Friday 18th FebruaryFebruary 19, 2011
The Holywell Music Room in Oxford is said to be the oldest purpose-built music space in Europe. the sound in there is amazing, the half circle-shaped high walls behind the musicians naturally amplifying even the smallest sounds. Attending a concert of very quiet music in this space then, was in theory a great idea, but it turned out that the resonant qualities of the hall only succeeded in bring a whole lot of other unwanted noise into the equation.
I was there last night for the second of the three nights that make up the Audiograft Festival, with this particular evening curated by the SET Ensemble, a loose collective of musicians formed to realise contemporary music scores. The theme of the evening was Wandelweiser and Fluxus, and so the night was split between realisations of works from these two somewhat amorphous composer collectives. The SET Ensemble last night were Patrick Farmer, (percussion and acoustic guitar, yes guitar!) Bruno Guastalla, (cello) Sarah Hughes, (autoharp) Dominic Lash, (double bass) David Stent (guitar) and Paul Whitty (accordion). They were then augmented by the visiting trio of Rhodri and Angharad Davies (electronic harp and violin respectively) and Tim Parkinson (piano).
I had worked all day before the concert, and drove the two miles from work to the venue at breakneck speed, throwing the car into the first available parking space and running to the Holywell so as to not miss too much of the opening performance of the night, the full group playing Radu Malfatti’s Heikou, a recent composition that I don’t think has been performed before, though I may be wrong. So I think I missed about the first five or six minutes of the piece, and when I did arrive I was stood at the back catching my breath, cursing the bad luck that meant that having waited so long for good music to be made in my home city I couldn’t be there right from the start. The performance was lovely though, a succession of warm, dry chords held perfectly by the group, interspersed with characteristic Malfatti silences. The thing is, the silences were somewhat ruined by the shuffles, fidgets, whispers and (admittedly difficult to stop) creaking of the old wooden seating. The pleasingly sizeable audience seemed to be made up of a fair number of young students that had come along en masse, and, without being too patronising towards them, it seemed a fair number either had no idea what to expect from such a concert, or simply found the need to sit quietly just too much of an ask. The amount of audience noise was a little embarrassing really, but the piece still sounding thoroughly beautiful.
I then made it down to a comfortable seat, successfully slowed my heart rate enough to concentrate, and watched the core members of the set ensemble perform the first of three Fluxus works, Bengt af Klintberg’s Orange Event Number 24. This piece saw each of the group sit amongst the audience with a pair of nutcrackers and a single nut. The score asked the musicians to simply crack the nut somewhere amidst the silence. This piece worked reasonably well, although there were enough small crashes coming from the audience that I had to keep checking to see if a nut had been broken or not. It was nice to sit in the quiet though and watch these matter-of-fact little events taken place. One or two of the musicians might need a few tips on how to crack a nut rather than propel it halfway across the room, but still a nice performance.
There followed a realisation of Sarah Hughes’ score For Rilke, which consists of a single line of rather beautiful text. It was performed here by the duo of Rhodri Davies and Dominic Lash. I don’t remember the precise instruction, but the score asked for one sound to be made, and then responded to, enveloped by another. Last night there was a very long silence at the start of the piece, maybe ten minutes in length, during which the audience played their part again, but then a slow eBowed not from Davies was heard, which wrapped its way around a plucked string from Lash. This was the first of two incredibly simple and equally beautiful pieces of minimal yet powerful structure last night, a fantastic little moment in which something beautiful was crafted from very little.
There followed a further Fluxus piece before the interval, this time a solo performance by Patrick farmer of George Brecht’s For a drummer, fluxus version 2. The score asks the performer to; “drum with sticks over a leaking feather pillow making the feathers escape the pillow.” This is precisely what Farmer did, stood in the centre of the space, he drummed a series of fast rhythmic patterns into a plump, but split open pillow, that slowly began to spew out its innards into clouds that flew into the air before settling on the floor around his feet. The spectacle was equally hilarious and impressive, absurd and aesthetically pleasing. That this old, distinguished building was the venue for such a performance somehow made it all the more powerful. As well as being fun to watch, it was actually quite sonically pleasing as well, Farmer’s drum skills actually creating some really nice patterns of dull thuds that changed in impact as the pillow became increasingly depleted. After the set ewas finished, the pile of feathers was left int he centre of the hall for the remainder of the performance, which was in itself a nice touch.
