Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Aisha Orazbayeva: The Traces of Sound

Works by Lachenmann // Feldman // Boulez // Nono
King's Place, London, Monday 23rd April 2012 

Aisha Orazbayeva's recital of works for solo violin played to a smallish room, an attentive audience who knew what they were in for, and there was narry a cough or an ill-judged (boogie-stop) shuffle to be heard – apart, that is, from a strategically placed throat-clearing whopper (or so it felt) at the very end, seemingly demanding that applause break the heavy hush that had settled at the end of Luigi Nono's 'La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura'. Likely, half the audience didn't know the piece had finished, or only half-suspected as such, given that their eyes were shut in contemplative concentration (the heavier breathing that accompanies such poses a curious sonic side-effect which, in its own way, took on the irritant status usually occupied by the cough). My eyes were shut too, for most of the piece – though the theatrical dimension, in which the soloist moves between six music stands, each laden with a large sheet of folded manuscript paper inscribed with hand-written notation, notes and indicators sometimes scribbled and highlighted in apparent incompletion, demanded at least a little over-the-shoulder peak, now and then (heads craning and turning almost in the manner of school-children taking a look at the fascinating events occurring outside the window, when they know they should be facing the front of the class (in this case, the lit stage, with its central music stand and row of eight speakers, all turned to face the wall)). That slightly awkward dynamic is perhaps not what Nono had in mind – his description of the piece as “a madrigal for many travellers” – the generation of a group identity through multi-tracked singularity – suggests a kind of communality that, in practice, is perhaps not usually found in the concert hall; though it is also, of course, about ghost dialogue and schizophrenic uncertainty and all the rest of that uncomfortable stuff (something dealt with more explicitly in Boulez’s ‘Dialogue de l’ombre Double’), and, given this, that awkwardness might to some extent be intentionally built into the piece. Well, OK, but ‘intention’ is not really a word I like to use; I feel myself falling back into the terminology of the controlling composer almost as soon as I write about a more traditionally-composed work, it seems, and I would want to resist that urge. So, intention is less important than the actual experience of the work in performance, and it seems to me that ‘La Lontananza’s theatricality is somewhat limited, perhaps claiming more for itself, in terms of spatial experimentation, than it actually delivers: despite the distributed speakers and music stands, despite the play between live and recorded sound (partially controlled by whoever is at the mixing desk on the night, as active performer in themselves), we are still in a controlled situation, being delivered a composition – as opposed to, say, the more fluid shared dynamic of post-Cageian silences, or the rebarbatively chummy, dialogic intimacy of gnarly pub-improv. Not that listening to fluid jazz improvisation is necessarily different (though the sense of communal participation, shouted encouragement, etc, before it turned into the stale cliché of applause at the end of every solo, or on the occasion of every segue into banal riff-playing or tune-quoting, has perhaps been lost in the enshrinement of jazz as museum piece cultural exhibit, Lincoln Centre et al) – I think the problem, though, is that Nono’s piece gestures towards a kind of potentially participatory theatricality (participatory in the sense that it least causes the audience some discomforted engagement, even if it doesn’t ask them to volunteer or make their own sounds or anything that crude), without really ever doing more than making that slight gesture, a suggestion that doesn’t gestate or develop a into fully-blown realization. Then again, the whole thing seems to me almost a work in progress, despite its length (probably near on an hour, though I didn’t check the timings precisely). I don’t mean this in a derogatory way – it is, in fact, what opens it up beyond the pitfalls I’ve been outlining, what constitutes its fascination through failure, or through the risk of failure. Nono prepared the written part hastily, in time for the work's premiere (it had been commissioned by Gidon Kremer), withdrawing it to work and re-work on it after, and perhaps, as Tim Rutherford-Johnson suggests leaving it still essentially incomplete on his death a year later. Through its rather higgledy-piggledly pre-recorded tape element, it becomes a work that draws attention to the material circumstances of its construction, to the labour involved in its production (here, no doubt, Nono's Marxism coming into play) – no effortless technical ease, no glossy product removed from the roots of its making, but a fragile and sometimes rambling working through of the ghosts of technique, the particular stylings of a musician's playing personality (I can't help hearing the sawed raw lunges that spring up at various points as very Kremer-esque), a move from a nervous if-not-busyness, then un-quiet, restless flitting, to the work's still heart, a mesmerising quietude in which the tape part almost disappears, or so meshes into the live playing as to become absorbed into it, the motion of bow on strong as reminiscent of breath, whisper hush only brushed, feather-dusted or delicately tinged with pitch, timbre taking centre stage in a way that I can't now help but hear through the prism of the improvised music that followed - viz. Angharad Davies, maybe even certain elements of Wandelweiser – the sound of an instrument moving away from its history into a blended otherness of extended technique and extremes of quietude and register. But, unlike that kind of 'reductionism' (the label itself reductive), Nono is very much concerned with paying explicit homage to the instrument's history (of course, I'm not saying that the improvisers aren't aware of this - see, for instance Seymour Wright's comments on his practice as an engagement with the entire history of the saxophone, his dedications to such figures as Jimmy Lyons, Pepper Adams, Steve Lacy, etc - all of whom sound, on the surface, a million miles away from his deconstructed instrument - just that, in 'classical music' as opposed to 'free improvisation', the goal of making audible historical reference as theoretical and practical engagement may be higher on the list of priorities). OK, this is, after all, a piece whose title combines the notion of idealized nostalgic past with that of a utopic future, so history, of whatever kind, has to be in there – even if that history comes through more as a slightly jumble of manipulated studio documentation (the occasional sound of an Italian-accented voice, presumably the composer's own; various incidentals bangs and crashes, probably relating to opening and closing doors, etc; what sounds like the violinist going through various techniques in a way they might in order to demonstrate to the composer the resources the instrumental composer might deploy in their piece) than as, say, the extended bricolage of quotation, re-framing, re-working that we find in certain works of Berio and of Lachenmann. I do wonder about how structurally successful the work, ultimately, is – hearing that middle section, and making the connection, explicitly in my mind, at that point, to A. Davies, I wondered if I would prefer not to have heard a live improvisation in which that material would have been developed for perhaps twice the length of time: there were moments when it felt as if so much stuff had been gathered that it was thrown together somewhat willy-nilly (OK, I realize this is exactly the criticism most non-initiates make of improv); and while this had the effect, of say, jolting one out of reverie or trance through a sudden burst of taped noise or one of those afore-mentioned Kramer-esque bursts, it also seemed to come and go without the structural precision or concentration that one might find in the work of, say, Feldman (where detail, in itself scrupulously notated and worked out, is experienced by the listener as part of overall shape, slow change, slow, as barely-noticed pulse slip (as opposed to the more obvious syncing in and out of Steve Reich's phase patterns), not necessarily 'going somewhere' (the progress narrative of climax, development, recapitulation, etc), but working with and through material in an organically organized tightness). This was, it must be admitted, my first experience of the piece, and I'm no Nono expert; I would say, though, that 'Non Consumiamo Marx', an electronic piece using recordings of chants and slogans from May 68, along with woozy electronics, suffers the same meandering quality, tho' as fever-dream reminiscence I suppose it works well – I'm just not sure it was really intended to have that quality, more to be a report from the barricades, political noise music, the avant-garde at the front of the street battle. Orazbayeva's careful and rather whimsical pacing between the music-stand stations, as if a parody of tip-toe walking, did heighten, though, the element of fragility which what I've called, perhaps unfairly, the piece’s directionlessness does engender: her walking well-suited the work’s own processual movement, its structural disappearances into itself, only to emerge with sudden asserted re-appearances, perhaps over-asserted in a desperate attempt to make a grand flourish, a definitive statement which is, however, never completed, fading back into indefinite temporality, into indefinition, incompletion, perhaps experienced as failure (the fall of Communism, prefigured a few months before its occasion by the work), perhaps as the necessary flux of the world and of its history as non-schematized potentiality.

