Friday 28 March 2008

EARTRIP (magazine)

I've been creating the first issue of a new jazz/improv/experimental music magazine for around six months - and now it's finally here. You can download it by following the link, which I've posted at the magazine's shiny new blog:

Wednesday 26 March 2008

The Cambridge Free Improvisation Society

The Cambridge Free Improvisation Society is an informal musical collective whose members are students at Cambridge University. We gather to freely improvise during sessions which are held on and off during Term times. We have performed occasional concerts and, for the past few months, have been recording the irregular jam sessions we hold in various college music rooms. Selections of these recordings are now being made available online, including 'Miracle of the Sun', an hour-long improvisation which will be available in CD-R form at gigs or on request.

The following material is now available online. Feedback is welcome, and indeed encouraged!

A selection of excerpts from various improvisations recorded over the past few months can be heard at
the album 'Miracle of the Sun' can be downloaded and listened to in full from
Members of the society featured in these performances are: Joe Scott (trombone) Jo Davis (flute) Dan Larwood, Jacken Waters (guitar, effects) David Grundy (piano, laptop, recorder)

Tuesday 18 March 2008

An Echo in Another's Mind: My Grandfather and Glenn Gould's Bach

Quite a personal article, this one, which is why it's taken a while to get it completed, though I'd written the bulk of it several months ago. Hopefully it will have more than merely personal significance, though, and have something to offer others as well.

In many ways my Grandfather was a cold man, and deliberately so: closed-off, probably very shy, darting out with flashes of dry humour, sardonic remarks often at others' expense. Someone who closed himself off, who protected himself from the world, who wanted to exist in a cocoon where there was never any bickering, where there was never any trouble, where people behaved and got on with things, where he could do what he wanted and others could do what they wanted, as long as it didn't adversely affect him. Someone who shut himself off from the past, who liked to embrace modernity: in wanting to get a computer, to keep up with the latest technology, and in his fondness for modernity in art and design (the last time we ever took him outside for an outing, he expressed a wish to go and visit the Tate Modern, and, after he died, we got stacks of his old Bridget Riley-esque abstract paintings, and delicate, filigree, abstract, mathematical models).

I remember him in an old photo, surrounded by grinning people in their 1970s regalia, in a very 1970s room – incidentally, that same living room which, when I remember it, was green and ordered, somewhat fusty and dead, yet also attractive in its pristine cleanliness (albeit betrayed somewhat by the large cracks descending from the ceiling down the wall like intrusive ivy). He looks utterly lost and out of place, the only one not smiling. Probably suffering from the effects of his wife's death, and also from the depression that plagued him throughout his life, he is thin, pinched, his chin covered with traces of rough stubble. In an even older photo, taken during the war, he is with a couple of other army buddies and a girl, large, old-fashioned beer mug in hand, grinning happily in a way that I never saw in life: perhaps because of his difficult marriage to a woman, my dad's mother, with mental difficulties (though to paint him solely as a victim is to simplify things: of course it was difficult for him, but the way he behaved wasn't exactly praiseworthy). He did himself very well, as he would have put it, with his second marriage: round-the-world cruises, good fine, good drink, sketching, house extensions, the spending of money...Nevertheless, there were times when he couldn't, or wouldn't get out of bed in the morning, when he couldn't face the world: we later found out that one Christmas, after we'd spoken to him on the phone (he seemed in quite good spirits), he'd gone straight back to bed, unable to face the traces of false or real jollity.

It was in another bed that he ended his life, wired up with various tubes in a hospital, sleeping constantly. We'd sit by him, he'd wake for a few seconds, smile, make some sort of grunt or groan of acknowledgement, grip someone's hand and go to sleep again, his fingers wrapped round like a child's, a fisty, tight grip that needed the certainty of another presence to ease him through. Who knows what went through his befuddled mind, marred by dementia and the effects of the TIAs, the series of mini-strokes he'd suffered over a period of five or so years - perhaps nothing, a strange blankness, like those moments in sleep that you can't remember, when you're not dreaming and not conscious: empty spaces, vacancies. He wouldn't want to be remembered that way, mentally inactive, inert, a passive being rather than an active, thinking person. And such a person wasn't really him: a reversion to something he perhaps never was, never allowed himself to be, even when young - a helpless child, someone dependent and needy. He may have leaned on others a bit, but in the end it was self-sufficiency he wanted - independence, distance, borders.

