Richard Haynes/Paul Hübner/Steve Menotti

Get ye to St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield tonight to see/hear Richard Haynes (clarinets), Paul Hübner (trumpets) and Steve Menotti (trombones) play the shit out of some really bad-ass music. The composers and performers on this programme comprise some of my favourite musicians and human beings in the world. I wish I could be there. ‘Nuff said.

Clarinets: Richard Haynes
Trumpets: Paul Hübner
Trombones: Stephen Menotti

Programme:

Michael Baldwin: what ¯lurks beneath¯ (WP) for clarinet, trumpet & trombone

Timothy McCormack: Here is a sequence of signs, each having a sound and a meaning for trombone solo

Eduardo Moguillansky: limites
for one trumpet player

Hang Su: Julischnee (WP)
for trumpet, bass clarinet & trombone

*** intermission ***

Chikako Morishita: Lizard (shadow & light) (WP) for clarinet, trumpet & trombone

Evan Johnson: Apostrophe II (pressing down on my sternum) for quarter-tone flugelhorn & alto trombone

Jeroen Speak: Epeisodos
for bass clarinet

Timothy McCormack: Disfix
for bass clarinet, piccolo trumpet & trombone

New ELISION videos from King’s Place

Stand by for a post on the obsessive, geeky love affair I’ve been having with ELISION’s new disc of the music of Brian Ferneyhough, entitled Terrain.

In the meantime, ELISION has published a series of videos to Youtube of performances from King’s Place in February:

Liza Lim, Invisibility

Just breathtaking.

Richard Barrett, Aurora

I was a bit hard on this piece when I originally posted on the concert. Perhaps I still don’t like it so much as I like much of Barrett’s other work, but I think it’s definitely a piece that rewards repeated listening. Also, rewatching this, I can’t see/hear the sense of ‘unsettledness’ in performance that I alluded to. These guys eat this piece for breakfast. (Obviously, this has far-reaching implications in terms of the validity of any of the opinionated waffle I post here…).

Timothy McCormack, Disfix

What can I say, I love this piece.


Invisibility

On 8th of February at King’s Place, London, the ELISION ensemble gave their first concert of 2010. Tim Rutherford-Johnson’s review of this can be found in Musical Pointers.

I wrote last year about Evan Johnson’s Apostrophe 2 (pressing down on my sternum) when it was premiered in Melbourne. At that time, I found it highly thought-provoking, but my mental jury was out. The performers were seated so far from the audience as to be almost inaudible in a boomy acoustic that eradicated detail and was unflattering to the larger shapes. Since then, I’d heard both the ABC radio broadcast (electrifying) and the studio recording made at Radio Bremen in September (about fifty times more so). But while these documents represent a fascinating aural experience, there is a live-performance aspect missing that is, I feel, fairly integral to the piece. When such recorded detail is so conveniently presented on a nice silver disc, the sense of cognitive struggle in performance that Johnson’s work embraces is simply absent.

So it was with great delight that I witnessed the extraordinary alchemy of Tristram Williams and Benjamin Marks, in the idiosyncratic acoustic of King’s Place, reveal this work as a masterpiece. Firstly, this performance was a great deal more polished than the Melbourne one. Gone were the deafeningly loud page turns, and gone was the frantic struggle of just trying to get through it. This was replaced with a tight focus, an utterly thrilling sense of danger and, of course, about a truckload of physical effort.

The acoustic of King’s Place does wonderful things to quiet dynamics. The finer degree of detailing in dynamic shapes are retained with great fidelity. The listening experience of Apostrophe 2 this time was one in which the islands of barely audible, barely stable sonorities violating the peripheries of perception was maintained, but with an endlessly fascinating, multifaceted sonic outcome. It’s a shame that the physical demands of such a work mean that it will never be more than niche repertoire, as this is music-making of the first order.

Liza Lim’s Invisibility for solo cello (here lovingly communicated by Séverine Ballon) also benefitted a great deal from the acoustic. The myriad different flavours of sonic fracture accessed through the use of the guiro bow took on an almost larger-than-life character. The semantic import of melodic and textural shapes seemed almost devastatingly potent. I first heard this piece at HCMF in St Paul’s Hall. My recollection is that the performance in Huddersfield seemed more precise, but this performance provided an astonishingly profound inner journey. And I certainly wasn’t the only audience member to think so.

The other really notable piece on this programme was Timothy McCormack’s Disfix. This is an important work by a very important (although still emerging) composer. Again, I heard this work for the first time at HCMF, where the sheer violence and force of this work were nearly overwhelming. Unfortunately this was a case wherein the acoustic of King’s Place was deeply unflattering, with the energy seeming somehow insulated from the sonic force.

Here is a video, available on YouTube, of the HCMF performance of Disfix. Turn your speakers right up.

