The Night With… James Turnbull, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 12 September 2018
Following the crossover success of The Night With… Wooden Elephant a month ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, Matthew Whiteside’s pioneering concert series returns to the rarefied atmosphere we all know and (sort of) love in the world of new composed music, this time featuring an hour and a half of contemporary oboe music performed by James Turnbull. Despite being a former oboist myself, it was rare and exciting to be able to spend so much time listening to this highly specialised and difficult instrument, especially in music that was mostly unfamiliar to me.
Nonetheless, the highlight of the evening was, for me, the most famous work – Berio’s Sequenza VII from 1969, a stunningly abstract and purist notion of modernism with its smattering of notes and microtonal inflections against a continuous drone, a demonstration of the oboe’s sound-making potential within a non-referential, ‘worldless’ aesthetic space. I’ve heard Sequenza VII played with more urgency and bite before, but Turnbull showed a softer side to it, proving that modernist seriousness can also be a refined form of playfulness, that dotting musical time with points of sound, with lines of multiphonics and growling fluttertongues, can be delightful and stimulating. Turnbull also created a pleasing sense of space in his rendition, imparting a sense that the note B droning in the background is a canvas and that the oboe notes are Kandinsky-like flights of imagination on top of it, an aspect which is sometimes lost in the more aggressive interpretations.
There were several pieces which utilised the oboe’s characterful tone to connect with certain forms of ethnic music. Elizabeth Hoffman’s Athbhreithnigh is part of an ongoing series of palimpsest-like pieces which this time involved quasi-improvisational oboe material layered on top of recordings of Uilleann pipe-playing. Another was Melinda Maxwell’s Pibroch, an effective if unconvincing rendering of Scottish Piobaireachd, the austere theme-and-variation form of the Great Highland Bagpipes, into contemporary classical music, which was also somewhat let down by the factual inaccuracy of the programme note. The concert finished with Ross Edward’s Ulpirra, originally a recorder piece, but aptly folky and fun for the oboe to play.
There were also a few pieces which, to anyone used to standard new music for solo instruments, were aesthetically and compositionally safe but not without interest. James Turnbull told us that he first played Amethyst Deceiver by John Casken some years ago in one of his final recitals before graduation and it does have a rather academic/institutional feel to it, as though written purely for examination purposes or do make prove motivic development in a composition class, but it was still a well-made and sprightly character piece. Tansy Davies’ Forgotten Game (2) is a rhythmic showpiece, but as I’ve often (but not always) felt in her work, the funk is completely lost in translation. At the same time, it is supposedly “a kind of meditation on nature, in a pagan or spiritual sense”, a programmatic element which was difficult to reconcile with the music heard by itself. Peter Maxwell Davies’s First Grace of Light and Peter Gregson’s Three Questions were simple lyrical and melancholic pieces.
Emily Doolittle’s Social Sounds for Whales at Night, for cor anglais, percussion and tape, was, along with the Berio, another highlight (and Doolittle is an oboist herself). It is a rich and mysterious work which could even have been longer to let us sink deeper into the incredible recordings of humpback whale, sperm whale, seal, and more, which comprised the tape part. I would certainly have enjoyed more space between the oboe phrases for us to become truly immersed. The only awkward element in this was how Turnbull could integrate the percussion sounds – an ocean drum and a set of wood chimes. The chimes he once played by hand, once by tapping with the bell of his cor anglais, and once by kicking; the ocean drum was handled awkwardly. Together, these inconsistencies slightly disrupted the theatre of the piece. Nonetheless, Social Sounds is a fascinating and poetic addition to contemporary oboe repertoire and one which could be explored much further.
Turnbull opened the concert with Telemann’s Fantasia in A Minor, originally written for flute but very popular with oboists, especially those looking to work on their breathing in the lengthy sections of passage work. It begins in a solemn, majestic French overture style before diving into a fantastic (and melodic) display of virtuosity: but during all of this, Turnbull was unfortunately hidden behind two high music stands, as he was for much of the concert. When I heard the opening A of the Telemann, I wasn’t sure if he had started the performance or was tuning again. The first movement was shaky but by the third movement, Turnbull was playing in excellent form and finished this beautiful work with a flourish.
Turnbull clearly favours the didactic/pedagogical approach to performance. This is understandable as part of his educational work encouraging more people to play this instrument as well as displaying the variety of contemporary music written for it. I personally would have liked a performance more focussed on aesthetics and artistry, with a more engrossed sense of theatre rather than a straightforward showcase of what the instrument can do. There was a lot of talk in Turnbull’s introductions and programme notes about which techniques and registers and styles were used, and some of the pieces were a little superficial; I wonder what there is in the way of major new works for the oboe, which get deeper into the essence of it and create an experience that is enveloping and profound? Nonetheless, despite the meagre audience turnout at the Fruitmarket Gallery, the show received a warm and enthusiastic response. I have great admiration for Turnbull’s project and, in fact, it makes me want to get my oboe out and start playing again.
