Thursday, 8 July 2010

Angharad Davies/ Axel Dörner - A.D.

Label: Another Timbre
Release Date: July 2010
Tracklist: stück un; stück dau; stück tri
Personnel: Angharad Davies: violin; Axel Dörner: trumpet

Simon Reynell’s practice with Another Timbre seems to be to produce, if not ‘art objects’ (a term which, for me, mitigates against the essential fluidity which creative improvisation, as a practice, cannot but be intimately associated with), nonetheless carefully-prepared albums, more often than not with fairly short running times (A.D. is ‘only’ forty minutes long), that encourage one to take a measured approach: to savour them, digest them, play them through several times over, think about them, mull over them, consider them in-depth. I personally do find laudable the desire to ‘get stuff out there’, the ubiquity of new releases; the use of the technology of the Information Age to push the underground from out of its ‘underground’ cliques into the bright lights of the World Wide Web. Nonetheless, I acknowledge that there are dangers here – particularly the subsumption of easily-available and constantly-multiplying content into an information overload, a realm of the infinitely-exchangeable, where there is no time to pay attention to any one thing in particular (one must always be schizophrenic, listening to Iggy and The Stooges in one browser window while ‘the latest “eai” ’ drifts by in another); where being captivated by everything, trying to catch hold of the flashing lights, the neon fire-flies flicking past, means that one ends up being truly truly captivated by nothing, burning-out, going blind through over-exposure, going deaf through the endless babble of talk and music, the air-waves and wires and wireless streams of sound all round us. Thus, Reynell’s new releases offer a kind of welcome permanence, or semi-(permeable?) permanence; though improvisation is all about transience, what we have here are recordings – arguably, different beasts to being in the presence of (the same room as) a live, actual, in-the-moment improvisation. This is not something to deplore, though perhaps Derek Bailey might have it otherwise “so you don’t have to give it your complete, full, unadulterated attention? […] That’s one of the things that’s wrong. […] If you could only play a record once, imagine the intensity you’d have to bring into the listening.” (From an interview with Ben Watson, reproduced as ‘Appendix 3’ in Watson’s ‘Derek Bailey and the Story of Free Improvisation’ (Verso, 2004)). On the other hand, Bailey himself devoted much energy to running Incus records, so the notion of recording as death (or, perhaps, cryogenic freezing) does have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, to wish recording done away with is not only un-realistic, but, perhaps, actively harmful, given the role that recordings have had in shaping our musical consciousness (as educative tools, if you like, though not in a prescriptive way). Reynell is not simply presenting something ‘worthy of study’, like a painting or sculpture; A.D. contains no liner notes or information beyond the minimum track-listing, personnel and recording details, and so comes to the listener less burdened with pre-conceptions than a release already surrounded (smothered?) by textual discourse: liner essays, hagiographies, manifesti. Of course, given the means by which the free improvisation community receive and think about their music (online fora and review spaces), many listening to this record will be busy making comparisons with previous releases or evaluating reviews that they’ve already read.

That baggage will not go away – why should it? – and Reynell is obviously keen for the music to appear in some sort of contextual area. The last few releases on another timbre have come under ‘headings’ – ‘The Guitar Series’, ‘The Piano Series’ – and A.D. is part of a four-part selection entitled ‘Duos with Brass’. We are being specifically asked, then, to think about this music as part of the history of instrumental practice, rather than as something which is ‘just there’; one is reminded of the short (one sentence!) statement that accompanied Seymour Wright’s self-released ‘Seymour Wright of Derby’: “The music is improvised and about the saxophone - music, history and technique – actual and potential.” In the case of the ‘Duos with Brass’, the most pertinent lines of enquiry seem to concern the associations we make with regards to brass instruments (which have become very different listening propositions given the innovations of Dörner and the like), and the assumptions we make about how ‘duos’ operate.

