Concert Reviews

Wednesday 2nd November

November 3, 2011

So tonight I made it along or the first, preliminary night of the Cut ‘n Splice – Grundelweiser group of events in London. Despite being up at 4AM this morning, and having to be up again the same time tomorrow, I made the trip to Kings Cross and the curiously nice Centre for Creative Communications building for an event organised as part of Will Montgomery’s PolyPLY series in conjunction with the main Cut ‘n Splice festival.  I am writing this now on the train home. As I have worked it out that I will spend more time in concerts than sleeping over the next three days I aim to keep these little reports short and sweet. As I think I got confirmation today to write something more formal for the festival for The Wire this probably works well.

So tonight’s little event saw about forty people listen to four sets of music preceded by a chat for half an hour or so chaired by Montgomery. The theme was Poetry as Score and Tim Parkinson, Antoine Beuger, Michael Pisaro and Manfred Werder took part, each answering one question given to them in full but also chipping in here and there when appropriate. The atmosphere was relaxed, and it was very lovely to hear these four talk about how verse and the written word inspires them, and how they put poetry to work in their music. Beuger spoke beautifully about his love of Emily Dickinson’s writing, and went into detail about the intimacy of what he calls the “twoness” of her writing, how the relationship between two people flows through her poetry and how he borrows from this in his composition. The closing musical piece of the night, a lovely Beuger score named Confidential Letter #7 reflected these interests fully. Werder spoke about his interest in Francis Ponge, Pisaro talked about how a Gertrude Stein poem became the inspiration for the Harmony Series work performed tonight and Parkinson spoke about the work from a musicians perspective. Not overly long, and with well thought through questions, this little chat provided a great opening top the few days events.

The music tonight the was performed by Angharad Davies, (violin) Tim Parkinson, (some kind of mouth-driven keyboard) David Stent, (acoustic guitar) Sarah Hughes, (a couple of stones on some of the pieces, autoharp on the Pisaro realisation) Antoine Beuger (flute) and Carol Watts (speech). The group were also joined throughout by the regular, and quite beautifully clear rumble of tube trains passing immediately below the building, the almost as regular rumbling of assorted audience members’ tummies, and some wonderful, almost metronomic clicks and pops of the building as it stretched each time a train went by.

The core quartet of Davies, Parkinson, Hughes and Stent played on all four pieces, with Beuger and Watts coming and going. All six played four pages extracted from Jurg Frey’s Landschaft mit Wörtern (Landscape with Words) a work involving very quiet, brief gestures by the musicians as a speaker softly recites words inspired by poetry. Along with the first three other pieces this evening the predominant feature of this lovely working of the score was almost the room and nearby railway as much as it was what the musicians played. For me, the music of the Wandelweiser composers is as much about the performance space and it’s listeners as it is about the sounds played by the musicians, and this piece, as it framed silences beautifully with short sounds and singly spoken words proved the perfect frame to place around the really great room sounds. Next as the four core musicians sat on the floor, Manfred Werder flicked off the light and we sat in hushed attention for around ten minutes in the dark. The piece, titled 2009/4 is one of Werder’s single line scores that borrows a quote from the French poet Francis Ponge. The musicians’ responses were invisible, and very nearly unaudited, with some of the quartet making no sounds at all, and the others (I think three of them but it was hard to be sure) making just the tiniest of single sounds. Performances of Manfred Werder’s music are often extreme affairs that test the mettle of an audience, and this was no exception. Sitting in the dark, listening to the particularly beautiful sounds surrounding us, picking out  the tiny contributions from the musicians but otherwise just enjoying taking the time to listen was really wonderful this evening.

Compared to everything else tonight, Michael Pisaro’s A single charm is doubtful (harmony Series no.14) was positively busy and noisy. The piece, a typically beautiful blend of soft ebowed autoharp and guitar tones mixed with slightly rougher violin and mouthorgan interventions was played with a great, delicate charm. It was lovely to hear this piece played live in such a situation, and it also provided a great lead-in to the final, brief, but rather wonderful work, Antoine Beuger’s simple yet fascinating Confidential Letter #7. All six musicians sat down to play this piece, but left their instruments to one side, replacing them with a pad of paper and (matching!) pens. The charming little score for this work reads as follows:

