Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.

Reviews resurrected: EXAUDI at the Warehouse, October 2009

Resurrected because it features my first encounter with a couple of pieces on EXAUDI’s forthcoming disc for HCR – Stephen Chase’s Jandl Songs, and Claudia Molitor’s lorem ipsum. Not sure why I didn’t mention the pieces by either Gwyn Pritchard or Linda Catlin Smith at the time, and now of course I can’t remember anything about them.

Originally published on Musical Pointers.

Don’t forget the launch concert and party for EXAUDI’s CD, this Saturday, 4th May, at the Only Connect Theatre, Kings Cross.

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EXAUDI, dir. James Weeks

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmer
James Weeks: from Mala Punica
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour
Claudia Molitor: lorem ipsum

The Warehouse, London, 29 October 2009

Several of the pieces in this miscellany of special commissions and ‘must do’ rarities came across as surprisingly honest to certain choral traditions. No doubt that perception is a product of my upbringing, but that tradition and the resulting pieces sound interestingly and pleasingly English to me, right down to the strings of finger pops in Molitor’s lorem ipsum, which recalled peals of change-ringing bells. But then EXAUDI and most of the composers they performed are products of similar upbringings to mine, so perhaps it’s silly to fret over context vs content and acknowledge things for how they appeared.

The obvious exception was Agrimbau, and it’s not entirely unrelated that I found his the least satisfying piece of the evening. Instead of establishing for itself a position in critical relation to tradition it preferred to dwell overlong on a series of new music tricks and treats. The dense accompanying notes didn’t help much – the music itself didn’t seem correspondingly dense. On the contrary. Perhaps the philosophical underpinnings would reveal themselves on subsequent hearings. Another puzzle was the relationship between score (described as highly graphic, and featuring emoticons) and the sounding result (which was precisely ordered and didn’t betray any aleatoric origins). Maybe EXAUDI had undertaken a substantial act of David Tudorism in translating the graphics to conventional notation, but then, one has to ask, why the graphics in the first place? All in all, a baffling piece.

The rest were much lighter in tone. The middle movement of Hoh’s mantra:imagine was a Zen-like setting of ‘Pepsi Cola’, but it was the first movement that especially struck me, a series of dense harmonic textures, interrupted by chunks of silence, rather like Ligeti cut into large panels and pegged out on a line.

Ligeti was also recalled inthe group’s director James Weeks’s three pieces from his Mala punica. Each was constructed around canonic procedures that derived great complexity from simple materials. The result was simultaneously airier than Ligeti, but more robust and unsettling. There was a sort of dark madrigalian quality to the individual part writing too, which suggested a greater interest in the Latin texts than Ligeti ever showed in his Requiem or Lux aeterna.

The two stand-out pieces for me were those by Chase and Priestley. Chase’s six Jandl Songs belong to an in-progress series of settings of the avant-garde Austrian poet. The texts themselves are curious, experimental verses, the flavour of which Chase captured perfectly in his clean, but deceptively clever settings. It was impossible to pin down why they worked so well – an explanation sat just out of view – but work they did, extremely well.

Priestley’s Unloose to the Murmer, a sort of deconstruction of Monteverdi’s Orfeo by way of Cageian Musicircus ritual, may have had loftier ambitions – and it didn’t quite reach them as satisfyingly as Chase’s songs – but it was nevertheless a successful and revealing piece. The Orfeo extracts were chopped and tossed together to form a series of choral refrains, which each degraded in turn into aleatoric passages governed by giant sheets of manuscript covered with transparencies, on which were graphic notations for more indeterminate interpretation. The performers were distributed about the space, with a sheet each. After each refrain they removed a transparency each and the cycle began again until all the transparencies were gone, leaving a slow, underlying cantus firmus. The graphic transparencies seemed to suggest movement as well as sound, so the indeterminate sections became miniature theatre pieces. It is more complicated to describe than it was to experience: the effect was actually quite direct, yet with an element of mystery, exactly like Cage. I thought Monteverdi was a good choice for such a treatment: his sectional constructions, melodic simplicity and harmonic and rhythmic robustness mean that he can be bashed around quite a lot without losing his fundamental identity. These are qualities shared, incidentally, by many British composers you might hear at the Warehouse, for whom questions of material and its malleability are central to their aesthetic – Molitor and Weeks, in different ways, might be two more. Priestley, on this evidence, sounds like she shares this interest, and I suspect she will go far with it.

With EXAUDI, exposed

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I’m chuffed to be hosting a couple of composer conversations at EXAUDI‘s next concert, on 4 May at the Only Connect Theatre, Cubitt Street, King’s Cross. Before the music starts I’ll be on stage talking with Matthew Shlomowitz and EXAUDI’s director James Weeks, and about midway through I’ll be hosting a roundtable discussion with Shlomowitz, Weeks, Aaron Cassidy, Stephen Chase and Claudia Molitor. A shedload of talent, moderated by a fool.

I’m not the reason you should go. You actually want to see EXAUDI themselves, who will be singing pieces by Shlomowitz, Weeks, Cassidy, Chase and Evan Johnson. They’ll also be launching their new CD, Exposure – the sixth release from Huddersfield Contemporary Recordings. I’ve been listening to it lots over the weekend, and it’s pretty special. It features pieces by Cassidy, Weeks, Chase, Molitor, Bryn Harrison, Richard Glover and Joanna Bailie. A really diverse mix, but somehow, and thanks to EXAUDI’s alchemical powers, a coherent one. Really beautiful too.

The concert should be great as well; get down to King’s Cross if you can.

EXAUDI at the Warehouse, this Thursday

EXAUDI makes a rare appearance in London this week with an eight-voice programme of the newest contemporary music – much of it to be premiered at this performance. EXAUDI are a staggeringly good choir and not to be missed: if you need some persuasion, here’s what I said about their performance last year at the Spitalfields Festival.

The concert is part of Sound and Music’s The Cutting Edge series and takes place at the Warehouse, next Thursday, at 7.30pm.

Chung Shih Hoh: mantra:imagine (2007, UK premiere)
Stephen Chase: from Jandl Songs (2007-)
Gwyn Pritchard: Luchnos (2007, UK premiere)
Ignacio Agrimbau: The Humanist (2009, world premiere)
Amber Priestley: Unloose to the Murmur (2009)
James Weeks: from Mala Punica (2008-9)
Linda Catlin Smith: Her Harbour (2004, UK premiere)
Claudia Molitor: Lorem ipsum (2007)

Concert details

7.30pm, Thursday 29 October 2009 The Warehouse, Theed Street, London SE1 8ST Tickets: £10 on the door or £7 online by following the ‘Book tickets’ link here: http://www.soundandmusic.org/activities/events/exaudi-exposure-09.