As one might expect, on A.D., ‘duo’ doesn’t mean the obvious question-and-answer, statement-and-response, proposition and counter-proposition model. Rather, Davies and Dörner play together in a variety of different ways; always together because always in the same place (space), but patient enough to let one person say something ‘on their own’ before the other joins in, or before the other takes their own ‘solo’ (which is not really a solo as such, because it is unavoidably inscribed by what has gone before it –it is more like a palimpsest than a new line of writing). Dörner is not a ‘brass’ player as such here, though he makes much of breath, blowing burbling, subdued gusts of air; he’s as likely to let a sudden rasp of sound convince one, for a split second, that there is a percussionist in the room, or to make circular rubbing motions against the metal surface of his trumpet (as at the start of ‘stück dau’). When he plays a repeated note ‘straight’ (in response to Davies’ own deployment of that note immediately before, rendered as a more breathy wisp of sound), the effect is as surprising as if a ‘regular’ trumpet player had suddenly employed an ‘extended technique’. And it sounds as if he realizes this – there follows a silence (a moment of contemplation, of stepping back?) – before the return of the extended techniques. That doesn’t necessarily means he wants to reject what he’s just done: after all, such thoughtful players do not play something frivolously, do not ‘toss something off’. One might even construe it – that repeated conventional note – as particularly beautiful, though it might be a mistake to single out particular moments as idealised, sentimentalised ‘oases’. What is certain is that, in such an environment, the simplest of gestures can take on enormous historical weight: ten minutes into ‘stück tri’, two violin notes become a melody, against which Dorner’s blastings, growlings, mumblings, quiet roarings, become ‘counterpoint’.

I realize that some qualification may be in order regarding wording: I’ve written ‘Dörner is not a ‘brass’ player as such’, when perhaps what I meant was , ‘a conventional brass player’; for, as these new releases want us to realize, the term ‘brass’ in contemporary free improvisation can mean something quite different than it did in the past. Of course, Dörner is perfectly capable of playing ‘normal’ jazz trumpet – and does it very well – but he understands (and wants us to understand) the instrument as more than just that – as containing possibilities which are as much ‘brass’, because they are integral to the physical make-up of the instrument, as more conventionally ‘brassy’ sounds. So too Davies, in relation to the violin, deploying various objects in the strings and playing all parts of the instrument, in what might be called a state of permanent questioning (though it does, obviously, establish its own vocabulary). ‘What do I think of this object as? What is this thing I have been taught how to play? What more can I do with it than I have been taught? What are the implications of my making ‘unusual’ sounds with it? What does it mean for a technique to be 'extended'?’

Such thinking makes the instrument seem at once more natural and more alien than if it were treated conventionally: more natural because every aspect of its body, of its sound-making capacity, can be explored; more alien because it is suddenly full of new, previously unknown possibilities. In a slightly different way, the sounds produced on this record are as much ‘natural’ as they are ‘alien’: towards the end of ‘stück dau’, the two musicians create what sounds like a simultaneous impersonation of a gurgling baby and a particularly high-pitched, fluttery bird-song. And this means, despite the ‘limitation’ and ‘restraint’ which seem apparent throughout (the unspoken dictum against ‘emotive’ display, or the peacock-strut of conventional virtuosity), that there is an immense sense of possibility here: the creation of a sound-world which does not merely ‘reflect’ the non-human sounds already in existence in our environment (wind, trees, birds, animals), but which suggests them, alludes to them (whether as unconscious by-product or through deliberate intent); adds to them, expands on them, merges them with the mediations of wood and metal through the bodies of violin and trumpet, and the further mediations of these instruments through the body and breath, fingers and hands of the musicians playing them. One might reflect that it’s pretty hard to obtain entirely un-mediated access to ‘natural’ sounds, particularly if one lives in an urban environment; and one might even reflect that, given the necessary presence of a human ear to make those sounds exists within the spectrum of human thought and understanding, the concept of an entirely ‘natural’ sound (if ‘natural’ is understood as ‘non-human’) is a rather tricky one in the first place. So what the musicians are doing is akin to the way that we filter ‘natural’ sounds anyway; they are creating something which is at once ‘futuristic’ (‘far out,’ out-of-the-ordinary) and essential, even ‘primal’.