That was surely why I never really engaged with him - no-one could, not even my father, not even (perhaps) his second wife, though I suspect that, in their own way, they loved each-other (she perhaps more than him, in a sentimental kind of way). But, when I was about 12, we discovered a mutual liking for classical music, and we used to go upstairs to the attic they'd had converted into a sketching/listening room for vast amounts of money, sit and listen to music, look at cassettes and CDs; he would lend me them, I'd sit in a chair at home, headphones on, let the music soak in. Too often when one hears music it's when one’s doing other things - writing an essay, looking at bills, surfing the internet. That makes those moments all the more valuable: moments of total immersion, moments when you sit and do nothing but listen to the music, focus in, concentrate, maybe shut your eyes, when you let the sounds, and yourself, simply be...

His favourites were Schoenberg's early oratorio Gurrelieder, a work full of post-Wagnerian twentieth century Romanticism - an extreme chromaticism, which would soon move into the atonality of the Second Viennese School; Shostakovich's 24 Preludes and Fugues, played by Tatiana Nikolayeva (he was very particular about that particular performance being the one he liked); Russian piano music - Prokofiev, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, Scriabin - sprinkled with the old masters - Bach, Beethoven, Brahms. When looking through his old CDs, given to me by his wife after he died (she didn't share his passion), I discovered a recording of Bach's 48 Preludes and Fugues. I can imagine how it must have pleased him, in its mathematical exactness and formal perfection: music that you didn't have to get close to, to inhabit, if you didn't want to, that you could appreciate in a purely intellectual, abstract way.

But the 'Goldberg' was my own discovery. I can't remember exactly why I picked it off the shelf - perhaps it was due to the cover of the three-disc set, 'A State of Wonder', which collects both the 1955 and 1981 recordings made by Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. This image, printed on the set's exterior, shows Gould in rich black and white, almost ready to dissolve into sepia, eyes closed, mouth open, tie undone and hanging loosely under his collar, head at an angle as he sits at the piano - a picture of utter immersion, utter sincerity. These, of course, are qualities that come through in the music.

For me, the triumph of the 1981 version is Gould's performance of the great opening and closing aria, with perhaps the greatest of the great melodies Bach wrote, unfolding as it does in two mini sections: the first calm and ordered, with everything in its right place, the second still calm but rising with a slightly anxious, questing quality. Easy to overlook in most performances (i.e. those which actually stick to the specifications of the score!) is a small arpeggio section which Gould accentuates greatly in the 1981 version, so that it seems to unfold in slow motion: a flowering, petals opening as they do in nature films.

Some of the earlier variations on the 1955 version seem as though they're performed by Gould on speed, in comparison to the much more deliberate 1981 version, where he teases out the nuances, the subtleties and craft of Bach's work, as if he wants to revel in every detail, to wring every drop of music out of it. But this does not result in cold speculation - he teases out the spirit as well, which is inseparable from the craft, as it is in all the great art. Whereas earlier he's content to dazzle us with the brilliance, both of Bach's music and his own performance, and everything unfolds with such energy that we can let it wash over us, in the later recording it seeps in.

n the liner notes, Gould talks about the "explosion of simultaneous ideas, which counterpoint, at its best, almost certainly is" – and you really get a sense of this in 1981. Things are laid out so clearly that they become almost stark, particularly variations 22 and 25 – every single idea is given weight, it’s much harder to overlook things than it was in 1955. It’s not that anything’s been pared away: Gould’s still playing the same notes, in the same order, and the speed probably doesn’t vary quite as much as it seems when listening to the two recordings (a glance at the track lengths shows that some variations are actually played faster in the later version). What’s changed is the spirit with which Gould plays – in that near-thirty-year period, his whole outlook on life must have undergone some changes –a maturing, a different way of looking things? – and this informs his approach to Bach.

I’m not saying that the later version is necessarily better than the earlier: both have much to recommend them. While Gould disliked the earlier recording by the time, as he reveals in the bonus interview with Tim Page that’s included in the ‘state of wonder’ liner notes, I can't ultimately say which version I prefer. Both reveal equally valuable aspects of the piece, and of Gould's artistry: I wouldn't be without the energy and sprightly brilliance of the 1955 version (which, I hasten to add, is not merely a breakneck ride, and stops for reflection too), nor would I be without the almost Zen-like clarity of 1981.

In some ways, I find it hard to disassociate Goldberg from Gould - he inhabits the piece so much that any other interpretation, because it necessarily lacks the Gouldian touch, somehow does not seem complete. However faithful to Bach's intentions (which we can't fully know, of course), however many liberties and deviancies he may take, he has captured the soul of the piece in a way that those more faithful to the surface details aren't - they miss the centre, which is straight what Gould aims for.

Take the infamous humming with which he accompanies his own performances. I've read some reviews that say it completely spoils the playing for them. Well, true, it may be completely self-indulgent, like Keith Jarrett's contortions and grimaces, but, for me it never distracts from the performance, and even adds a nice touch - the human, the utter involvement, proof that the music doesn't exist just in a sound-proofed box. I’d rather have such eccentric involvement than a perfectly-behaved, well-mannered, historically correct, and utterly dry performance.