Enough, now, of this garbled verbiage garbage! Those, anyway, are the thoughts the Nono prompted – and I’d like to look further into it, time permitting – but there was a first half, albeit a brief one, so I’ll just briefly sketch that out before I call it a night. We were promised another work for violin and electronics, this time a premiere, by the composer Martin Matalon, but that had disappeared from the programme on the night, to be replaced by a couple of quickies from Lachenmann and Feldman, along with the advertised ‘Anthèmes I’, a Boulez soupcon). The Lachenmann ‘Toccatina’, in its complete avoidance of the rhetorical flourishes of the violin repertoire that even Nono fairly frequency referenced, felt nicely-focussed and serious in its intent – though, as with other Lachenmann pieces, I felt its workings-through of non-standard techniques to be still a little, I don’t know, schematic and repetitive, still too tied to certain tenets of classical form. This is, in fact, the criticism Radu Malfatti makes of HL in his Paris Translantic Interview, which I re-read a couple of day’s ago, so perhaps I’m being unduly influenced; what I will say is that the upwards and downwards movement of the initial string-striking (with base of bow) may have over-stretched its welcome, but the final minute or so, in which the violinist bows a different part of the instrument’s body in turn, sounded wonderful. (There’s a piece by James Saunders which takes that sound of bowed wood as its only source, and I didn’t find that too inspiring at the time, but I may be tempted to listen to that again after hearing Lachnemann’s more limited use of the same technique.) Orazbayeva, a refreshingly un-showy, focussed stage presence, moved straight onto the Feldman without a break for applause (perhaps some people thought this was part of the same piece, though I doubt anyone who possesses the slightest acquaintance with either composer’s work would make that mistake): ‘For Aaron Copland’, a five-minute piece from 1981, is like a sparser version of that closing viola melody at the close of ‘Rothko Chapel’. In its unaffected sobriety – a kind of reticent mourning – it becomes quite devastating, as I listen to it on my headphones through the medium of youtube at one o’clock in the morning, the rain outside having finally stopped. In concert, I remember being disturbed by the heavy breathing of an audience neighbour, that fuss making the five minutes seem shorter than it was (something of the, ‘O, is that it already?’ vibe stirring up, which I felt a little bad about; knowing that my (dis-)appreciation of the piece was not a result of performance or composition but of a silly momentary irritation). The Boulez ‘Anthèmes’, on the other hand, seems to me a less interesting piece in itself. Looking back on my write-up of the Boulez performances at the 2010 Aldeburgh Festival, I recollect experiencing ‘Anthèmes II,’ the extended version for violin and electronics, as somewhat glib – nice surface, but nothing particularly challenging or of lasting structural interest – and in solo iteration, there’s even less to hang on to, so that the thing felt more like a catalogue of particular techniques than anything else – not as virtuoso showcase, more as little experiments Boulez had been making and decided to turn into a fully-fledged composition. The programme note described it as ‘cold’; perhaps that’s right, though my main problem was that it felt too conventional in its violin vocabulary, in a way that the Lachenmann, with its non-standard techniques, and the Feldman, with its unadorned melodic simplicity, did not, and which the Nono for the most part did not either. Good stuff, altogether, though; and nice to hear this music on programmes and in venues that better suit it than pre- or post-chestnut Proms sandwiches…

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