All that said, to construct a theoretical edifice about nature/culture (perhaps with reference to the increased use of field recordings within this kind of quiet, less obviously ‘interactive’ kind of free improvisation) might be possible, but is probably not desirable: Davies’ and Dörner’s meeting here doesn’t ‘pretend’ to anything (in a ‘pretentious’ sense), and might perhaps, be construed as particularly ‘un-fussy’, even as it is part of a (permanent) revolution in improvised music (whatever David Keenan might think about it). On A.D., the sounding (out) of the extra-ordinary is not ‘trumpeted’, blared-out with brassy abandon, but unfolded with quiet and focussed intensity. A neat parallel is provided by the track titles, which mix the German ‘stück’ with the Welsh ‘un, dau, tri’, in an acknowledgment of the musicians’ respective nationalities; in itself quite an audacious linguistic mash-up, this phrasal quirk comes across not as clever-clever inventiveness, but as a genuine, and welcome, surprise. So with the music: not workmanlike in the slightest, it retains the atmosphere of surprise – of magic – that great improvisation is still so uniquely capable of providing, even within the ‘confines’ of a by-now well-established and developed vocabulary.

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Pierre Boulez at the Aldeburgh Festival

Pierre Boulez/ Ensemble Intercontemporain
Saturday, 26th June 2010

*Evening Performance*

Varèse - Octandre
Ligeti - Chamber Concerto
Elliott Carter - What are Years? (world premiere)
Pierre Boulez - Dérive 2

Ensemble Intercontemporain, cond. Pierre Boulez
Claire Booth - soprano (Carter only)

*Late Concert*

Pierre Boulez - Dialogue de l’ombre double
Pierre Boulez - Anthèmes II

Jérôme Comte - clarinet
Jeanne-Marie Conquer - violin

“The most elegant way of solving the opera problem would be to blow up the opera houses.” "All art of the past must be destroyed." It is with controversial statements such as these that Pierre Boulez will forever be associated – for some. But, as should be obvious to anyone who shares a more than cursory acquaintance with the facts of the case, a portrayal of the man that is merely based on such snippets just will not do. For instance, let’s take the case of his more recent compositional output. In a 1993 interview with Andy Carvin, Boulez outlines the notion that his late compositions form a part of the same intricate ur-text – though this implies more a microscopic, densely-detailed focussing in and absorption with a particular set of materials, than a mystically grand, over-reaching ‘great project’. "My recent music is much like a family tree - one tree spawns many other trees, and so on. Dérive I is from Repons, mostly music I left out, so I derived it from the piece, hence the name. Dérive II is based off of studies I did for Repons. Dérive III is also like that. Repons itself was my response to Poesies pour pouvoir, which I had written over twenty years earlier. As long as material from another piece is not used fully, I like to expand on it until it is exhausted. This is why they are all works-in-progress."

In relation to this, one might recall words written thirty years earlier, in ‘Sonate, Que Me Veux-Tu?’: "Why compose works that have to be re-created every time they are performed? Because definitive, once-and-for-all developments seem no longer appropriate to musical thought as it is today, or to the actual state that we have reached in the evolution of musical technique, which is increasingly concerned with the investigation of a relative world, a permanent 'discovering' rather like the state of 'permanent revolution'." The late works might therefore be seen, at least in part, as a practical enactment of such theoretical concerns: there is no one big discovery, but a continual working off tiny fragments, both the ghosts of past form and texture, and the novelties of radical new material, created in the work of the Second Viennese School and Darmstadt.

Thus, despite the big, controversial statements, made in the 60s, which always seem to be brought up as a stick to beat Boulez with (irrespective, perhaps, of the actual merits of his music (and irrespective, also, of the precise content of those statements), what we have here is a complex and intensive investigation of *musical* possibilities, rather than a big, broad-brush, slap-dash, shock-value modernist act of terrorism.

Given this, it should surprise no-one that Boulez’s appearance at the 2010 Aldeburgh Festival appears far less controversial today than it might have done as recently as twenty years ago; now in his eighties, Boulez has managed to largely shed his reputation as enfant-terrible and agent-provocateur; he is probably even more renowned as a conductor than as a composer, and his works can now be taken on their own merits. Thus, the programme he performed, along with the Ensemble Intercontemporain, needed make no concessions to conventional tastes: this was a firmly modernist selection (though Varèse’s ‘Octandre’ (1923), which opened proceedings, is hardly a new piece), containing, alongside the aforementioned Varèse, Ligeti’s ‘Chamber Concerto’, an Elliott Carter premiere, and one of Boulez’s own more recent works (albeit one which, though it only reached completed form in 2006, was begun in 1988).

