Monday, April 12, 2010

Ensemble Plus Minus, Kings Place

Or should that be plus-minus ensemble at King's Place? Or +/- @ kingsplace? This sort of typographical quandry is par for the course in the world of Modern Music.

And this gig was definitely Modern Music, with capitals and all. I felt like I'd been transported back to the late 80s. Within seconds of arriving I saw my first Man Dressed In Black.

When I was a nipper, there was a certain set of clich├ęs about Modern Music and the people who went to hear it. Men (always men), almost certainly dressed in black, either bald as a coot or hirsute, possibly of questionable hygiene, never smiling. This is Modern Music. It's Serious. It's Art. NO SMILING. Angular, difficult, hard edged music. Music for Men. Men who smoke and shun deodorant. Men who probably write similar music themselves.

If you believe what you read on the internet (and why wouldn't you?) this sort of thing's yesterday's news. We're no longer scared of music written by non-dead people, we all love each other and even know girls. There were actually some girls there, but they tended not to be talking to the boys, a bit like a school disco. I did see a couple of people smiling, so things haven't remained entirely static since 1989 for these folks.

(I'm uncomfortably aware, by the way, that if you drew a Venn diagram of people who fit into the category I'm talking about, I'd have at least one foot inside it. A lot of these guys are dressed like 80s-90s students, i.e. exactly like I did when I was a student, and sometimes still do. Although I rarely wear all-black these days, it feels weird when I inadvertently do.)

Like Goths and Catholicism, though, the old guard survives, and you'll find them at a gig like this. The particularly fearsome man who sat stiff-backed, hands at the ready to applause the second the Xenakis finished to show he knows when it ends (and is therefore better than the rest of us), paunch nearly covered by grubby shirt and leather jacket, the gentle smell of stale fag smoke wafting gently from his person, was only the most striking example of this Lost World of Modern Music fans (as in fanatics). Gruffly barking "Bravo!" to show he understands and appreciates Difficult Music more than the rest.

Back in the day you'd have gone to a church or a school drama studio to hear this sort of stuff. Fortunately King's Place Hall two has much the same vibe as a drama studio, so there's some continuity there. The presentation is resolutely old-school, too. No talking to the audience or anything like that, just a procession of musicians coming on, playing, and walking off again. This is Difficult Music. If you don't understand it there's no point trying to explain it to you.

I've heard pieces by Xenakis that knocked me out, and others that bored me senseless. Neither of the works that began and ended the first half were at either extreme, though I preferred the piano solo Evryali to the violin and piano piece Dikhthas. Evryali came over like a cross between Ligeti's Piano Etudes and Ustvolskaya's Sonatas without being quite as compelling as either. In between came Rebecca Saunders' Vermilion. Saunders is published by Peters Edition, who despite their signing of the likes of Jonathan Dove in recent years will always be for me the publisher non plus ultra of Difficult Modern Music, printed in Very Big Scores. The scores in this case were surprisingly normal-sized, but it was still definitely the sort of piece where everyone plays from a score. Saunders clearly has a fine ear for texture, and there was much to admire in that respect, but I'm afraid it left me cold, neither seducing nor provoking me. It was there and it was OK, but I didn't feel any sense of its existence as being necessary.

It was the second half I was actually there for. I like Bryn Harrison's music, but there's no getting away from the fact that it's basically a massive rip-off of Morton Feldman. Talent borrows, genius steals, they say, which puts him firmly in the talented camp. If you're going to borrow on this scale though, you may as well do it well, and Harrison (Head of Composition at Huddersfield University) does. I do wish he'd reference something other than other pieces of his in his programme notes though. Unless you're deeply acquainted with his work it's unhelpful and irritating. The lengths he went to to avoid mentioning Feldman were amusing though. Repetitions in Extended Time was commissioned by the Huddersfield Festival.

I find myself wondering though. The Xenakis pieces are, what, 30-40 years old now? Which is old enough that the style has acquired a comfortably quaint, nostalgic patina. Is there some weird thing happening here where composers like that are for people like this what Beethoven and Mahler are for mainstream classical audiences? Something old and familiar, that they feel comfortable with (and therefore almost certainly no longer understand)? And is the Feldmanesque trope now becoming so common (there a a lot of other composers ripping him off, myself included) that it's in danger of going the same way? I'm certain that one day that style will seem just as quaint and cute as Xenakis does now. I'm sure the New Music Men see themselves as keepers of a flame. If there's one thing that's definitely better now than 40 years ago it's that there's no style police telling us what sort of music we can and can't write or listen to, so in a way it's reassuring that they're still about. But maybe they're just as hung up on nostalgia as everyone else. The trouble with writing the music of the future is that it tends to skip the present and go straight to being the music of the past.

2 comments:

Ben.H said...

I pretty much agree entirely with the sentiments of this review, having been there myself (dressed in black). I think the two Xenakis pieces show X at his best but they're so established it's hardly worth discussing them. Haven't heard much Saunders, but that piece was clumsy and embarrassing.

I was tempted to go along to hear the Harrison piece, and I did like the way he picked up some of Feldman's ideas and ran with them (whereas the Saunders piece seemed, consciously or not, intimidated by the implications of Feldman's music), but after about halfway through the piece outstayed its welcome, whereas Feldman could just keep going almost indefinitely.

Thing was, the audience was full of Insiders, who seem to think this sort of music is pointing towards the future. They're wrong.

petemaskreplica said...

Seeing those guys was like coming across some mad old Nazi footsoldier in the jungle, still fighting the Second World War.