The ink-still-wet-on-the-page Aurora, by long-time ELISION collaborator Richard Barrett was a bit of a disappointment. While there were some very striking moments, the piece as a whole just seemed to not quite work. However, as TR-J’s review rather diplomatically puts it, this could be for any number of reasons. Sharing an instrumentation with the Johnson, the work was clearly less played-in, and this may also have contributed. I’d really like to hear a second performance of this piece, though. Perhaps more time with this piece will reveal things that were missed the first time around.

The concert also featured the premiere of Roger Redgate’s Tehom, Klaus K. Hübler’s 1983 trombone solo CERCAR, a beautiful performance of James Dillon’s Crossing over by Richard Haynes, and the premiere of the eleventh installment in Richard Barrett’s ongoing Codex series of pieces.

In the coming weeks, I will put up some more in-depth looks at the work of both Evan Johnson and Timothy McCormack, as well as, hopefully (and at the risk of this space becoming little more than a paean to ELISION) some material related to ELISION’s March concert in King’s Place.

Book review: Sounding postmodernism

David Bennett’s Sounding postmodernism (published by the Australian Music Centre) is an attempt to look at Australian composition through the lens of a modern/postmodern dichotomy. Despite the understanding of these particular terms being highly contestable in a musical context (both are very highly politicised, and the claiming of these terms by particular aesthetic/ideological camps renders them almost useless in terms of their actual meaning), this should have been a really interesting contribution to the Australian discussion.

Unfortunately, every time I picked this book up to read it, I started to get really pissed off.

Bennett’s book, rather than surveying a landscape, seems to be an articulate but thinly veiled attempt to propagate the myth that ‘modernism’ is evil and crushes your freedom of expression, while ‘postmodernism’ is free and you can do what you want. I respectfully disagree with this viewpoint (or, rather, I think that talking about a ‘modernist hegemony’ is meaningless, given the extreme variety of different approaches that the book categorises as ‘modernist’ – indeed, it seems to me that the modernists are simply the ones who the ‘postmodernists’ felt were repressing them), that shouldn’t have been a barrier to an interesting publication. As it is, though, Bennett aims to provide a context, rather than an analysis, and to this end quote frequently and selectively from musicians like John Adams and Phillip Glass, without offering much in the way of the countering view. This gives the reader very little option but to accept what Bennett writes wholesale.

I’m too young to remember the ‘modernist hegemony’, and as such am not prepared to challenge the veracity of Bennett’s claims, but he’s done a terribly shabby job of actually proving his point, lending the book a propagandist air, rather than one of scholarly dissection. I’m sure that this is because that is the way that many of Bennett’s interviewees perceived the aesthetico-political status quo at the time they became practitioners, and that’s all well and good, but Bennett’s rhetorical mode gives the sheen of academia to what is essentially a collection of unverified opinion and hearsay.

Furthermore, Bennett seems to take the view (or want his interviewees to take the view) that there is still an institutionalised modernist hegemony, actively repressing freedom of expression.

This is the particular thread of the book that really pissed me off, as it’s laughably inaccurate. One need only point, on one hand, to the chairmanship of Graeme Koehne (and now Matthew Hindson) of the Music Board of the Australia Council, Carl Vine’s directorship of Musica Viva (which has seen a parade of featured composers including Matthew Hindson, Graeme Koehne, Carl Vine, Richard Mills, Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe), and the concentration of major performing and recording opportunities such as the ABC Classics CD series of Australian Orchestral works performed by the TSO with Richard Mills (which has included composers such as Graeme Koehne, Richard Mills, Anne Boyd, Ross Edwards and Brenton Broadstock).

Contrast this with the de-funding of the ELISION ensemble, the exodus of many of the country’s finest contemporary performers and composers (Richard Haynes, Liza Lim, Peter Veale, Carl Rosman, Mark Knoop, the list goes on and on), the rapid growth in Melbourne of a DIY underground contemporary music scene, the continual lack of funding for experimental music (which routinely attracts bigger audiences than many ‘important’ Australian composers) and the sheer impossibility of receiving new-work funding for anything outside the ‘postmodernist hegemony’, and I think the actual picture becomes relatively clear.
For many composers I know, building a career in this country has been a constant struggle absolutely every step of the way against a politically-powerful compositional ‘ruling class’ which is actively antagonistic to anything that might have a dissonance in it (much of this ‘class’ receives a shout-out in the paragraph above, although there are some genuine and remarkable individuals there, too, who I hope won’t be too offended by the proximity).

While obviously well-grounded in twentieth-century critical theory, Bennett doesn’t seem to really know anything about the music he discusses. Any of it. In his discussions of Boulez, for instance, he seems happy to let other people speak for him. I wasn’t left with the impression that he’d heard even a single note of Boulez, and the quoting-from-others approach in this context doesn’t even have the advantage of scholarly rigour, given that no dissenting view is provided, and the quotes are not interrogated.