The Night With… Wooden Elephant, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 8 August 2018
As if emerging to satisfy the daydreams of a weary Generation-X composer, international chamber group Wooden Elephant and their violist-composer Ian Anderson have produced a unique programme of acoustic arrangements for string quintet (doubling percussion) of two era-defining albums: Björk’s Homogenic and Radiohead’s Kid A. While these together make for a lengthy concert, the audience remained enraptured throughout: Anderson’s arrangements are fascinating, consistently imaginative and extremely well written; the brief song-length of pop music helps to maintain concentration without fatigue; and, mainly in Homogenic, the diversity of stylistic reference points is about as fresh as it was in 1997 (by all accounts, as I was busy watching The Simpsons at the time of the album’s release).
It is very common to hear strings in pop arrangements, and increasingly so in large-scale jazz groups, but this concert makes it obvious how different the quality is when the string writing is by a trained composer and string player. It is a work of translation – from the rich sound palettes of the original albums to the relatively homogenised space of the string quintet – and there were many aural delights: the spiccato shudderings in the opening track ‘Hunter’, the stunning bell sonorities in ‘Alarm Call’, the incessant sul ponticello in ‘Pluto’. Austrian composer Peter Ablinger is renowned for his work which involves translating one kind of sonic information into another, for instance the speaking voices of the artistic celebrities of yesteryear rendered on a piano or the ticking of a Swiss watch replicated by a string orchestra. But in these Björk and Radiohead arrangements the stakes are higher. Hearing Björk’s vocal lines replicated by a cello or violin was the weakest aspect of the concert and made some of us long for the singer herself: obviously, Björk is irreplaceable within her own music. What is fascinating in this context is how the pop song form becomes a miniature sonic world that lasts only a few minutes before disappearing forever. To a contemporary classical composer, despite all the talk about Stockhausen and moment form, this is still a remarkable notion of structure. In a sense, this concert was a celebration of ‘album-form’, because, translated into another context, this flowing succession of little sonic vistas is something special.
But there is another reason why these arrangements work: the source albums already contain a shadow of chamber music, especially Homogenic which uses faux-classical music as a generic element. Anderson’s arrangements are isolating this element and taking it much further, relocating it in the sonic world of contemporary classical so that every signifier of pop music strangely reforms into something quite alien, an act of translation and adaptation akin to Aisha Orazbayeva’s take on Handel or her on-site recordings of Sciarrino but working across genre divisions. Kid A makes for less interesting arrangements simply because its music is chord- and groove-driven and because there is much less of a gap left by omitting the vocals.
Wooden Elephant brought a lot of energy to the entire performance, each musician with a clearly different stage personality. One of the biggest challenges to classical-pop crossover is the difference in gestural style – think of string quartets playing pop covers with the swooning body language of the 19th century chamber music. Body language is without doubt an alienating factor in a lot of classical music, so to push their ambition further, Wooden Elephant could refine this element and find a performance style which fits completely naturally with this hybrid music – a goal which they are already close to achieving. There was also no need for Homogenic to be split in two halves, making the concert into three sections. I’m sure everyone could have listened all the way through it, and then through most or all of Kid A, despite being a considerable demand on attention.
This concert is a bold start to the new season of The Night With… and it proves that the series’ vision is stronger than ever. Attracting diverse, passionate audiences eager for exciting, vivid musical experiences is crucial for concert series today and Matthew Whiteside is setting the bar high. The Night With… has now established itself as one of the most important events on the musical calendar for those with a curiosity for anything imaginative, exciting and strange.
RCS New Music Collective, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, 16 February 2018
RCS New Music Collective is a group of composers and performers currently studying at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow. Last night they gave an outstanding 90-minute showcase of recent work, some premieres and some repeat performances, all of it diverse and individual and exciting. Composers are the soul-searchers of the musical landscape so it is a shame that their work is almost systematically underappreciated. It was no help at all that this concert (part of the student-only ‘Performance Week’) should have been organised for the same evening as an RCS Symphony Orchestra concert at City Halls, which was somewhat less original in its programme of Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The RCS New Music Collective concert was also special because it didn’t feel like it was trying to impress anyone: unlike the RCS PLUG festival in which every new work has the added pressure of a) typically being the only representative piece for each composer in the festival; b) the presence of invited ‘industry professionals’ and reviewers; and c) likely being a crucial part of student portfolio submissions thus restricting the possibility of taking risks. Composers tend to work best on their own terms, and the Collective opened the necessary space for this: it had an infectious DIY enthusiasm, so different from a certain ‘new compositions for mallet percussion’ concert I saw recently at a certain London music college, in which each composer apologetically introduced their allotted eight-minute no-more, no-less composition and were greeted with little more than polite applause.
The concert opened with Juta Pranulyte’s o for violin and tape, written last year and performed here with great sensitivity by Harry Gorski-Brown. As with all of Juta’s work, it has an intense focus, a fine attention to sonic variations within an essentially monochrome aesthetic (c.f. Juta’s Intus for amplified double bass which was last performed in December at my Glasgow Experimental Music Series). Juta takes these interests even further in her new piece F which involved the note F being hammered out on a piano for a long time, “until you reach your limit and fail”. Yicheng Pan’s performance of it was very impressive. This piece belongs in a happy family of experimental pieces, affinities with Tenney’s Koan, Lucier’s Opera with Objects or Silver Streetcar for the Orchestra, Lely’s The Harmonics of Real Strings, Radigue’s OCCAM OCEAN and many more. These kinds of pieces are among the humblest things a composer can bring into the world: they are nothing but sheer musical poetry. And in Juta’s piece, where it takes quite some time for a continuous tone of reinforced harmonics to emerge amidst the myriad tiny unpredictable rhythmic and timbral effects of the piano’s escapement mechanism and marginal sounds, it feels like concentrating hard enough, or having enough faith, to witness the miraculous; as though a veil is gradually removed and something bright and truthful becomes unconcealed.
