Friday 30 September 2022

Sean Bonney Special Issue

After two years, the Sean Bonney special issue of the Journal of British and Irish Innovative Poetry, co-edited by Jeff Hilson and myself, is finally out in the world. It’s been a long road, and a lot of work along that road, but, many hundreds of emails and proofs and conversations later, we’re grateful that so many people have come together to treat Sean’s work with the seriousness it deserves. You can access the issue here.

This is a larger than usual issue of the journal: it reprints four essays by Sean—on Sun Ra/Amiri Baraka, on Louis-Auguste Blanqui/Louise Michel, and on Anna Mendelssohn, along with the complete ‘Notes on Militant Poetics’—and eleven essays on his work, almost all specially written for the issue, by Tom Allen, Christina Chalmers, Robert Hampson, Lisa Jeschke/Danny Hayward, Esther Leslie, Rob Kiely, Will Rowe, Kashif Sharma-Patel, Vicky Sparrow, Lindsay Turner, and Steve Willey, an editorial introduction by Jeff and myself, and a detailed bibliography of Sean’s work that I prepared based, in part, on prior work by Ian Heames, Justin Katko, and Harry Gilonis. Special thanks, not only to the contributors, but to Eleanor Careless, who patiently guided us through many technical issues, especially along the latter stages of the route to publication...

Jeff and I first spoke about the issue in several phone sessions during the first lockdown in summer 2020; and now we head towards the end of summer 2020 with more catastrophe looming. Here’s a bit from the introduction which, hopefully, speaks to some of this:
We’d like to begin with a brief reflection on what it meant to edit this issue when we did, between the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2022. Sean Bonney died in the autumn of 2019, during the UK general election which saw Boris Johnson elected as prime minister, and a month or so before the first strains of COVID-19 emerged. We first began to edit this issue during a national lockdown in the UK, and a condition of lockdown in many countries worldwide, at a time when social norms expectations and safety nets were even more radically dissembled, with no immediate end point in site.

During this time, reality seemed to have become a Sean Bonney poem [...] Bonney’s work is extraordinarily precise and complex in its disentangling of the relation between metaphor, history, and the actuality of conditions like riot, plague, and starvation: conditions, that as the global pandemic that emerged in 2020 revealed, are far from the mere decorative detail of a distant past, outsourced from the murderously complacent centre of ‘Great Britain’ or ‘Fortress Europe’. Here, plague is somehow at once symptom, cause, and antidote. Bonney attempts to stage the impossible: how to conceive of solidarity when enforced isolation and quarantine seem to make the conditions for collective social life impossible, reinforcing the atomisation that’s already built into each facet of life within contemporary capitalism. The poem doesn’t pretend that it’s reached a new synthesis out of this contradiction: the false balm of a simplified version of dialectics that resolves what remains unresolved in reality, whether in poetry and political theory, or as party line. But with every fibre of its being it wants to push thought past its limit to a synthesis that would move beyond the deadly cost of such contradiction, a desire felt more keenly than ever in the aftermath of Sean’s death, in the ongoing conditions of plague and its after-effects we’re in now. 
We’ve said that, in 2020, reality, its landscapes, both internal and external, seemed to become a Sean Bonney poem. But this isn’t quite the right way to put it. It’s not that reality became a Sean Bonney poem. Rather, reality was already a poem by Sean Bonney, a report on the affective truth of social life, ‘the enormous noises of the border // Kreuzberg. Exarchia. Hackney’, taking in everyone from Dante to Ericka Huggins, Blanqui, Ulrike Meinhof and George Jackson: writers who, too, drew their visions from history’s prisons, precarious housing, social immiseration, and periods of ideological crisis.

