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Matchy-Matchy is so Last Season: A Review of Wolf Pack 9: News, at the Rag Factory, London, 26th September

Thursday, September 26th, 2013

What have the following got in common:

And, perhaps more interestingly how can they make a coherent concert without sounding like everyone-do-their-turn end-of-term-revues at the too-cool-to-miss-school? This is what came to mind after hearing the latest concert, entitled News, by emerging contemporary music collective Wolf Pack.

The first aspect is stage presence, which they had in spades. Not staging organisation, which could have been smoother; but, the sense of serious committment to the work and audience, whether conveyed by the devious mood changes of Rob Neumark-Jones‘s spoken word performances, or the laid back groovy-enough-to-get-away-with-sitting-on-a-beanbag cool of Danilo Borgarth‘s guitar playing.

Another aspect is coherence through theme, rather than coherence through style—what I have called elsewhere semantic mass. By choosing to base all of the performances on a single word—news—similar ideas were triggered by different pieces. Of course, there was commonality of material, too; by the time we reached the third piece with multiple people reading out news stories in some distorted algorithmic way, we were perhaps a little process-weary.

It is interesting how pieces in the concert engaged with the harder news stories. Dave Smith’s Murdoch or Fred West: Which is Best?, dating from around the time of that case, used historical depth—a comment on how, since the early days of the press, newspaper owners have grown fat on the outcomes of rape and murder, whilst those proximately responsible are thrown in jail—to make a point in a non-prurient way. By contrast, Dave Collins and Sam Goodway’s new Can You Tell What it is Yet?, reflecting on the Rolf Harris case, was slight: blockly overlapped readings of newspaper accounts of the case, together with a music box through which a tape with the words “CAN YOU TELL WHAT IT IS YET” was fed, this piece meandered and had a lightness unbecoming the material, and would have benefited from a more distilled working.

A final aspect of what makes concerts like this work is the genuine view that all music is just music. As new composers and performers emerge onto the scene (the oldest was 35 years of age), we are starting to see people who are genuinely and uncomplicatedly engaging with music from all genres.

We see this in many musicians now; Nico Muhly, Owen Pallett, Sigur Rós are three performers who come to mind who are of the generation that were not brought up on the idea that pop was trivia for small minds, and rock only suited for priapic barbarians. But, this has been a long journey and a lot of work by people who wanted their artform to be taken seriously. Only 30-40 years ago we were suffering the excessses of lumbering crossovers like Michael Tippett’s New Year and Deep Purple’s Concerto for Group and Orchestra. More recently, this has gotten better: the joints don’t creak quite as much in Heiner Goebbel‘s wannabe-a-prog-rock-star pieces, or in the London Sinfonietta doing numbers by Zappa or artistes from the Warp Records label; but it is still a meeting of minds, not a single thought. By contrast, the effortless cross-genre movement in Wolf Pack’s concert hardly needs terms like genre-switching; to these performers, the idea of musical genre itself is absent.

Genre is for old people; but even old dogs (or wolves) can learn some new tricks from this attitude to performance. I look forward to their future performances.

Review: Gotterfunken, Rosa Ensemble, Huddersfield Bates Mill, November 2011

Friday, March 16th, 2012

We began with an apology. A man dressed in Lycra stood up from the audience, and established himself as Dutch with a single word: “Hey”. The apology was of local concern—an explanation that, due to Government changes in the Netherlands, we are unlikely to see Dutch arts groups touring for a while. The connotation was broad—an apology for the failure of the European project. And yet…there was a glimpse of optimism. Perhaps, rather than being the responsibility of insitutions, European fellowship could be reconstructed from casual meetings across the continent.

And so we began proper. We began with an animation—a live animation, drawn on a piece of paper and projected on a screen. And then an explanation. Two people spent three months cycling 9000 miles around Europe, meeting people, singing, drinking vodka, and smoking one cigarette a day. This was their story, delivered through video, animation, songs and anecdotes.

It’s said that storytellers should show not tell. They did both. It worked. Sometimes we want to hear the story direct—like the person on the other side of the (unnamed) national border who screamed at them “Go back to where you came from! Whereever it is, it’s better than here!”. Sometimes we want something more impressionistic, a blur of maps, photographs and recorded sound.

