Saturday, 23 February 2013


Royal College of Music, 21 February 2013

Steve Reich's Tehillim, by ASKO and the Schoenberg Ensemble.
From youtube.
A satisfying programme of contemporary music spanning the minimalist soundscape.

Variable Geometry, led by Jean-Philippe Calvin, is apparently an RCM group dedicated to contemporary music, with a focus on composer/performer collaborations.

This concert of highly rhythmic pieces was impressively varied. Performance standards were high, and the musicians were visibly enthusiastic about each piece, which is surprisingly important at a concert, where there is usually little visual stimulation.

The weakest work was the opener, John Adam’s Chamber Symphony. Surprisingly, given my expectations of this composer, I was bored even before the first movement had finished, and the humorous movement titles did not translate into humorous music. However, at least the second movement, Aria with Walking Bass, grabbed attention.

Not Wanting to Say Anything About John, a collaboration between composer Raquel García-Tomás and video artist Aïnoa Sarabia, was charming. This in spite of its chance-influenced creative process, an homage to John Cage’s piece on Duchamp, is probably best thought of as a mildly perverse way of structuring the piece for the creators, rather than something which enhances the experience for the audience.

The combination of images and music seemed appropriate, and kept my interest, even if I felt the images were the most striking aspect of the work, and the music effectively ‘mickey mousing’.

Workers Union by Louis Andriessen seems to have a similarly complicated creative process, though again it didn’t seem relevant to this powerful realisation. I didn’t notice the work resembling political action (as the composer apparently intends) but the sense of tension and force was conveyed, which may be similar.

Both these works made me wonder at the significance of an artist’s methods. These give grist for academics, and that shouldn’t be underestimated as a method of consolidating an artist’s position in the canon.

But the artist (or the work) first needs to be part of the canon in order to receive attention from academics. Which normally means the artwork must appeal to audiences, whether general or specialist. And I don’t think that can happen based purely on theoretical methodologies, it must happen because the work itself appeals directly. I think it is no coincidence Schoenberg established himself with Transfigured Night before launching the second and later string quartets.

The second half of the concert was devoted to Steve Reich’s majestic Tehillim, settings of parts of psalms in Hebrew. 

This is clearly a major work, though I don't think it was fully successful. The musical side is appealing, conveying ritual in a new way, and very beautiful. But the words of the psalms themselves sometimes blended and distended into oblivion. Certainly it was hard to follow the text. 

If it is odd to link Reich with the polyphony of the late European middle ages, it is appropriate – the music takes priority over the text, and a sense of ritual takes precedence over both.

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