11 March 2014

Review: 175 East 'New Music' - Celeste Oram

the Loft, Q Theatre, Auckland, Sunday 9th March, 5pm

featuring works by John Lely, Eve de Castro-Robinson, James Saunders, Tim Parkinson, and Samuel Holloway
performed by Luca Manghi (flutes), Donald Nicholls (clarinets), Andrew Uren (bass clarinet), Sam Rich (percussion), Alex MacDonald (viola), Katherine Hebley (cello), David Kelly (keyboard)

conducted by Samuel Holloway
artistic direction by Samuel Holloway
review by Celeste Oram

Half the stage had been occupied by a phalanx of at least one hundred portable mechanical devices. They were arranged according to that kind of organized chaos where you know someone has meticulously configured things to look purposefully randomized. It felt like an art gallery, except the walls were black. This felt like an important distinction. We were not in an operating theatre. We were in a theatre, which is messier and germier. The white-walled gallery lends itself to conceptual cleanliness. The black box theatre, being immediately real and also flagrantly artificial, is conceptually filthy.

For some time 175 East has been championing the work of what a fanciful musicologist might in 60 years call The Huddersfield Huddle: UK composers whose work probes a kind of literalist, cerebral experimentalism. There’s even something delightfully literal about their names which echoes the bluntness of their work: Tim Parkinson. James Saunders. John Lely. They sound more like plumbers and electricians than composers.

Focussing on a select group of composers as a programming core—especially when their work exudes such a clear agenda as these composers’—is a bold and praiseworthy approach for an ensemble like 175 East. Everyone wins: the composers’ work gets given a fair go and a decent airing; the performers get a chance to get under the skin of the work and tease out an appropriate performance practice; the audience enjoys the comfort of feeling like informed listeners.

There’s something hypochondriacal about The Huddle’s work: it reveals an anxiety of sound being infected by music. Sound events are handled like laboratory specimens; performers are made to wear latex gloves, and audience members surgical masks [not literally] – lest their perceptual frame of reference contaminate the sonic specimens.

It was an evening of binary sounds: ons and offs. Assembled differently: but by and large, sound in two forms. On and off. Sometimes sounds made by devices, sometimes by people; but by the end of the night, you basically couldn’t tell. It seemed inconsequential whether a musician was going ‘on-off’ with a food processor or with a clarinet. Uncanny valleys.

First up: John Lely’s Symphony no. 3 – perhaps the most anti-heroic piece going by that name. It’s the kind of work where the programme notes are pretty crucial, so I’ll reproduce them here: “The piece is notated using the Parsons Code, a system intended to enable the identification of musical works through simple representations of melodic motion. In this work, the code is used to indicate whether to move up or down in pitch, but the performers independently decide how much higher or lower to play, allowing unanticipated harmony to arise.”

Starting in unison and periodically returning to that aural palette-cleanser, on-off homophonic events were turned out with the steady, unyielding regularity of a conveyor belt, each one settling on a different vertical alignment of pitches. The result was the strange phenomenon that a piece so seemingly indeterminate could sound so calm and orderly. Much like the organized chaos of the hundred-odd devices meticulously strewn behind. Funny paradoxes spring up when thoroughly accidental events sound scientifically deliberate, while meanwhile some exacting New Complexity score sounds like a train crash.

Significantly, the makeup of the ensemble was balanced to the point of vanishing into thin air. Alto flute, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, viola, violin: the blendiest instruments, playing for the most part in middling registers. The result was, in effect, the sine wave of the Western orchestra. It’s the closest instruments can get to being just sound, just pitch – to negating their corporeality as instruments.

As the piece continued, something was nibbling away at the silences between each sound. Perhaps it was a kind of impatient tension between the mathematical grid imposed on the sonic events, and the performers’ inescapably human, subjective perception of time. I began engrossed, my attention waned, I ploughed on through the boredom and came out the other side, and by the time the conveyor belt was shut down and the piece stopped, I was just about ready to keep listening for another hour.

