Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Philip Glass gets the South Park Treatment

I'm annoyed I missed this episode of South Park – by 13 years as it turns out. It is about a non-denominational school Christmas play called "Mr. Hankey, the Christmas Poo", which turns into an avant garde ballet when Glass is drafted in to write the music. Classic.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Kurtág Kafka-Fragments: Dawn Upshaw, Peter Sellars

Kurtág: Dawn Upshaw, Geoff Nuttall, Barbican Hall, London 11.11.10 (Gdn)
György Kurtág: Kafka-Fragments
Dawn Upshaw soprano
Geoff Nuttall violin
Peter Sellars director
I wonder what György Kurtág makes of Peter Sellars' 'interpretation' of his music. His feelings are probably similar to those of his compatriot Ligeti, whose reaction to Sellars' production of Le Grand Macabre consisted of a desperate attempt to get the show pulled, followed by a long sulk in the sound truck lasting the full length of the opening night performance. But that's not Kurtág's style, he is much more mild mannered and tends to avoid confrontation. When he dislikes a performer's reading of his music, he always says so, but he is also noble enough to respect another artists' viewpoint of the work he has created. If Kurtág ever met Sellars to discuss this project I can't imaging he got a word in edgeways. The experience of watching this performance is very similar: the music is diminutive and introverted yet perfectly formed, while the staging is bombastic and egotistical, with hundreds of visual ideas thrown at the music in the hope that one or two might make an impression.
'Kafka-Fragments' is a seminal Kurtág score. Its structure is abstract but tight, consisting of 40 short movements, each setting a Kafka aphorism. The scoring, at least in Kurtág's conception, is for soprano and violin, each an equal partner in the exploration of Kafka's ideas. Both parts are technically complex, although the musical vocabulary is limited. There is no sprechgesang in the soprano part, for example, and the most radical aspect of the violin writing is the detuning of the strings as the music plays. Emotionally, the music follows the constrained expressionism of Kafka's texts. There is everything here from sensual ecstasy to utter despair and everything in between, but the expression is always constrained, and the claustrophobia of Kafka's world accords well with Kurtág's solitary artistic path.
Peter Sellers is on a very different path. His currency is big ideas, complex narrative structures and metaphor-rich theatrical settings. His context for the Kafka-Fragments is a woman doing household chores and (presumably) exploring notions of transcendence through the radical contrast between her situation and the attenuated mysticism of Kafka's disjointed thoughts. It is a brave approach in some ways, but it really doesn't work. The violence it does to Kurtág's delicate score is far in excess of any insights it might offer, and the imposition of the mundane into an artistic environment that is anything but is irrelevant at best. One of the great things about Kurtág's score is the way that the singer and the violinist perform as equals. Here though, the acting singer automatically subordinates the violinist to the role of accompaniment. And Sellers' response to Kafka's words is meagre in comparison to Kurtág's; concrete statements in the text are acted out pedantically, while abstract phrases are all but ignored.
Musically, the performance was good, but it really felt like an American reading of a central European score. Both Upshaw and Nuttall produce big, bold sounds, which are often loud but rarely intense. That isn't really a problem, Kurtág isn't above using the shock factor so a bit of volume can help hammer his message home. And he's hardly a Romantic, so a little emotional distancing on the part of the players is no bad thing. There is plenty of musical variety in their performances, and Nuttall in particular performs the score (which he reads from a digital display – the Americans seem to be ahead of us in this long-overdue technology) with all the variety of timbre and articulation it needs.
If this production has anything to tell us about the Kafka-Fragments, perhaps it lies in the fact that Sellers' tangential relationship with Kurtág mirrors Kurtág's tangential relationship with Kafka. All three are real individuals whose work seems to demand autonomy. Bringing them together is going to produce fireworks, and at least one of them is going to come off the worse for it. Peter Sellers is clearly a man who likes challenges, and he certainly finds one in the Kafka-Fragments, a score actively opposed to the possibility of dramatic staging. But just because it is a challenge, that doesn't necessarily mean that it is worth doing.
Gavin Dixon

