Concert Reviews

Guest live review by Dominic Lash – incidental music at Cafe Oto, 25th April 2010.

April 26, 2010

The following live review was written for The Watchful Ear by Dominic Lash. Many thanks are due…

incidental music at Cafe Oto, 25th April 2010

24.4_manfred_listeningThe performance consisted of three compositions, each lasting twenty minutes. The first of these was Manfred Werder’s 2010-1, a text score being given its first performance. Werder’s programme notes suggest that he is interested in the difficulty (perhaps even the impossibility) of pinning down the concrete actuality of the sounding nature of the world (the ‘intrinsic unavailability of world’): what is actually happening in a particular sound, rather than what it represents, resembles or approximates.

With the musicians distributed around the room, amongst the (small but focused and attentive) audience, five chairs and music stands stood empty but elegantly lit in the middle of the performance space, drawing attention to the traditional spatial and visual relationship between audience and musicians, and its absence in this case. Very little happened: some sounds were generated by the musicians using their instruments, but they also made sounds in other ways. There were some incidental sounds of shuffling and rustling from the audience, as well as some background and external noise. Yet when I think of the sounds produced by the musicians, the list is actually very rich indeed: sounds of pouring water; of two surfaces rubbing against each other; cello and violin pizzicati; a long sustained pitch produced by bowing above the fingers on the viola. Julia Eckhardt on viola was, in fact, the only one of the musicians I could see from where I was sat, and thus separating incidental from intentional sound was sometimes impossible. The sounds generated by the musicians when they did occur were not fussily framed or separated from the other acoustic information: they simply occurred. The atmosphere in the room seemed to me peaceful, still, restful. At one point a fly briefly but captivatingly danced in the spotlights. Clapping at the end seemed somehow superfluous or archaic; we did so quietly.

As engaging as this performance was, however, for me the really powerful experience had been earlier. I arrived at Cafe Oto early and was lucky enough to be able to experience the rehearsal of 20101. The centre of the room was empty – I was in something of the same position as the musicians, sitting around the edge of the space making the occasional unintentional sound (though I did not make any intentional ones!). There was more background noise from outside the venue than during the actual performance, the musicians were a little more active – though they used many of the same sounds as later – and the piece was, I think, shorter. Unlike the later performance I gave no attention to the visual elements of the piece; nor, I think, did the musicians. There was not a performance space marked out by spotlights but rather, quite simply, a room, empty of people except around its edge but with various objects in it. And yet the stillness was utterly different from the later performance: perhaps largely because there was no audience as such, it became almost palapable in its intensity. I held my breath, I think, for much of the time. The experience of how two performances of the same piece, in the same space and only a couple of hours apart can be utterly different was quite astonishing.

For the second piece of the evening those spotlit chairs were occupied. The musicians performing were Normisa Pereira da Silva on alto flute, Angharad Davies on violin, Julia Eckhardt on viola, Stefan Thut on cello and Manfred Werder on a small pitchpipe. Antoine Beuger’s Kiarostami Quintets consisted of ten sections of identical structure. First one musician would play a sustained, quiet pitch. Then all five musicians would play a chord, their entries and exits uncoordinated so the chords built up somewhat gradually and then diminished as the musicians fell silent one by one. Silences separated these events, and all musicians read from the score, so they all turned their pages together at the end of each section. Two things most engaged my attention during this piece: first, rather prosaically, trying to work out if there was a pattern of which musician played the solo pitch at the beginning of each section. I couldn’t find one, I’m afraid: alto flute and pitch pipe began two sections each – the first and third being led by the flute, and the last two by the pitch pipe, while the viola and violin had three each. The cello did not begin any of the sections. This might seem a rather unmusical train of thought to have been following, but it kept me alert, investigating the structure of the music, and also added drama: towards the end I began to wonder if the cello and pitch pipe would begin any sections. When the pitch pipe began the ninth I was pretty sure that the cello would begin the last (I had guessed there would be ten sections given the piece had five musicians, and that the twenty minutes felt close to being up). So of course I was surprised when it didn’t, which I usually find an agreeable sensation in listening to music: so it was here, and it also helped the piece retain an air of mystery despite it superficial simplicity. The cello did, in fact, produce one of the highlights of this particular performance, for me: a particular low pitch sustained by Stefan Thut towards the end of the piece was gorgeous in its evenness and quietness. Some of the chords were also quite remarkable. From discussing it with the musicians afterwards, I learnt that the players are free to vary their intonation around the given pitches rather than hit them dead-on. In one section in particular the combination of the inevitable inconsistencies of breath and bow, coupled with the acoustic effects of the interference of the various pitches created an extraordinarily rich world: while on one level it could have been described as simply five simultaneous sustained pitches, it did not remain at all the same from one moment to the next, but was rich in activity and detail. Thus Beuger’s music proved to be another method, parallel but distinct from Werder’s, of exploring the complexity and richness of sonic actuality. Beuger has elaborated on the thinking behind his approach in an interview with James Saunders: ‘instead of assuming music to have some finite number of basic elements to start with, I am suggesting the opposite: the matter of music is ‘all that is (sounding)’. The form of a specific music, then, is the way it cuts into this infinitely dense continuum.’

After a brief interval, the concert concluded with Tim Parkinson’s trio with objects. This was in a sense much more abstract that the previous pieces: violin, viola and cello played sections of various material, all of it rhythmically direct, mezzoforte, and highly recognisable (not in that it sounded like other music, but in that when a certain texture returned there was no mistaking it for another). But this material was set against the sounds produced by Normisa Pereira da Silva and Manfred Werder. They sat on either side of the string trio, forming a mirror image of each other, and performed almost identical actions: first dropping rice onto pieces of paper which created very quiet and gentle specks of sound, later turning on small desktop fans which created a subtle whirring under the music, then dropping rice again but this time onto a pile of plastic boxes which created much lounder and more dynamically varied sounds. The juxtaposition of the “abstract” string trio material (which was represented by notes on paper that not only served as instructions but also in a sense as representations of the sounds themselves) with the “concrete” object-based sounds (where the notation could only have given instructions, not represented the detail of the resultant sounds) recontextualised some of the questions raised by the previous pieces, as well as being very beautiful (in a cool and unrhetorical way). At the conclusion of the piece the object players struck pieces of glass or perspex that served almost as small gongs. These sounds blended at times almost indistinguishably with pizzicati from the strings, suggesting that the “abstract” and “concrete” need not be mutually exclusive categories but can interpenetrate, depending on the kind of attention we give to the sounds we hear.

Comments (2)

  • simon reynell

    April 26, 2010 at 9:48 pm

    Excellent review, Dom. I’d really hoped to be able to make it to this concert, but sadly ended up missing both this and the i-and-e festival. At least I have an idea of what happened now.
    You must write more reviews.

  • Dominic Lash

    April 27, 2010 at 9:22 am

    Thanks, Simon! I just received an email from Stefan Thut that clarifies the structure of Antoine Beuger’s piece, in case my description gives anyone the wrong idea. The piece consists of fifty pages in total, of which the first ten were played in this performance. The fact that the cello did not start any of the sections results from the chance procedures by which the material of the piece was generated. If the ensemble had continued playing the cello would have entered on page 14; between pages 21 – 30 it in fact leads off four times!

Leave a Reply