Sunday 22nd MayMay 22, 2011
A brief review tonight then. I have worked hard today on several writing projects. My big Wire piece has needed some rewriting, plus I have worked on the review of the i and e Festival and the sleevenotes to an album I have been asked to write about. All of this as well as overloading my washing machine with washing, stopping to cook and eat and try and rest before a long week at work as well. I’m not moaning, just excusing my brevity and lack of quality here of late.
Tonight I have been listening to a CD by Neil Davidson, a composition named String Quartet, though it actually isn’t a string quartet, released as a CDr by Neil himself. What I am not entirely sure about is how it might be available to purchase, but if you are interested in buying a copy let me know and I’ll pass your enquiry along to Neil. String Quartet is the composition that Neil performed a couple of times at last year’s Instal festival up in Glasgow. It is a charmingly simple work that consists of the following text score:
Play a tone when you are remembering a string quartet
make the tone you play simple and quiet
when not playing, listen
Duration: an hour or longer
The realisation here then is by a quartet, though not string based. The musicians are Lina Rozite, (flute) Michael Shearer, (clarinet) Nicole McNeilly (trombone) and Neil Davidson (guitar). Since I first heard this piece played last year it has fascinated me. While it is very simple in its concept the instructions could be taken in more than one way, and the musical taste and knowledge of the musicians involved will then dictate how it sounds in a manner that I as far as I know has not been done before. Do the musicians have to know how a particular quartet sounds? Do they have to think of its tune in their heads or is merely knowing a quartet exists enough? I can’t imagine that the latter can be the case, as the minute you know that Shostakovich wrote fifteen quartets you instantly have fifteen tones to play. I suspect then that the musicians took the score to men that they had to know the music involved, but maybe this was open to individual interpretation.
So wondering how this piece might play itself out is an interesting thought. The recording here lasts fifty minutes rather than the proposed hour, but it seems to stop at a point when none of the quartet have anything left to play. The last five to ten minutes of the disc are silent, and after a busyish opening the second half of the disc contains little sound, just occasional tones here and there. So the music operates not only as a set of recorded sounds to listen to, but also as some kind of map of the musicians’ memories and perhaps also their familiarity with chamber music. The sounds we hear are all soft, generally quite low tones, and the feel of the whole recording is similar to a Wandelweiser score, just simple sounds placed in spaces, sometimes overlapping.
I wonder how rigorous the musicians were able to be. Surely if two tones could already be heard then one might be loathed to add a third and instead place it in a space? Yet the score wouldn’t allow for this, as when a quartet is remembered a tone must immediately be played. So how do do you remember a quartet when the instruction is to listen when not playing? If you are focused on the sounds in the room can you bring yourself to search and find a piece of music in your memory that you may not have heard in a while? Near the start we hear Davidson’s eBowed guitar often, which doesn’t surprise me knowing his love for classical music, but the trombone isn’t heard so often. Perhaps Nicole McNeilly usually only listens to jazz?!
This is a fascinating piece then. Musically it provides a nice set of gentle sounds that gradually move apart until there is nothing to hear. As a study of how we remember things, or fail to do so though it is very interesting. The patterns in this recording, the gradual separation of tones and increase in silence is probably inevitable, but how much was it influenced by the space the musicians played in, the atmosphere, the quiet music, the patterns already formed as the pice progressed etc… When I saw the work played in Glasgow it was only given about fifteen minutes on each occasion, so the piece was much more full. Stretched out to fifty minutes the human memory is stretched as well. i can picture the musicians playing, or stood in silence, each looking at one another as they think hard, eventually realising that nobody had anything left to give. Did they then discuss the quartets they had all thought of after? If so were they kicking themselves for not remembering what a colleague may have thought of? I tried “playing” along with the CD, listening carefully and humming a tone when I personally thought of a quartet. sat as I was beside shelves full of CDs I closed my eyes and just listened, and found myself placing a lot more sounds into the space than the musicians seemed to. This might suggest I know more string quartets, but knowing Neil Davidson I know this is not the case. Perhaps then the place in which the music was recorded, the tension undoubtably felt as the musicians played, all had an effect on what we hear.
Fascinating stuff then, and the end result is also very beautiful, a kind of slowly decaying work, just as our memories decay over time. Hopefully you will be able to buy this CD somewhere soon.
A quick plug here for an interesting event involving a workshop and group playing organised by Compost and Height featuring Gino Robair. It appears that anyone is welcome and no knowledge of reading music is needed. Another excellent event in Oxford then, its becoming a habit…