Concert Reviews

Tuesday 8th November

November 9, 2011

So to the Sunday’s performances at the Grundelweiser festival. I really liked the way that the day was programmed, with five sets performed overall, in three batches with an hour’s interval between each. The day began early, at noon, and ended at five, so making it easy for people to get home after a long festival, but giving enough time for people to eat, relax and talk to the composers and musicians who were to be found doing just the same during the breaks. In my opinion, more concerts should be organised like this. The relaxed feel to everything made for an atmosphere that encouraged conversation about the music, and those that live a long way from London found travelling easier. The only real downside to it all were, predictably enough, the staff at the ICA, who were regimentally insensitive to everything going on. From reception to the bar to the security staff the general atmosphere from them was rigidly miserable and tedious. I was told that I couldn’t take a glass of drink into the performance area and had to decant it into a plastic tumbler because (and I quote) “I could throw the glass at the performers”. The performance in question was the Wandelweiser collective playing Stones. I was actually concerned that I wouldn’t be able to stop laughing by the time the music began… Still, about the music….

The first little group of two concerts included a sextet version of Eva-Maria Houben’s lovely 2005 score La Solennité des Silences and a duo piece by Jürg Frey performed by himself alongside Radu Malfatti. Houben’s work was maybe at first appearances the most traditionally “Wandelweiserian” score of the festival, though closer attention and understanding revealed quite a bit more. The group played patches of tones, each lasting maybe five or six seconds, interspersed by silences of perhaps a similar length of time. If the pattern to the music felt like familiar ground, the performance was very subtle and beautifully done, with some nice combinations of textures from the grouped instrumentation of Antoine Beuger’s flute, Frey’s clarinet, Malfatti’s trombone, Manfred Werder playing piano, Markus Kaiser’s cello and Michale Pisaro’s guitar. A little more investigation revealed that the score actually left quite a bit open to the musicians’ interpretation within the music. Each of the little clusters of sounds were lead by one musician, who played one of (I think it was) three pitches offered to them by the score. The others then would choose to either join with a pitch from their own list of possibilities, perhaps matching pitch or perhaps taking the section off in a different direction. At any time no musician had to play, and in the majority of sections we heard maybe three or four musicians offer a sound while others remained silent. This piece was very lovely to listen to, and there was a slight tension to it that felt different to others sets of the weekend, perhaps because of how it was made, the uncertainty around which parts would be added and with such split second decisions being made by musicians as to whether to contribute to a particular section of the music or not. This set felt for me the closest to traditional forms of improvisation, and the group sound worked really well in the hall.

Straight after, the ensemble was reduced to the duo of Frey and Malfatti and for the first time I really regretted that the music was being performed in such a large, sterile hall with the musicians sat a long distance away on a raised stage. While  Houben’s piece had a warmth to it, partly because of the interplay between the musicians’ contributions, but also partly because of the layering of sounds, Frey’s piece, named Brachland (translates to “Fallow land”) was probably too intimate and discrete a score to work as well in such an environment. This had actually been the one set that I had been looking forward to most all weekend- a delicately scored composition performed by two stunningly controlled craftsmen- simple exchanges of carefully refined and chosen lengthy pitches came together, overlapping here and there, to create something that was at once very simple and yet full of subtle patterns that gathered in complexity the more you tried to pick them out in the music. The playing was exceptional, the odd croaky start to a note once or twice from Malfatti as he was asked to achieve some very precise pitches and retain the softness of attack moving from one note to another, but generally this was a masterclass in beautiful, soft acoustic sounds. Where the piece lost impact however was when it was blown up to be a big room work. On a small scale, in front of maybe fifty people in a small space this would have been a stunning performance, but played on such a large stage, with such distance between musicians and audience seemed to cause the duo to force the sound a little, and maybe even play louder. I would have much preferred to hear this work played in more intimate surroundings, but I am very pleased to had been able to hear it at all.

After the break we heard the piece that, following conversations with the Wandelweiser collective seemed to be the most anticipated and exploratory composition of the festival. It didn’t disappoint. Manfred Werder’s 2010 (1) was performed for half an hour by an uncertain number of musicians. The score consists only of a line taken from a Michel Foucault text:

the rarity of the énoncés
that immediate transparency that constitutes the element of their possibility

The group met a couple of times during pre-concert practices to discuss how they might actualise (Werder’s preferred choice of word ahead of perform) this work. Apparently discussions were intense but very fruitful, with more than one musician telling me that the they perhaps produced a better response to the score than the final public actualisation itself. What we were presented with for half an hour though was really quite remarkably intense. Five musicians could be seen obviously taking part- Beuger (minus his flute) sat on a seat onstage, as did Burkhard Scholthauer, who held his violin on his lap and Houben, who took a particularly creaky seat behind the piano. Away from the stage, Kaiser sat to one side of the hall, cello resting on a ledge beside him, untouched, while he sat and drew pictures in a sketchbook. Michael Pisaro sat, guitar in hand on the other side of the hall, out of my line of sight. The musicians did very, very little. If Pisaro made any sounds at all I didn’t hear them. Scholthauer gradually raised his violin to an upright position over several minutes, then wavered his bow about slowly before tapping it against a string so quickly and so lightly that the vast majority of the audience missed it. This was all he did in the half an hour. Antoine Beuger let two brief hushed whistles slip from his mouth, one of which I missed, it was so quiet, the other lasting just a couple of seconds and barely audible. Eva-Maria Houben was maybe the most sonically active of all, playing three piano notes in the time the composition was played- one softy chiming note and two inside piano thuds. Kaiser just sat and drew, his only sounds being those of his pen scratching over paper. The audience, which must have been about a hundred strong, were deadly quiet throughout, much to their immense, quite surprising credit. The atmosphere was incredible, not just because of the silence, a la 4’33”, but also because of the uncertainty felt by all about what was happening. Even the musicians didn’t really know what each other were doing, or had planned to do. The gestures made by the musicians, all very tiny as they were, were more intimate, personal touches that were amplified dramatically by their placement in such a long silence.

