Friday 6 February 2015

Minimalism Unwrapped – Satie, Stravinsky, Cage and Pärt

Joanna MacGregor
Joanna MacGregor
Satie, Stravinsky, Cage, Part; Joanna MacGregor, Kate Howden, Joseph Havlat, Tom Lee, Paul Stoneman; Kings Place
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on Jan 8 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Around Satie, a programme of minimalism and more including John Cage's Satie re-write

Kate Howden
Kate Howden
The Minimalism Unwrapped series at Kings Place took a fanciful turn last night (Thursday 8th January) with Joanna MacGregor at the piano, along with Kate Howden, Joseph Havlat, Tom Lee, Paul Stoneman and actors from the Drama Centre London. Music, drama and film each had their place –with whimsy and surrealism being the order of the day. But offsetting this was the beautifully melancholic 'Morte de Socrate', and framing the whole concert was Satie's 'Trois Gymnopédie'.

Written in 1988, 'Trois Gymnopédie' by Eric Satie (1866-1925) has its roots shrouded in mystery – there is even argument about what exactly Satie meant by the word 'Gymnopédie' – whether it refers to a dance of naked young men in Sparta, some kind of religious experience, or just a kind of old fashioned word which had lost its meaning by the time Satie was alive that he liked the sound of. Its dreamy quality certainly does not evoke an ancient dance of trainee warriors. The three songs are based on the same material providing a thematic link, yet each has its own flavour due to changes in phrasing and harmony which MacGregor skilfully brought out.

Written some nine years later, 'Airs à faire fuir' from 'Pièces froides' ('Tunes to make you run away' from 'Cold rooms') sounded like a ballet for mystical woodland creatures with hints of the sugar plum fairy (immortalised by Tchaikovsky in 1892). It is difficult to say whether Satie had heard this ballet music, or whether both pieces were based on an older folk tune they both knew.

The fantasy continued with 'Sports et divertissements' (1914). Actors read out Satie's wry comments and verses that were supplied in the original publication alongside drawings by Charles Martin. With titles such as tennis, yachting, sea bathing, the carnival and golf there was plenty of scope for humorous playlets, which the actors performed with aplomb. Compositionally each little vignette gave Satie a chance to explore a different kind of music from the exotic tango to the descriptive water-chute.

This being a minimalist concert the first half finished with 'Für Alina' (1976) and 'Für Anna Maria' (2006) by Arvo Pärt (1935-) followed by Igor Stravinsky's (1882-1971) 'Sonata for piano' (1924). The first work by Pärt was a study in tintinnabulation (the lingering sound of a bell after it has been rung evoked by the initial resounding chord), as well as his trademark tintinnabuli. 'Für Alina' was his first foray into this style of repeating arpeggios, which sounded tonight like distant sleigh bells. 'Für Anna Maria' was a delightful musical box composed, at her request, when Anna Maria was just seven years old.

The Stravinsky was a change in mood - loud and spiky where the Pärt was all calming smoothness. Stravinsky blended blues and baroque, making great use of trills and dotted rhythmical features. Some Bachian elements were markedly obvious, especially in the RH towards the end. MacGregor's style added a romantic layer to what could otherwise have been an automaton of a piece.

After the interval, we returned to Satie and René Clair's 1924 surrealist film 'Entr'acte'. The film was produced as an interlude for the ballet 'Relâche' for which Satie composed all the music. Here we were transported to a 1920's cinema experience. MacGregor was joined by Joseph Havlat at the piano, and the percussionists Tom Lee and Paul Stoneman. The film itself used attention grabbing imagery, keeping just to the right side of bizarre. What would have been experimental film techniques were employed in abundance, mixing stop motion with live action, split screen work, and layering of different scenes. Dancers were filmed from every angle – including from underneath.

The film had its humorous moments, such as when the coffin escaped and was chased around the countryside, and also used images everyone at the time would have recognised, such as a chess game, the accidental shooting, the magician making everyone disappear. In the same way Satie reused music - employing little repeating cells of children's songs, jazz and cabaret. Even a snippet of Chopin's 'Funeral March' (Piano Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor) was heard as the dead man fell off the building.

The rest of the programme dealt with the atmospheric 'Morte de Socrate' and a spell binding performance from Kate Howden - her voice raising over the circular figures from the piano. Satie often gave the piano the melodic interest, while Howden kept to one note, making this song more of a dramatic partnership than a song with accompaniment.

This was paired with 'Cheap imitation I' (1969) by John Cage (1912-1992). Apparently when Cage was refused permission to perform his own two-piano arrangement of the 'Morte de Socrate' he decided to completely rewrite it as a solo piece. His composition kept only the rhythmic elements and for the melody chose random notes determined by I Ching - a procedure (aleatoric music) he had been using since the early 1950s.

A packed and appreciative audience and a lovely, whimsical performance made for a wonderful concert. The Minimalism Unwrapped series continues throughout the year exploring different aspects of music both old and new.
 Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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