Here’s the official write-up and Table of Contents: 

The author of numerous pamphlets and full-length collections, including Our Death (2019), Letters against the Firmament (2015), Happiness (2011), The Commons (2011), Document (2008), Baudelaire in English (2007) and Blade Pitch Control Unit (2005), Sean Bonney was a crucial part of contemporary poetry communities in the UK and internationally. Formatively shaped by the influences of Maggie O’Sullivan and Anna Mendelssohn and by Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum workshops, Bonney’s work drew from the aesthetic practices of the British Poetry Revival, and from Left-wing political and aesthetic radicalism, including the Angry Brigade, the Black Radical Tradition, Punk, the Situationists, Surrealism and Revolutionary Marxism and Anarchism. Predominantly based in London, but also in Liverpool and Nottingham and, in his final years, Berlin, Bonney’s work was in dialogue with a much wider range of international poetries past and present. With Frances Kruk, Bonney ran the small press yt communication, and he was an active publisher and organiser, committed to an aesthetic drawn from Punk and DIY traditions, as well as the legacy of the Mimeo revolution, samizdat publishing and radical pamphleteering. A critic and scholar as well as a poet, his critical work challenged the boundaries of academic writing, as he aimed at conceptualising what he called a ‘militant poetics’, in doctoral work on Amiri Baraka and in essays on Louis-Auguste Blanqui, Anna Mendelssohn and Sun Ra among others. His work in poetry, poetics and critical prose was extraordinarily wide-ranging in its field of influences, and in turn exerted a powerful influence on those poets around him. We hope that this feature will give a sense of the full richness of his career in poetry in its many different phases and dimensions, as well as taking into account Bonney’s unswerving commitment to political activism and to thinking through the relation of politics and aesthetics. 

Co-edited by David Grundy and Jeff Hilson Volume 14 • Issue 1 • 2022. 
(Published September 2022) 

Table of Contents 

Editorial ‘No Simple Explanations’ 
David Grundy and Jeff Hilson 

Sean Bonney: A Selected Bibliography 
David Grundy 


‘As Simple as Music’: Kinds of Noise in Sean Bonney’s Poetry 
Tom Allen 

Speaking with the voices of the dead: Sean Bonney, Arthur Rimbaud, Amiri Baraka and revolutionary poetics 
Robert Hampson 

The State is a Murderous Life-Support Machine: A Conversation about Death 
Lisa Jeschke and Danny Hayward 

A preliminary reading of Sean Bonney’s ‘What Teargas is For’ 
Robert Kiely 

Notes Towards a Commentary on Sean Bonney’s Letters Against the Firmament 
William Rowe 

Bonney’s Militant Poetics: Revolutionary Aesthetics, Politics and Black Poetics 
Kashif Sharma-Patel 

‘This Face of Glee...This Terrifying Sound’: Sean Bonney Through the Soundhole, Where Bonney IS 
Stephen Paul Willey 


Time Negatives of Variable Universe: On Sun Ra and Amiri Baraka 
Sean Bonney 

Comets & Barricades: Insurrectionary Imagination in Exile 
Sean Bonney 

Notes on Militant Poetics 
Sean Bonney 

‘Minds do exist to agitate and provoke / this is the reason I do not conform’—Anna Mendelssohn 
Sean Bonney 

The Involution of the Storm Corner: Sean Bonney’s Occult 
Christina Chalmers 

Bouleversed Baudelairizing: On Poetics and Terror 
Esther Leslie 

Sean Bonney’s Social Space 
Vicky Sparrow 

The Poetics of Despair: Listening to Sean Bonney in Charlottesville, Virginia 
Lindsay Turner

Tuesday 27 September 2022


Above: Pharoah Sanders playing at Carnegie Hall in New York, 1972. Photo: K. Abe/Shinko Music/Getty Images.
Pharoah Sanders passed this week, the day after what would have been John Coltrane's 96th birthday.

My obituary is at Artforum.

As a supplement to that piece, some of my favourite Sanders radio and video shots below.

--Sanders' feature on 'Naima' from Live at the Village Vanguard Again--or for, that matter, on 'Peace on Earth' from Live in Japan--is one of the great solos in jazz's recorded history, reinventing the idea of what a 'ballad' could be, of what a 'solo' could be, of what music could be. But, to me, this version of Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' from the Seattle residency that yielded Live in Seattle and the recently issued live version of A Love Supreme surpasses even those. During those brief years of collaboration before Coltrane's death, he and Sanders were plumbing the depths to reach the heights, their music a lived reinvention of the social, of the painful and beautiful movement towards the creation of a more just world. It calls to us still.