Find a (short) poem


Copy it by writing it by hand,

word for word,

very quietly,

acknowledging blanks and line breaks as pauses


while writing a word, speak it,

equally quietly, to yourself,


The group chose a poem by Thomas A. Clark, and set about writing, and softly muttering and mumbling to themselves as they wrote. The end result was a murmured patter of quiet voices, all talking to themselves, as we all do when we write and concentrate at the same time and think we are alone… Sat listening to this piece presented me with mixed feelings. On the one hand the way Beuger has observed how human beings act while in the habit of writing to another, or concentrating on a piece of work is wonderful, and the composition, while very simple draws on this observation of human nature. Also though, it somehow felt a bit uncomfortable to be sat listening to this. The musicians paid no attention to the audience watching them, and became lost in copying out the poem, speaking its words only to themselves as they did so. This private act of processing a text and concentrating upon it didn’t feel like something we should have been listening in to. The overall sounding impact was very beautiful, particularly through the mix of different weights and depths of voices, but, quite deliberately, reflecting on Dickinson’s preference for writing letters to friends rather than speaking to them directly, Beuger gave this whole musical scenario a certain depth and sensation of privacy that made listening closely a remarkable experience.

So, a lovely first evening, great to hear this music played and great to catch up with some lovely people. Looking forward to day two.

Comments (5)

  • simon reynell

    November 3, 2011 at 9:32 am

    Although my degree is in Literature, poetry isn’t something that often excites me or something that I spend a lot of time with. So to be honest I treated the event more or less as I would any other concert – and what a lovely one it was.

    I again got the sense of Wandelweiser music as being something that ‘takes place’; the location / venue being the largest constituent element in the music rather than just a context. There’s a kind of alchemy going on whereby the sounds of the nearby trains, of the room, and the slightly more distant traffic, became almost magical when heard as part of a performance, whereas the same sounds half an hour before the concert were just mundane. This was most evident for me in the Werder piece, where, as you say, the musicians did virtually nothing with their instruments, the performance simply being the allowing of the sounds around to be and to be heard. It’s a gesture that doubtless has roots in Cage, but Werder is pushing even further into a territory where ‘music’ as normally conceived as the playing of notes seems almost impossible, but where at the same time music is inevitable if it is understood simply as sounds heard in a place (“music is all around us if only we have ears”, as Cage put it).

    This quality is something that can only be experienced in situ and at the time; a recording of the event would have been futile, meaningless – or at least something completely different and probably uninteresting. It would be like bottling air. So the only piece that didn’t really work for me last night was, bizarrely, the only piece that I’d want to listen to on disc – the Pisaro. It’s beautiful, and was beautifully played, but I’d rather have heard it in a cleaner environment without passing trains. (Incidentally it’s included on Pisaro’s Harmony Series disc, so you can hear it cleanly there – albeit in a different realisation).

    Anyway, a really enjoyable evening, and it’ll be fascinating to see over the next few days whether Wandelweiser works as well in the perhaps more sterile environment of the ICA.

  • Richard Pinnell

    November 3, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks Simon. I agree with most of your words, I just wish I wasn’t too tired on the way home to articulate in the same manner. Indeed what will probablmake or break the rest of this festival for me could be the ICA space and how it is allowed to impact on the music. My past experiences with quiet music there have not been good ones. Again we return to the same question that I find really interesting- what makes some external noises “acceptable” or desirable in this kind of event and others nothing but a nuisance? Why were huge smelly noisy trains so beautiful yesterday evening?

    Anyway, on train back into London now. Pisaro solo and the whole group playing Stones tonight. Anticipating good things.

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  • willmontgomery

    November 6, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Thanks for this account of the night, Richard. We were really pleased with the way the event went and it’s really nice to read your response and Simon’s. I agree with you and Simon about the importance of particular spaces and the un-recordable intensity and fullness of performance in the moment.
    A couple of small points from a credit-where-credit’s-due perspective: The POLYply series is programmed by Redell Olsen and Kristen Kreider and me. This one-off event, though, was jointly organised by me and Tim Parkinson (who chose the musicians, corresponded with the composers and generally set the performances up).
    I’m still feeling hugely energized by this afternoon’s event at the ICA. Very struck, in particular, by how very different Manfred’s pieces seem in different contexts.

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