Tuesday, 5 November 2019

Cage / Lockwood / Ferrari

Xenia Pestova Bennett (piano)
City University, Tuesday 29th October 2019

Part of City University’s excellent series of free concerts – for news of which, along with other avant-classical performances, I’m indebted to a particular mailing list which keeps an eagle-eye out for such events – this concert was for sure headlined by Luc Ferrari’s “collection de petites pièces”, a kind of epic-in-miniature / miniature epic entitled 36 enfilades pour Piano et Magnétophone, the longest and most (formally / conceptually) intricate piece on the table, and one which does some hard (but humorous) thinking on the ritual of the solo piano recital while at the same time revelling in the recital's capacity for virtuosity and display. This said, the Ferrari was paired with two Annea Lockwood pieces – RCSC, from 2001, and Red Mesa, from 1993 – which, wile they offered less in the way of conceptual questioning / thought-experiment tricksterism, perhaps offered more in terms of pianism, of an approach to the instrument-as-machine, machine-as-instrument, moving inside to strum and pluck the harp inside the piano’s box: an exploration of extended technique that might be familiar, perhaps even expected, in certain forms of improvised music, but which in contexts like these comes to seem a radical extension of vocabulary, timbre and the rest, and which has its own negotiation of place and placement within musical and geological histories.

Pestova Bennett began with a brief work by John Cage: as she told us after the piece, she’d planned on including some of the prepared piano pieces, as a programming fit with Lockwood’s inside-piano work and Ferrari’s extra-piano use of amplification and synthesized sounds, but the preparations would have been confiscated on her flight (a more banal take on the figuration of art as weapon). So instead we got the early piece of accompanying Merce Cunningham's now (presumably) lost choreography, ‘Dream’, a miniature that’s the accessible side of Cage, nothing to scare anyone off, though the modern-ness of its sound in the late 1940s has perhaps become rather unfairly lost in the wake of the ambient musics it can be said to have anticipated. The programme notes describe the piece as “unfold[ing] in a haze of piano resonances” – the score specifying that there be no silence, with tones freely sustained beyond notated duration. Despite that ‘haze’, Pestova Bennett’s combination of touch—the respective pressures applied to the pressing of fingers on and lifting of fingers off keys—and of pedalling seemed to emphasize the joins and cuts within that single-line melodic ‘haze’. As much as a matter of interpretation, this might simply have been due to the fact that, as she announced after playing the piece, she had just got off a plane and had a blocked ear; thus, was taking the audio temperature, testing the room’s resonances and her own hearing in comparison to everyone else’s volume levels. Either way, it brought a refreshing crispness to a piece that can otherwise become too easily soporific (rather than dream-like) in its resonant prettiness.

Annea Lockwood’s RCSC, part of a commissioned tribute to the much-neglected Ruth Crawford Seeger, draws pitch content from tone rows in Crawford Seeger's String Quartet as well as from palindromes based on Seeger's name. This shouldn’t suggest, though, that we have here a Schoenbergian / Darmstadtian concern with form as a kind of grid, as pitch arrangement outside certain tonal characteristics but within established formal structures. Instead, like Cage, Lockwood’s here interested in that relation of keyboard and pedal, of temporal extension blurring the struck qualities of the piano through an extended exploration of continuance and decay. A short piece, this extension of piano as instrument from keyboard to pedal, pedal to inner string developed as a study in resonance: note re-struck, pedal-clustered in transpositions, of touch and the movement of finger to key, foot to pedal. If audio archive projects like Lockwood’s Hudson river project have to do with certain ideas of collective explorations of voice and place, with sound as repository for memory and its traversal of space and time, the tone rows and palindromes of RCSC suggest a different way of viewing lineage, inheritance, gender and the like that might be smaller in scale. Likewise, a work like Red Mesa aims to be more what she calls “a personal exploration of terrain”. The programme note locates the work in a “solo journey I made in the Four Corners country (where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colarado meet) in 1988”, and Lockwood has said that she returned to writing for acoustic instruments in order to explore the resonances that drew her to those instruments in the first place. That’s the personal, or the solo: to write a piece based on the significance of a particular place for one’s self, at a particular time, an unpretentious claim that at the same time locates its narrative of wandering, travelling, etc, squarely within a Romantic conception that might just as easily animate certain powerhouses of piano or symphonic repertoire from which the work at least initially seems removed. And Red Mesa does announce itself as, in essence, a piece of programme music; so that whereas the first piece can use the occasion of its composition and the tribute to Seeger as a way to explore its areas of interest as ‘purely’ technical problems (an interesting consideration given the trajectory of Seeger’s own career from avant-composer, not much concerned with political or ‘external’ content, to matriarch of the Seeger clan and major figure in the mid-century American folk revival), here – in the programme note, at least – we’re told of the desert, the Mesa, the whole histories of imperial sublime, of Monument Valley and silhouetted Native Americans, hinted at if not explored at length.

