Friday 30th September

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So on what was apparently the hottest September 30th for a hundred years, I sat in Christchurch Meadow, Oxford for four hours this afternoon, listening, both to the sounds of the meadow on a late summer’s day, but also to Patrick Farmer performing Antoine Beuger’s Calme Étendue (for percussion). Fortunately the spot chosen for the performance was in the shade of several massive horse chestnut trees, which kept the sun off, but also had its dangers, as the unexpectedly hot weather had dried out the leaves on the tree early, so that they were continually deposited onto those of us sat listening with even the slightest breeze. This in itself isn’t dangerous, but the massive conkers that fell with the leaves hit the floor with a bang consistently louder than the music being performed. Fortunately nobody became a casualty…

Beuger’s piece was written in 1996, and consists of a massive fifty pages. Any section of the score can be taken and played, though the longest realisation should last nine hours and the shortest forty-five minutes. Today’s performance lasted four hours. The version of the core I have is in German, but I believe that essentially, the score dictates where on a rectangular object it should be struck (or rather just tapped?) in two places simultaneously. The order of these events is set, but the spaces between them is decided by chance mechanisms before the performance, that result, I think, in different timings for each realisation. So today’s version saw sections in which a lot of very, very quiet tapping of what appeared to be a small, upside-down wooden zither, or autoharp- like instrument took place at some points, but also saw Farmer sit motionless for stretches of time that seemed at least half an hour in length. All in all then, the few of us that were in attendance for the music (various other people passed through, the venue being a public park on a hot summers day…) got to watch Patrick sit and tap, nearly inaudibly, at this wooden object for a long time, while we also listened quietly to the sounds all around us, and while Trevor Simmons, a very talented visual artist, drew charcoal images of Farmer playing. So there was the sound of the gentlest of breezes rustling through dry brown leaves, the occasional thud of a conker falling, squirrels rushing through the branches, dogs barking, their owners following suit, passing vehicles on a busy road a few hundred metres away, the distant wash of the Thames a bit closer still, people talking, aircraft overhead, a madly driven tractor, at one point a small truck parking up nearby, and every half an hour the chiming of Christchurch College Chapel’s bells. In many ways, the sounds of an Oxford park on a summer’s afternoon are as ‘English’ a set of sounds as could be found…

I have attended a few performances of Wandelweiser music that have lasted for long durations now, but this is the first one I have attended outside, and somehow here the need to focus intently on the music felt less, perhaps because the sounds made by Farmer disappeared into the environment so easily, or perhaps because there was so much more to hear as opposed to what is experienced in a normal concert space. So I went through different periods of activity during the four hours today. For quite a while I was able to draw in a sketchbook, allowing my experiences with the sounds around me link directly to the pencils on paper, developing an ad-hoc system for translating what I could dear into marks on a page. Elsewhere I just sat and listened, sometimes lying down, sometimes sat up, moving frequently because of concern for my back. I took quite a few photos, mostly of the trees, and spent a lot of time watching squirrels at play, particularly late in the performance as the sun began to go down and they ventured out further.

If all of this sounds disrespectful to the performance, that I might not have been concentrating fully, this wasn’t the case, simply because this ‘concert’ was an opportunity for people to sit quietly and do whatever they chose. There were none of the trappings of a ‘normal’ concert, no worries about intrusions, (how many concerts do you attend in which a tractor drives through the audience on several occasions?) and the performer/audience equations we are used to didn’t really exist. No announcements were made, no seating was provided, and if no audience had turned up, Farmer and Simmon would have gone about their work just the same. How each of us that did attend chose to respond and react to the performance was our own decision. For me, this was another lovely occasion in which I was able to sit and think, and also not think, just let what was around me enter my consciousness from one direction and leave in another, and in the case of the drawings I did, allow this to direct a pencil around the paper. When the four hours were up, only my aching back lead me to any sense of relief, otherwise I would had been happy to sit and listen to whatever presented itself for several more hours yet.

Tomorrow evening in Oxford, some more, potentially wonderful music. Click the advert down there on the left hand side for more info.

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