Music We’d Like to Hear

Once I arrived at the music we’d like to hear venue, it was like I’d never left. I’d never been to the Church of St. Anne and St. Agnes before, and all of my interactions with the musicians had been in other cities, but it’s not about time or place. At the same time, after four months more or less in the same location, I was reminded that the world is big. Cross the ocean, trudge through a big city, and find people making fascinating sounds in a tiny church. That’s how I love to travel.

In an email about the series, Markus Trunk described the concert he was curating: “There is music for koto (not just by Japanese composers), and music for solo guitar (not just by Brazilian composers), and possibly a piece for multiple ukuleles inspired by a musical tradition of Papua-New Guinea.” In his program notes for intermezzo I, Kunsu Shim asks, can a sound be a light? Makiko Goto’s performance of the piece on koto answered yes. I was really glad to have a chance to hear my piece, enclosed VII: guitar for the first time, and to figure out that it may just work after all. It involves tuning the fifth and sixth strings down to a point of slackness, and snapping the sixth string against the fifth string. Makiko Goto performed a piece for voice and koto that was a late nineteenth century adaptation of Chinese Ming and Ch’ing dynasty popular music. There was a real sense of context that came from hearing this more traditional koto music in the midst of more experimental repertoire, and Goto’s singing voice is stunningly beautiful. Steve Chase’s Ukelelevent #6: Banjolely involved an ad hoc ensemble on plucked strings playing away from and back to a unison. Walter Zimmermann’s Zwiefache transzendiert für Gitarre was a systematic transformation of a folkdance melody that sounded neither like a system nor a folkdance, but worked very fully on its own audible terms. Ukulelevent #2, another piece in Stephen Chase’s “series of process pieces, improvisations, actions and forgeries for any number of players,” involved a huge ensemble playing as if they did not know how to play the ukelele (which it pointed out in rehearsal was generally the case). They strummed on, let’s say intuitively fingered chords, and hummed and sang over recordings of similar activity from the rehearsal. It was quite a wonderful sound mass. I loved Makiko Nishikaze’s guitar piece, St Michael’s Garden, too much to remember much more than just being in it. She writes, “The flow, or rather the path in this piece, is unpredictable, like entering a celestial garden, a garden that you can imagine but one that you have never visited before.” Yes. Christian Wolff’s Malvina was a wonderful use of the koto without the smallest hint of an attempt to make the piece sound Japanese. In fact, the musical material comes primarily from a Malvina Reynolds song. (“She lived in California which I think of as on the way to Japan,” Wolff writes.) Goto has played the piece a number of times by now, and she does very well with the freedom built into the piece. I was also quite interested to hear her say how much it changes depending on who plays it. It has a real sense of authenticity, in a little moving corner of the world all its own. Chico Mello’s Do Lado de Dedo showed such an deep intimacy with the instrument. The program note said it well: “The guitar is an extension of ourselves, a leg to stand on, a helping hand and a friend to sing with. One rubs and coaxes, asks a question, and a sound comes out and answers us. Taku Sugimoto’s program notes for Some strings asked all sorts of provocative questions about silence, but in the end sounded quite wonderful.