Audibly, at least, this isn’t much of a presence: what does seem important is Lockwood’s concern with the conversion of small sounds to larger ones, through electroacoustic technology elsewhere, the internal acoustics of the piano itself here; not for purposes of ironic extension / critique (as we’ll see with the Ferrari), but for an exploration of those sounds as modes of attention and possibility. One critic calls the piece “thoughtfully severe”, emphasizing the piece’s difference from the general trajectory of contemporary piano repertoire; I’m not sure how helpful that is, the piece seems to me rather luxuriant in its resonant explorations, though perhaps, in the wake of prepared and burning pianos, of which Lockwood’s 1968 piece Piano Burning is probably the most famous experiment, some sense of threat or decay hovers in the wings. As the titles to Lockwood’s Piano Transplants series suggest—Piano Burning, Piano Drowning, Piano Garden—the piano might here itself be imagined as a kind of ecosystem, to which the performer is in ambiguously protective, curative or destructive relation, so that performance environment (piano as ‘culture’, as the indoors, yet as conduit for a sublime or prettified codification of nature as tone poem, paysage, etc—think Liszt, think Ravel as random samples) blurs with the kinds of ‘open field’ conceptions of audition and performance that 4’33” ushered in – the site-specific, the incorporation of field recordings or outdoor performance environments, etc. (That said, it’s a strange sidenote that some of the more popular recent instances of the latter trend—say, the large scale piano concerti-type works by Michael Pisaro which have resonated particular strongly, July Mountain or the Fields Have Ears series for starters—tend to combine their extension into sonic landscapes of ‘country’ or ‘city’ with fairly conventionally played, tonally and melodically ‘pretty’ piano sounds.) And this, of course, is where certain technical problems of explorations explicitly become part of a social exploration, whether the ‘social’ is simply the consideration of performance space and what is brought into it (where it is brought out into), or whether it’s seen to resonate more widely. In other words, the Red Mesa programme note’s gesture towards landscape, history and the like – more specific than Cage’s ‘dream’, which simply takes the score into amorphous and generalised territory that can be read any way you want – are deliberate gestures, and introduce a tension—between machinic and ‘natural’, between the empty and the populated, at least hinting at the literal or artistic removal of human presence in the interests of a fetishized sublime (of which Ford’s Monument Valley would be the principal mark), a secondary erasure used to justify a primary act of genocidal erasure. So that, in the programme note, a phrase like “magnificence and geometric purity”, used to describe the Painted Desert, comes up against “often-filmed Monument Valley” and the fact that “cliff dwellings dat[e] back to the middle ages and are still home to the Hopi and Navaho nations”. How this sounds in the work itself is certainly harder to map programmatically, which is where the piece’s apparent nature as programme music, tone poem, etc, falls (thankfully) short. Not having thought much on any of this when listening, at the time I noted the contrast in focus to the first piece that Pestova Bennett played. RCSC in general might be said to consist of more gestural alternations of registral area – lower strings’ thicker, extended groan in contrast to a near-skittish, guitar-like mid-register or abrupt upper shrill – alongside a repeating (and varied) figure going from low to high – a sketch. Red Mesa, over a longer temporal span, becomes progressively more clangorous, declarative and flourish-laden – in terms, at least, of loudness and resonance (pedalled fortissimo, sustained rub and scrape of inside string—rather than virtuosity as runs / number of keyboard notes played). All this building to some chunky left-hand thunders and assertive chords, ending with the pleasure of a kind of ‘main theme’ restatement, dying away. If my writing here builds up a whole interpretative schema, or suggestion of adjacent ecological / political concerns, that the piece itself doesn’t seem to integrate formally, that’s not necessarily to the detriment of the piece itself, fascinating for sure.