--I only wish there were more recordings of Sanders' work with Dave Burrell and Sonny Sharrock from around the time they made Tauhid. Burrell's pianism, with his ability to vamp for hours, his harmonic inventiveness, his unassuming and relentless energy, was one of the key spurs in Sanders' move from the open-ended frameworks of the late Coltrane groups to something more groove-driven, to one-chord vamps, a kind of free jazz minimalism that, in its emotional impact, is as maximal as anything ever recorded. The aspirations of the music move out--it's there in the track and album titles, but it's there in the music too, its endless open horizon. On Sanders' studio albums, his bands were often supplemented with additional instruments--the unforgettable use of Julius Watkins' french horn on Karma, of Leon Thomas's vocals on Jewels of Thought, of the extra horns and additional percussion on Summun Bukmun Umyun, Thembi, and the rest. Or the ensemble sound of Izipho Zam, criminally underrated, recorded for Strata-East but not released until four years later. In terms of live recordings, move forward a few years and there's Sanders' group with Lonnie Liston Smith, Sirone on bass, and Majeed Shabazz on drums, in bootlegs from the 1968 Antibes Jazz Festival, playing material from Tauhid, which had been recorded two years prior, and The Creator Has a Master Plan, which had yet to be released. Some film footage from the same performances gives some further visual cues into the band's interplay.

--From the Nice festival two years later, with Cecil McBee replacing Sirone and Jimmy Hopps replacing Shabazz and Lawrence Killian on percussion, a quintet version of the Lonnie Liston Smith arrangement of 'Let Us Go Into the House of the Lord' that appeared on Summun Bukmun Umyun, turning the traditional spiritual made famous by the Edwin Hawkins singers into an epic suite of changing moods and colours. Listen to the way Smith's solo, via simple scalar repetition, transforms as he keeps the sustain pedal depressed and the chords become denser and less consonant, moving into the thick intensity of Sanders' multiphonic re-entry, a passage of fearsome power with Sanders' saxophone accompanied by screams and hollers and Smith's piano chords transformed into part of a thicket of percussion, before things settle into McBee's bass solo. I've always found McBee's arco playing here and on the studio album completely astonishing, some of the most moving music I know.

--From the same year, Sanders and Archie Shepp in a dual-horn line-up with Alice Coltrane at a Carnegie Hall benefit concert, channelling the inside/outside feel of Coltrane's Ptah, the El Daoud, where the Shepp role was taken by Joe Henderson. The dual-horn line-up here is not just a reminder of John Coltrane's last band but, as that band itself was, of the "duelling tenors" sound popularized in the fifties, with the sounds of competition, cutting contests, jam sessions, rendered instead contributions to a conversation of collective rapture.


--As Sanders' moved 'inside' during the seventies and eighties, his quartet with John Hicks on piano, Curtis Lundy on bass, and Idris Muhammad on drums perfected a certain vein of post-Coltrane, post-bop playing. Analogies might be drawn to what David Murray was doing around the same time: endless streams of invention over changes, 'outside' passages deployed at moments of climax, a resolute swing, a fulsome romanticism. This long, long performance of 'Doktor Pitt' from--I believe, 1986, at the Fabrik club in Hamburg--exemplifies their particular energy.

--With McCoy Tyner at the Lugano Jazz Festival in 1985 playing 'For Tomorrow': wistful yet full of hope. 


--In duo with John Hicks in Frankfurt in 1986, playing material from the quartet album Africa. I've always loved the version of Hicks' 'After the Morning' here. The word that springs to mind so often with Sanders' later career is serenity: this piece exemplifies that.

