MEIRION BOWEN - Articles & Publications


Concerts contemporary march 1972

TOLSTOY, writing of the kind of history being produced in his life-time, declared that it was 'like a deaf man replying to questions which nobody puts to him'. I am constantly tempted to apply this excellent lapidary statement to much of today's music. But perhaps some of today's new-music men are just waiting to apply it to me.

A concert (yes, they all sat on stage like your actual bourgeois orchestras) at the Elizabeth Hall on October 18 - a 'Music Now' promotion - featured the work of the post-Cardew (dear me, has he also been accidentally shot by a nervous GI?) generation. Here we were offered no music, nor even non-music. l was relieved that some of it provoked mirth - for instance, Gavin Bryars' 1-2-3-4. This was an enterprise not too distant from Stockhausen's Stimmung. Each performer wore red headphones (connected to portable tape-recorder or cassettes which play a selection of familiar music) and indulged in thinly veiled parody of rock 'n' roll. Howard Skempton's vocal ululations had everyone in fits. But the piece said nothing more. There were other engaging doodles, like Brian Dennis' Frame 30:30 - a sort of toy-shop piece for psalteries, bottles, toy pianos and double pianos; John White's Autumn countdown machine, which set four low-register melody instruments plus percussion against each other in different tempi, each having a metronome and counting out loud. Christopher Hobbs' two pieces perhaps accidentally attained the status of music, more specially Piobaireachd Exercise, a writhing texture of thematic patterns based on bagpipe figuratians. Taken as a whole, this was an inconsequential affair. Add to this the programme notes (of which M&M readers had a foretaste in Michael Nyman's Melody rides again article in last October's issue) and you have the perfect recipe for frustration. This kind of thing attracts from me personally the kind of response which Teilhard de Chardin drew from Sir Peter Medawar: to dismiss it as 'nonsense tricked out with a variety of tedious dadaistic conceits', if I may so adapt his magnificent denunciation. I also suspect that this kind of activity will in ten or 20 years' time seem as old-fashioned as Rudolf Steiner. At least the Scratch Orchestra appeared to be good therapy for those taking part.

A number of contemporary concerts have of late crystallised around particular ensembles - either existing ones, or a set-up specially created for the accasion. Two concerts by the Matrix illustrated the strengths and weaknesses of such an arrangement.

The first of these, at the Elizabeth Hall on November 15, was the Matrix's London debut in fact. Here, the basic team of three wind players (Alan Hacker, Tony Coe and Francis Christou) was joined by Jane Manning, Paul Crossley and Tristan Fry, making a well balanced group with plenty of solo outlets. The programme illustrated their diverse repertoire, con- temporary works being performed within a framework of early-music parody realisations - on the whole a successful ploy.

Paul Crossley gave a very fine account of Tippett's Piano Sonata No 1, controlling the rhythmic repetitions of the first movement with sustained power, and giving the rest a good forward momentum. A difficult work to bring off, this, one whose diatonic stretches could easily sag. Crossley saw these as part of a total d-sign and his playing carried real conviction.

Birtwistle's Nenia, the Death of Orpheus - a setting of a text by Peter Zinovieff - received its first public performance (much belated). A fruit of the composer's work towards an opera involving the Orpheus theme, this study in inarticulacy/articulacy is gripping alone for its flexible vocalisations, which range from speech-song to sung melody: the three bass clarinets, piano and percussion accompaniment are a perfect support and complement. Jane Manning surpassed herself in this work.

She was joined by Mary Thomas for another study in vocalisation Berio's Agnus - the two sopranos being accompanied by three clarinets and off-stage violins. This was a rather slight piece, however. An articulated drone on the B flat above middle C is the nodal point for divergent and convergent movement, heard at its maximum pitch-extension in the last 15 bars. Nane of Berio's most telling thumbprints. Nicola LeFanu's But stars remaining - a dramatic scena for solo voice, using lines taken from two poems by C Day Lewis - won an ovation, which on technical grounds alone was deserved, although I wondered whether it was more than a study for a more ambitious work. It was compellingly sung here from a side-balcony.

Tony Coe provided a long tenor sax improvisation which gave yet another element of variety to this concert, but became a gimmick in the second one - at Kingston Parish Church on N,ovember 13. Here they were without Crossley and Fry, and the concert acquired a mono- chrome aspect for which compensation was hard to find.