Patrick Shand’s piano trio Quiet is the Thought of You, written in 2015 and last performed when they were studying for a term at CalArts, is unpredictable in a very different way. Speaking to Patrick after the concert they described it as having a sort of ‘identity crisis’ and that seems about right: it is very human music with an internal inconsistency which Patrick manages to make work brilliantly. It is constantly surprising music in the way free association is, and it is not just the supposedly direct expression of emotion but instead something explored, wrangled with and questioned. Patrick’s acousmatic piece Elephant on the Wall, based on an improvisation, is dark and lo-fi with muffled recordings of voices, repeating piano notes, Patrick’s own voice heard once or twice, and structured with regular fade-outs. Patrick once said one of the kindest things about my own work, my composition Infinite Avenues, that it “says something about our shared humanity”. I know that Patrick’s work is concerned with just that and I admire its directness, so I take their comment as very high praise.
In a similar vein was Electra Perivolaris’ new piece for saxophone, cello and piano, Delicate granite rock, crumbling apart in my hands, which was even more overt in its connection to the emotional life of the composer. Electra has a unique style of musical landscape painting, often unremitting and bleak landscapes but invested with a search for human warmth. This has been a persistent thread through several of her compositions and the highlight of this latest one is the tender piano writing. Monika Palsauskaite, Fran Sanchez Diaz and Adam Hall, the trio for whom it was written, gave a very good rendition of this challenging score.
Harry Gorski-Brown presented an excellently crafted electroacoustic piece Un-(Synthetic Hair), a visceral and imaginative exploration of close-miked violin sounds. Matt Grouse also had a couple of pieces featured. Coming through the firmament, an enjoyable short movement for string quartet which focussed mainly on a duet between violin and cello with the other violin and the viola providing a constant col legno battuto accompaniment, although it may have benefitted from a little more rehearsal time. A clearer success was his two collaborations with filmmaker Andy Sowerby, in which a huge range of different sounds were mashed together to fit the playful, often psychedelic, abstract video art. Both works were creative and interesting but they didn’t entirely allow for Matt’s artistic vision to come across.
A recently finished composition of my own, Canvases, was supposed to be performed but it wasn’t possible to fix all the musicians needed for it. It’s a bit of a long piece anyway, clocking around the 15-20 minute mark, and the Composers’ Collective provided us with so much in this offering that the audience couldn’t really have asked for more.
The Night With… Joanna Nicholson and Emma Lloyd, The Rowantree, Edinburgh, 11 April 2017
A few years ago I heard a composition by Jeremy Thurlow called Ouija for violin and electronics, performed by Peter Sheppard Skaerved and the composer. As is the case in many such pieces, it is a dialogue of sorts between the violin’s incantatory melodic lines and reverberant electronic noises, creating an immersive experience and flirting so closely with kitsch (at least by the standards of new classical music) that it is hard not to like. But more interestingly, Thurlow, in writing an almost textbook example of the ‘instrument and electronics’ subgenre, felt the need to supplement it (in advance of the compositional process, I assume) with a programmatic image which involves mysterious echoes and communicating with acousmatic voices. Perhaps knowingly, Thurlow does everything a piece like this always does (the instrument speaks, the electronics respond, etc.) but justifies it programmatically – which also says a lot about the status of programme notes in contemporary composition.
In the latest instalment of composer Matthew Whiteside’s burgeoning concert series, The Night With…, the conspiracy deepens. Joanna Nicholson (clarinet) and Emma Lloyd (violin/viola), with Whiteside taking care of the electronics, delivered a lengthy programme of recent compositions in the almost ironically apt setting of the Caves venue at the Rowantree in Edinburgh’s Cowgate. The electronic part of Kaija Saariaho’s Vent Nocturne of 2006, for instance, couldn’t have been more like the sound effects used in a ghost tour around Edinburgh’s underground vaults. And despite Saariaho being the most renowned composer featured in this concert, Vent Nocturne is a quintessentially bad ‘instrument and electronics’ piece: nothing more than a study in musical gesture and extended techniques for solo violin accompanied by some electronic sound effects, heaped with more reverb than a beginner’s electroacoustic tape piece. Saariaho’s programmatic conceit is to do with similarities between the sound of the viola and breath and wind and apparently her reading a bilingual edition of poems by George Trakl “led [her] to muse on the relationship between the viola and electronics”. The number of times compositions are described as ‘musing on the relationship between two things’ seriously makes me want to never muse upon any relationships between anything ever again…
Related kinds of wooly compositional thinking cropped up a few times in this concert. Ken Ueno’s Vedananupassana from Four Contemplations focussed on the mystical side of the textbook ‘instrument and electronics’ conceit, again using breath-like sounds and attempting to induce a meditative state. Flock, by Yannis Kyriakides, appears to be confused between a pattern-based solo clarinet piece (say, a tiling piece by Tom Johnson) and a piece exploring spatialized and resonant acoustics (say, a piece for instrument and sine tone by Alvin Lucier). Kyriakides’ piece, like Saariaho’s and Ueno’s, is just not radical enough to carry out any of its possibilities. All of them are simply pieces that do some things for a bit of time. Kerry Hagan’s Requiem was gloomily attractive, somewhat hermetic and strangely all the more moving for that, although it was not quite long enough to become fully absorbing (which is maybe quite profound, dealing, as it does, with death).