-- Ask the Ages was one of Sanders' great late-career albums. Sonny Sharrock had been one of his earliest compadres, and the music they made in this reunion, and attendant tour, was a kind of retrospective of all the styles they could play: swinging post-bop, the blue, free playing, ventures into rock. Live, the energy gets dialled up even more--this was, after all, a Sonny Sharrock who'd been playing with Peter Brötzmann in Last Exit for the past few years. But the music is wider, deeper, broader than that of Last Exit: the panorama of Black populist modernism and modernist populism that Sanders had mastered so well.

When Charlie Parker died, Ted Joans went around Greenwich Village writing "Bird Lives" on walls.

As a friend wrote to me on finding out the news of Sanders' passing: "Pharoah Sanders is immortal".

Thursday 15 September 2022

Betsy Jolas’ bTunes

Video thanks to the invaluable 5against4 blog, whose contrasting write-up can be found here.

Nicholas Hodges (piano), BBC Symphony Orchestra / Karina Canellakis. BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, Monday 5 September 2022.

bTunes, the new piano concerto by Franco-American composer Betsy Jolas, premiered at the Proms in early September on the bill with a much more familiar, but equally strange piece. Under conductor Karina Canellakis, the BBC Symphony Orchestra rendered Mahler’s First Symphony with due attention to its luminous strangeness. The symphony doesn’t so much begin as appear, with the spectral hovering of a seven-octave drone in the strings. It goes on to stage several deeply strange set-pieces, including a lengthy funeral march in which Frère Jacques meets a klezmer melody, and an extended finale, with a sudden and unexpected eruption of doom-laden fanfares and closing, blasting, percussive blare of triumph. At times, Canellakis virtually danced off the podium, and the orchestra’s sprightly account emphasized the piece’s sharp and eerie edges, rendered all the stranger for the strangely apposite sounds of a crying baby in the first movement.

For her part, Jolas’ concerto began with a bit of (extra-)musical comedy, the orchestra’s leader desperately ‘conducting’ the ensemble, cymbal rolls and string textures sounding out like an opening cough, in the apparent absence of conductor and pianist, before Callenakis came running in from the wings, ushering pianist Nicholas Hodges on stage in a Laurel and Hardy routine. More jokes abounded at various points: Hodges slamming the cover down on the keyboard to signal performative frustration or a musical transition—it’s not clear which; the violinists inaudibly bowing the back of their instruments. In such moments, Jolas plays with the traditional roles of the classical orchestra, not only sonically, but in terms of the whole drama and ritual of the concert hall. Musically, as Jolas’ programme note explains, the piece is constituted of separate solo piano pieces assembled as a kind of playlist—hence the punning i-tunes nod in the title. Rather than the traditional romantic warhorse, Jolas renders the piano concerto as a collection of brilliantly-coloured sketches, in which despite a virtuosic piano part, the overall feel is that of a seething, collective texture, the ensemble constantly echoing and amplifying Hodges’ twittering, trilling curlicues. As in much of Jolas’ work, the piece wears its structure lightly: open and flowing, yet precise, its structures assemble and disassemble themselves in a fashion that often feels loose and improvisatory, like breaths of free and clear air.

Astonishingly, once the piece was over, the 96 year-old Jolas stood up from the audience to receive applause and, afterwards, to sign autographs. While some in the audience were clearly bemused, it’s heartening to see such recognition, particularly given Jolas’ long-standing—and clearly gendered—neglect. Jolas herself may not, as she’s stated in interviews, be optimistic about the future of new music, but her own work is anything but pessimistic. It has hope that intellection, liveliness, cheerfulness, joy, and the careful cultivation of an ethics of listening, are all values music can still explore and hold to; hope that awareness of musical history and tradition does not mean being closed but being open, not simply repeating but varying, inventing, ceaselessly turning over and examining the matter of sound with the joy of discovery and with a sense that there is no end to the possibilities to be found.

Saturday 10 September 2022

Up-to-date (From Attica to AMM)

(Some pieces of writing recently published in other venues.)

Attica is in front of me”, an essay on musical responses to the Attica uprising by Archie Shepp, Frederic Rzewski and Charles Mingus, appears online in a special issue of the Blank Forms journal, edited by Ciarán Finlayson, commemorating the uprising fifty years on.

