Disintegrate, Degenerate, Decompose

Mark Knoop

Mark Knoop plays Kings Place this Monday evening. The motto for the concert is:

Disintegrate – As an object falls apart, we are given an opportunity to examine its constituents and to newly appreciate the forces that held it together. Degenerate – Rather than introducing new elements, fully investigate the possibilities of current material. Decompose – Upon continued, repeated listening, the original becomes less apparent, fading into the background of the experience itself.

Although this is a complicated set of ideas to bring to a recital, Mark has picked just two works – Feldman’s For Bunita Marcus and three movements from Richard Beaudoin‘s Études d’un prélude – to convey all this. For Bunita Marcus, like so much late Feldman, captures the processes of creation and recreation that occur in the transition between sound and memory, and is a fitting accompaniment to Beaudoin’s Études. These take as their material Chopin’s E minor prelude, op. 28 no. 4; in fact, more than that, the material is specifically a 1975 recording by Martha Argerich, analysed using the LARA ‘acoustic microscope’. From the data thus collected – precise attack points, decibel levels, etc – Beaudoin derives compositional strategies that build upon the specific energies of Argerich’s recording, an approach he compares to photorealism in painting.

Having seen (but not yet heard) the scores the results are not as esoteric as that sounds; in fact they often recall Ligeti, as well as their Chopin origins.

In any case, it should be a fascinating concert. More details and booking here.

Review of Mark Knoop at City University now online

My review of Mark Knoop’s piano and electronics recital at City University, is now online at Musical Pointers:

Despite torrential rain a good number made it to City University’s well-appointed Performance Space for a recital of works for piano and electronics.Newton Armstrong’s Three Windows explored the resonances of the piano – the second through silently depressed keys, the first and third through live electronics. The piano writing was atonal and rhythmically jagged, but in a way that allowed for drifts of sweeter colours, particularly in the overtone hazes of the second movement. The electronic treatment acted as an extended resonator, drawing the piano sounds out in unfamiliar directions, distorting them, microtonally altering their pitch, changing the timbre or adding glissando effects. This gave the hard piano sounds a softer, more organic afterlife (or magnified a hidden organicism). Although the pieces were short, Armstrong achieved an attractive balance between light and firm textures.

Continue reading here.

10 for ’10: Evan Johnson

I’m more and more of the opinion that even most of those who claim to write about contemporary music aren’t actually interested in doing so: when people say ‘contemporary music’, even when they’re talking about composed/art/concert music, they mean music written 40, 50 or 60 years ago by composers who are almost all dead.

There’s plenty of room left for people to write about the major senior figures of today but really, when the world has only just caught up with Lachenmann in his 70s and while Saariaho is considered the bleeding edge of the avant garde in some quarters, it could be a while before you’re reading much about those composers currently in the vigorous maturity of their 40s or 50s.

There’s a blind spot about what ‘contemporary’ really means in classical music. This annoys me. It’s time to talk about about the real avant of the avant garde: emerging composers with massive talents who aren’t ‘bright prospects for the future’ but who are in fact contributing in original, imaginative and expressive ways to the reality of modern composition now. Those composers who are truly contemporary.

So welcome to a feature I’ve been meaning to introduce for some time. This year, 2010, I’ll be presenting 10 profiles of emerging composers who really excite me. The profiles will appear roughly one a month, and each will be connected as far as possible to a UK performance of that composer’s music. Each profile will include some downloadable goodies – score and sound – and a short interview with the composer. To keep things both interesting and consistent, I’ll be asking each composer the same set of questions (although, depending on responses I may not post all the replies here):

  • Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?
  • How do you think composing, being a composer, now is different from 20–30 years ago?
  • How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?
  • What is musical material for you?
  • A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?
  • What projects are on your desk at the moment?
  • Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?

I’m delighted to begin with a profile of the American composer Evan Johnson (b. 1980; no relative). I first encountered Evan’s music in a performance by EXAUDI of his Colophons (“That other that ich not whenne”) reflecting pool/monument. I think even then I knew that I’d not heard a surer bet than Evan’s music. It takes fearsome intelligence and a worldview that recalls the Renaissance cabinet of curiosities and combines them with a deep sensitivity to musical traditions, techniques and philosophies that are often seen as opposite, even aggressively antagonistic to one another.

Extract from Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum), 2009

At first glance, the music appears irrevocably tied to a heavy, European tradition of rich notational determination, formal complexity and hierarchy. But experience of the music in performance immediately reveals something else, something lighter, more intangible, more unpredictable, a willingness to push boundaries beyond the rational, and to do so for the sake of not knowing and of being simply interested in finding out. In the middle of Colophons the dense cobwebs of vocal writing stop, suddenly, leaving only a single, scratching tone on the violin in the air. It hangs there, precariously, for 10, 20, 30 seconds. Too long. And then the voices start again, as though nothing had happened. It’s an extraordinary moment that makes no sense at all in traditional discursive terms, yet it absolutely nails that piece for me.

Evan’s music is something like that: it carries with it an aura of irrationality and impossibility, a fantasy that almost (but, crucially, not completely) evaporates with its own expressive coming-into-being.