So to the Ferrari enfilades. Written in the 1980s, the programme note tells us that this ‘collection’ was revised to remove the elements of music theatre originally present, but still haunted by the ghost of the performative, if in aural rather than explicitly physical form. Not that the ritual of concert performance is anything but – of course! – performative, and these kinds of considerations, dancing between levels of aurality, the electronic-machine and the piano-machine, the acousmatic and the live voice, teasing if not outrightly mocking traditions of musical legitimation to which concertgoers are generally inured, are an essential part of what makes the work interesting, playful, provocative, etc. The titular enfilades are an architectural term summoning the intricately connected rooms of museums, palaces, galleries, a kind of elaborate formal structure designed to enable ease of passage, at once foregrounding and hiding its own intricacy behind an array of baroque constructions, and the description might well suggest how the piece functions, though the analogy is far from exact. What that title does open up are certain parallels, recurring themes, variations, mirrorings, duplications, interruptions, conversational strategies that sound more monologic than dialogic, the replacement of a tape recorder with a laptop, the (non-speaking, occasionally whistling) pianist a more competent Krapp, “wondering about music”. If Lockwood and Cage turn to desert and dream as sound/landscapes, Ferrari more explicitly asks what the formal/conceptual framing of his piece means in terms of music history, music and history (as well as dream’s metaphorical transports): “So, is this is a suite? Maybe it’s theatre. Is it that old dream to never finish, or to always start over again?” So far so familiar, perhaps, and easy to fit into a certain modish discourse of the post-modern which would swallow a piece like this up, spit it back out in a neat package. But there’s more going on, even if the emotional texture tends towards polish, smoothness, ironized façade. In 36 pieces (“small pieces form a whole one”), what can you note but fragments, main elements: the piano ghosting, commenting on and obstructing the intentionally cheesy electric organ / synthesizer line which plays from the electric sound source alongside fragments of recorded speech, mainly single words, countings-in or down, instructions or questions. The obvious parallel here is to the music lesson: to error and repetition by ear as parody of practice, teleology and perfectibility, of unison and technical skill, of solo performer as always more than one. But this process is neither in defiance of technical training, nor ecstatic heterophony, as the synth lines become more and more cheesy, less believable as simulacra of acoustic instruments, and the voice, which at times seem to function like a music teacher-drill sergeant, switches genders and authoritative positions, asking ‘pourquoi’ or commanding ‘ecoute-moi’. To pick a point at random, the 13th piece, a waltz whose title announces it as such with a mixture of bombast and bathos – ‘C’est la Valse’ – is not Ravel’s gradual swelling to lush apocalyptic im/explosion, but cheesy burling synth and the music teacher / composer voice barking out a countdown (‘un, deux, trois’), offering curt compliments (‘bon’), calling for an encore as praise or simply demanding the exercise be repeated as punishment, asking ‘comment’ and eventually gurgling out something that sounds like ‘a i i i’ – perhaps the end point of all the discourses of beauty as achievement, as virtuosity and mastery of form, of tradition – for what. Straight after the waltz we have ‘Zarathoustra’, Richard Strauss thus speaking via a 1980s Hollywood, post-Star Wars cash-in sci-fi version of Kubrick, as once again the piece’s virtuoso task of intersecting with and doubling the electronic line is made to sound not so much as concert hall mastery, but as increasingly troubled idiom, western concert tradition, piano recital, Fascist sublime incised from inside. Does this undercut the music as a whole (or even music as a whole per se) as repository of feeling? Not quite: the piece that follows a few pieces later is marked ‘tendrement’, and that’s how it sounds; and the recurring ‘danse’ seems written to beguile, emerging from a kind of Ravel—Poulenc—Roussel residuum of French neoclassicism, ironized and seductive, feeling always held in check but always present. I’m thinking here of pieces in the piano tradition that might be named ‘souvenirs’, ‘impromptus, ‘cartes postales’, etc, and with the compressed derangement these pieces might at times almost contain—principally, as melancholy; or on the other hand, with the gestures towards Strauss, Schumann, and so on, the potential for explosion all the more vivid for being held within a form that names itself joy, celebration, etc.  So we soon move from not one but two Hommage[s] à Schumann: who is made to hammer it out?, that inner derangement flourished as repetition, obsession compulsion: the presence of narrative, hearing a figure through repetition; the Romantic valourisation of impromptu-improvisation-passion as core at core already troubled, vexations (via Satie)...Who knows?