Four Interludes, for amplified basset clarinet and tape by Harrison Birtwistle provided a framework for each half. Their effect was dissipated amid the profusion of good pieces that were too short (Webern's Five Canons for voice Jane Manning's clarinet and bass-clarinet; Stravinsky*s Elegy for JFK) and not so good pieces that went on too long (Vaughan Williams' Vocalises for voice and clarinet; Bruce Cole's Eclogue for Cerberus for three players, whose mani- pulation of spatial arrangements of the players did not make up for a lack of real inventien).

Also included were things more appro- priate to a school-concert: a Landini madrigal played on three saxophones; Mozart's Canonic Adagio and an endless Divertimento on operatic themes; another Tony Cae jazz improvisation on tenor sax. All this filling produced a horror of clarinet-sax family, for out-of-tuneness prevailed and the timbre range was soon exhausted. The Matrix has some potential, but careful thought must precede plan- ning of its concerts, otherwise the exact opposite of the intended impact will be the outcome.

Another concert that strained the re- sources of a set ensemble was one in the SPNM series at the Purcell Room on December 15. This featured an indigestible collection of nine new works, all given their premieres by the London Contemporary Chamber Players, directed by Elgar Howarth. This group ran to ten players, plus Jane Manning and Josephine Nendick, but most of the camposers utilised only a selection of them.

Among some non-starters in this programme were a number of dormant creative talents and others on the brink of maturity. Vivienne Olive's At all, at all... seemed to be determined to too great an extent by an extra-musical im- pulse. It is based on Anne Sexton's poem The Abortion, and describes a car journey to and from an abortion. I suppose this piece had to be written sooner or later just as someone sooner or later had to write the first work depicting a train journey but Vivienne Olive is no Rossini, alas! Her realisation for mezzo, vi.ola and tape featured all too predictable oohs, aahs, ums, long-held notes, cres- cendo and diminuendo, hints of nursery rhymes and the obligatory screams at the climax.

Brent Jolley's The Tarn III for mezzo, clarinet, trumpet and horn also had a programmatic basis, the last part of a cycle in which the hero, Tarn, 'sinks into a state of contemplative semi-conscious- ness (or deeper awareness) and dreams of the goddess Istar'. Here again, th- strong poetic images of the text seem to overwhelm the music, whose widely spaced textures and static quality are curiously limp, lacking in self-assertion.

Some of these compositions were but studies in technique, their various models not far distant; Edward Cowie's Mediceval Songs for mezzo, piccolo, flute, guitar and cello had some substance, but the aleatory methods of his master Lutoslawski dic- tated the course of events too closely. Some examination of Fagade might have benefited Richard Beswick and Margaret Lucy Wilkins. Two Movements for soprano, oboe and cello by the former tried to harness first the letters of the non-phonetic alphabet and then male Christian names to sound-structures. The effect was comic, but integration never happened. Sitwell mixes up her words so that one accepts them as a newly created verbal sphere within themselves. The names used here retained other layers of meaning, other resonances which shat- tered the illusion, so to speak, when they were heard together with music. Wilkins' setting of eight witches' spells mostly cures for toothache and the like also came over as an arbitrary linking of words and music. It had a few gratuitous stage- devices - like a cross on which were hung percussion instruments emphasising 'the connection between the ritual of magic and the ritual of the Christian Church' - and some obvious musical diabolism in the tritone, but no hard core of content.

Some exciting work may yet come from Graham Dudley's Music Plus group, who perform often at the Cockpit Theatre, and whose line-up includes a talented visuals man in Oliver Bevan. Again, however, technique is still the prime concern: con- tent limps meekly behind. In their pro- gramme presented at the Cockpit on December 2, 3 and 4 they appeared some- what mesmerised by the chance methods of Cage. Howard David on took a more independent line in his Tucance for clarinet, cello and electronics: a discern- ible, organic structure unfolds here through the use of a tape loop. Alan Brett's Amplitude which Brett himself introduced in an off-hand, off-putting, sub-Cage manner featured a score that looked like a school timetable, and sounds whose organisation could have benefited from a strong school-marm influence. More interesting was the collaboration between Dudley and Bevan, called Magic Squares. Here four play=rs sat in front of a painting whose 12 sections (squares) are divided diagonally into separate colours and sometimes with an oblong stripe across the middle as well. It is, in short, a visual exercise in variability, such as Bevan has often tried out (cf his cover illustrations for the Fontana 'Modern Masters' series). The players treated the squares which were assembled gradually as a musical score. This was the weak point of the operation, for there were not enough elements in the squares to define quickly a musical interplay or type of invention. But it looked a pro- mising experiment to me.