I write these words listening to Gould mid-variation, and my thoughts turn once more to my grandfather. These sounds I'm hearing, and the associations they're bringing up –the thoughts that trail off the notes, that are contained in them, it seems - perhaps he felt them too, as he sat there in his converted attic, closed off from the world, but surrounded by it – surrounded by photos, paintings, plants, by light flooding the room from the window. Enveloped in that musty and comforting environment, what was going through his mind? Could it be that he thought some of the same thoughts as I’m thinking now? Could it be that Gould’s Bach is much more than just beautiful sound and intellectual satisfaction? As Gould communes with Bach, communes with me, communes with my grandfather, could it be music that provides some form of communication with the dead, transcending time? Not in some mystical, new-agey sense of genuine contact, but as a temporally dislocated coincidence of thoughts and feelings somehow brought together, for one brief moment, through music: an echo in another’s mind.

Tuesday 4 March 2008

Through a glass, Darkly

LIVRE D’ORGUE, by Olivier Messiaen. Performed by Oliver Brett. King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, Saturday 1st March 2008.

As part of Messiaen’s centenary celebrations, King’s College Chapel in Cambridge are putting on his complete organ works, over a period of several months. Unfortunately, I missed the first concert, which featured Stephen Cleobury playing La Nativité de Seigneur, but on Saturday I made it along to the second in the series, a shorter programme which again only contained one work: Livre d’Orgue, from 1951. The piece was performed by Oliver Brett, who graduated as King’s organ scholar and is now an organ scholar at Westminster cathedral.

Messiaen always had a strange, paradoxical role in twentieth-century classical music. He found himself either criticised by traditionalists for being too weird (with his interest in birdsong, mysticism, Sanskrit, surrealism, and a voluptuous and sensual Catholic conservatism) or by modernists for being too old-fashioned (lush harmonies, sweeping melodies, an obsessively religious programmatic basis for nearly all of his pieces). In the late 40s, he’d written such works as ‘Trois Petites Liturgies de la Presence Divine’, scored for orchestra, women’s voice and the otherworldly electronic sounds of the ondes martenot, and the massive ‘Turangalîla-Symphonie,’ a hymn to earthy love which was, in effect, a virtuoso piano concert, drawing on elements of the myth of Tristan and Yseult, Sanskrit symbolism, Javanese Gamelan music, and, of course, birdsong. While these scandalised those who were not quite so esoteric in their Catholicism as Messiaen, they also offended the avant-garde musicians and composers with whom Messiaen was associated through his teaching classes at the Paris Conservatoire, where his pupils had included the likes of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Boulez. Boulez even described Turangalîla as ‘brothel music’ (which would surely have offended Messiaen’s religious sensibilities), and the composer duly changed direction, taking the implications of Schoenberg’s serial (twelve-tone) system even further, and applying them to duration, articulation and dynamics as well as to pitches.

This period of avant-garde experimentation was to prove short-lived, and the pieces Messiaen wrote during this time (including the Livre) are neither his most popular, nor his most critically acclaimed (although they were very influential on the development of Boulez in particular). One can’t help feeling that Messiaen was pushed into a language not his own, and he seems to have realised this too; later in life, he made it clear that he did not feel the music was successful.

So what are we to make of the Livre d’Orgue, then? Well, its concerns seem mainly to be technical, rather than focussing on the emotional/religious/programmatic areas that Messiaen normally covered (although two of the seven movements are inspired by Biblical quotations, and one by birdsong). There is much rhythmic complexity (deriving from Messiaen’s use of Greek and Hindu rhythms).

The first piece, ‘Reprises par Interversion’ is entirely monodic – in other words, only one note sounds a time. This gives it a very fractured, disjointed quality, more akin to Stockahusen or Boulez than to his usual style. It also very much explores a separation between the organ registers: the emphasis is on harsh alternation and juxtaposition, rather than unity. (Although, to be fair, Messiaen had always been composing in ‘blocks’ which were sometimes only tenuously related – he eschewed more conventional notions of linear harmonic development, which gives the music its curiously static, ‘timeless’ quality.)

Following ‘Reprises’ comes the uneasy three-part polyphony of ‘Piece en Trio’, meant to represent the confusion and lack of clear vision faced in life on earth, as expressed in the first half of St Paul’s famous phrase “now see through a glass, darkly, but then we will see face to face.” Messiaen himself later wrote: “I was unable to realise my intention of expressing the darkness [surrounding the Mystery of the Holy Trinity], and only managed to write a short and fairly nondescript dodecaphonic [12-tone] piece: no blackness, no confusion, no mystery.” That illuminates the piece’s impact on me, too: despite the sometimes interesting sounds (Alexander Goehr, another of Messiaen’s pupils, commented that the Livre didn’t really sound like organ music at all – “it sounded like electronics”), it does feel rather colourless when compared to the orgiastic splendour of Turangalila or with the mysterious, grave beauty of the other organ works.