Tim Parkinson introduced his concert with one of the few effective statements about experimental music that I have heard, saying that the composer’s work is radically different and highly individualistic. (Speaking for myself, I like finding those differences within a composer’s output–when the pieces take on these highly individual qualities, and you have to dig deep to see what the common drive is. But I love it when a composer stubbornly sticks with one approach, too. Is that inconsistent?) In the Wolff duo that opened the concert, the two violinists were exploring a tight space together. It was a wonderful, close kind of listening that was required of the players and the audience, and a great way to set up the concert. Angharad Davies performed a section of the ongoing (sporadic) performance of Manfred Werder’s stück 1998. It was understated, and even self-effacing, and set up a sonic space very effectively. As these long tones were played, I became more and more aware that a whole life was stirring above the played pitches. Overtones were becoming more clear, as was the complexity of each note as it was played. I found myself wondering if a recurrent outside noise was part of the piece. I was fairly sure it was not intentional on anyone’s part, but it did feel like part of it. Chris Newman’s Air Fool Agony Face for accordion set up a system of two pieces (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and a song from one of Newman’s cycle, “Format”) acting on each other. It had a real brightness to it, and I found a real wealth of ideas in the opening, as well as a total willingness to be odd. After about five minutes, these behaviors all seemed to have presented themselves and there was no further differentiation. I could think of that is a matter of seeing through the system uncompromisingly, but it seemed to me instead that after a vibrant youth, the piece aged rapidly. Closing the concert was the first performance of Chiyoko Szlavnics’ work in Britain–a set of pieces called Cilia Tremble that alternated between tape and the ensemble of two violins and accordion (Angharad Davies, Sara Hubrich, and Mark Knoop). I had known before that Szlavnics has a great interest in lines, and has used line drawings as notation. This fascination maps beautifully on a sonic level. In the first piece, “for JT,” the pitches of the three instruments spread out but seemed somehow to remain in the same track, continuous. “For CN” set high sine tones in subtle relation to one another, with a natural and decisive ending on a unison. “For BN” was based on an experiment of lying on the floor and imagining that you are sinking into it. It was an electronic piece, with low tones that were indistinct to me but were strongly relating to one another. It was more than a pitch-to-vertical-distance analogy that made it work. I don’t understand it, but it really felt like it was bringing me from a low center of gravity to a lower one. The final piece, “Triptych for AS,” was most compelling. The first section opened with what I heard as a chord-line. (That sounds contradictory, but by this point in the piece it really did not feel unusual at all. This work caused me to start hearing things differently.) The piece opened up a cathedral-like space, and then quietly narrowed it. The third piece of the set began with a larger pitch span and then narrowed it, meanwhile filling a wider and wider sonic canvas with resonance. The orientation of this work was especially meaningful to me as I had just arrived back in London from a trip to Prague, where I sought out all the work I could find by a Czech artist whose work I have come to love–Václav Boštík–who had similar preoccupations. I found myself wanting Szlavnics (and so many other people) to know his work. I’ll include a few examples I found online just below and at the end of the post. (I also got two books at a gallery in Brno.)

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The final concert of the series was a portrait of Tom Johnson. I’d heard some recordings of his work and heard interesting things about it, but had never had a chance to hear it live in the US. It’s so often the case that I hear interesting American composers’ work for the first time in Europe. Johnson’s 1994 piece, Formulas for String Quartet, had a fluidity and openness that came out of strict and apparently simple logic that set it into motion. The piece had a wonderful advocate in The Post Quartet. The piece was in a number of sections, which were based on premises including strict rhythmic ratios, the sharing of a single gesture among all the instruments, a hocket, and very effective, subtle shifts within a consistent texture. It was a vibrant and full piece, with great ensemble playing. John Lely, who curated the concert, included his Parsons Code for Melodic Contours, and described it as an example of what Johnson does of finding a piece, discovering it rather than composing it. There were two types of alternation going on–playing (on a shared pulse) and stopping, and a unison to a wider and more seemingly random scheme of pitches. I’m very curious to know what the code is, and of course I forgot to ask. It shouldn’t be too difficult. After the interval, Johnson himself performed Music and Questions for voice and percussion. He had five small gongs pitched roughly as the first five notes of a scale. Their tones were quite complex. He started by saying 1-2, and went through every permutation of pitches starting with 1 and 2: 12345, 12354, 12435, 12453, 12534, 12543. He went through the same procedure in strict order to cover all the orderings of 1-2-3-4-5, asking a question in the second person between each ordering that tended to provoke either closer thinking, closer listening, or both. It was thoroughly engaging, all the more so for having such transparent logic. The final question was, “Have you enjoyed the experience?” My answer was and is yes. The final piece on the program was Narayana’s Cows, which played out a complex mathematical problem. The performance was quite rigorous, and took a number of hours of rehearsal. Since then, I’ve found an explanation of the problem and approach by Tom Johnson and Jean-Paul Allouche. I don’t understand it, but it makes me happy to look at it anyway.

It was music I liked to hear, quite a lot of which I’d like to hear again…

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