There were also two pleasingly modest contributions by Matthew Whiteside himself and his long-time collaborator Tim Cooper, who together run the electroacoustic series Edit-Point. Whiteside’s piece was a well-constructed duet for violin and bass clarinet, starting off in the rather familiar strains of Scelsi (drones, bending quarter tones, fluttertongue, scratch tone) but then developing a couple of ideas quite effectively. And Cooper’s Shimmer was a little musical image of violin phrases being reflected in an electroacoustic pond. Jonathan Nangle’s Our Headlights Blew Softly into the Black, Illuminating Very Little, which closed the concert, illuminated very little, musically speaking, as it simply played around in the harmonic spectrum of the bass clarinet’s low A sharp.
The highlight was Maze-Vortex by Nina Whiteman, which successfully made use of semi-graphic scores to capture the special aesthetic quality of a piece in which the performers are active agents in a relatively open system of musical materials and game-like procedures. If only clarinettist Joanna Nicholson hadn’t overacted the moments where she took a rest to ask for a glass of water or read the Tectonics brochure while Emma Lloyd wound her way through another passage of the maze. Such unnecessary theatricalisations cheapen the very real, live, aspect of a piece like this and threaten to reduce it to a mere picture of liveness, not to mention giving any sceptics another reason to think it might be a gimmick (which it most certainly isn’t). Nonetheless, the complex interaction of tension or lack thereof, the intricacies of performer communication, the delicate amplified sounds, and the openness of the musical experience were all perfectly suited to the venue and the casual atmosphere.
There is so much more to come from The Night With… and it’s a concert series that must be supported. This still being early days, I suspect Whiteside wants to offer as much music as he possibly can but perhaps soon the programme lengths could shorten just a little and feature fewer pieces (eight is pushing it, although having two intervals is certainly a bonus). But the ethos of The Night With… couldn’t be friendlier so hopefully we’ll all begin to remember (or learn for the first time) that going to new music concerts can actually be a lot of fun.
Abstract Expressionism, Royal Academy of Arts, London, until 2 January 2017
“The greatest poet has less a marked style and is more the channel of thoughts and things without increase or diminution, and is the free channel of himself. He swears to his art, I will not be meddlesome, I will not have in my writing any elegance or effect or originality to hang in the way, not the richest curtains. […] What I experience or portray shall go from my composition without a shred of my composition. You shall stand by my side and look in the mirror with me.”
Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass, Introduction from First Edition, 1855.
“Why not take a cue from Feldman and Rothko’s shared aesthetics and make art for hotel lobbies?”
PH-235 is a 1944 painting by Clyfford Still. It is currently on display with eight other canvases by the reclusive, intensely driven American artist in the largest undivided room in the RA’s blockbuster exhibition, Abstract Expressionism. Hanging in another room is Jackson Pollock’s Mural, painted in 1943 for Peggy Gugenheim’s Manhattan apartment, a crucial icon in the narrative of American abstract art. But if the exhibition’s curators David Anfam and Edith Devaney want us to walk out with any new revelation, it is to be that the much lesser-known Clyfford Still was every bit as significant and original as the iconic Beethoven of dripped paint, Jackson Pollock. PH-235, which exists in a couple of different versions, should from now on be included as an innovative leap forward in the abstract expressionist canon.
Still’s paintings are also unique: they are, by and large, monumentally huge and characterized by thick palette-knife applications of oil paint in jagged vertical shapes like stalagmites, stalactites, volcanoes, glaciers, and so on. This room, Room 11, is easy to construe as a canyon or cavern. One of the greatest pleasures of the exhibition lies in entering Room 11 from either Room 7 (Rothko) or Room 10 (miscellaneous photo works) and I recommend doing this a few times because the immensity of the experience will most likely persist. At times the paintings seem gestural, until you step close enough and find the apparent immediacy of gesture to be in fact densely plastered. As for their expanses, and uncompromising contrasts, of colour, colour itself is often secondary to the texture of paint and the ambiguity of the gaps between shapes (there never seems to be any suggestion of perspective as there is in Rothko or Newman: everything is intensely in the foreground, although colour does sometimes take on a compositional importance, as in PH-1123). Still manages to evade many of the stereotyped categories and binary oppositions used in discussing abstract expressionism, while also embodying many of its core tenets.
Most visitors will probably never have seen a Clyfford Still painting in person, as 95 per cent of his work (around 850 canvases and more) is housed in a specially built museum in Denver, Colorado, which opened in 2011 and made this body of work available at long last to the public. I had never heard of Clyfford Still until I took the ‘Which Abstract Expressionist Painter Are You?’ questionnaire on the RA’s website and it turned out that Clyfford and I have a few traits in common. And while reproductions of paintings are never a substitute for the real thing, Still’s work surprisingly suffers the most from Google images. His paintings barely make a good impression at all until you are standing right in front of them, gaping upwards.