Knowing his propensity for text scores, the title of James Saunders’ piece could well be the score itself – AT LEAST ONE HUNDRED DEVICES BEING TURNED ON AND OFF. This is exactly what happened. The musicians delicately picked their way through the ranks of devices, turning some on and turning some off: some electronic (alarm clocks and smart phones), some mechanical (music boxes and metronomes), some knickknacky (toy cars and light sabres), some domestic (espresso grinders and electric beaters). In a fit of manliness, Alex MacDonald revved up a purring weed eater with a cloud of noxious-blue smoke and the cloying sweetness of diesel. Even my surgical mask couldn’t spare me the fumes.

The result was of course the delightful hum and racket of mechanical drones being ripped from their usual comfortable ambience and made to perform. Talking to Donald [Nicholls, clarinettist] afterwards, he said he would rather have liked the audience to have been able to mingle amidst the devices and partake in the switching on and off. I would have quite liked this too; I was disappointed at not being able to see all the gadgets in action, and I imagine the experience of moving through them would produce some fun stereo effects. But then again, the sight of that mechanized phalanx staring down the audience from behind the fourth wall was also amusingly sinister. At least one hundred whirring mechanisms were intimidating enough to make me quite comfortable in the safety of my theatre seat.

Percussionist Sam Rich sat onstage apart from the rest of the ensemble. He was the concert’s coin-operated boy, or gold-painted human statue, or motionless, hand-less moustached gentleman of Queen Street. Sam came to life in between the big ensemble numbers to make interjections to the programme that in comparison were—gasp—shamelessly theatrical.

Perhaps this was why he was kept quarantined under the spotlight. A piece like Eve de Castro-Robinson’s whisper for solo snare drum aches so acutely with a sense of loss and meta-corporeality that even in its starkness it seemed positively decadent alongside its programme companions. “Written on hearing of Xenakis’ death”, reads the programme note – an elegiac tone gently but potently rendered in this exquisite miniature. The drum seems anthropomorphized, the little pit-pat fingertaps its feeble heartbeat, the snares buzzing as Sam blows air onto them its keening wail. Sam owned the performance with the white-hot focus and patient ritualism the piece demands. He had the audience so engrossed that he could well have afforded to go further, to take more time, to be even more deliberate and controlled in his physical movement.

Sam’s other solo turn of the evening was Tim Parkinson’s snare drum: a tightly controlled excursion around the snare drum and all its colours and rings. It was noisy, it was rhythmic, it grooved (as well as being very quiet and almost singing at times); it was a welcome moment on the programme. It let off a lot of steam that needed to be vented.

And, for the final trick, Samuel Holloway seemed hell-bent on writing the most unmusical piece of music imaginable. The piece in itself achieved this with masterful success. It was the zenith of artful artlessness.

Things. A title both impishly vague and yet also scientifically precise. Because that is exactly what the piece was: Things. 209 Things, to be precise. 209 Vertical Static Sonic Things, to get really pedantic – Sonic Things turned on and off. No pretence that the Things were anything more or less. Never anything too harmonically strenuous: generally just intervals or triads—sometimes a clustery Thing—intoned by varying combinations of the ensemble of flute/piccolo, clarinets, viola, cello, and synth. Some Things were long, some Things were short. A few Things were followed by a long pause. It sounded rather like a very very long aural skills test.

But then, sound is not very good at being thing-y. You can’t hold it in your hand. Surely that palpability is a defining feature of thingness. You have to be able to point to it. You can’t point to sound.

You can point to a score. And in fact, the performance played out a constant tension between the sonic Things—which desperately wanted nothing more than to be Nothing, nothing more than just sound—and the score, whose weighty, spiral-bound, 100-gsm thingness engulfed the performance. Peering over Samuel’s shoulder as he conducted I could see each Thing had a page to itself: on a bar’s worth of grand stave was wedged two or three or so vertically stacked semibreves. A few pencilled scribbles presumably indicated which instruments were to play and for how long.

This was a strange paradox. The Things, rendered in sound, were thoroughly unremarkable; they started, they stopped, they were forgettable, disposable. On paper, however, emblazoned in the centre of a page, a few semibreves can look monolithic (if you don’t believe me, click this). And the delicious crunch of each page turn in between each Thing concretized the sonic Nothings into very objective Things. Look, that was the Thing you just heard. Here, you can point to it. PAGE TURN: now for the next Thing. Ready? Go.