The London Sinfonietta are adept at resolving contemporary music programmes into particular group-formations. Their three concerts at the Elizabeth Hall on September 19 and November 15 and 27 were economically planned, and enabled new works and modern repertoire pieces to be heard in a just context. Severity and self-indulgence were aptly contrasted in a programme that balanced Hindemith's terse neo-classical Kammermusik No 3 (its important cello part was in the capable hands of Jennifer Ward-Clarke) against Schoenberg's Chamber Symphony No 1 (the version for 15 solo instruments), which deploys its ensemble with an equally unconventional notion of blending sonori- ties, but with far greater sensuousness, causing the Sinfonietta to whoop with relish. Iain Hamilton's Voyage made a welcome second appearance in the Sinfonietta's programmes: beckoned to- wards Cythera by the solo horn of Barry Tuckwell, one found the stranger land- marks and scenery as compelling as the more familiar (quotations from Debussyl. The work succeeds, on the other hand, because its underlying nine-part structure (including horn cadenzas) asserts itself over and above the programmatic character suggested by the collage devices utilised.

Henze's In memoriam die weisse Rose here receiving its first British oer- formance struck me as a congested, ill conceived affair. It cert.ainly did not live up to its initial inspiration (a tribute to an anti-Nazi student groun called the White Rose whose leaders were executed in 1943). Comt)osed in 1965, this rather gloomy piece brought some characterful contributions from the double-bass in a central episode. Fortunately Henze's 'political' works since then have been far more interesting. David Atherton conducted.

Under the baton of Roeer Norrington, the London Sinfonietta introduced two works by Israeli comnosers at the Elizabeth Hall on November 15, but it was the much lamented Stravinsky who stole the show with two peculiar concoctions Eight Instrumental Miniatures (originallv composed 1920-21, and scored much later), and Ragtime (1918) - and his more celebrated Dumbarton Oaks Concerto, here done at lumbering, kaoe11meister-ish tempi. The wit and aural imagination stood out a mile.

Sergiu Natra's Music for harpsichord and six instruments (1964) had fragmentary appeal, but never marked out a terrain of its own. Oedoen Partos' Shiluvim (Fusions) for viola and chamber orchestra stood in the shadow of Bloch's Schelomo, and proved an apt vehicle for Frederick Riddle (who coped well with micro-intervals in the third of its six sections). As a whole, however, it was more a work of promise than of achieve- ment. We had to wait until November 28 to be really stunned by a Sinfonietta concert. This one contained a specially commis- sioned Chamber Goncerto by Hugh Wood, whose premiere Andrew Davis directed with skill and insight. Like other 20th-century concertos for orchestra, Wood's composition hinges on the display pote:stial of groups and individual soloists. The first two movements are designed to initiate and maintain a coherent flow of thought from such a basis. The display elements are at first contained within a framework of percussion 'interventions', each section growing longer than its pre- decessor, piling up towards the final explosion. Then a second movement separates out these elements into a series of cadenzas and trios.

Nevertheless the core of Wood's con- certo is its long slow movement, an elegy in memory of Roberto Gerhard which quotes from the latter's works and emu- lates his harmonic methods and scoring. I had the impression here that Wood was restraining any urge to copy Gerhard overmuch. Certainly the finale, a rondo in which chorale elements grow gradually more important, has Gerhard finger- prints in abundance (more in the wind than the percussion writing), and it became clear that his late-period works must have influenced Wood considerably. All the same this was discernibly a land- mark in Wood's own development, and retained an identity of its own quite apart from any context of creative exploration and exchange. It was highly professi,onal in its handling of its forces, well shaped, fresh and lucid in impact. I hope we hear it often. At long last Wood seems to have come right out of his shell.

By contrast, in this concert Naresh Sohal appeared to have over-reached him- self in his Aalaykhyam I (also receiving its first hearing). Although it starts with a sort of classical exposition and de- velopment, the crux of the piece lies in its diversion, in the course of three further sections, towards totally different musical territory. From the listener's standpoint this is not sufficiently well plotted to deter a suspicion that the work's tangential quality is undeliberate. One is left with the memory of isolated effects and sonorities, some quite gripping like the passages notated exactly only in respect of pitch. Perhaps, if the Sanskrit title (which means 'picture') had dictated a more precise programme, Sohal's struc- tural idea would have born fruit.