There are around twenty artists featured in Abstract Expressionism. Only five of them are presented as well as they deserve to be: Arshile Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, and Clyfford Still. Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman and many others (including the smattering of excellent works by women painters) are not done justice for a number of reasons. To see so many electrifying artworks all at once is a thrill so any disappointment about the muddled, fussy curation that does many of the featured artists a disservice needs to be recognised and then ignored. And while the exhibition will make many new Clyfford Still fans, it unfortunately sticks to the most standard, uncritical analysis of the abstract expressionist phenomenon. For consolation, I like to think that the explosive challenges in the work of Pollock, de Kooning, Newman et al renders any attempts at tastefully curating them fundamentally impossible. The artworks take over and the power of the exhibition lies in them alone.
There is a memorable and somewhat harrowing scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film La Grande Bellezza in which the young daughter of a Roman art dealer is made to entertain their party guests by creating an action painting in front of them in the grounds of their mansion. She does this by running back and forth with pots of paint, throwing the paint over a small space in the middle of a colossal upright canvas, and wildly gesticulating with her arms and body in order to smudge the random combination of colours. “That girl was crying.” “Nonsense! That girl earns millions!” This scene brilliantly satirises the ideology of abstract expressionism at its very worst: the existentially woeful artist channelling their emotional frustration into impulsive brush strokes, immediately capturing the singular moment of the creative act in paint and canvas. If abstract expressionism is to do with releasing a primal form of expression, then why not outsource it to the youthful energy of a child and sell it for huge sums of money? The party guests cannot deny that this ‘creative act’ happened before their eyes but the irony is that the resultant painting is mediocre in the extreme: the colours are saturated into dull hues of brown and grey and any semblance of composition and gesture is totally lost. For all its calculated authenticity, the scene is a depiction of complete futility.
Rooms 5 and 6 of the RA’s Abstract Expressionism are devoted to Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline respectively, two artists whose work barely departs from the most elementary ‘ideology of the authentic brushstroke’. While close inspection of paint runoff can reveal that certain de Koonings were turned on their axis during painting, neither de Kooning nor Kline made use of Jackson Pollock’s procedure of working on a flat canvas on the floor. Similarly, their pictures only work when viewed from directly in front, the same position from which they were painted. The Kline and de Kooning paintings in this exhibition are quite beautiful and the presence of several of de Kooning’s ‘Woman’ paintings is certainly a boon. Kline’s paintings, mostly huge lines of black household paint applied to a white background, are undoubtedly bold and immediate (when I first discovered Kline a few years ago I was instantly attracted to them), but the pseudo-architectural perspective of their composition dissolves when you look at them from the sides. They require you to identify solely with the hyper-masculine subjectivity of the painter himself. With their intense brushstrokes on canvas on easel, they are ultimately no more radical than Van Gogh.
The abstract expressionist ideology is clumsily explained in one of the exhibition’s most awkward rooms, Room 4: Gesture as Colour, which attempts to define the core aesthetic of the movement by clumping together a bunch of miscellaneous paintings. For instance, a mysterious and sumptuous 1957 painting by Helen Frankenthaler, Europa, is inappropriately cornered to the right of a large and less interesting Joan Mitchell work. Frankenthaler’s soft layers of pigment, almost watercolour, don’t stand a chance next to the brashness of Joan Mitchell. It’s a shame that there is only one Frankenthaler on display, especially as her later, less figurative works, are uniquely beautiful and her skill as a colourist is unparalleled amongst her peers. Her method of thinning paint with turpentine and letting it soak into the flat unprimed canvas to varying degrees is the crucial link between the innovations of Pollock and the next generation of colour-field painters (or ‘post-painterly abstractionists’, to use Greenberg’s term), Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, neither of whom feature in this exhibition at all. A whole room of these three at the end would have far surpassed the unconvincing chronological conclusion in Room 12 of Hans Hofmann, Joan Mitchell’s impressive Salut Tom from 1979, and a delightfully crude late Philip Guston.
Over-density is a shortcoming that runs through the entire exhibition. At times, having a lot of pieces in a room works well, as in Room 10: Works on Paper and Photography, and Room 2’s fantastic selection of Arshile Gorky, and with the de Kooning, Kline, and, to some extent, Pollock. Ad Reinhardt and Barnett Newman in Room 8 don’t fare so well. The selection of Newman includes Adam, Eve, Midnight Blue, Ulysses, and a few more, but they ought to be seen in isolation and not cramped together with the equally fascinating black pictures of Ad Reinhardt. In other words, Newman paintings are not Rothko’s and do not benefit from being viewed in series. To add to the clutter, many rooms include sculptures by David Smith almost as an afterthought, a way of unnecessarily filling space. Room 9: Darkness Visible is as dubious in theme as ‘Gesture as Colour’, this time focussing on the sublime infinity of blackness with paintings by Robert Motherwell, Adolf Gottlieb, and Rothko’s Black on Grey unceremoniously squeezed into a corner. Note that this outstanding late work has a black rectangle above a grey one with a thin light-grey border framing it which is cropped in most reproductions. For this exhibition, the canvas of Black on Grey is itself also framed, but what does this unusual painted frame mean?