And so these quotidian no/things kept being churned out, beyond ad nausem, beyond ad absurdum, to venture bravely to the next level of uncompromising incessance.

Does this kind of music need be endured to be ‘understood’? By which I mean, do you actually need to hear the whole piece to ‘get’ whatever you need to ‘get’ to ‘get’ the piece? Does reading the programme note tell you everything you need to know, and is actually sitting through the piece just an accessorizing formality?

The gentleman who walked out in the middle of things/Things certainly thought so. His was a slightly poignant eleventh-hour surrender; the piece was actually almost over. But then, the walkout seemed fairly undramatic, as walkouts go. Because by that point, Samuel had built a world where Things are just things. The walkout was just another Thing. It almost seemed scored into the piece, as the ensemble patiently waited for the walker-outer to extract themselves before continuing with the next Thing: but it was no trouble really, no interruption, because after all, they were just playing Things. Anyway, in these gigs, walkouts tend to be beheld as badges of honour.

So do these kinds of pieces need to be endured to be ‘got’? Or, like a Yoko Ono text score, is their power in their potentiality, their invitation to be made real, but their ambivalence towards actually being made real?

To the walker-outer, I would say that yes, these works do need to be endured to be ‘got'. Because concepts are clean and neat and tidy in the realm of theory. But their real test is in being dragged kicking and screaming into the grime and germiness of phenomenological existence. You can have the most watertight hypothesis, but you still need to conduct the experiment to find out the good stuff.

In this way, Samuel’s piece provided an interesting bookend to the Lely which began the concert: both sequences of on-offs. And while Samuel’s was by far the more experientially excruciating, I think it was by far the stronger work. It was more extreme, yet less formulaic. It wasn’t a conveyor belt: the instrumentation of Things varied, sometimes Things overlapped. Sometimes the Things teetered dangerously close to the edge of their thingness, and looked down into the abyss of Music, like when the minor triad impeccably voiced for woodwinds reminded my filthy referential mind of an Italian opera overture. By braving to look into that murkiness, and yet still remaining in the safe world of thingness, Things was the more thorough experiment.

Things’ attempted experiment seemed to be the annihilation of both form and the accrual of meaning, an experiment conducted by presenting a sequence of Nothing-events with no relation to one another. And yet, in the attempt, because content was reduced to objecthood, Things is in fact nothing but form. Things is highly composed, highly ordered. It was actually Things in Two Acts, as was articulated halfway through by the intermission of conductor and performers exchanging one score for a second. These are Things, remember: they are Things precisely because they have a form. Things ends up apotheosizing the very Thing it seeks to annihilate.

And if there is a wild success of Things, this is it. It achieves the impossible: its enforced ambience bleaches all the music out of musical events. It is as close as the phenomenological world will let us get to ‘pure music’. Then again, the gentleman who walked out might invoke that old chestnut: but is it music? It was anti-music: by posing as something, it negated that very thing whose semblance it assumed. As the piece went on and on—god, how long, half an hour or something? [ed: 50 minutes]—music became sound, sound became Things, and then, for the coup de grĂ¢ce, became just an object. In my aural exhaustion, the sound even surrendered its thingness. This is a triumphant transformation. A desperately cynical, nihilistic triumph – but a triumph nonetheless.

It is only now I’ve come to the end of writing this that I realise I have committed the ultimate rudeness of neglecting to acknowledge the efforts of the ensemble performers. In all frankness, this is because I had somewhat forgotten about them. Which is to say, they executed their task masterfully. They succeeded in engineering their own invisibility; their black attire camouflaged them into the black walls; their physical presence was eclipsed by their mechanistic counterparts lurking in the shadows behind them. They performed with breathtaking non-expressivity, and redoubtable precision. They were virtuoso anti-musicians.

A note from the editors: Please note two reviews of the same concert have been published. We recognise this is uncommon and see it as a progressive and innovative to have more than one view on an event. Please also read Jonathan Mandeno's review

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