Saturday, April 25, 2009

Heiner Goebbels: Songs from Wars I have seen (QEH)

It's an essential part of the contemporary so-called-classical scene that the show you're at will overrun. A good yardstick of the quality of what you've been listening to is therefore how much that irritates you. I found myself not at all bothered by the fact on this occasion, so well done Heiner*.

To be fair, at least part of the overrun was down to the man who walked on and announced "My name is Andrew Burke Chief Executive of the London Sinfonietta" (how remarkable to have a name that suits your job, I thought) and proceeded to beg for money in that way that people desperate for money who don't want you to have the impression they're begging for it do. A lot of talk of wanting to connect with those who buy their tickets on the door (subtext: please book in advance, we've been shitting brick about advance sales), building relationships with their audiences (subtext: we're really worried about how the hell we get people to come to these things) and so on. All couched in friendly, "hey, we love you and we want to connect" language, but going on slightly too long not to come across as a bit desperate. Maybe I'm completely wrong, the London Sinfonietta feels completely recession-proof and has a mailing list as long as your arm, but it sure as hell didn't come across that way.

I have a problem with the London Sinfonietta; they make me slightly suspicious. Partly this is because they're the Establishment: I think of what Morton Feldman said, that the music you hear in London sounds official, like it was written for the London Sinfonietta. And the Establishment can't ever do anything really innovative or different, because innovation and difference challenges the established order. It's hide-bound by its position, by the deadweight of the one-of-each-instrument lineup that fills so much of its repertoire, from which so little interesting comes. Then there are things like those collaboration nights with Warp Records, which seem slightly pointless: is the Sinfonietta desperately chasing after the cool kids, or is it saying that by rearranging electronica for "classical" forces it's conferring a greater artistic legitimacy on it than it otherwise has? Which would seem to imply some level of contempt for the other, cooler music. The classical world is infested with the notion that its music is inherently better than any other kind.**

That said, it would be dumb to dismiss anything they do because of who they are, and tonight's concert of two pieces by Heiner Goebbels is an impressive one that shows that there's still life in this thing if you're clever enough to know where to look. Which Goebbels is. He understands that this genre of ours is essentially dramatic (why else dos it take place on a stage?) and both the pieces here are to some degree overtly theatrical. The use of samples of other records, as well as quotations of other musics performed by the musicians, emphasises this. It's to Goebbels' credit that these elements don't distract - although it's impossible not to have a moment of trying to remember where that drum loop's from - but manage to integrate in a way that earlier stylistic cross-dressers like Schnittke don't really manage, so the flow from tonality to atonality, from baroque to postwar modernism and back comes to seem natural.

Maybe this just where I'm coming from these days, but it's at its most impressive when there's less going on. "Songs of Wars I have seen" underpins Gertrude Stein's words with subtle, elusive sounds that seem to drift in and out of focus, lending a dreamlike quality. The combination of modern instruments with the period ones of the OAE lends another layer: the quieter baroque strings and winds lend an inward quality. Having the narration provided by the musicians rather than actors or singers is a masterstroke. It helps draw the listener in, almost as though we're being read bedtime stories. It manages to be hugely evocative without ever labouring to make a point. And the final moments, when a lone trumpet spins a melody over the ringing of prayer-bowls, coming over like Miles Davis sounding the last post, are magical, intimate and tender.

*I'm being over-familiar there. I don't actually know him or anything.

**Plus they don't play my stuff. Motherfuckers.

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