A piece on the Eddie Prévost residency at Café Oto in July is at Point of Departure. There were four concerts in Bright Nowhere, celebrating Prévost’s eightieth birthday: the piece has write-ups of all four--a multi-saxophone concert, the ‘Sounds of Assembly’ group, a Workshop concert, and the last ever gig by AMM. 

And at Artforum, a shorter write-up of the AMM gig from the same residency.

An edit from a much longer interview I did with Eva-Maria Houben last month is up at VAN magazine. (The full interview will be out in the fullness of time--watch this space: I also wrote about the recent performance of Houben’s ‘Together on the Way’ at the Southbank Centre a few months back.) 

Other odds and ends:

A review of Decoy and Joe McPhee’s gig at Café Oto came out back in the July issue of The Wire, of which there’s an image below; there’s also a review of the Explore Ensemble concert of music by Poppe, Dunn, Dillon and Miller in the October issue, of which I’ve just posted a longer version on this blog

And even further back, in March, organiser Mark O. Chamberlain kindly read out my short paper at the online John Wieners symposium hosted by Durham University: video of that and the other papers can now be viewed online here.

In the near future, among other things, a piece on Igor Levit’s new disc based around Hans Werner Henze’s Tristan, a journal special issue, a poetry pamphlet from Andy Spragg’s and Jimmy Cummins’ RunAmok, new titles from Materials/Materailien, and the Blank Forms reprint of Baraka, Neal and Spellman’s The Cricket, to which I contributed a short introduction. Lauri Scheyer and I are also putting the finishing touches to Calvin Hernton’s Selected Poems with Wesleyan University Press, a project that’s been in the works for a few years and which we’re very excited to see moving to completion...

More on all that in due course!

Wednesday 7 September 2022

Songs, Offerings, Wastes and Suites

Explore Ensemble at Wigmore Hall
Friday 8th July 2022

Enno Poppe, Gelöschte Lieder
Cassandra Miller, Perfect offering
James Dillon, The soadie waste
Lawrence Dunn, Suite

[Note: A shorter version of this piece appears in the October issue of The Wire magazine.]

For the past ten years, the London-based Explore Ensemble, a winds, strings and piano sextet, has amassed a steady range of commissions and concerts, from Feldman to Finnissy, last year receiving the substantial Ernst von Siemens Musikstiftung Ensemble Prize. Taking place at the beginning of a summer heatwave within the airy confines of the Wigmore Hall, the Ensemble’s early July concert was a pleasingly undiluted presentation of new music, no filler.

Each of the four works on the programme, lasting between fifteen and twenty minutes in length, explored in various ways the idea of a group and the historical nature of form. In their own way, each piece was an exploration of a pull between sensual pleasure, conventional or unconventionally beautiful sound, and a self-questioning, interrogative tugging at the limits of formal expectation which opened onto history. The concert opened with the strung-out intensities, tightening and loosening, of what was the oldest piece chronologically, Enno Poppe’s late-’90s Gelöschte Lieder (Erased Songs). A quintet of piccolo (doubling flute), clarinet, violin, viola and piano throw out spiky, fracturing lines moving towards and away from cohesion: dissolving unisons, interlocking peals, all the instruments constantly tangling and untangling, with a propensity to dramatic, extreme high notes. Poppe’s piece is lively, bright and effective, polished and highly assured, striking and compelling as a listening experience almost. Yet its relatively standard New Music textures sounded relatively old-fashioned compared to the next piece on the programme—paradoxically, perhaps, given that that piece has a pronounced tendency to quote music of the past, and an at least apparently simple harmony, melody, textures that are rarely harsh or rebarbative.