Londoners are in for a treat in February, then, with two concerts including pieces by Evan. The second, by pianist Mark Knoop, features Dehiscences, Lullay (‘Thou nost whider it whil turne’), 2005. The first, at King’s Place on 8th February, will see Benjamin Marks and Tristram Williams of ELISION give the first UK performance of Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum). A score extract of this piece is reproduced above; with the composer’s permission here is a short extract from the first section of the work:

Apostrophe 2, excerpt | score (pdf)

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: Composing is an anachronistic career choice for the 21st century, isn’t it? Why do you do it?

Evan Johnson: Well, it can’t be too anachronistic if there are even a few people out there who want to present and listen to the things I produce. Anachronism then becomes their problem, not mine! But – if by ‘composing’ you mean the act of writing down notated material for performance by others – yes, the whole notion may be in the process of becoming obsolete, especially now that the writing, publishing and promulgation of notated music has been thoroughly left in the dust by new technologies.

This question is particularly apt for me because I consider the writing down of music and the insistence upon its live performance as a polemical act. I believe passionately in the importance of music, and art more generally, as a framed experience removed from daily life, and in opposition to it – an opportunity to undergo a sort of perceptual and intellectual stimulation that infiltrates one’s life as an alternate narrative that promotes the possibility of the unexpected. In this sense, my work as a composer is that of a perpetual sceptic of the constant availability of music for consumption, and of the encroaching valorization of the infinitely customizable (and therefore predictable) more generally. I find that, without even intending it, I am calibrating my work more and more for live performance – through extremes of dynamics, slightly modified stagings for instrumentalists, an emphasis on musculature and breath, and other sites for musical content that don’t lend themselves particularly well to reproduction. The end result is a work that demands the sort of attention and framing that excerpts it from the rest of the audience’s experience. That, for me, is what the whole thing is about, anachronistic though I fear it may be.


TR-J: How important for you is it to work with performers on a new piece? And what happens when that piece is taken up by another player/group?

EJ: I haven’t had as much experience as I would like working intensively in the precompositional stage with performers, but I have been extraordinarily lucky in the past several years with the interest my work has received from performers who are both capable and enthusiastic about tackling whatever I throw at them. My music tends to exist at boundaries of difficulty, endurance and notational complexity (which not infrequently falls over into purposeful impossibility), and its appeal among performers, even new-music specialists, is understandably limited as a result. I don’t begrudge anyone that; it’s a natural consequence of the things that interest me compositionally.

TR-J: What is musical material for you?

EJ: I don’t know. Everything. Or, more specifically, its definition changes several times over the course of a particular project. I tend to start by thinking about duration, and more specifically about relations between durational ‘containers’; in other words, about proportional time structures. I have developed over recent years a strong sense of how specific proportional sets work in their particularity, and they have over time acquired for me a definite personality, the way instrumental timbres or harmonic vocabularies do. I’ve also developed a small array of transformational procedures that enable me to generate durational material on all timescales out of a limited set of basic proportional ‘ingredients’, while still preserving something of that initial personality. It’s only at that point that I will think about inserting pitches, gestures, and so forth, sometimes with the idea of emphasizing the various machinations of these proportional structures and sometimes with the aim of struggling against them.

I should add that duration for me is not at all a purely arithmetical construct; it is intimately tied to the experience of the performer and their lungs, muscles, and mental endurance. What the direct play with duration allows me to do is give certain material a sense of being ‘too long’ or ‘too brief’ not only for itself or for the listening audience, but also for the performers. Playing my recent music is always an athletic feat, which for me is absolutely fundamental to the meaning of the whole enterprise of music as a multivalent interpersonal communication. So, in a sense, ‘musical material’ for me is primarily duration and the relationship between a frame and its contents, or a figure and its ground; but at the same time it is also the sinews and lungs of the bodies on stage who are viscerally inhabiting those frames.

Finally, I insist on broadening the definition of ‘musical material’ beyond that which is heard by an audience. The end product of my work as a composer is not what is heard by the listening audience; it is the score, and the score I produce is more than merely a set of instructions for producing sound. The ideal notation, for me, is not the most ‘transparent’, the most recuperable by an ideally perceptive audience. I am much more interested in situations where there is an insuperable gap between what the performer sees, experiences, and projects and what the audience receives, because that gap is where the unexpected and spontaneous can occur. My job as a composer is not to narrow that gap as much as I can, let alone to eliminate it, but to shape it in productive and (for the performer) thought-provoking ways.

For this reason, I have an abiding interest in alternative approaches to notation, from the Cage/Feldman/Brown tradition in the US – which I consider my particular artistic ‘inheritance’ as an American composer – to Europeans like Kagel, late Nono, and (particularly) Sylvano Bussotti, and stretching back to Satie and the incomprehensible and incommunicable performance indications in his piano music.

TR-J: A lot of composition is about ways of proceeding, extending an idea in time. What sort of decisions are you dealing with as you compose?


EJ: There are always too many decisions; much of the time, I find the process of composition incredibly difficult, almost painful, for that reason. I don’t enjoy making up my mind!

