By a happy coincidence, the last Huddersfield concert, and the last one I am determined to write about, is going to be broadcast (at least partially) tonight on BBC’s Hear and Now. Performed by Apartment House, the concert was in three sections, as a retrospective of John Cage’s 1958 Town Hall concert. The first section was mostly early Cage works. I’m trying to remember now whose website it was I was looking at yesterday–they were saying how difficult it is to talk about Cage’s music, and why it works. I completely agree. But I can at least say that there were some really magical moments in that section. I found the First Construction (in metal) strikingly beautiful, and somehow just right. Sometimes there is a sense of necessity about when a piece must come to a close. When it does it, it wins me over forever. When it fails to, I get fidgety and even angry. Some pieces don’t have this sense of necessity. Actually I rejected one of my own pieces because I realized it made no difference if it was 2 minutes or 20–it was all one thing, and no reduction or expansion would improve it. Now if that one thing had been of interest…but it was not. But now I’m getting off track. What I mean to be saying is that there were some very beautiful pieces in the first third of the concert, though I found Larry Austin’s Williams [re]Mix[ed], a “cleaned-up” version of Cage’s Williams Mix, to be far less satisfying than anything else on that section of the program. To be fair, everything else was very short, and live. A 20-minute tape piece is a tough sell at the end of 10 days of 4+ concerts a day.
There were several pieces that made quite an impression on me in the second half. The first of these was Claudia Molitor‘s Paper cut – a homage to Cage (and Beethoven of course). In this piece, the score itself became playing material. The string players drew on their scores with the tips of their bows and bowed the edges of them. I saw at least one score with a section cut into little flaps, which were also used towards a sounding result. A piece of Molitor’s that the London Sinfonietta played two days later involved a similar going back to the basic materials (literally) of composition. She worked the instrumental colors in wonderfully with the sound of her writing, which was also captured and shown on video.
Markus Trunk is engaged with a different kind of return to basics–not the physical materials of composition, but the extreme limitation of sounding possibilities. Something quite wonderful happens in the works of his that I have heard, most especially Parhelion. It reminds me of discussions we would have in English class about microcosms. The boundaries are quite limited, but the attention is so great within those boundaries that one becomes aware of all sorts of things that are normally thought of as happening on a broad scale. That analogy breaks down, though, because I found that all sorts of things were happening, at least in my perception, that lay well outside of the normal ways that sounds interact. Everything was operating differently. The piece was for celeste, viola, and cello. The cello and viola were both retuned, and only played open pitches and harmonics. (There were no fingered pitches.) They were only in octaves and unison with each other, and each statement in the strings involved a single leap of an octave and no other melodic interval. Now this is where there is some advantage to posting well after the fact. Not only is the radio broadcast of most of this concert on tonight, but I can also reflect with more perspective on how this piece reached me. An image of this piece kept occurring to me for days after the concert, and still does, nearly three weeks later. From the significant original constraints of the work, it seemed to become further and further distilled. I can’t remember if that actually happened, or if it is my impression. (I’ll find out when it is broadcast in two weeks.) But however it happened, it has become a part of my recent musical experience.
Alvin Curran‘s ERAT VERBUM JOHNNY juliet oscar hotel november november yankee (yes, that’s what it’s called, I double checked) was just so much fun to hear and to watch. There’s no one who can transform amorphous sounds into a 1917 popular song quite like Alvin Curran. My favorite moment was the transition from the spirited playing of Oh Johnny to the performance by all the players of a sort of whistling sound on bent electrical tubing. I loved imagining that the song was continuing, though if I were to have a close listen I’m sure I would wonder what on earth I was thinking at the time. But with Curran, all these elements–experimental, popular, classical, whatever–seem to come out of one vibrant fabric. These combinations of elements don’t usually work for me with other composers, but somehow I’m always wonderfully surprised at what Curran pulls off in this respect.
Ironically and sadly, I had to leave the concert before Cage’s Concert (for piano and orchestra) to catch a train to Birmingham, but it’s a wonderful piece. I’m hoping the BBC will broadcast it eventually. In any case, you can tune into tonight’s program for the rest of the week, so no worries if you’re reading this post after 10:30pm UK time on Saturday–which is in just under an hour, now that I look.