Written during the 2020 lockdown, Cassandra Miller’s Perfect Offering takes melody apart, re-enchanting the basics and basis of sound by revealing them in all their deceptive complexity. Like much of her work, it’s based on fragmentary transcriptions of other musics—in this case, slowed-down recordings of bells from a French convent—as if the original object has been held up to refracting and reflecting light. In much classical music, bells signify grandeur: sound and fury, triumphant exhortation, religious or State pomp, premonitions of salvation or doom: Rachmaninov’s The Bells, Boris Godunov, the 1812 Overture the Symphonie Fantastique. But they can also be rendered as gentle, swaying traceries, pealing in decorative rather than annunciatory fashion: Liszt’s ‘Les Cloches de Geneve’, Ravel’s La vallée des cloches, Arvo Pärt’s various tintinnabulatory pieces. (Debussy’s La cathédrale engloutie, with its submerged church rising out of the sea, partakes of both tendencies.) Miller’s bells certainly lean more towards the delicate than the bombastic: gently repeating and slowly morphing, figures for wind and strings mimic the bells’ regular rhythms over implacably calm piano figures. The effect is not mechanical or clangorous, but shimmering and lulling, as much watery as metallic, heat-hazed air shimmering on a summer’s day. At certain points the music rises to hymnal grandeur; in another, extraordinary moment, all the instruments drop out save a lone clarinet, repeating two notes for what seems an eternity before the music moves on.
Writing Perfect Offering during a period of depression, Miller sang along to melodic lines from the slowed-down recording. An absent voice haunts the music: a voice singing itself back into the world by letting go. For Miller, while musical forms are socially produced and historically conditioned, music is also connected to personal, even private emotion, conveyed in ritualised form. Miller deals with a recurrent new music topos—both as problem and resource: that of musical quotation as direct engagement with the music of the past. Composers of the post-war avant-garde--Nono, Lachenmann, Ligeti, and perhaps above all, Berio--have explored quotation as critical framework, reclamation of submerged and subversive traditions, or melancholic glance backward. In Miller’s case, quotation is not disguised or hidden—as it is often is with, say, Nono—nor is it foreground, collage-style—as with Berio. Instead, it’s refracted across the entire surface, visible at almost every point—and, in some ways generating virtually the entire structure of the entire piece—yet remaining uncanny, other than itself. Miller offers what might be called cubist rearrangements of tradition musical objects, retaining their shimmering aura in a fashion that can, at times lead towards a pleasurable, soothing melancholy, at others create a kind of queasy, calm alarm—a slow panic, a distributed anxiety in the process of turning into calm, or calm turning to anxiety. Miller’s pieces don’t propose to make grand statements about music’s history and future, but modest ones: they are experiments, gentle interrogations, that pay attention in a materially precise way to the question of what beauty is and how we’re conditioned to view it.

Music, for Miller, it would seem, is a form of art that’s socially produced and historically conditioned yet connected to personal, even private emotion conveyed in ritualised form. I say ritualised rather than ritual because, while Miller’s pieces often take their musical material almost entirely from quoted, or, as Miller terms it, “transcribed” materials, their form is abstracted from them. Just as an earlier piece, Bel Canto, takes phrases from Callas’ rendition of a Verdi aria outside the frame of the operatic stage, so Perfect Offering invokes both bells and—in its title—a Leonard Cohen song, without taking assuming the form of a religious call or a pop song. Given all this, there’s at once a familiar strangeness and strange familiarity to Miller’s music. In mood and feel, this, along with the consistent mining of the music of the past—whether in direct quotation, or in explorations of and allusions to post-serialist tonality and musical rhetoric—and the invariable adoption of slow, untroubled tempi, is a quality Miller shares with peers and contemporaries like Laurence Crane and much of the music released in the past few years on the Another Timbre label, which by now might seem to be crystallising into a kind of school or style. I have been struck and moved by much of this work over the years, though, as ever when a style becomes widespread, there is attendant risk: in this case, the critical, defamiliarizing edge that, in this case, prevents the music from settling into easy consolation. At their best, the initial power of such pieces was that it was not often clear exactly how to read them, even as they appeared almost absurdly transparent or opaque in their simplicity of means. This was certainly not ‘New Complexity’, but it was not New Romanticism or New Simplicity, exactly. But once this kind of affect becomes too familiar, there is the risk that the work loses its edge. It becomes, in a word, too readable.
To repeat, however, this is a risk rather than a given. Beauty, or its signifiers, can become a problem if that beauty hardens into the repetition of style—though, of course, beauty can’t exist without style. Miller’s music remains beautiful because it pays attention in such a materially precise way to the question of what beauty is and how we’re conditioned to view it, but also because of its intimacy. Perfect Offering is a piece ‘about’ various things, and readable in that sense: about depression and letting go, about separation and distance, about the passing of time, about imperfection and suffering and history and other age-old themes. But it’s never grandiose, and it poses these things as gestures rather than answers, its intimate distance offering each listener space to bring themselves to the piece in a spirit at once reflective and generous. I found it deeply moving.