The Varèse and Ligeti pieces, with which the concert began, were slightly marred by an occasional sense of strain from individual players, the timing or pitch sometimes being fractionally off – especially during the fiendish, mechanically repetitive figures in the outer movements of the Ligeti. But Varèse’s utterly unique style – those simultaneous high, whistle-frequency piccolo shrieks and bottom-end trombone growls, the exquisitely constructed dissonant sharpness and timbral contrast, the ghost of fanfares, moulded through a haze –nonetheless came through very well, as did Ligeti’s almost foot-tapping, moto perpetuo, jazzy rhythms, sliding strings, and gently swaying, organ-centred drones. The Carter piece (can this man really be 102 years old?), a short cycle of Marianne Moore settings, was perhaps more conventionally structured than is normal for him – at least, in terms of texture; there was a fairly straightforward contrast between ensemble blocks and the soprano’s solo line, rather than a multiplying web of individual interactions and dramas within that ensemble, but there were some satisfying moments, such as the second movement, during which the chamber group was reduced to just cello and harp (playing some particular striking fast, high figures, right at the top range of the instrument), and a lovely final exchange in the last movement, in which a whole succession of motifs seemed to be triggered by a throw-away vibraphone phrase.

The real meat of the concert, though, came with the second half, during which just one work was performed: Boulez’s own Dérive II, one of his more recent pieces (it was completed only a few years ago), during which a constant stream of material is derived from harmonic material unfolded at the very start; this material is then expanded and expounded upon for the next hour or so. Though the sense of continuous, onward flow (there are very few moments to catch the breath), might seem to point to certain affinities with improvisation, the constant, back-and-forth references to previously-played material, the intricacy in which motifs evolve, seemingly disappearing into material which they have generated, only to return in their original form once again – this indicates a much tighter organisational logic than that allowed by improvisation. Nonetheless, perhaps the *listener* in some way has to work in an improvisational manner, to adapt to the speed with which ideas unfold, and to develop particular strategies for listening that take account both of the interaction between particular soloists and sub-groups in the ensemble, and the flow of the music as a whole, emerging from the ensemble as a whole.

Metaphorically speaking, the piece might be likened to interlacing tracery; vines, weeds wound round each-other; entwining patterns, the fantastic complexity of calligraphy. Boulez seems obsessed by relay figures, passed round from musician to musician, as well as by dividing the ensemble into mini-ensembles, united by their particular sonorities: droning, oboe-led woodwinds (reminiscent of ‘Rituel In Memoriam Bruno Maderna’), piano, vibraphone and percussion, with their metallic, chiming, gamelan-quality, and smoother, lusher strings (once more evoking memories of an earlier Boulez work – this time, the ‘Livre Pour Cordes’). In addition, the cello, sometimes lyrical, sometimes ferociously active, often seemed to be favoured as a solo instrument (though more in the sense that the material it played was independent, distinct from any particular group that was playing at the same time, than in any ‘soloistic’, concerto-like sense). There was much to savour here, both colouristically and harmonically: were it not for the near-information-overload of this virtually pause-less piece, one might be tempted to place it quite firmly within a tradition of sensuous, richly-textured French music that stretches from Debussy to Dutilleux, and even to the Spectralists. And Messiaen, Boulez’s teacher, and perhaps the ultimate exponent of this trend (so much so that he could veer towards the Hollwyood-esque; though this in no way counterbalanced his clanging, stridently percussive sensibility), seemed to crop up a few times, particularly in some melodic material for bassoon that appear about two-thirds of the way in.

One came away with the impression that ‘Dérive II’ basically says, ‘if you can’t be bothered to immediately give this music your full attention, you’ll become hopelessly lost’; in absolutely no way could this be construed as ‘background’ or ‘programme’ music, and the avoidance of melodrama, of the ‘grand gesture’ might be seen as a fundamentally anti-Romantic element. If there is any excess here, it comes through the rigorous attention to detail, through the fastidious working-through of material, rather than through conceptual over-reaching, through self-inflated, egotistical folly. And the audience on this occasion seemed to realize this, to be willing to lend their concentration to the piece; there was great applause as Boulez, who, appearing somewhat frail, supported himself by holding onto a harp, stepped down from the podium – an ovation that seemed more than merely token.

