Thursday 17 June 2010

Flecks (For Bill Dixon)

A short film dedicated to the late trumpeter and composer Bill Dixon, who died in his sleep on Tuesday 15th June 2010, at the age of 84.

Monday 14 June 2010


Eva-Maria Houben – Nachtstück (2007)
performed by Dominic Lash – contrabass. 13th June 2010.

The first in a proposed series dedicated to the music of the Wandelweiser group, this was intriguingly set up as Dom Lash performing a ‘gig’ in his house: chamber music in the original sense of that term. So no stuffed-shirt concert-hall aesthetics here, as the cold summer air (yes, this is Britain) blows in from the garden and a tap drips, somewhere off to ‘stage left’.

One piece on the programme – an hour-long Eva-Maria Houben composition for solo bass which, while not exclusively quiet, does feature frequent silences, the most delicate of high pitched-harmonics, and an extremely ‘stripped-down’ range of material. The piece is not exclusively about the creation of sound (making a noise); rather, that aspect exists alongside the equally important element of listening, hearing. As Houben puts it, Nachtstück “allows hearing to take place.”

That phrase is from her short programme note for the piece, in which she also describes “music happen[ing] all by itself, seemingly uncomposed – like the sound of the Aeolian harp, its strings set in motion by a passing wind.” Of course, one immediately feels like quibbling that this is a composition; furthermore, the problem with Aeolian harps (as evidenced by the selection on the obscure LP ‘Songs of the Wind Harp’) is that there is no discrimination between sounds, no decision-making process, no shaping of material – in other words, no sense of human agency – and it is human agency which, ultimately, does drive Houben’s piece, which makes it an involving and rewarding experience, a piece of human interaction. So is the Aeolian Harp analogy simply a ‘poetic’ image – something which sounds nice written as a programme note but doesn’t mean too much when you ponder what it means? Well, no, I would argue that there is something important in the choice of simile, perhaps as a gesture towards a certain looseness, by means of contrast with the stereotype of the controlling composer who is not willing, as Houben is, to give the performer, the audience, or the sounds themselves, a certain freedom. (Note that this looseness, this freedom is by no means absolute, for control and limitation are vital factors here.) In addition, the notion of ‘uncomposition’ is perhaps meant to hint at the extreme simplicity of the material (the hour long piece almost exclusively uses natural harmonics and one particular droning string, punctuated by long silences; this is even more ‘minimal’ in terms of melodic material than late Feldman), which lends it a certain ‘anonymous’ quality (on which more below). At the same time, the degree of virtuosity required is very great – but this is virtuosity not for its own sake, for display, for showing off, but in the service of a radically limited and focussed selection of material that, while it may inspire admiration for the performer’s abilities, does not take this as a raison d’etre, does not make it the primary element.

While it might be going too far to speak of ‘melody’ as such, the piece does have a melodic quality, with its repeated, returning progression of notes; and the return of the low drone after a passage of exquisitely delicate, high-pitched harmonics, resounds (almost) like a grandly returning main theme at the climax of a symphony. One could see this as essentially Webernian – the compression of extreme drama, extreme event, into tiny spaces. But, in fact, the opposite is true of this piece: ‘Nachtstück’ actually concerns the expansion of extremely limited material into a large space, a large time span. Or maybe it’s about the eradication of time, about achieving a state akin to the ecstatic, a-temporal moment aimed at in meditation. By this I don’t mean to imply that the music is simply some piece of hip, arty Zen (or even a genuinely Buddhist experience, which is perhaps something aspired to in the music of Eliane Radigue). It does not aspire to levitate from the body, to abandon the earthly delusions of maya for disembodied bliss; rather, it makes one profoundly aware of one’s surroundings and of one’s body – the sound of one’s own stomach gurgling, even the sound of one’s own breath. (This is true of ‘reductionist’ music in general, but I don’t think that makes it any less relevant to this particular performance). It’s a kind of framing of environment, I guess – the music transforms the ‘background sounds’, and these sounds transform the music; something is shared between performer and composer, performer and audience, audience and performer, environment and music, music and environment, the connections, the loops, the interlinking chains, forming a kind of exquisite slow dance.

As such language indicates, this music is far from ‘sterile’ or ‘cerebral’; on the contrary, it tempts one to utopian generalisation. Because a fair portion of the piece is devoted to ‘silences’ (when the performer is not making any sound), the audience must assume an ‘active’ role (audience participation without the awkward sense of obligation it can sometimes assume in a theatrical context). They must collaborate with the composer and performer in ‘creating’, or shaping the silences, through bringing a certain quality of attention to them (although that itself is coloured by the notes that have sounded before). In the end though, these things are out of the audience’s hands as much as they are out of the composer’s or performer’s; in this performance, we had a duet for buzzing flies, birdcalls, a jet engine meshing with a particular droning bass frequency, a brief snatch of ‘O Sole Mio’ via an ice-cream van, occasional voices and shouts from distant gardens, and, towards the end of the piece, a non-metric rhythm provided by a summer rain shower (shades of Taku Sugimoto’s ‘Live in Australia’ – can a natural occurrence be said to ‘refer’ to a previous work of art?). One could even go so far as to say that both ‘composer’ and ‘performer’ are virtually eradicated – the composer because they are concentrating on sounds so ‘simple’ that they might be said to resonate with the anonymous, primal resonance of folk music: sounds that, because they belongs to no one author, belong to everyone, as their shared possession. (I’m not so much thinking here of ‘folk tunes’ as such, but of that most crucial element of folk music, the drone; ‘Nachtstück’ reminded me, in terms of a certain limitation of sonority, extremely powerful in its impact, of the Khazakstany one-stringed viol, the kobyz.) As for the performer, their ‘eradication’ comes about because the material cannot be ‘emotionally interpreted’ as most of the ‘great works’ of classical music can; rather, it must be played with an almost overwhelming focus on accuracy (or as much accuracy as is possible). In addition, neither the performer nor the composer can control the silences (nor, for that matter, can the audience, but they can choose to shape the silences by the kind of attention they pay to them, as discussed above). This makes it sound as if I’m saying that the audience shape the music more than either the composer or the performer, which is simply not true. But there is a kind of sharing here which is more common, perhaps, to improvised music: an interpretation of post-Cageian attitudes to ‘silence’ which I will not taint through the utopian generalisations I threatened above. So perhaps now would be a good point to stop writing – and to congratulate Dominic Lash on hosting, and giving, this very fine performance. Future instalments in the series are eagerly awaited…