Contemporary highlights in the ROH 2015/16 season

I don’t always pay attention to the season announcements from Covent Garden, but the release today of details of next year’s season caught my attention for two good reasons:

1) Georg Friedrich Haas: Morgen und Abend

I have my reservations about Haas’s music, yes, but he also does the big and dramatic better than most at the moment. Morgen und Abend, based on Jon Fosse’s novel Morgon og kveld, looks to hit all the key Haas themes: light/dark, mortality, decay. Graham Vick directs, too.

2) Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

An adaptation of the fifth and last play by the late ‘in-yer-face‘ playwright Sarah Kane, author of the notorious Blasted. Venables has the right kind of form here – witness Fight Music, from his chamber opera Les Bâtisseurs D’Empire, which he describes as ‘absurdist cartoon horror’. Sarah Kane territory, then. Yet even by her own standards 4.48 Psychosis, a portrait of clinical depression completed shortly before Kane herself committed suicide, is a dark piece. A difficult one to bring to the operatic stage, but Venables is unlikely to shy away from its subject. I’m excited about this one.

In addition to these two new works, there are also forthcoming London premieres for Donnacha Dennehy’s The Last Hotel, Mark Simpson’s Pleasure, and Iain Bell’s In Parenthesis. The ROH’s production of Gerald Barry’s The Importance of Being Earnest from 2013 will also go to New York and the Barbican

Against the day: A concert for Simon Howard

Last week I attended a concert for the poet Simon Howard, who died in December 2013. It was not really a memorial as such – no eulogies or anything like that. More, it was an opportunity to gather Simon’s friends and many admirers to listen to a cross section of the music he inspired and that had inspired him, and to place on the record the small but intense influence Simon and his poetry have had on a little segment of the Anglo-American new music scene over the last few years.

So there were two pieces by Richard Barrett, lost for piano (the title of whose version with electronics, adrift, Simon borrowed for one of his own chapbooks) and tendril for harp and electronics. Barrett is a composer Simon always felt close too; he also loved the music of the Baroque, and there were pieces here too by Bach and Biber, sensitively chosen by the concert’s organiser, John Fallas.

John, I suppose, is one of few people who can claim to have known Simon, who was a severe recluse, at all well (I’m not one of them). He did an exemplary job putting the programme together, not only in terms of the music and the composers it contained, but also the performers (Pavlos Antoniadis, Milana Zarić, Carla Rees, Emily Howard, Persephone Gibbs), and wrote a beautiful programme essay to boot. Everything fit, and was fitting. Simon’s poetry as musical text was represented by Philip Venables’ numbers 91–95, a setting of part of Howard’s long poem numbers (2010). Almost all the other composers on the programme had known Simon, like I had, through his presence on Radio 3 webforums and later Facebook. Philipp Blume and John Hails contributed new pieces – enlightenment for harp and recording, and Departures for four-channel sound, respectively – both connected to Simon’s poetry and poetic enthusiasms: enlightenment is the title of the last poem he posted to his blog. Evan Johnson, Andrew Noble and Alistair Zaldua were present in the form of pieces for piano (with electronics in the case of Zaldua’s contrejours). The concert began with Utopians, an electronic piece constructed by Barbara Woof and Michèl Koenders from voice recordings by Howard and Jane Harrison. It was remarkable to hear, in this way, on this occasion, Simon’s voice for the first time.

I’m not writing a review here, so I shan’t. But aside from its biographical meaning this concert was extraordinary for the quality of the music; I honestly don’t think there was a weak piece in the programme (and how often can you say that?). Several of them were very very good indeed. In showing Simon at the centre of a small but fiercely fruitful network of musicians this concert’s sadness was also its gift. And now that network has lost its heart.

Many of Simon Howard’s poems can be read at his blog, walking in the ceiling; his published works include Zooaxeimplode (Arthur Shilling Press), numbers (Knives Forks and Spoons), adrift and Forgotten (Red Ceilings Press), and Wrecked (Oystercatcher Press). [update: list corrected]

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.