Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Pisaro / Nishikaze in Hackney: A Subjective Report

Programme: Michael Pisaro – Ricefall / July Mountain; Nishikaze – Piano in Person I
Performers: Daniel Bennett, Seth Cooke, Lawrence Dunn, Dimitra Lazaridou-Chatzigoga, Jane Dickson, Dominic Lash, David Stent, Sarah Hughes, Stephen Cornford, Patrick Farmer, Angharad Davies; Tim Parkinson: piano (Nishikaze)
Location: The Round Chapel, Hackney, London, 19.10.2013

This was a kind of second showing for a concert originally put on in Oxford last year as part of the ‘Significant Landscapes’ conference / festival / event series curated by Patrick Farmer; re-located to a bigger venue (the Round Chapel in Hackney); minus some original participants (Pisaro himself absent; ditto Stefan Thut) and plus others; and with a slightly-changed programme. (I’m going to write up my notes on that original event soon, most likely; I have them in front of me, on this desk, to which they’ve been transferred from the various cupboards they’ve been in for nearly a year now.) I was a little ill when I went to see this; I was a little tired; this isn’t interesting to anyone. But this is a blog entry, personal detail within reportage will be endearing and help you to place yourself in the position of a listener in the audience, if you weren’t a listener in the audience, or you will be able to compare your experiences and violently agree or disagree if you were, etc. As I write this, the rain outside is beautiful and calming, it accompanies the thud of fingers on keys like a nice ornamentation, the world outside dancing on the edge of cultural description, thus framed but acting or perceived as ‘framing.’ Enough! I think there is even a rumbling of thunder. And now a flash of lightning. And a man is walking down the road, grim-faced, soaked with the rain. I wrote this two days ago.

Back in the chapel, the field recordings in Michael Pisaro’s ‘July Mountain’ were played LOUD. These are the final lines of the Wallace Stevens poem from which it draws its title: “The way, when we climb a mountain // Vermont throws itself together.” Vermont here is thrown together, arranged, rather than ‘throwing itself’ together, arranging itself; constructed, or re-constructed at least, rather than transparently presented or ‘accessed’, an important distinction to make. In the field recordings – which might as well be from anywhere, and perhaps were, rather than from Vermont itself, playing with that specificity of a real or imagined access to place through sound, sources mixed and re-located across the ocean and through speakers and musical layering – this world is the human world – aeroplanes, and, as far as I remember, occasional children’s voices; or, the noise of the human world and of the ‘natural world’ bleed into each other so that distinctions between them don’t matter. The first entry of the piano, those four-handed chords, is what I remember from the performance in Oxford last year. The placing, its perfect weighting, and waiting. The sine tones, vibraphone bowed drones, the slowly swirling white noise of two rows of musicians rubbing snare drums, the way that latter set of noises in particular builds during the first few minutes, from one musician to many, preparing the way for the piano, mirroring the way the piece as a whole builds, not so much to climax, but with a real sense of incremental growth and swell, hewn solid and inexorable.

Indeed, in relation to that characterisation, one of my fellow audience members afterwards described the piece as having a certain ‘monumentality’ to it, which didn’t endear it to that particular audience member. What they were getting at, I think, though this might in fact seem like quite a different or even opposed characterisation, is that Pisaro’s pieces can seem almost too ‘easy’; he’s so good at what he does and structurally these pieces work so well, the image – by which I mean the ‘sound picture’, to mix the visual metaphors –they build so accessible and right (Stevens’ “things said well”), that distrust might be a natural and perhaps useful reaction to that kind of skill: what am I being drawn into, what vision or version of the world or of perception? (I’m thinking also, in particular, of some of the pieces in the ‘Fields Have Ears’ series). They are so easily ‘beautiful’, full, patient, calm, and hardly ‘austere.’ But then, ‘Ricefall’ was far from this, in its performance set-up much more obviously in the Fluxus-area of Wandelweiser which, in my experience, generally tends to characterise let’s say half of the bills at these concerts. It’s a nice spectacle, twenty minutes or so of rice being dropped on pretty collections of leaves and slates and metallic pieces of percussion, plates and twigs, plastic bags, &c. Bruno Guastalla catches my eye with the lovely impish delicacy of his ‘playing’ (the score stipulates releasing certain amounts of rice each minute, I believe, but the exact mode of release is left unspecified, which of course adds in that performative dimension, which is and is not related to the actual quality of sound. Angharad Davies’ way of ‘playing’ rice could be likened, in its use of periodicity, to her violin improvisations, according to one eagle-eared listener). Guastalla releases his rice with such careful and yet capricious attention that I don’t think you can actually hear it land, though there’s a large pile at his feet fairly quickly. There’s something at once completely controlled about it – he’s decided how to interpret the piece, even if only a few seconds before, and does that interpretation with intense single-mindedness – and almost puzzled, which is the right way, or at least the most interesting way, of interpreting something like this, for me. Me, I tend to be too literal-minded, which is exactly not what these pieces demand, though neither are they excuses for a kind of epater les bourgeois self-conscious wackiness within some spurious frameworks: they’re something like artistic problems or provocations which have to be negotiated with some skill, much as a musician will face various challenges in interpreting any piece of composed music. What’s important about them, or what I find characteristically interesting in watching performances of them, is the collective dimension to such interpretation, which isn’t so much a working together as a working alongside, if that makes sense. So, for instance, Guastalla approaches these things aslant, like the way, in other contexts, he plays his cello, as if his physical relation to that instrument was one of difficulty and fracture rather than an easy manipulation. Patrick Farmer enjoys dropping his rice from a great height. Dominic Lash is the spirit of calmness, a complete calm efficiency of interpretation. All these approaches are equally ‘valid’, and the delight of a piece like this is watching that aspect of interpretation so obviously and yet unobtrusively provided for and foregrounded. I mean, in that sense, it’s not that different to the pleasures and struggles of Richter or Glenn Gould.