We ended with a blurring of roles. Musicians, actors, stagehands stood up to give their opinion: just an attempt to recreate careless teenagehood, or a celebration of European unity? Then a recapitulation of a song to finish.

Review: Duncan Strachan (cello) and Simon Smith (piano), Reid Concert Hall, University of Edinburgh, 16th March 2012

Friday, March 16th, 2012

This concert began with two of the instrumental movements from Birtwistle’s Bogenstrich, a piece that includes both vocal and purely instrumental sections. The first of these, Song without Words, was Birtwistle does late romanticism—or, more, accurately, a revisiting of that late nineteenth century point in musical history where romanticism was sliding into expressionism. This expressive piece alternated a coherent set of melodic and expressive gestures from the cello with more angular piano material. In the second piece, Like a Fugue, we were on more solid modernist ground—blocky piano writing, and the systematic working through of processes reminiscent of earlier pieces such as Harrison’s Clocks.

This was followed by a short, simple but effective recent piece by the pianist, Simon David Smith. This was in the form of a take on the German hymn tune O Welt, ich muss dish lassen, which has been used as source material by other composers such as Brahms. This piece made effective, straightforward use of the material.

Stuart MacRae’s Unity, which formed the third piece in the programme, was an exploration of the idea of treating the two instruments as a single sound source, rather than as a pairing. The majority of the piece consisted of two kinds of material, with spare material alternating with rapid, expressive material; throughout this, an arhythmic sense was maintained through tempo-shifts and long rapid note sequences. Rather oddly, the piece ended on a couple of minutes of formal, strictly timed material, with the piano playing chords in time and the cello filling in simple, repetitive material. This rather jarred with the freeness of the majority of the piece, but it just about hung together.

The final piece was Valentin Silvestrov’s Sonata, a 20 minute piece, which, according to the programme note, also explored the idea of two players working as a single source of sound. The unifying material for the piece was a trilly, tremolandoey murk out of which gestures and melodies emerged. Such a structure can be effective—consider a piece such as Berio’s Rendering. In this content, however, it was ineffective; each gesture started anew, giving the impression of a piece that was constantly starting and then petering back into the murk, rather than having any sense of development. The melodic sections, presented in a more strongly tonal language than the remainder of the work, were also rather isolated: a melody with straightforward, almost clichéd harmonisation, would be presented, then the trill would start again, and back into the mud without any development. Overall, this resulted in a directionless piece. The ending was perhaps the oddest part of the piece, moving towards the inside of the piano and extreme harmonics on the cello, material that hadn’t been hinted at prior to the last couple of minutes. Overall, the sort of piece that minimalism could have been if it had started from expressionist material!

The playing was of a very high standard. It is clear that the two performers have worked hard at presenting a single sound, rather than coming together in an ad hoc fashion. Overall, a good concert, rather let down by the directionlessness of the final piece.

Review: BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Volkov, Usher Hall, 13th August 2011

Saturday, August 13th, 2011

This concert, by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra with their Principal Guest Conductor Ivan Volkov, consisted of three works by composer Jonathan Harvey. Specifically, three linked works were presented, all written specifically for this group, inspired by buddhist ideas of purification.

The first piece, Body Mandala, was a taut piece with two main kinds of material: one focused around complex, morphing sequences of brass chords, inspired by the low horns used in Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, whilst the second kind of material consisted of rapid sequences of staccato chords alongside long runs on clarinet and flute. Overall, this combination of material was effective and the piece remained tight and focused.

Speakings, the second piece and most recent of the three pieces, was by far the most extensive and complex of the three. The piece was broken into three contiguous movements, which gave it a clear structure throughout its span. A distinctive element in this piece was the use of a computer system which, at points in the piece, processed the sound of the orchestra so as to shape it into patterns that followed the shape of some spoken-voice samples. This had mixed effects. In many parts of the work it simply added to the complexity of an already dense texture without adding much that was distinctive. When it was allowed to speak out, against a sparser or cleaner orchestra texture, it came into its own: a section in the second movement, and several points in the third movement, though the use of a baby’s cry to shape the sound in the opening and ending was perhaps a little cheap. Overall, the third movement, was the most effective, reaching two powerful points of rest, each followed by a primitive flute melody. The ever-ascending string patterns and swirling electronic sounds towards the end of the movement was particularly powerful.