Nit-picking, one might perhaps question how much Boulez’s conducting actually influenced the performers in his own piece – so complex were the scores in front of them that they could only dart quick glances up to the front of the stage, making it unlikely that they were really responding to most of his signals. I suspect that much of the work in this regard was done in rehearsals – Boulez drilling the Ensemble, instilling in them a sense of the ebb and flow of his own piece, and remaining on stage as a reference point perhaps as much for the audience as for the players. And, to be sure, it added something to the sense of occasion to see the octogenarian up there conducting, his back to the audience, hands moving out to the side in quick, neat, precise motions that suggested he was totally in control of what was happening.

This was not the end of things, however; a portion of the audience, and Boulez himself, proceeded from the main concert hall over to the smaller, but perhaps even more attractive space of the Britten Studio: another high-ceilinged room, this time with more steeply-tiered seats (somewhat like the arrangement in a cinema), and no ‘stage’ as such – simply a large floor-space in the front of the room (which seemed even larger for this particular performance, as the works to be played were for solo instrumentalist). ‘Dialogue de l’ombre double’ made the most of the space’s theatrical possibilities; as the lights dimmed, the solo clarinettist (Jérôme Comte) almost sidled in through the side-door, and, during the piece, he made his way round six music-stands, where, as well as playing the score, he triggered electronic material via foot-pedals (this material consisting mostly of untreated fragments of the solo lines which he was playing live – reminiscences and premonitions of what had come before and what was to come), to create the ‘double shadow’ of the title. This is one of Boulez’ most immediately accessible pieces, with plenty of returning melodic material and much use of ascending and descending trills, and Comte gave a seamless and expert performance. Hearing the ‘dialogue’ on CD is one thing, but there was something very special about hearing in performance the contrast between the live, acoustic material, and the electronic playback, as well as the way that they merge, overlap, engage each-other in a kind of slow, teasing dance.

If one was basing one’s judgements simply on conceptual grounds, ‘Anthèmes’ (a piece which Boulez has subsequently re-worked for a large ensemble), might have conjured up associations with the solo violin repertoire. However, in actual fact, it lacks not only the virtuosic extravagance of Paganini, the composer most associated with such work, but the sense of starkness and unadorned emotionalism of, let’s say, Ysaye; instead, it’s often rather pretty (though by no means inanely so), the same melodic material returning again and again to create a sense of contemplative near-stasis that is, nonetheless, belied by the flowing quality of the music. Lacking the dialogic complexities of shadowing and echo present in ‘Dialogue de l’ombre’, the solo voice here seems to be *enhanced* rather than fundamentally questioned, or engaged in conversation, by the electronics: one particular figure is made to sound as if it’s being played by cross between a string section and a not-quite human choir, via the afterglow of delay effects, and the eerie breath-sound of the bow slowly sliding up the string becomes almost unnerving; while the most noticeable rhythmic effect occurs during the passages of scampering pizzicato, their entries and echoes staggered by electronic delay. In itself, though, ‘Anthèmes’ was almost as theatrical as ‘Dialogue de l’ombre’: there was something inherently dramatic about the spectacle of one person in the spotlight, triggering powerful echoes all round the auditorium, simultaneously *in* control (so acquainted with the piece that it could be played from memory) and *unable to* control the electronic shadings and imitations.

In sum, this single evening of works and performances by Boulez was as much of a success as could have been hoped, and might be construed as something of a triumph. It’s certainly a reminder of the sometimes overlooked beauties and complexities of his own compositions, as well as of his status as a titan of the modern music scene. And while one might question the way that the classical world appoints its superstars and sticks with them to the point of adulation (towards the end, Stockhausen seemed to be able to put into practice any crazy idea/whim he wanted to), one could hardly begrudge Boulez his considerable achievements over the years. This was a great coup for the Aldeburgh Festival, and a great experience for those fortunate enough to have witnessed it.