Knowing that he had been part of the practice discussions I asked Jürg Frey after the actualisation if he had played any part in the piece, although I had not seen him anywhere in the hall. It turned out he had. He had sat in the audience, several rows behind me, where I didn’t see him, and had apparently taken off his scarf, which he wore most of the time, only to put it back on a few minutes later. This gesture was his contribution to the piece, but I doubt that anyone realised or noticed at the time. Whether the other two members of the collective (Malfatti and Werder himself) had also taken part in some way I am not sure. The tension in the room for this piece was electrifying. While 4’33” doesn’t last long and is coupled to the standard theatre of a classical music performance, this set lasted half an hour and felt completely alien and very uncomfortable to witness. The musicians seemed to be interacting, even while not moving or not making any sounds, or actually doing anything at all that would lead you to think they may have been working together. The silence in the hall was incredibly well preserved, and so the small gestures that we did witness felt amplified many times over. The slightest of stroke to Schlothauer’s violin seemed hugely significant, the fact that Houben’s creaking piano stool made more sound than the piano when she stood to pluck a string felt amplified into a major event. I’m not sure how the group chose to interpret the words of the score, or if they each took different routes, but it did feel to me that the potential and possibility of tiny gestures were magnified by the (transparency of) the silence. All I know is that I have not felt so immediately alive and tense during a live concert for quite some time.

The following quartet of Beuger, Frey, Malfatti and Kaiser playing Beuger’s Lieder der Luft (Songs of the air) felt like a nice way to pull the music back into slightly more traditional forms. Here we again had very simple, uncluttered scoring of tonal sounds lasting a few seconds each coming together to make beautiful music, this time very light and airy, a gentle recolouring of the room after the harsh erasure of its natural tones through Werder’s piece. Beuger’s score describes itself as following:

Music: just a few sounds, just a little air set in motion, allowing an infinite world of difference, promise and charm to unfold”

This description could maybe be used to describe a lot of the music at this festival, but here it just describes what we heard so much better than I ever could. The key was again simplicity, delicate, well placed sounds rather than a rigid sense of structure or dense layering of sounds. Beuger’s piece was maybe another that could work better in a smaller space, but it worked very well following the long silences of Werder’s work. The audience were again thoroughly respectful, this time leading an inspired Radu Malfatti to jump up as the piece ended and thank “the best audience in the world” for their focus, which was a wonderful, and much deserved accolade.

The final hour long break followed and we then heard the closing work, performed by all eight of the Wandelweiser composers, a realisation of Schlothauer’s 2005 score Asymmetrical Microtonal Polyphonia. Throughout the forty-five minute work the musicians surrounded the audience from all sides, forming a ring, or perhaps more accurately a rectangle. The music then began and quickly became a rotating stream of sounds, moving clockwise about the room from musician to musician. I’m not certain how the piece was exactly scored but when one musician made a sound the next followed a few seconds later, and some kind of gradual shift in pitch and tone (or microtone) took place slowly over time as the sounds swirled slowly around us. This piece was far more full-on than anything else of the weekend, providing a pulsing, revolving sensation that changed over time, but so slowly that it was hard to spot anything changing. The sounds played matched into what preceded them, with the most interesting links coming from Frey’s exceptionally clear clarinet tones merging into and over Beuger’s flute, and the raw vibrations of Houben’s bowed tromba marina (or something similar) adding texture to Pisaro’s already roughly finished guitar tones. This piece felt like a suitable ending to the festival, a kind of grand finale that was actually quite a complex, thoughtful work but felt almost ecstatically uplifting and, in contrast to all that had gone before, very bold. It was a lot of fun to listen to, creating a kind of vertigo-like swaying sensation for me as the music went round and round that stayed with me for quite a while after the piece had ended, but like all of the music at the festival, there was more hear than what immediately meets the ear, a use of fractionally shifting pitches and timbre to keep the music lightly on edge throughout. The piece also saw all of the collective playing in the final set, and so saw all eight take a bow, first on stage, but then, much to their credit, another having walked round and down to the same level as the audience, which was a very nice touch that symbolised the openness and friendliness of all of the composers to anyone that approached them over the course of the festival.

Having spent quite a bit of time in the company of these composers and their music over the five days, what really came home to me even more than ever was just how different each of the eight composers are, and how no two compositions performed could really be described as very similar. One of the obvious and understandable accusations made towards the music of Wandelweiser by those that approach it for the first time is that it all sounds the same, that it ploughs a narrow furrow. When viewed from a macro level this probably is true to some degree, but paying attention to the pieces we heard at a detailed level opened up, for me, a whole world of differences that reflected the eight very different characters behind the music. Trying to find similarities between, of instance, the stretched melodies and gauzy beauty of Malfatti’s piece from Saturday and the philosophically considered silence of Werder’s composition is nigh on impossible. They are completely different works, and while maybe it could be said that nothing on view this festival was ever going to be loud and raucous the list of shared features probably stops around there. Themes of silence, tension and a study of the treatment of melody were prevalent throughout the five days but no two pieces explored these themes in similar ways. It it will already be obvious to all, but this festival was a huge inspiration and source of immense joy for me personally. So much of my enjoyment events though was amplified by the time spent with the composers themselves. Their energy and passion for this music, on both an individual but also a collectively supportive level was infectious and inspiring, and this just added an extra layer to music I already love a great deal. Special times for me then, and much congratulations are due to Richard Whitelaw of Sound and Music for putting together such an event.

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