Following the complexity of Speakings, the final piece, …towards a Pure Land was rather jarring in its simplicity. In many ways this was the closest to what a naïve listener might expect from a meditative, Buddhism inspired piece—washy string textures, wind effects from the percussion, fragments of ritualistic percussion, bells—but, the piece didn’t sink into new-age waffle, retaining interest throughout.

Overall, the standard of performance was excellent, with stand-out violin solos being performed with angular precision, and the complexity clarinet solos in the first piece being deftly handled. Overall, an interested insight into different aspects of how ritual and meditation has inspired a composer.

Review: Kronos Quartet, Usher Hall, August 2010

Saturday, August 28th, 2010

The Kronos Quartet are one of the longest-established contemporary music groups, having been active for 38 years with very few changes of players. This concert contained three pieces, representing the different aspects of the quartet’s repertoire: a relatively new piece, an established repertoire piece and an important earlier piece from the contemporary quartet literature.

The newer piece was …hold me neighbor, in this storm…, by Aleksandra Vrebalov. This piece took its inspiration from Balkan folk music, and incorporated two Balkan instruments, the string instrument known as the Gusle and the bass drum known as the Tapan, which were played by members of the quartet. Furthermore, various recorded sounds were played at moments in the piece: bells, chants et cetera.

The piece fell into a number of well-defined sections, each with a different kind of material. Many of these were broadly folk music inspired, though without resorting (except perhaps in one section) to “cheap imitation” of folk styles. The piece opened with a solo on the Gusle, which was not used elsewhere in the piece; this was followed by a number of sections that explored different materials, ranging from rhythmically-driven sections with foot-stamping and the drum playing an important role, to more delicate harmonically-driven sections.

Whilst the individual sections were well written, the abrupt change from section-to-section, with little cross-reference between different sections, meant that the overall impact of the piece was less powerful than the individual sections. The piece felt the need for some “connective tissue” to join the various sections.

Furthermore, the use of the folk instruments was in the end rather clumsy—they played an important role earlier in the piece but gradually seemed to be forgotten. Perhaps it would have been better had they either been distilled out entirely, and used just for inspiration, or else integrated more thoroughly throughout the piece. Nonetheless, at its strongest points the piece was very emotionally powerful and was well received by the audience.

The second piece was Different Trains by Steve Reich, a piece that has been associated with the Kronos Quartet since its premiere in 1988. This piece is based on recordings of speech, both people talking about American trains and, contrastingly, people talking about their experience of being transported to concentration camps by train during World War II. These recordings are played back, combined with recordings of train sounds and both live and prerecorded quartet with the musical material drawn from melodies from the speech. Overall this combination of elements comes together to form an emotionally powerful work.

The piece was very well performed. One particular challenge for pieces such as this is integrating the sound of the pre-recorded quartet sounds with the live quartet, a challenge that was met in this performance.

The final piece in the concert was Black Angels, a 1970 work by George Crumb. This is a complex piece, involving the quartet playing both their instruments and using a wide variety of other material—gongs. maracas and a selection of wine glasses tuned to various notes by the addition of various amounts of water. By contrast with the first piece, this integration of different elements worked much more coherently. This was down largely to the careful theatricality with which the quartet structured the piece, with the players grouping together in sub-groups to play certain sections, and hanging instruments from strings whilst attending to the various percussion instruments. This was particularly powerful in the section where three of the players played on the wine glasses, which were revealed from underneath a cloth and illuminated from underneath to great effect.

The piece is broken down into a large number of sections, however these flow together to make a coherent whole. Whilst the piece takes its inspiration from various “new age” concepts, it has a depth and thoughtfulness that is rarely found in music that it rooted in these ideas.

The encore piece was an excerpt from the music for the film The Fountain, written by Clint Mansell, best known as one of the key members of the band Pop Will Eat Itself, and now a well-established film composer. This was rather disappointing, being a rather unabashed kitschy piece, reminiscent of the “orchestral rock” albums that were around in the 1980s. Perhaps in a different context it might have worked well, but it felt rather slight at the end of a substantial concert.

Overall, an excellent concert that was well received by a packed audience.