The moments when a particular percussion instrument, a singing bowl or what have you, would starts its metallic tinkle, that sound from an object actually designed to produce musically-appealing sound, were very pleasant. I didn’t close my eyes and thus follow the ebbs and swells and flows and slows of the sounds as I could have, though it was possible to notice that fluctuating kind of territory, both suggested and left open by the score, but very much of a piece with Pisaro’s methods. Too, his deployment of group elements, numerous different ‘lines’ or parts (lines isn’t really the right metaphor, I don’t think, though recall his use of an Oswald Eggers drawing of entwining lined / paths, perhaps) to create a gently fluctuating whole within a fairly strictly defined and unchanging general area. This is what gives his pieces their sense of inexorability, monumentality, what have you, but also their playfulness, openness, &c. The arrangement of twigs, slates, etc, was ‘sculptural’. I enjoyed the tidying up and hoovering afterwards, in the space, afterwards, almost as much. I mean, I enjoyed, and was perhaps also slightly puzzled and confused by, the whole set-up, watching from the upper-floor seating in the gallery, the musicians on ‘stage’, separate below; as if the musicians were the in-group we peaked in on, or we were the group judging as the gods or critics that high, or neither of these things. It was cold in the church, particularly in the piano piece in the middle, which was Makiko Nishikaze’s ‘Piano in Person I’, played by Tim Parkinson. The piano may have been the original piano from when the church was built. It had wooden pedals. The piece didn’t offer the conceptual framework that the Pisaro pieces did, so it was harder, demanded a more intensive listening, perhaps. Or for whatever reason, I couldn’t get ‘into’ it so much, it felt long or too long, without the pauses or space I craved from it. Not that there were pauses in the Pisaro, but a greater patience. Or perhaps the patience that was lacking was mine. Dominic Lash had his eyes closed, so did a lot of people, but there were was also some seat-shifting and shuffling, none of which manifested itself in the Pisaro. Nishikaze’s piece felt as if it had come from a different tradition, one less comfortable with the ease and skill of an, I don’t know, post avant-garde framework – which as a formulation is something I don’t really like or doesn’t quite get at what I mean to suggest, which is something like that afore-mentioned ease I find in Pisaro’s music, not an ease which substitutes for musical thought and engagement with history and tradition, its following or its breaking, but which is not fraught in its relation to them, whose statement doesn’t feel the need for that kind of quasi-didactic break. But then, equally, I’ve been romanticizing Darmstadt in my head, and out loud, a little, recently. So perhaps in that sense Nishikaze offered a more useful resistance to listening, a sense of stringency.

By which I mean, there’s nothing more ‘avant-garde’, in the clichéd sense of that term, if you were to describe to someone in the kitchen the next morning, than saying, ‘I went to a cold church and watched musicians drop rice on objects and on the floor, the piece was called Rice Fall’; or, that piece where the field recordings were almost as loud as the fifteen or however many instrumentalists performing alongside them. But somehow ‘July Mountain’ in particular seemed to me the most accessible piece on earth, hence, perhaps, the sense of suspicion noted above. Is the monumental accessible? Not really, or not in the traditional sense, which is where all these terms are getting mixed up, as am I, to try to get at what exactly this kind of subjective gut-reaction is. There was a good audience, the most I’ve seen for any Wandelweiser event. Richard Pinnell’s announcements from the balcony were not those of a preacher, the event didn’t feel institutionalized in that sense. I was pleased, really, that people came, the Cafe Oto marketing and all that, however much I’ve enjoyed being one of two or however many audience members at other events in the past. I don’t think it changed the atmosphere that much. Everyone was concentrated and respectful, better than in some of the previous events I’ve seen, in fact, and the environmental sounds were the swooshing of buses and so on. Someone outside let out a yell after the first of one particular set of alternating chords in the Nishikaze, placed well. Some people looked alarmed. Some people were drinking cans of Red Stripe, but this made them, if anything, even more devout.


Lutz Eitel said...

“All these approaches are equally ‘valid’, and the delight of a piece like this is watching that aspect of interpretation so obviously and yet unobtrusively provided for and foregrounded. I mean, in that sense, it’s not that different to the pleasures and struggles of Richter or Glenn Gould.”
Ah yes, that’s very true, though I enjoy it much less than you seem to. The virtuoso gesture, selling us the miracle of an athleticism transforming the little black dots on paper into pure soul; the poetic performative gesture transforming unmusical activities into an aesthetic meditation on the everyday (or whatever). One might even argue that in such Fluxus-like pieces, or new music with sufficient downtimes to require a formulated show of patience from the musician, we approach a state of pure virtuoso posturing (traditionally the enemy of taste at least since Paganini). I wish it were all more workmanlike, families of rice droppers five generations down.

david_grundy said...

Certainly that's a risk: I think what I liked about this particular performance was that the 'virtuoso gesture' was - if it was this at all - an extremely tempered version of the kind of jokey showing-off (which could pose both as virtuosity or anti-virtuosity, or virtuosity posing as anti-virtuosity, etc) which I associate with a certain kind of Fluxus mode (something obviously with a totally different inflection in its original context, but somehow not really possible in the same way now). While I suppose my problem with the anti-virtuoso, workmanlike 'families of rice droppers' is of a kind of hierarchical approach in which the hired monkey musicians translate some composerly magic into existence without the sense of mediation that the quasi-virtuoso performance display introduces; though equally, yes, that virtuosity could risk a different(?) kind of magical, fetishized 'transformation of the everyday'.