Monday, 27 April 2015

Sisters at the piano: The Labèque sisters ‘Round Moondog'

Moondog
Moondog
Philip Glass, Moondog, David Chalmin; Labèque Sisters, UBUNOIR; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Apr 17 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Exploring the music of Moondog and its influence on Minimalist composers

As part of Kings Place's ongoing series on minimalism the Labèque sisters and UBUNOIR performed a mixture of Philip Glass, David Chalmin, and works by the New York street artist Moondog.

Louis T. Hardin (1916-1999), better known as Moondog or 'the Viking of 6th Avenue', had been experimenting with the same minimalist techniques as Glass, Reich, Riley and Young – only he was doing it ten years earlier. He was quite a character. Opposed to capitalist exploitation he lived on the streets of Manhattan (despite owning property upstate and an apartment in Manhattan) and wrote all his music in Braille having been blinded as a teenager due to an accident with fireworks.

In 1974 he moved to Germany, leading many of his New York fans to believe that he had died. However while in Germany he continued to write music and many of his compositions were transcribed into sheet music by Ilona Sommer. His compositional style is characterised by his passion for Native American and world music and by his use of the ambient sounds around him such as cars, horns, and the subway, and by treating musical elements as though they were the repeated noises which fascinated him.

Minimalist composers like Philip Glass were strongly influenced by the work of Moondog. In 1989, during a rare visit to America, Glass asked Moondog to conduct the Brooklyn Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra returning him to the public eye.

Katia and Marielle Labèque began the concert with an impressive version of Philip Glass' (1937-) 'Four movements for two pianos' (2008). Not as concordant as the more famous of his works this piano piece uses lots of changes of texture and flavour as well as the trademark cross rhythms' and arpeggiated chords. Performed tonight the first movement had a distinctly Spanish flavour with church bells chiming in the distance. The second was romantic in mood with echoes of Debussian light on water contrasting with musical box tinkling towards the end.


The third movement based around a four chord sequence. Here blocks of mechanistic accuracy were pitted against different rhythms, rising into a passion requiring whole body emphasis, before fading into a tapestry. The final movement was quite spare at the start then building up and accelerating: a fairy tale with patches of trademark Glass – yet still discordant – reaching a loud dramatic end.

There were a few loose notes here and there, but the sisters' attack and verve made more of the work than perhaps a more clinically precise version.

Kings Place have produced a podcast featuring the sisters talking about their background in minimalism and you can find part of their performance of the Glass in Amsterdam here





The first section of Moondog was performed by UNUNOIR, which is comprised of the duo David Chalmin (composer and guitar) and Raphaël Séguiner (percussion). Taped sounds and voices were overlaid with drums and live loops from the guitar and vocals. Each short piece had its own flavour from African drums through pop/ funk to rock, prog rock, and World Music with drums rolling like thunder under all the loops. The trademark King's Place lighting rig was used to add ambience to blocks of surround sound.

After the interval the Labèque sisters and UNUNOIR joined forces to play one of Chalmin's compositions: 'Star-cross'd lovers'. Based on Shakespeare's 'Romeo and Juliet' this is a new ballet choreographed by break-dancer Yaman Okur for seven dancers. The ballet will be premiered in Paris next month but tonight we had a sneak listen to the music. Berlin pop piano and Latin drums came together with detuned tape and distorted guitar. But here and there were ties to the Glass with melodic piano runs and Debussian melodies. Crash chords and frenzied boogie woogie hinted at the drama the dancers will make clear. Although short (30 mins) this promises to be an exciting ballet.

The quartet continued with more Moondog. Marielle played 'Chaconne' with its never changing rocking left hand, followed by Katia and a more choppy version 'To a sea horse'. The guitar solo 'Pastoral' seemed to follow a mathematical series for its arpeggios, but the last two numbers brought everyone together - 'Oasis' with its amorphous drifting and hints of Eastern dance and the Latin 'Bumbo'. A final encore was the very American 'Barndance'.

During the interval, and while people were leaving, some tapes of Moondog were played very quietly in the concert hall. It was a shame that this was not extended to the bar as well so more people could have hear it.

Minimalism continues all year at Kings Place – there is still plenty more to explore.

Reviewed by Hilary Glover



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