Tuesday 14 May 2013

A scream and an outrage - 1

Trio Mediaeval

A weekend music marathon at the Barbican and other places: curated by Nico Muhly

Part pop festival, part classical concert, this weekend was an eclectic mix of music and I’m glad that I got to listen to as much of it as I did. 

The first session I went to was session 2 at LSO St Lukes. While I overheard someone call the space ‘brutal’ I have to disagree. By fusing utilitarian modern with its 18th century facade, this beautiful Hawksmoor with its dilapidated past is acoustically and aesthetically one of the best music spaces in London.
Before the concert proper Nico Muhly (1981-) and friends played an introduction to the first set of songs. Sat on a little carpet they played a minimalistic drone, based around a single tone with slowly changing chords, which eventually became the accompaniment to the UK premiere of ‘Three songs’. Performed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto and British tenor Allan Clayton, the songs reminded me a little of ‘Fish in the unruffled lakes’ by Benjamin Britten, albeit with guttural statements from the violin. Moments of consonance to the drone and silence were used to highlight words and phrases. When the drone finally ended its loss was keenly felt, even though you probably weren’t sure when it began.

Bang on a Can all-Stars played Terry Riley’s (1935-) ‘Tread on the Trail’. Written in 1965 this piece is for ‘any number of instruments’ and is ‘Like in C… everybody plays from the same page’. Today we had cello, double bass, guitars, piano, percussion and sax (and sound engineer), who together produced a delightful jazzy meandering and clearly enjoyed themselves.

The final piece of this set was also a UK premier. Bang on a Can all-Stars joined forces with the Norwegian girl group Trio Mediaeval, to perform Julia Wolfe‘s (1958-) ‘Steel Hammer’. Julia herself explained that there are over 200 version of the American Ballad ‘John Henry’. According to legend he raced and won against a steam hammer, only to die with his hammer in his hand. But Julia wanted to explore the way information travels and grows – various discrepancies between alternate versions are brought forward. While this version of John Henry emphasizes his achievement rather than his finality, what she manages to show is that in the end, regardless of the details, the humanity and impact of the story remains.

The folk-style and precision of Trio Mediaeval perfectly matched the alternating moods of ‘Steel Hammer’ from cattle call American to industrial scrapes and bangs. For the singers and musicians this piece it itself an unrelenting marathon on its own. Their vocal dexterity through the various tongue twisters and rhythmic fragments was amazing.

Session 3 in the Barbican Hall was preceded by an afternoon of FreeStage events. In passing I heard Steve Reich’s (1936-) ‘Music for Pieces of Wood’ performed by the Guildhall Percussionists and, during the interval, a delightfully irreverent ‘Double Music’ by Jason Treuting played by So Percussion and students from the Guildhall School of Music. I’m not even sure what all the instruments they used were – but it definitely included some audience participation. The last welcome interruption was during one of the stage rearrangements when So Percussion flash mobbed Steve Reich’s ‘Clapping music’.

Another premier – this time a European premier: Daniel Bjarnason’s ‘Over Light Earth’. This Icelandic composer, who records with the same label as Nico, has worked with London Sinfonietta, Ulster Orchestra and Sinfonietta Cracovia and has won the 2010 Best Composer/Best Composition category at the Icelandic Music Awards.

The stage was certainly full. With two pianos, two sets of percussion, speakers, amps, multitudes of wires and stands, the lone harp glittered like a jewel. ‘Over Light Earth’ was an ever changing soundscape with cycles of storms and calms – but it seemed a little self-conscious. Not all the sounds had a readily apparent source and there was an electronic hiss of an undertone. The strings were a little scratchy and could have done perhaps with more performers per part in such a large space.

Bryce Dessner’s (1976-) ‘St Carolyn by the sea’ (UK premier) also seemed a little lost. Apparently this piece is meant to be performed by Bryce and his twin, but they were not present tonight. There were some pleasant moments, and the strings were more solid, but it was sometimes hard to make out the guitars – even the conductor appeared to lose where they were up to.

Then the audience went wild for Conor J. O’Brien, guitarist and founder of the Irish indie folk band the Villagers, who was suitably dressed down for the occasion. The Villagers are clearly well known and were nominated for a Mercury award and won an Ivor Novello award in 2011. The arrangements by Nico were surprisingly mainstream, but with little odd moments now and again which didn’t quite fit in. Not my thing – I like my folk music to be folk music - but the rest of the audience loved it.

Experimental composer Richard Reed Parry, member of indie rock band Arcade Fire, was in the unfortunate position of following Connor. ‘Heart and Breath’ however was an exciting idea. The performers wore stethoscopes so that they could play to the rhythm of their own heart beats and breathing.

The duet was fairly self explanatory, but the quartet and nonet were a little confusing. Especially as they were explained thus: ‘the quartet, by which we mean eleven people, which expands into a nonet, by which we mean eleven people’. The number of movements and general pauses were also unclear, leaving the audience unsure of whether to clap or not. Several people plumped for - if in doubt, applause. All this embarrassed the composer and detracted from what was actually happening.

The sections based on heart rates resulted in some interesting harmonies which would be horrible to notate any other way. The sections based on breathing also worked in juxtaposition, but less so when they were the main element. This has the potential to be an amazing piece but at another time and with a different audience.
Similarly to Conor, Glen Hansard’s set received rapturous applause. This singer songwriter is an emotive performer with a strong on-stage personality and well thought out lyrics. One slight hiccup was charmingly glossed over - he forgot to come in and unfortunately it’s hard to ask a whole orchestra to repeat a few bars so that he could catch his place. The orchestral sound seemed to gel more with his style and Glen ended the evening on a very late, but endearing, encore.

Nico’s idea was to have a ‘gathering of friends and family, new and old’ and in this he succeeded. But there was little screaming and no outrage – just a group of people trying things out in a, by and large, minimalistic way. Some of it worked – some of it didn’t. But without trying and experimenting how else can we move forward.
review by Hilary Glover
For further coverage of A scream and an outrage see Hilary's review of day two.

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