Saturday 11th JuneJune 12, 2011
So a brief report of last night’s concert up in Manchester then. I’m going to keep it brief simply because I am in no fit state to try and write anything too complex. I worked right through the night Thursday evening into Friday morning in my day job, got home around 7AM, slept for about four hours and then got up again to drive to Manchester, a journey that ended up taking about five hours as the traffic all the way up was typically dreadful. We left Manchester again at about midnight last night and following a very difficult, tired journey home complete with essential stops to refuel with ludicrous amounts of caffeine I was home again at about 4AM. Then I got up again at nine for a further full day at work. The trip yesterday was great, and I would do it all again tomorrow, but boy did I need to sleep when I got home late this evening.
Anyway, the concert yesterday took place in St Margaret’s Church in Whalley Range, Manchester, a slightly odd, quite disconcerting, still-actrive church in one of the less salubrious parts of the city. There were two sets- an opening twenty-five minute solo performance by Patrick Farmer followed by John Tilbury performing a version of Samuel Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho for piano and spoken word. Now I have seen Patrick Farmer play his turntable set-up an awful lot of late, and I had driven up with him for this gig, so a balanced, objective review probably isn’t possible, but I did enjoy his performance, which was actually the first time I had seen him play solo with any instrumentation. Having seen Patrick play a lot recently, I have noted often that he has often taken up the role of disruptor- choosing to break up the flow of any groups he has worked in, allowing music to settle for a while before completely changing its direction, often quite forcefully. In a solo context this was obviously not so easy, but even last night it seemed like Patrick applied this same tactic, letting things grow naturally, not thinking about where the music might develop and allowing it to find a course of its own before suddenly reeling it in abruptly.
Opening with a densely detailed section made up of crunchy, brittle sounds as various objects such as steel wool were contact miked and screwed up, scraped about and kicked around the floor, the music jolting about off into different directions a few times, underpinned with rattling feedback tones sent from a speaker cone through a snare drum. After a while and following the pattern of letting the music find its level before kicking it (often literally) off into a new set of shapes, Farmer somehow found himself in near silence, taking regularly spaced, sharp strikes at the snare with assorted objects, some with mics attached, a kind of brutal, harshly lo-fi rhythm that ended with the snare being upturned and sent flying under the table with a crash, so ending the set. I enjoyed the performance a lot, but above all it felt thoroughly and excitingly alive and unpredictable. Despite seeing Patrick play a lot of late I hadn’t seen or heard anything quite the same as this before. he’s a friend, so you can take this with as big a pinch of salt as you like, but Mr Farmer is playing right at the top of his game right now and if you get the chance to see him live I recommend you do.
So then we got to hear John Tilbury’s eighty minute long rendition of Samuel Beckett’s wonderful novella Worstward Ho. Now before last night’s concert I really wasn’t sure how Tilbury would approach the performance. Worstward Ho is just a prose piece that was not intended to be considered musically, though certainly Beckett was very interested in extending his work beyond the limitations of written language, having contributed to opera related works and pieces for radio before. This particular piece, a late work in his familiar, punctuation un-friendly style also has a strong rhythmic feel to it. While the structure of the writing could be read in various ways, all of them are likely to have a certain intensity to them that lends itself to careful enunciation and a feeling of urgency that lends itself already to musical adaptation.
Tilbury then recorded himself reading the text straight, his deep, slightly weathered voice perfect for the character. He then last night strapped speakers tot he underside of the piano so that they projected the sound of his voice up through the body of the piano, so causing it to take on the timbres of the instrument, becoming unique to the evening’s performance. For those unfamiliar with it (it can be read here) the text is a broken up deconstruction of the English language. Words are used sparingly but repeatedly, with all of the flourishes of language removed and single words repeated and built into almost cyclical patterns. For his performance last night Tilbury chose different sounds which he tied to certain words, in a manner that reminded me a lot of how I have heard Keith Rowe describe his approach to Cardew’s Treatise before- so a certain word would cause Tilbury to use a particular object inside his piano, or play a certain set of notes, in a similar way to how Rowe would choose a certain gesture or certain tool to respond to certain shapes or symbols in Cardew’s great work. Last night then Tilbury set up a system of leit-motifs that he used throughout the piece, so he played the text, or rather alongside his narration of the text almost like a graphic score read aloud if such a thing were possible.
Aside from his voice, the recording played back through the piano also contained one other element- a quiet, bleak field recording of traffic from a distance, a kind of grey discolouration that Tilbury faded in and out of the pre-recorded part every so often, each time the word “shade” appeared. Likewise, other words brought about direct sounds- the word “ooze” signalled a long oooooh sound made my sliding the tip of a drumstick along the floor of the piano, and “gnawing” brought about a rapidly hammered period of low drummed notes. Other sounds or approaches to playing were less obvious, with certain words or phrases taken in a less onomatopoeic manner, and musical quotations from Feldman, and even a quote from a lament heard by Watt, in a completely different Beckett novel was woven into the piece, tying together various elements of the author’s relationship with sounds and with Tilbury’s experience with his work.
It was all, as you might expect very beautiful and exceptionally well played. It did all feel very much like a presentation of a scored work however, which it indeed was as Tilbury had notes prepared for each section of the piece. It all felt very deliberate, with some variance and improvisation maybe involved in how a particular sound might be used, but with the actual sounds themselves dictated by the text/score quite rigorously. So rather than anything particularly emotional, as perhaps I had expected in advance given the nature of the Beckett work and having heard Tilbury respond to musical situations recently in quite extraordinarily powerful ways, this felt more like a carefully constructed, lovingly considered response to the text. It would be very wrong to suggest that it contained no emotion, as clearly there was plenty in the way it was played, but there should be no undervaluing of the amount of preparation and precision that went into last night’s realisation in advance.
Tilbury created a situation in which the text essentially became his score, with single words or phrases becoming a form of notation from which he did not bend away. So although the interpretation of the text was all Tilbury’s, once the various advance responses to particular words were chosen how it all came together was dictated by the text itself rather than by Tilbury, so in many ways last night’s performance was a straight realisation of a composed score, albeit one that the composer did not originally intend.
I enjoyed this performance a lot, and found myself sat (despite the particularly uncomfortable church seating, and the despicable noises coming from the belly of the person sat next to me) fully engaged, trying to figure out the ‘code’ written through the music in relation to the text as much as I enjoyed the sound itself, which was predictably beautiful, the slightly removed, acoustically affected spoken part mixing well with the grey street-shaded sounds and the colour of the piano. This was the first time John Tilbury had performed this realisation of the work, but I suspect he will do it again, and although its probably an obvious thing for me to say, I recommend you catch any future performances if you possibly can. A great night out then, very much worth the journey.