I will say, though, that I regard the entire compositional process as a gradual accumulation of restrictions on myself, of various sorts. The initial compositional idea is a restriction in that it defines the field of inquiry, the parameters of the project I’m setting out upon in a general sense; in fact, that initial idea often comes in the explicit form of a restriction (What if this piece was limited to ____, or only did ____?). Then the imposition of restriction takes more specific form, in that a process of winnowing begins in which decisions have more and more local effects on a gradually ossifying structure. At some point – and my decision as to when this point has been reached often has a lot to do with my own perception of the success or failure of the result – I have accumulated enough materials, and the containers for those materials are small and circumscribed enough in their possibilities, that I can fill them, link them, and mould them at will into a finished result with the overall effect that I intend. At least, that’s the theory.


TR-J: Finally, here’s a middle C. What do you do now?


EJ: I have no idea how to answer this question! As I mentioned before, I’ve become thoroughly accustomed to thinking about duration, proportion, and the properties of diachronic relationships before I have any particularly concrete ideas about pitch. That isn’t to say I don’t have instinctual feelings about certain pitches and intervals; D flat and the perfect eleventh are particular favorites, which is why both are apotheosized throughout Apostrophe 1 (All communication is a form of complaint). I also have an instinctive tendency towards ‘open’, quasi-diatonic harmonies on the local scale. If I had to choose a pitch to follow that middle C, then, it would certainly have to be the F an eleventh above, probably significantly softer than the C, and perhaps with a low D flat to ground that F and give it a certain diatonic resonance and potentiality.

To give a more complete answer, though, I’d have to know (a) how long the C is held for, or at least how far away the next attack is, and (b) what relationship that duration enacts with the governing structural window …

CD Review: David Lumsdaine – Complete Music for Solo Piano

Mark Knoop, piano

Kelly Ground
Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’
Six Postcard Pieces

Tall Poppies TP198

David Lumsdaine’s piano music, as heard on this excellent disc, is rich in technical intricacies. One can take analyses of these constructions on faith, but Lumsdaine’s intellectual approach is apparent as soon as one attempts an initial description of the music: one hears groups of pitches rotating and transforming, melodic and rhythmic contours evolving, the careful control of register and density. (Mark Knoop makes an ideal interpreter, conveying the full range of these subtle interactions without ever crossing into inappropriate histrionics.) This is most apparent in Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh’, an extended fantasy on the opening chords of the Bach chorale, which ghost the music’s 20-minute span, gently pushing open a window into the unfolding of Lumsdaine’s technique.

In the opening section of Kelly Ground, one can hear that the (serial) pitch organisation is arranged to determine that similar pitch collections tend to cluster together. There is also a restricted gamut of gestural possibilities: predominant is a two-note ‘spring’ upwards, like a rabbit hop. Such factors – similar examples can be found throughout this CD – contrive to give Lumsdaine’s music a certain consistency of grain, out of which emerges a sustained expressive character.

Thus, although the music is highly organised, there is never a sense of contrived abstraction. In Kelly Ground, the overwhelming mood is a sombre one of energies and freedoms restrained. This suppression is deliberate, of course, a compositional attempt to tame an infinite and anarchic field of possibilities. Over the course of the piece’s six sections, from Ned Kelly’s awakening on the morning of his execution to his eventual hanging, the musical shackles are slowly released, but the music loses cohesion and purpose. In the final section, the hanging itself, the sprung figures from the opening return to more morbid effect in slower rhythm and with portentous bass undertones, swinging like bells or a body. With Kelly’s death, the fizzing energy of the earlier movements has become petrified, the musical tension lying in the relative merits of various degrees of control and freedom.

In the late 1970s, Lumsdaine began making field recordings of Australian wildlife and landscapes. In his excellent sleevenote, Michael Hooper writes of Lumsdaine’s self-imposed rules for producing and editing such recordings, to do with fidelity to the diurnal cycle, to location and to season. In one technique, several recordings would be made in a single location, but with the microphones pointing in different directions each time, thus capturing in sound a sense of perspective and the spatial interrelationship of the landscape and its inhabitants. It is this process of objective observance within a sparsely occupied three-dimensional space that is the subject and effect of the piano piece Cambewarra. Whether there are birdsongs here or not (and this isn’t sub-Messiaen exercise in transcription) doesn’t matter: one hears musical objects simply presented and organised in contrasting temporal and spatial relation to one another. It is the way that the understanding of one’s environment is structured through phenomenal experience that is captured, more than the local details of that environment. As with Kelly Ground, in Cambewarra Lumsdaine again approaches programmatic content, whilst avoiding the temptations of crude mimesis.

An Australian landscape and a national hero. One is tempted to uncover an underlying nationalism, but to do so would be to miss the point. Despite his titles, Lumsdaine doesn’t deal in musical representations – or at least, not in any straightforward, unmediated way. He avoids parochialism by unearthing from such stories and locations structures that speak to universal experience: the tensions between freedom and a determined society, the sensation of open space and one’s own environment. It is such steadfast belief in the power of technical abstraction to articulate human concerns that gives Lumsdaine’s music its profound beauty.