To be most impressed by a room of Rothko paintings is a cliché, and like anything worth loving, Rothko’s work is problematic. In the octagonal central room of the exhibition, there are seven Rothko’s looming out of the murky spotlit walls. I overheard one man tell his friend that his Master’s thesis was on Rothko but now he’s not so sure about the paintings. According to the standard account, his work absorbs the spectator, allowing you to meditate on the experience of direct emotional states as conveyed in colour. “Tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” But what is the nature of this experience and how does it come about? I can’t speak for everyone of course, but I often find with visual art that the more direct an emotional experience I am promised, the more cerebral it really is (at least to begin with). Looking at a Rothko painting, for me, is not an immediate emotional experience at all: the often devastating power of these gloomy canvases creeps in very slowly, mediated only by a sober and engaged mind. In their simplicity, they invite meticulous thinking and not just some vague notion of meditation or contemplation.
Between 1949 and his death in 1970, Rothko devoted his work to the famous late style recombining blocky rectangles and swathes of colour. While they might not form a strict series, it helps to think of them in parallel with each other and to walk around them again and again, comparing. In the sad case of a lone Rothko, it is saved only by knowledge that there are many more like it. Some appear to be very straightforward, just a background colour and a single rectangle of another colour hovering on top. Others are heavily layered with fluctuations and anomalies creating all sorts of weird mirages. Often the shapes are imperfect, sometimes slanting or bending, and they should be looked at from all possible angles. Thank goodness Rothko paintings aren’t strictly symmetrical or geometrical – varying degrees of imbalance are so much better. From a small set of elements, Rothko finds almost infinite difference, but the differences are neither subtle/near-imperceptible nor totally obvious. Rothko works in a fairly unique region of differentiation. In summary, I have to scrutinise the paintings in detail before I am overcome by anything metaphysical (if I am: you can’t always count on them either). I like to approach them formally and rationally at first but that usually gives way to something inexplicably deep and moving. People sometimes underestimate the affects of thinking.
As a Rothko fan, the idea that they make good decorations for offices, hotel lobbies, and Pizza Express is a distressing one. But also: why worry? I bet that on closer study the paintings we see in commercial spaces would prove to be far inferior. Furthermore, the ubiquitous popularity of Rothko is actually not as ubiquitous as those entrenched in the art world might assume. A lot of people don’t like Rothko. What does it mean to have a Kline or de Kooning or Pollock in an office? The youthful energy and the bold individualistic disregard for a stuffy previous generation will very likely appeal to some generic entrepreneur who believes that human nature is fundamentally competitive and self-interested. By contrast, Rothko paintings can be so moody and slow and even technically impoverished that I can’t imagine them being beneficial to company productivity. My friend Oscar tells me that an A4 printout of a Rothko placed on a wall in his black-box school IT classroom did nothing at all for morale. And yet, Rothko’s work sells for vast sums of money, something the artist himself was not at all happy about.
Finally there is Jackson Pollock, who doesn’t come out especially well in this exhibition. The centrepieces are Mural of 1943 and Blue Poles of 1952. Michael Fried refers to the latter painting as “the monumental, grossly overworked, and in the end heartbreakingly futile Blue Poles – from which, if it were in front of me, I would avert my eyes,” but it is still good to see and fascinating in a car-crash sort of way. Blue Poles is among the last of Pollock’s colour paintings which followed the series of ‘black pourings’ in 1951-2, of which a couple of excellent examples are on display as well. Apart from these, Pollock is only represented by eight or so smaller works. The long thin murals are rather attractive and extremely light and balletic in comparison with Blue Poles, and there are a few wire-like paintings on various types of board which seem more like studies than statements.
There is a painting by Hans Hofmann in Room 12 which, although not a favourite of mine at all, could be thought of as a diagram showing the relationship between gestural mark-making and fields of colour. It sums up the Abstract Expressionist mentality very well. As if reminiscent of Rothko, the painting is called In Sober Ecstasy. It is not a huge canvas (72 x 60 inches) and it has two main layers. The background is a surprisingly Cezanne-esque gestural shape divided into two branches and comprising vivid, colourful brushstrokes. In the foreground there are two opaque rectangles, one brown and one pink, with visibly thick application of paint. They reflect the gesture of the composite ‘branches’ in the background but balance it out by lying to the sides in the empty spaces (it is remarkably ‘composed’ for abstract expressionism). But there is another layer between the two: a border (again made up from multiple colours and distinct brushstrokes) which mediates between the wild shape in the centre and the placid rectangles which are further reinforced by it.