Monday, 1 November 2010

Crumb and Cashian at Kings Place 1 November 2010

Crumb, Cashian: CHROMA Ensemble, Hall Two, Kings Place, 1.11.10 (GDn)
George Crumb: Vox Balaenae (Voice of the Whale)
Philip Cashian: Aquila (World premiere)
George Crumb: Eleven Echoes of Autumn
Philip Cashian: Caprichos

Crumb and Cashian have little in common as composers, and programming their works together makes for pretty extreme contrasts. So extreme, in fact that the combination does little to elucidate either man's work. It does tell us a lot about the CHROMA Ensemble though. The two composers are clearly among their favourites, and both composers create music that plays to the ensemble's strengths. They are great at emphasising the drama in music that uses just a few gestures to create its effect. They are also good at finding all the subtle gradations between homogeneous textures and wildly divergent counterpoint. In general though, neither composer deals in subtleties, and the wild excesses of each – the amplified minutiae of Crumb and the extreme syncopations of Cashian's rhythms – were all presented here with confidence and precision.
George Crumb's 'Voice of the Whale' may be almost forty years old but it is still a radical work. When the performers walk on in masks, it is a startling gesture in itself. And all the gestures that follow, both musical and non-musical are in a similar vein. The instruments, flute, cello and piano, are amplified throughout, but there is no further electronic distortion. The work has a broad ecological theme and the composer's intention with both the masks and the microphones is to distance the performers from the audience, emphasising the inhuman dimensions of the natural phenomenon from which it takes inspiration.
'Eleven Echoes of Autumn' pre-dates 'Voice of the Whale' but uses many of the same ideas. The instruments are again amplified throughout, giving the concept of echoes a very literal dimension. There is plenty going on inside the lid of the piano in both the Crumb works, and the effect of these often very quiet effects, brushing or hitting the strings or the soundboard, more the justifies the amplification. The piece isn't quite in the same league as its successor, but it has plenty of merits of its own. The effect of the violinist playing a melody in artificial harmonics whilst simultaneously whistling it in unison is wonderful, as is the sound of the clarinet and alto flute playing loud glissandos into the case of the piano, then interacting with the reverberation from the strings.
Philip Cashian, in marked contrast to George Crumb, is a composer whose work is articulated primarily through rhythm. His writing for groups of instruments comes in two broad categories: textural diversity where each instrument is essentially playing a different kind of music, and rhythmic unison, where a single syncopated rhythm unites the group. And what syncopation! Offbeats are the rule rather than the exception. To keep the ensemble together one of the players (the clarinettist) is often required to beat time, revealing an unchanging 4/4 meter. But this is surely just for the convenience of the notation; there is nothing foursquare about the results.
Both Cashian works, 'Aquila' of which this was the première and 'Caprichos' were written for this ensemble, and no doubt with the strengths of the present players in mind. The fine bass clarinet playing of Stuart King is one resource of the group that the composer exploits to great effect. The agility of the bass clarinet in its lower register is a hallmark of both of these works, as is the ingenious combination of bass clarinet and cello. In 'Aquila' they play for a time in rhythmic unison but at the opposite ends of their ranges, the clarinet at the bottom and the cello up in the harmonics, an elegant and unusual combination.
Hall Two at Kings Place is essentially a multi-purpose studio space, and its acoustical properties are negligible compared to those of Hall One. That said, the amplified sounds of the Crumb works came over well in this environment, which was presumably designed with electrically amplified sounds in mind. The air conditioning makes a continuous, if very quiet, noise. That wouldn't be a problem in most music, but in 'Eleven Echoes', which often goes down to minuscule dynamics, it can be a distraction. The Cashian works survive in this environment simply by virtue of the proximity of the players to the audience, giving a sense of immediacy to his very direct musical gestures. 'Caprichos' is a great work to close a concert, a tour de force both in compositional and performance terms. The commission for 'Aquila' was no doubt a result of the success of this earlier composition, and Cashian has wisely chosen to combine his tried and tested syncopations with some new instrumental combinations. If it doesn't work quite as well, that says more about the musical proficiency of the former piece than of any deficiencies in the latter.
Gavin Dixon