I much preferred Sohal's contribution to the SPNM concert (referred to earlier) on December 15. Hexad was technically as ambitious, but somewhat more sure. Again, improvisatory episodes are mixed with others precisely notated, but the formal shape is never in doubt. The six sections grow out in all directions, and the quarter-tone thematic material of the fourth section occurs at just the right time. Its lean scoring (flute, horn, violin, cello, double-bass and percussion) carried a lot of musical flesh.

While some composers quest in search of abstract formal purity, parody, collage and often quite vacuous use of quotatien is all the rage in other quarters. The Sinfonietta concert on November 27 set some fine-spun Webern songs (excellently sung by Mary Thomas) against rollicking Ives - A Set of pieces for theatre orckestra (1904-11), receiving its British premiere. This latter incorporates hymn tunes, barn dances, and so on, but with a controlled - theatrical character that one only appre- ciates some time after, when recollecting their impact.

This work together with The Unanswered Question almost constituted a portrait of Ives. One could have done with some- thing as substantial in the concert in Youth and Music's 'Meet the Composer' series, featuring John Tavener on November 18. None of the major Tavener compositions was included here let alone any of his major musical 'likes' such as the com- plete Cosi fan tutte! Instead, we were treated to collection of bits and pieces snipyets of Victoria, Mozart, Stravinsky and a nibble at Tavener himself.

True, he has a late Stravinskian fond- ness for short, compressed works, like the eloquent new Responsorium in memory of Annon Lee Silver, and the In memoriam Igor Stravinsky. I detect a habit of rely- ing on ostinati and other forms of re- petition to build up textures, but at his best as in the striking collage piece, Nomine Iesu he displays a marvellous ear, and a sense of shape and timing that are really exact. His introductions were modest and ingratiating, and he drew a good response from the London Sin- fonietta Chorus and instrumentalists.

And so to Peter Maxwell Davies, who continues on a rather crooked path veer- ing between the most cerebral of formal procedures, and quite unbuttoned allegiance to parody. These are nevertheless related means and ends in his case, and his musical language has thus acquired a rather unsettled not to say unsettling character. From stone to thorn (commissioned by Jesus College, Oxford, and first heard there last June) was a particularly perturbing instance. Its text by George Mackay Brown relates the Sta- tions of the Cross ritual to an older agri- cultural ritual. It impressed me little; nor did Davies' music add much. It sounded like a sketch for something more extended. There are episodes similar in effect to this piece in Vesalii Icones, which although over-long and provocative is de- finitely more substantial. Reading the composer's exposition of the three planes of reference within the music and choreography and their attempted fusion can only arouse high expectations, but Davies digresses, allows too subjective a type of imagery to obtrude at critical points - eg the association of Victorian hymns (played on a honky-tonk piano) and fox-trots with religious blasphemy has little objective value.

These two works were included in a Fires of London concert on September 25, along with Davies' Antechrist - a parody piece that wears very well - and a superb Webern Cello Sonata dating from 1914 and only discovered six years ago. Jennifer Ward-Clarke and Stephen Pruslin proved ideal interpreters of this short but highly wrought work.

This and a later Fires of London concert on December Il featured new works by composers outside the Davies orbit. David Rowland's Tetrad called for three instrumentalists - flute/piccolo, organ/piano/celeste and percussion - all of whom were heard both live and undis- torted on tape, opening the Elizabeth Hall into a vast sound-environment. It remained an experiment rather than a fully fledged composition, nevertheless, sporting occasionally some riveting conjunctions of live and recorded sonorities, but not doing more. Zsolt Durko's Fire Music had musical structures which reflected well the basic division of 'vacuum' and 'plenum', but the internal organisation of regulated and free elements struck me as arbitrary.

I suppose the Christmas treat of the second Fires of London concert was Maxwell Davies' music for Ken Russell's The Devils and The Boy-Friend. The former was filled out with music not used in the film, and it would need to be: the film itself allowed more opportunities for the Early Music Consort's period stuff than for Davies' expressionist parody, however apt to its theme the latter was. The music, I admit: quite as kitsch in its de- cadent wallowing in vicarious sado-masochism as the film itself. Plague, torture and executien at the stake did not evoke from Davies as great a variety of cheap musical thrills as one might have expected, and the best ideas are in such episodes as Sister Jeanne's first vision of Grandier as Christ, walking across the water.

I felt much more at ease with The Boy Friend. Here, Davies' folk.-trot syndrome comes into its own. There's a splendid new Charleston and fox-trot, and period scoring using ukelele and sousaphone. Plenty of fun here - for example 'till ready' piano breaks between numbers; the percussion antics (Gary Kettel indispensable); but also an ability to turn everything inside out and send shivers down the spine. Wow!