It is a strangely conservative picture to be in the final room of the exhibition but it is telling. Abstract Expressionism is often derided as an overblown version of landscape painting and there is definitely something arboreal about this Hofmann work. But unlike the sublime expanses of Still, Newman, and Pollock, which could effectively extend outwards to infinity, the blurry border of In Sober Ecstasy frames the painter’s gaze explicitly where in Kline and de Kooning it is just implicit. There is something profoundly unsettling, therefore, about Rothko’s Black on Grey having a border: despite Rothko preferring unframed canvasses, the border is painted on, like a window looking into nothingness. Unlike most Rothko’s, Black on Grey cuts itself off from the room, from the Stimmung… In this case, the painting doesn’t present an atmosphere to our world but instead opens something alien to step into. Returning now to the Hofmann painting, perhaps it suggests that any attempt at capturing expression in impulsive brushstrokes is a dead-end: the painting would be just a memory of some performed action and formally it amounts to no more than an exploded composition with painterly techniques given freer reign. Yet the coloured rectangles in Hofmann are themselves vivid, a sublimation of energy into aesthetic fields of colour. In Sober Ecstasy, like a Clement Greenberg essay written in visual form, charts the development from the ‘authentic’ gestures of Kline, de Kooning, Mitchell, and others, to the more philosophical registers of Rothko, Newman, and Reinhardt. To get there, it is necessary to pass through Jackson Pollock and Clifford Still as well.
Hebrides Ensemble and Psappha: 25 Years of New Music, Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh, 9 November 2016
Anyone who has spent time in a university or conservatoire composition department will likely be familiar with the phrase “it doesn’t work.” There are plenty of cases where a compositional idea literally won’t work: a technique that is unplayable on an instrument; a texture or aspect of orchestration which muddles an intended effect; a logistical difficulty of some sort, and so on. Distressingly, a lot of the time “it doesn’t work” is used as a pejorative way of denouncing an idea which doesn’t immediately correspond to a known aesthetic or existing ‘successful’ piece. ‘Not working’ is therefore to do with fixed musical categories: a new piece will be a failure for trying to stake its ground in the grey area between what is already thought to ‘work’. In this sense, to speak of “not working” is to adopt a thoroughly reactionary position which doesn’t recognise that new music can make something different ‘work’. Or at least die trying.
David Fennessy, with whom I studied in Glasgow for two years, appears in many of his compositions to limn the unknown area of ‘what works’ and makes it into a kind of aesthetic stance. His musical material can be unassuming and might sound recycled. Frequently he expands a single gesture or sound or idea, for instance in bow your head for string quartet, Hirta Rounds for sixteen strings, Big Lung for church organ and two percussionists, and quite a few others. Sometimes there is not much of an expansion and more of an extended presentation, as in The first thing, the last thing and everything in between for solo piano, The Room is the Resonator for solo cello and tape, and the Piano Trio. 13 Factories for ensemble and electronics and Caruso (Gold is the sweat of the sun) are striking for their easy structural use of sections. Foot foot and other stories for flute trio and percussion (which I haven’t heard) makes the failure/success dichotomy an explicit theme by re-interpreting the 60s pop/rock sibling trio The Shaggs, whose fascinatingly naïve musical abilities were capitalised on by their ambitious father in the form of their only album, Philosophy of the World.
In his programme note for Panopticon, recently premiered by a joint group of the Hebrides Ensemble (Edinburgh) and Psappha (Manchester), Fennessy explains that the piece continues the line of enquiry established in Graft for string quartet, and pursued in Haupstimme for solo viola and ensemble, and Hirta Rounds. The enquiry is about the role of the individual within a group, exploring above all the “functions of leaders and followers.” In Panopticon, the cimbalom sits facing a semi-circle of six strings. It hits regular pulses on its lowest string, for the most part muted or activating some harmonics. Gradually the string instruments enter in wave-like patterns, strummed with plectrums. This happens for a while, before a brief subsection involving a higher note on the cimbalom and some natural harmonics in the sextet followed by a slightly longer final section of rising col legno sounds and a few sparse cimbalom gestures now broken free of its former pulse. On a couple of occasions, following long passages of muted cimbalom, the string is unmuted and struck loudly, emitting a brilliantly raw burst of sound. The piece feels rough and alive because it could possibly fall apart any second.
What does Panopticon do? For one thing, it demonstrates that Music for 18 Musicians is actually just a glorified version of Opera with Objects. The strummed texture of Panopticon is really quite chaotic and not especially resonant, only creating flutter echoes in Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh. And as a ‘social piece’, In C also looms in the background. Another possibility: it’s actually a Glenn Branca piece but the plug has been pulled on the amps and miraculously everyone is holding violins, violas, and cellos instead of guitars. Fennessy’s Panopticon might “not work” then because in fact it is none of those pieces although it veers closely between them. There is a near-Beethovenian willpower at play here to keep Panopticon’s own identity in check while firmly treading a narrow new path among those historical points of reference. Between Categories indeed (cf. Morton Feldman’s essay of 1969, although really it has nothing to do with what I mean here).
Panopticon also reminds me of the role of the kendhang player in a Javanese gamelan. To be more specific, the role of the cimbalom changes from the kendhang, that is, the drums that instigate the gamelan’s pulse, to the gendèr, the intricate metallophone on which the player is granted a certain amount of freedom to create a beautiful counterpoint distinct from the rest of the ensemble. While none of the instruments in Panopticon have the qualities of an actual soloist, the cimbalom is only free to play expressively in the final section once the waves of plucked and tapped string instruments are completely established.
A similar trajectory can be noticed in Cassandra Miller’s Duet for Cello and Orchestra, a stunning composition premiered by Ilan Volkov and the BBC SSO at Tectonics in 2015, which radically reinstates the relationship of soloist to ensemble in a concerto setting. Charles Curtis, for whom the piece was written, plays only open fifths for a long period of time until the orchestra takes over with an Italian folk song transcription and slowly morphs into hypnotic wave-like patterns. Only at the very end, once the psychic weight of the soloist is transferred onto the orchestra, can the cellist play a breath-taking cadenza in high natural harmonics.