Written almost twenty years ago, but still full of biting freshness, James Dillon’s piano quintet the soadie waste is named for a social club on the outskirts of his native Glasgow, built on the site of a chemical factory, whose fumes, it was rumoured, still leaked through the floors. Subtitled “wedding receptions, dances and house-housie” (bingo), the piece conjures up cubist visions of social activity, as tight, overlapping rhythms characterise the intense, memorable opening, a cubist invitation to the dance, giving way to more anxiously reflective music before the opening returns with a brilliant flourish. Dillon began in rhythm and blues bands, before a chance encounter with a Webern while he was living on a commune saw him change direction: since then he has, as he's remarked, sought a “balance between intellectual rigour and sensual speech”, attempting to “drag [the] language” of new music “into a space that I could recognise.” His music consciously speaks form the peripheries: away from central Europe, away from the West, finding value in other kinds of sociality, from social clubs to communes to the sound of New Music—itself an outlier within an often musically conservative classical establishment. The soadie waste doesn’t offer social realism, but it does convey a sense of underclass resilience: on the outskirts, outside the metropolitan centre, on Britain’s edges. Over the leaking fumes of an industrial past—a past of dispossession and imperial aggression that still constitutes the ostensibly post-imperialist and ostensibly ‘devolved’ United Kingdom as it exists today—it stages a defiant dancing on the flames, beautiful and strong.

The concert concluded with the world premiere of Suite, by Lawrence Dunn, the youngest of the composers on the bill. I first met Lawrence around a decade ago, at a free improv gig where someone had just demolished a chair: Lawrence looked up with wry and implacable calm as if this sort of thing happened every day. Like Miller’s, Dunn’s work is deeply attentive to musical history, and extremely thoughtful about things like melody and harmony. It’s also determinedly strange, defamiliarizing classical form through the use of quarter tones and apparently out-of-place, sampled recordings. Composed as a single movement, played without a break, Dunn’s Suite falls into discernible parts modelled on the movements that historically comprise a suite. It is, however, far from neo-classicist, staging a kind of enquiry into the form in which it’s written, from within that form.
Initially developing as a collection of Baroque dances, and later as a vehicle for Romantic tone painting, by the early twentieth century, the suite had become uncanny, self-consciously archaic, even arcane, its last gasps works like Ravel’s Le Tombeau De Couperin, a deeply melancholic, ironically classicized work written for friends killed in war, and Berg’s Lyric Suite, which channels cryptic romantic secrets in a febrile atmosphere of vexed love. Suites—at least, named as such—have effectively fallen out fashion since then. So why revive the form now? As the programme notes suggest, Dunn explores the suite as a form that developed in tandem with various stages of imperial history—the growth of European expansionism in the Baroque period, when the court opulence it signalled directly profited from the plunder of slavery and colonial extraction; later, the epochs of nationalism and dissolving empires and their crises. The musical impulse to compartmentalise, to categorise, divide, and collect, Dunn suggests, is a process with wider ramifications as regards imperialism’s practice of division and collection, its violent remapping of the world itself.
This is not so much an overt programme as a backdrop. Three field recordings play at various points in the piece (there were some technical mishaps with the playback in the concert, but they can be heard perfectly in the concert video uploaded to the Explore Ensemble’s YouTube page). The first of the recordings sounds out during the opening. As the ensemble offer knotty, staggered melodic lines and the piano plays a part labelled in the score as “like water”, the faint “sounds of a pier being demolished near the entrance to the Terminal Island Prison and Deportation Center, Los Angeles, US., 2012” add acousmatic background connected to a specific socio-political background which can’t be detected by ear but which by its very presence refutes politically quietist abstraction. Later on, an unaccompanied field recording of schoolchildren singing the national anthem of Suriname in Dutch hints at colonial legacies. Finally, a recording of a fly trapped in a bottle—again, largely submerged within the ensemble texture—gestures towards the trope of the memento mori, a warning of time’s passing, yet without fatalism, suggesting a struggle against the enclosing structures that trap individual perception, history as a nightmare from which we still are still barely awakening.

