I’ve said this a couple of times now, to people who haven’t heard Peter Ablinger’s music before, but who are interested: He’s sort of (sort of) like our John Cage. Which is one of those handy shortcuts you sometimes have to take in conversation.
And yeah, it’s a little hyperbolic, but it gets the idea across.
But it’s not just the ideas and sounds and themes of Ablinger’s music that suggest Cage; there’s a certain unavoidability about him too. Not that I think that every composer after, say, Voices and Piano or IEAOV is going to have to come to some sort of accommodation with Ablinger as they did with Cage after Music of Changes or 4’33”. The music world isn’t structured in that way any more. But there is a sense that every path you follow, if you follow it far enough, leads you to Ablinger.
Connected with this, and something else Ablinger shares with Cage, is a sense of completeness about his compositional project. That, like unfolding a box, every side to each new work has been laid out in turn and followed through. His deceptively excellent website is a perfect illustration and realisation of this. Pick a link from his list of works, get an idea of the themes and materials of the piece (transcription, representation, listening, subjectivity, community, space, technology, the environment, etc.), pick one and follow the thread to the next piece. It’s like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books we used to read in the 80s before the Internet existed. Choose Your Own Realised Sound Concept.
Today, while writing up next month’s Secret Music listings (soon come), I discovered his piece Piano and Record for the first time: a faithful transcription of the microvariations of a blank vinyl record for solo piano. Isn’t that just the perfect early 21st-century artefact?
I bloody love Peter Ablinger.
P.S. Can a hyperbole ever be a shortcut, geometrically speaking?
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.
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 Moosbrugger, Fonds, 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.
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.
Music We’d Like to Hear got off to a typically thoughtful, intimate, surprising and beautiful start last Friday with Markus Trunk’s curated concert of clavichord music, played by Makiko Nishikaze. Some thoughts I had:
The clavichord is a lovely instrument: it’s rare to find a (Western classical) instrument that establishes the parameters of its own reception so firmly: you have to be seated on the keyboard side, and you have to be as close as possible, and you have to listen with rare intensity.
It also has a surprisingly rich palette – much more interesting than the ‘small harpsichord’ that I was sort of expecting. The range of sounds from tinkling treble to wah-wah bass is unusually wide.
Peter Ablinger’s music is extraordinarily robust: switch it to whatever instrument or combination of instruments you like and it still sounds absolutely purposeful and absolutely him. Cage mastered that trick too.
John Lely’s concert continues the series on Friday; here are the details:
Christopher Hobbs: Aran; McCrimmon Will Never Return
William Cheshire: Slat
Alvin Lucier: Opera with Objects
Travis Just: Everybody’s Everyone (it’s time to love life again)
Michael Parsons: New Work for multiple ocarinas
Philip Corner: Gamelan II ‘KHUSUS’
and Two Georgian Folk Songs, transcribed and arranged by Lely.
Performed by William Cheshire, Richard Jones, John Lely, Tim
Parkinson, Michael Parsons and Markus Trunk.
Church of St Anne & St Agnes, Gresham Street, EC2V 7BX
With other events dominating this year I didn’t see quite as much live music as last year. A smaller pool may statistically account for why I didn’t see quite as much that really blew me away either, or maybe I was more cynical than in 2007. Anyway, here are five I rated in 08, in chronological order:
Messiaen: Vingt régards sur l’enfant-Jésus. Pierre-Laurent Aimard, QEH, 13 January
The first of several ‘event’ concerts this year. I don’t appear to have any notes from this night, but it was fantastic. I don’t usually care much about performers, more about what they’re playing, but P-LA is an exception. Missing his Vingts régards in London a few years ago was a long-held regret of mine, finally put to rest here.
Nono: Promoteo, RFH, 9 and 10 May
Another major ‘event’. The hype may have threatened to obscure the music, but Nono’s Tragedy of Listening didn’t disappoint. Listening a second time around, in a supposedly less acoustically perfect part of the hall, was a revelation.
Prometeo, which begins strongly with intensely detailed waves of material but raises its game with each movement until the seventh, ‘Three Voices (a)’. This three-layered slab of solo voices, thunderous brass rumbles and a high violin drone that was slowly passed around the auditorium is a shattering experience: and on first encounter a jaw-dropping shock.
Having pushed through the spiritually cleansing rigours of the earlier movements, at this stage I was hearing Nono’s music with an acuity I have rarely experienced. It was as though layers of my received listening habits had been progressively peeled away to expose the raw, subjective core of my listening being. Nono’s musical reward for his listeners who have reached this far is this overwhelming and exhilarating 12-minute blast of sound.
EXAUDI, Shoreditch Church, Spitalfields Festival, 13 June
The smothered intricacy of Evan Johnson’s Colophons still haunts me, as does its startling central gesture. No one else sings Ferneyhough’s Missa brevis (or any Ferneyhough) like EXAUDI; and the juxtaposition of Tudor works by Sheppard and Taverner was absolutely convincing without pandering to lazy new-ageism. Looking back this was both the best programme and most revealing performance I heard all year.
This concert, combining Tudor motets with Anglo-American modernism, was profoundly satisfying not only because of smart and sincere programming, but also because of EXAUDI’s sensitivity to the musical lessons to be learnt from both eras. Their core repertoire of late modernism makes pretty uncompromising demands upon its performers, but the group’s great strength is in not letting standards drop for the apparently easier Renaissance repertory. Mater Christi, the first of two Marian Antiphons by John Taverner that opened the concert, was a beautiful illustration. The control, precision and balance of the 12 voices was remarkable in itself, but most breathtaking were the final bars. Many performances of Renaissance polyphony reveal a series of climaxes rolling into one another, a sort of permanent ecstatic state that cancels out any specific musical structure and leaves the listener in an anonymous state of bliss; EXAUDI, however, kept a tight lid on their dynamics until the very end when a sudden crescendo into the closing cadence made the heart leap into the throat. A thrilling and revelatory moment made possible by technique and interpretative skills honed on avant-garde repertoire.
Tony Conrad, Tate Modern, 14 June
Hugely enjoyable, profoundly troubling, got to do it once. My ears still ring just thinking about it.
Moving around the hall was physically oppressive, especially as you walked in and out of range of the various speakers. The first section, with TC’s shadow (with his hat) looming like a maniac with a drill, was terrifying.Rainforests, glaciers and Xenakis are awesome; Conrad is frightening, like climate change. On my way home I was physically discomfited – not just ringing ears, but ringing skin. I had to wash the sound off me before I could sleep.
Plus Minus, The Warehouse, BMIC Cutting Edge, 23 October
Videos from this concert (which mercifully don’t show the balding pate of yours truly) may be found here.
The last Cutting Edge series run by the BMIC before they are absorbed into the new Sound and Music organisation was high quality stuff (honourable mentions to both Libra Duo and Asamisimasa Duo), but + – just pip it for a) the most consistently interesting programme (including fine pieces by Laurence Crane, Matthew Shlomowitz and Markus Trunk) and b) introducing London to the very strange music of Peter Ablinger.