In both the Fennessy and Miller pieces, the ‘soloist’ disavows any overt virtuosity. But they achieve a kind of expressive freedom (I’m tempted to say jouissance) in the very final moments, only after having delegated the pulsating accompaniment to the ensemble. Isn’t this like the enjoyment of socialising when you can effectively project your individual weight onto the group so that you feel ‘lifted’ by them and are free to socially improvise? Or, I imagine, it is like surfing a wave. However, in both Fennessy’s piece and Miller’s, there is only time to explore a one-way musical relationship between individual and group. Fennessy’s piece, understandably, is the more authoritarian. A panopticon is, after all, an 18th century design for a circular prison. For Fennessy, all the prisoners can do is noisily scrape their cups across the metal bars.
The concert programme was completed by two pieces by Peter Maxwell Davies, The Last Island for string sextet with the addition of a poignant film by Psappha’s cimbalomista Tim Williams, and an arrangement by David Horne of the famously kitschy Farewell to Stromness, as well as Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht for the finale.
Peyee Chen, Alba New Music Festival, St Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, 8 October 2016
During the year – that is, outside of festivals such as Tectonics (in Glasgow) and Sound (in Aberdeen) – the Scottish new music scene unfortunately tends towards the local and parochial. The organisers of the inaugural Alba Music Festival, taking place over a couple of days at St Giles Cathedral in the centre of Edinburgh, made a very wise and welcome move in inviting artists based mostly at CeReNeM at the University of Huddersfield. It is astounding how rarely music like this makes it north of the border, just two hours away by train. I only managed to catch the final concert, a revelatory solo recital by soprano Peyee Chen, whose impeccable performance of diverse pieces was focussed, incisive, and effortlessly enjoyable. And inspirational.
The concert proceeded in an elegant palindrome, with the cantabile chromaticism of Michael Finnissy’s Song 1 at the beginning and Song 16 near the end, framing the less traditional music. In the middle, Scott McLaughlin’s Snowflake, from 2011, represented the conceptual opposite of the Finnissy pieces: electronics (a MaxMSP patch controlled offstage by Aaron Cassidy) formed prolonged tones from little vocal sounds so that we could listen to the vast spectrum of miniscule differences within a limited range, as in the saying that ‘no two snowflakes are the same.’ This is the sort of piece that could go on for a long time. As far as the idea is concerned, it fits comfortably alongside the experimental music that invites close listening to sonic/acoustical variety, so although it is not brazenly original, it is an attractive piece and the score itself is simple and rather lovely.
As for the score of Georges Aperghis’ Récitations (Chen performed nos. 11 and 12), if you haven’t seen it then you must immediately. Researching the pieces after the concert, I was excited to realise that I had seen the scores before but had never heard them. Chen’s renditions were precise and understated, in-keeping with a certain experimental-music ethos which I mostly subscribe to myself (I think it is all too easy to over-dramatise/theatricalise these pieces – they can be playful, quirky, disturbing, but without needing to prove to you that they are). American composer Erin Gee’s Mouthpiece I and II were new to me and are wonderful: the performer holds two microphones, one with reverb, and sings beautiful little lines of vocalisations, consonants, pitched notes, and so on. Similar to the Aperghis, and in the direction of the McLaughlin, these are pieces which revel in the breakdown of semantic musical sound. John Cage’s Empty Words is of course a canonical precursor to all of this and clearly it is still a fruitful area of enquiry.
The final work presented was Jennifer Walshe’s “Three Songs” by Ukeorin O’Connor. O’Connor is one of Walshe’s alter-egos and the programme note alone is worth a read. I wonder why there aren’t more composers using alter-egos and making fun of the tired conventions of programme notes. The songs, with Chen accompanying herself on ukulele, are quite tame by Walshe’s standards but they are glorious and very weird, like experimental music’s take on 50s exotica. There’s a whole lot of different things going into these pieces and they are not easy to convey in words. Nonetheless, there is definitely an aesthetic of postmodernism in the “Three Songs”, something I’ve noticed quite a lot in the work of some British composers born in the early- to mid-1970s… a kind of Generation X postmodernism which is becoming less prevalent now.
We need more, much more, of where this concert came from. The Glasgow new music scene is relatively strong, but Edinburgh’s is far less so. Both need to open the windows more often to fresh air from, at least, the north of England – ie. Huddersfield and Manchester. Peyee Chen’s performance existed in that remarkably fertile hinterland in which self-identifying ‘experimental’ composers and musicians like to stake a claim. But then, it shouldn’t be thought of as a hinterland, as much as it may seem to be within the context of mainstream contemporary classical music, because it is in fact a very productive territory which explores the range of methods and outcomes created by some degree of philosophical questioning towards our inherited notions of music and sound. Speaking to friend and fellow composer Juta Pranulyté a couple of weeks ago, she explained how a really good concert stimulates her own creativity. If we in Scotland can attend more concerts like the Alba New Music Festival, then we might all be that bit more creative ourselves.