As the suite has developed—and disintegrated—historically—its functional relation to dance has become all the more distanced, as the dances it contained fell out of fashion and practical use. In the case of Ravel’s Tombeau, allusions to those dances, their rhythms and particular character, form part of a melancholic, arch and ghostly container: the form consciously denuded of its content, while wistfully harking back to those associations it cannot leave behind. In Dunn’s Suite, meanwhile, the kinds of fractured, rhythmically jagged renderings of dance unisons that animate, for example, Dillon’s Soadie Waste, receive a more subdued, uneasy rendering. The music is often characterised by a kind of agitated flow. Rippling might be a good word to describe the feel it often takes; at other points, a conflict between stasis and movement creates a kind of purposive irresolution with a particular, and very compelling tension to it. In the opening minutes, an elaborate, unceasing piano part which almost disappears behind the playing of the ensemble; pianist Siwan Rhys switches to keyboard for subsequent parts, her synth-like sounds at points merging into the thick ensemble texture, at others standing out like matter out of place. The work culminates in an astonishing piece of collective writing, in which a simple melody rises up the octaves, topped off by a screaming piccolo. A brilliant example of how to build and sustain a musical climax, it is, in context, quite unexpected, and all the more effective for it. But Dunn doesn’t let the piece end at its natural resting point. Instead, as Rhys switches back to piano, there’s the briefest of pauses—in which the fly buzzing in the bottle can be heard unadorned—before a kind of sardonic coda, one which refuses the gains of rhetorical accomplishment: not with a bang but a whimper, a muttered afterword to something that had seemed definitively concluded. It’s anything but affirmative, offering unease rather than resolve. Like all of the pieces on the programme, it reverberates as a series of questions as much as a series of reinforcements of answers or what we know already: and, of any of the pieces on the programme, it perhaps offers the most “edge” (a favoured term of Dunn’s).
Within British classical musical culture of late, there seems to be a growing musical conservatism: not so much on the part of performers, composers, or artists, but on that numinous network of programming, funding, and institutional survival within a period of crisis sparked, not only by the covid situation, but by the current government’s increasing hostility towards culture (perhaps the “culture wars” might be renamed by their true term, “class war”, despite the pseudo-populism indicated by appointing Nadine Dorries as Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport of the United Kingdom). Spoken or unpsoken apologias disavow all but the briefest of traces of the avant-garde within the world of the classical concert hall—a glance at this year’s Proms line-up, in comparison to the programmes of even, say, five years ago, serves as a good example. And so a concert like that of the Explore Ensemble is all the more welcome for bucking the trend. Thanks, in large part, to the Wigmore’s scheme of £5 tickets for under-35s, and to its programming choices—Elaine Mitchener and Jason Moran as resident artists, fairly frequent performances by groups like Apartment house—there’s a notable change to the usual audiences found in such a venue: often younger, sometimes—though by no means always—less overwhelmingly white and male. Not only this, but that audiences—for this concert, for the Roscoe Mitchell set in late June, for the concerts that Mitchener has been curating during and after lockdown—are engaged, and have come specifically to see this “difficult” music we’re otherwise implicitly told has no audience. On the night, applause for the pieces by Poppe, Miller, Dillon and Dunn was suitably and equally rapturous. Let’s hope we see more such programmes soon.

[Written July 2022]