After the interval we were treated to a rare performance of a score by Tim Parkinson, his Violin and piano piece (2009) which he played alongside Angharad Davies. Parkinson’s composition is really quite remarkable in that it sounds like nothing else I can think of. If listening to last night’s performance I kept thinking I heard reference points in the music then they were very quickly blown away by whatever came next. I just don’t know how to describe his work. There are no easy genre types or handy categories into which his music can be placed. This piece involved a strong sense of the mathematical, as often clockwork like rhythms of the two instruments were heard, but just as you settled into the two note patterns that seemed to start the piece then we heard romantic violin solos and abrupt starts and stops, pounding chords and thoroughly melodic duo parts. Listening, it felt as if Parkinson had set out inspired by a Beethoven sonata, only for a loud ambulance to pass, influencing the music dramatically so the rich melody shifted to a ‘nee-nah, nee nah’ metronomic before changing tack again. I enjoyed the performance a great deal and felt constantly challenged and inspired throughout. Parkinson is a true original, writing music that will frustrate people that want everything to be easily categorisable. There is plenty of humour in there alongside little puzzles and glimpses of chamber music’s history. In places I was reminded of Webern, elsewhere Beethoven, Tom Johnson and Nono. If that mix of references isn’t enough to point out that this music just doesn’t fit into any neat little hole then I don’t know what is. Wonderful stuff.
There followed a performance of Ben Patterson’s Paper Piece from 1960, the score of which can be viewed here. This realisation was made by Lash, Rhodri Davies, Stent, Guastalla and Whitty. I’ve seen this piece performed once or twice before, and always enjoyed it, but last night’s set was somehow nicer from a sonic perspective than I have heard in the past. At the interval, a good number of the audience’s student population had taken the opportunity to leave, so the room had fallen quite a bit more silent than it had previously been, though now sounds had begun to creep in from outside. The quieter atmosphere in the hall though meant that closing my eyes and listening to the sound of paper torn, rustled, blown up and popped was thoroughly enjoyable to listen to. Slowly the musicians exhausted their piles of paper, leaving just Guastalla to finish the performance with an oddly rhythmic set of sounds and leave the room full of torn up paper to blend with the mass of feathers and the occasional fragment of walnut shell.
Annoyingly, and it really was frustrating last night, the final performance of Stefan Thut’s beautifully simple score Many 1-4 was completely ruined for me by the emergence of what appeared to be a party of drunk men singing along badly to music played somewhere outside. The hall seemed to suck this sound in from somewhere, probably from the nearby Wadham College, and as the very very quiet performance progressed the sound of drunken toffs singing along to Enrique Inglesias songs seemed to dominate the entire space. There was a degree of humour in all of this, but for once I found myself quite saddened by the intrusion. It wasn’t that external sounds were present as much as precisely which external sounds. It seemed as if this little group of musicians, and the few of us watching were a little bubble of calm and consideration in a world full of ugly, vociferous crudeness. It wasn’t too difficult to bring myself to bear on the contributions of the musicians and try and zone out the intrusions, but for a while at least this fifteen minute or so experience seemed to sum up so much of what I feel about modern life.
The actual piece played was another example of beautiful music, beautiful space created with just the barest of means. The score asks the performers to choose one of four notes, which they should sound once, according to a very simple framework, and then each make one noise as well. So the performance was full of silence, pockmarked here and there by soft tones, grey textures and similar sounds that could be categorised as noise. Again the simplicity of the music was everything, a kind of musical haiku in many ways, so much taken from so few gestures.
Thut’s piece was the perfect evening to a concert that was marred by unwanted sounds, but still managed to create a beautiful thoughtful space. The music of the Wandelweiser composers and their followers has really begun to be performed much more often over recent months, and it is very heartening to have been able to spend time so close to some of the most talented and inspired performers of the music over that time. The juxtaposition of the Wandelweiser related composition to the Fluxus works last night was a great idea. everything worked very well together, all of the music complemented what took place around it and it all came together to create a single unified atmosphere, charged with a mixture of relaxed charm, humour and tense, minimal beauty. A wonderful evening.