The interviews that account for a significant portion of the book are rather problematic, too. A series of questions was posed to a wide selection of composers of varying artistic practice across Australia about their relationship with the term ‘postmodernism’ and their attitudes to compositional work. My understanding is that much of this work was undertaken by Dr Linda Kouvaras, to whom props are due, as these are a very interesting series of questions. Transcripts are available on Resonate magazine of the interviews with David Chisholm and David Chesworth.

Unfortunately, many of the interview subjects seem not to really have any idea what ‘postmodernism’ is, or that they’ve even thought about any problems that might relate to mode of musical expression, as related to the nature of the tradition or of audience reception. Frankly, many of these interviews are just embarrassing, and the fact that in most cases the subjects are not aware of the collossal gap between the question being asked and their capacity to respond is even more sad.

With a few notable exceptions, those that write most eloquently on their relationship with postmodernism are those that identify themselves as being more broadly sympathetic to the modernist project, a result that runs the risk of giving the impression that anybody who has actually thought about the issues here doesn’t buy into the postmodern politics.

I’m being, perhaps, overly harsh here, but I can’t help but feel terribly betrayed. This book should have been a great opportunity to further intelligent, articulate discourse on contemporary music in Australia. But, sadly it’s just another propaganda leaflet, aimed at furthering an aesthetic programme of questionable value and taste.

[P.S. Although the praise from the back cover of the book (from Peter Tregear and Susan McClary) is readable on the book’s Amazon page, I can’t find any other reviews of this on the interwebz (yet). If anybody knows of one, or wishes to offer a dissenting view, I’d be very pleased if you could get in touch so that I can either link to or include other views here in the interests of balance.]

[EDIT 18 Jan 2010] I highly, highly recommend that people interested in further reviews of this book make the effort to access Michael Hooper’s excellent review in Cambridge University Press’s TEMPO journal. Unfortunately, this is not available through online databases, but for those not averse to libraries, the bibliographic details for this can be found here, or in Dr Paul Watt’s comment, below. MH draws some rather different conclusions from my own, although I pretty much agree with him point-for-point on the details. He also discusses in more than cursory detail all of the elements of the books that I didn’t.

Sternum = well-pressed

Last week, the incomparable ELISION ensemble performed in Melbourne’s Iwaki Auditorium.

Richard Haynes has put together a pretty comprehensive précis of what went down on his blog, and I shan’t say too much more about the repertoire itself. A somewhat unsympathetic review can be found on Resonate, too.

[EDIT 11-oct-09: a much more sympathetic review has just appeared on RealTime Arts although, sadly, it doesn’t say anything about the Johnson work.]

Evan Johnson‘s Apostrophe 2: Pressing down on my sternum, for quartertone flugelhorn and alto trombone, though, provoked a few thoughts. The work itself was an extraordinary exercise in suppression. Heavily muted, facing the back wall, as far away from the audience as possible, Tristram Williams and Ben Marks let fly with a blistering performance of some of the quietest music you will ever hear, comprised of instrumental sonorities, vocalisations (the trumpet’s vocal part – terrifyingly – starts on ‘Queen-of-the-night F’) and throat manipulations. Johnson will be familiar to Melbourne audiences from the premiere of his Apostrophe 1: All communication is a form of complaint for two bass clarinets last year, or Hyphen for solo crotales from a performance by Speak Percussion in May.

My first instinct was that the stifling of the performer was so successful that you couldn’t even tell that they were being stifled, and that this might have been mitigated by either losing the mutes or performing facing the audience. But really this depends on where Johnson locates the game – the piece definitely succeeds in creating an atmosphere where the audience itself struggles to relate to the performance (itself a struggle), and it’s perhaps all the more fascinating for that.

From the discussions I’ve had with other audience members (both after the concert and in the intervening weeks), it seems that this work polarised opinion somewhat. Interestingly, the people that seemed to react very well to it tended to be those that are more heavily involved in Melbourne’s experimental music scene, rather than those whose activities are restricted to more conventional new-music concertising. I don’t think this necessarily has any bearing whatsoever on the actual quality of the work, but it certainly does have implications in terms of the development of a context for this music.

This is music which, for better or worse, requires a great deal more from both performer and audience than most, and it’s telling that those audience members that got into it were those with long-standing habits of attempting to engage with foreign musical materials, rather than sitting placidly, passively back and waiting to be ‘wowed’. The strength of Johnson’s music is precisely this – it forces its audience to have a complex reaction (whether positive or negative), rather than simply trying to impress its audience with superficial charms.

But I wonder (and I’m far from the first) if the standard concert format is conducive to this sort of musical engagement? Certainly, I’ve been to concerts where the space and acoustic have permitted an intimate connection with the performance, but most concerts seem to resemble a presentation by a performer to an audience, rather than an interaction between audience and performer.

It’s only natural that, as the repertoire evolves, the concert format needs to evolve in sympathy. This is not necessarily something that needs to be forced, and probably can’t be predetermined. But it’s incredibly exciting to be there, in the front row, as performance practices for the blisteringly new are explored.