Polyphonie-Rhythme sounds to me like Tron touring the piano: I’m not sure if that’s even a particularly fanciful analogy, given that TRON came out in 1982, Ferrari’s piece in 1985, and that Wendy Carlos soundtracked the movie. I’m not sure if the piano here is the Tron car or simply the soundtrack to the Tron car. But either way, you tap your foot, for all of a minute – or, in the next piece, for all of 10”, of one phrase. Hardly a leitmotif, idee fix, repetition as romantic concern gets gestured at through the reference to the suite, to theme and variation, but as the tape recording says “je ne sais plus. Je ne sais plus rien”. Sometime you snap the same shot – development less a factor than stasis, déjà vu, or a something else the pieces can never quite reach. Hence Ferrari’s programme note ambiguity: “…No sooner have they started and are already over. Sometimes, they don’t even start, they have no beginning.” Ça glisse ça glisse. With finger-bleeding gliss runs (it shouldn’t be understated that is an extremely difficult piece to play) again rendered tinny, ghostly, unimpressive through the electronic doubling, yet another stale / stalled future like the revolutionary Romantic canon which gets filtered in and out of the mix like the switch on a radio (or these days, an ad-interrupted shuffle). Ferrari’s programme note mentions the absence of beginnings or endings – a fantasy of permanence that’s more like the death drive, that also refers to or once again elides the tradition where one is always being condemned to ‘start over again’, in the interests of perfectability, teleology, progress. Practice exercises, conditioning—is it Brahms or life, as the 34th piece (‘Les Brahms ou la vie’) asks, and why are those even choices? Who’s at the other end of Téléphone? The score folds out without tuner or tuner, ipad and tablet substituting page and score, Mac laptop substituting for radio and tape, digital and analog dance, the sound is echoed movie theatre / tape hiss / aloud breath as the telephone voice declares its unmooring. And then the finale is furieux et triste: furious and sad the piano shakes under the onslaught of its two-handed accomplice, its elbow-clustered, finger-planted simulation. Do you get to be both furious and sad at once (isn’t that what most fury or most sadness is)? In this context, can you be either? Ambiguity inheres at every turn, kept at arm’s length, at finger’s tip and touch, resolving to what a certain trend of western classical music tradition figures as struggle, as winning through to beauty / resolution, etc. But electronic ringtone drowns out the biggest and grandest of two-hand chords, fortissimo pianoforte made to sound electronically distant, ghosted, as what we hear, audio gesture, misaligns with what we see, the physical gesture right in front of our eyes: acousmatic. Is that a gunshot, a drumbeat, metronomic, machinic tic intended, under compulsion, play the phrase again, dread return and end.

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