The third movement is more successful: entitled ‘Les Mains de l’Abime’, it erupts as a thunderous cry from the abyss inspired by a quasi-surrealistic verse from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk: “the abyss has cried out! The depths have raised up their hands!” Sections of massive, dissonant organ thunder bookend a quiet, eerily ambiguous central section, which brings to mind another Biblical description: that of the “still, small voice” with which God speaks to Elijah in the middle of a howling thunderstorm, as the prophet flees into the desert.

As some sort of recovery from the abyss, an interlude based on ‘Chants d’Oiseaux,’ but we’re soon back to more troubled waters, with another rhythmically complex ‘Piece en Trio’, and then, in the following movement, more Old-Testament prophecy, this time from Ezekiel. “The rims of the four wheels were full of eyes all around…for the spirit of the living creatures was in the wheels.” Messiaen’s depiction of these nightmarish eyes in the wheels – ‘Les Yeux dans les Roues’ – is characterised by serious, booming bass pedal notes and rippling, endlessly questioning figures in the higher register.

Finally, in ‘Soixante-Quatre Durees’, a fantastically intricate movement based on sixty-four different note durations, tension is built by slowly moving held notes punctuated by alternating high and low register bursts, somewhat reminiscent of Charles Ives’ ‘The Unanswered Question.’ The piece ends on a final, held note, fading away unexpectedly, unsettlingly, leaving the question answered.

The work as a whole is deeply serious, grave. Messiaen chooses to focus on the darker aspects of the Bible, and Livre seems to fall more into the anguished, mid-century Catholic doubt of Penderecki, than the composer’s usual rhapsodic, paradisal visions.

In other works, such as ‘Les Canyons Aux Etoiles’, the awe and mystery generated by the nature of God and his creation, beyond human comprehension, is celebrated as a source of mystic wonderment: the child-like rapture that can sometimes come from not knowing things. Livre, though, is much more about confusion, doubt, lack of clarity – paradoxically, despite the extremely ordered serial framework, the listener has less to cling on to. Messiaen’s characteristic, slightly off-kilter melodies, are kept largely at bay, and his weird, idiosyncratic harmonic language reined in. It feels too restricted – an attempt to make order that actually ends up creating disorder in the listener’s mind. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway.

I’ve barely talked about the performance at all –I was so preoccupied with trying to understand the work itself that I wasn’t really concentrating on how it was played. I will note that the candlelit surroundings of the Chapel appeared suitably austere, in keeping with the music: shadows were cast on the inscrutable, immobile faces of carvings projecting outwards, high above on the wall, and the stained-glass windows, denied sunlight, showed only the blank blackness of the night outside.

The organ’s not an instrument one normally associates with avant-garde music, and this is a work that constantly catches you off-guard, and doesn’t offer you an alternative: you’re not given the catharsis of shrieking dissonance that Penderecki’s ‘Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima’, and neither are you given much consolation. Instead, a curious musical limbo opens up, and there’s no way out.

Livre d’Orgue is a work that puts up barriers, which I find it really hard to engage with, and I can’t help feeling that this is because Messiaen doesn’t really understand serialism. Well, let me qualify that – of course he understands it in a technical sense – he taught serial scores at the Conservatoire – but he just can’t seem to make it his own. Writing within this system causes him to lose his voice, rather than allowing him to express himself through it, as Anton Webern or Arnold Schoenberg had been able to. Perhaps this is because he’s coming out of the same late-Romantic Germanic tradition as the members of the Second Viennese school – but then, neither were the new generation of avant-gardists who had (partly) pressured him into this method. The strict control of the system causes his music to lose some of that woozy unpredictability, and even the birds which make their way into the fourth movement sound distant, filtered through the bars of a serialist cage, rather than fluttering free in the open air of Messiaen’s personal musical language.

Such distancing, such inaccessibility, was heightened by the fact that Oliver Brett was invisible up in the organ loft, meaning that there was no visual centre either. His performance can’t be faulted though – that this concert remained a puzzling, rather troubling experience (in a negative, rather than a stimulating way) was due to the composition itself. There is only so far one can go with interpretation of a score – if something isn’t in the music itself, the performer cannot create it, except in exceptional circumstances, and Brett delivered the Livre as well as could be expected.

I’m not sure whether I will ever understand this work – I think it’s a failure, an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless. I may come to some epiphany, I may find the key to understanding this piece, but I’m not sure there is a key. We do indeed see through the glass darkly, and maybe we don’t even see through it at all.