Concert Reviews

Sunday 13th February

February 14, 2011

IMG_0478A late post tonight, as I spent most of today making stuff for Valentine’s Day tomorrow, after spending some time this morning sharing coffee and lunch in Oxford with Mr Farmer and Ms Hughes. So I will try and keep my thoughts on last night’s three hour performance of Michael Pisaro’s Mind is Moving compositions brief as bed and then a busy day ahead tomorrow await.

The concert was performed by a specially convened sextet made up of Jamie Coleman, (trumpet) Henry Vaxby, (acoustic guitar and a bit of whistling) Jennifer Allum, (violin) Rebecca Dixon, (cello) Tim Parkinson (spoken words) and Dominic Lash (double bass). The group performed all eight of Pisaro’s 1996 compositions titled Mind is Moving, but played them in a new formation specially written for this occasion by Pisaro that saw all of the pieces played in one long stream, many of them overlapping, and it would appear, some of them adapted for different instruments than they were originally composed for. The works themselves are each very sparse and quiet, written by Pisaro with an ancient Japanese koan in mind. Combined together the music remained spacious and calm, though the silences that dominate the individual pieces were fewer as the assorted realisations came together and crossed over one another.

As with all of this kind of occasion that involves such music spread over a long duration, the environment shared in the room, as well as the mental and physical state of the listener are very important. When I first entered The Nunnery gallery space yesterday, I was already very tired indeed. A combination of elements kept me fully attentive and able to focus on this music, the restful elements of which might have easily had me drifting into slumber otherwise. First of all the gallery space was filled with truly hideous, fluorescently coloured pop art, amongst which the musicians sat and performed. Someone pointed out to me, perhaps out of desperation that given Pisaro’s home lies in California that maybe some of this work was actually quite fitting, but really there couldn’t have been a less fitting scenario for the performance. Then the room was really very very cold, a factor strangely present at many of the long-form Wandelweiseresque concerts I have attended, making the room less easy to fall asleep in. Then there were the creaking chairs placed upon a hard wooden floor, so transforming just about any movement into a major sonic event. All of these elements then merely added to the overall experience of being in the room as the music was performed. Being conscious of your slightest movements, just how much you are shivering, and bright pink painting hung behind a musician’s head just bring all of the other senses into play as well as that of listening.

So as the music played I became really aware of so much more than the sounds made by the instruments. Different passing emergency vehicles, each with their own siren could be picked out, some close by, others in the far distance. Strange yet loud bangs and shuffling sounds from the room next door were amplified by the hard reflective surfaces of the gallery space and the attentive sets of ears within it. As we sat in a ring around the room, musicians mixed in with audience, it was as interesting to watch others attending the concert as it was those playing the music. Ross Lambert, a musician on many evenings, but just a listener tonight was a particular fascination to me, particularly as on a few occasions he carefully, and silently took out a flask, poured himself a coffee, the smell of which seeped its way across the room to me, and drank it. An act that, under other circumstances would seem of no import or interest at all, but oddly, when viewed in this situation of heightened senses took on a peculiar importance to me. The three hours passed quickly. The first thirty minutes or so felt a bit of a struggle as the uncomfortable seats took their toll on my tired body, but after a while I just felt myself relaxing and entering that strange mental zone that I can only really describe as being calm and alert at the same time. If anything the three hours passed far too quickly and I found myself wanting more at the end.

So what did it sound like? Well a variety of sounds were played, and in essence the performance fitted with what we might expect from a Pisaro concert, soft sounds, sometimes extended, mostly on this occasion carefully notated. There was a slightly different feel here though to other Pisaro concerts I have attended. The cello and violin had a certain rasping, brittle quality to them, with a fair amount of wavering uncertainty in the notes played, an element that gave the music a more raw feel than I have witnessed before. Jamie Coleman’s trumpet occasionally
joined this slightly rougher, edgier set of sounds as well, so giving the music a slightly courser texture than I might have expected, though this element was certainly not unwelcome. Tim Parkinson’s voice was quiet enough for me to lose about fifty percent of the words he read from Pisaro’s texts, but what could be heard felt like a random stream of disconnected words. Looking at the score after the performance, Pisaro’s text resembled a page taken from a book but with the vast majority of the words removed, so leaving seemingly random fragments behind. Parkinson read one word at a time, slowly and quietly, the text making no sense, but somehow the words each taking on a new importance when introduced into this space. One lovely moment came when Tim read out the word ‘stop’ only for Coleman to do just that and cease playing, a coincidence, but one not without a certain resonance.

Played all together, the various pieces seemed to merge into a set of shifting, uneven rhythms. As violin strokes crossed with muted trumpet lines, Parkinson’s mutterings and some of the quietest bass playing I have ever heard, so patterns seemed to form, and events appeared to repeat themselves. It all fitted together beautifully, with a nice balance throughout, and an extended silence at roughly the two hour mark during which it felt like the roads outside even fell quiet, such was the feeling of hush that spread over the room, brash, noisy paintings included. Perhaps some of the sounds used felt a little too hard-edged and brittle, and maybe here and there the volume of some of the instruments seemed to dwarf others, but these are small complaints about what was overall a very well executed, thoughtfully arranged suite of some some thoroughly beautiful music. I can’t see me ever tiring of this kind of event, or this music. If the current vogue for this area of composition making is just a fad then I aim to make the most of it while fashion corresponds with my taste in music, and so I hope this is not the last of these kinds of events. A very nice performance then, kudos to all of the musicians, and to Olivier of Small but perfectly formed for having the vision to put it on.

Comments (2)

  • Dominic Lash

    February 14, 2011 at 9:18 am

    Thanks for this Richard. Just a factual point: we didn’t play all eight Mind is Moving pieces; sadly we had to miss out the oboe and viola versions. Michael’s scheme for this performance simply indicated when we each played, but all the material was from the original pieces: there was no adaptation, we each played the piece written for our individual instrument.

  • Richard Pinnell

    February 14, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Aha, thanks Dom. I wondered simply because the advance press etc said that all eight pieces would be played, but obviously there were certain instruments missing, so I took a guess that some of the pieces must have been adapted.

    NIce set of partials by the way 😉

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