Sunday, October 30, 2011

I learnt something anyway

photo of rehearsal, by Michael Bawtree
Last night I attended an interesting concert.  Interesting isn't necessarily a word often used in praise of a concert, but in this case it's pretty accurate.

Those who know me will be very well aware of my deeply held belief that pretty much all modern choral music is rubbish.  It was with a sense of relief therefore that when Michael Bawtree, Director of Music of Glasgow Chamber Choir, announced that we'd be taking part in a concert of "experimental" music along with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra I realised that I was unavailable for the rehearsals so wouldn't be able to sing on the night.

Despite my abhorrence of such nonsense, I decided to go along and support my fellow choristers by being in the audience (the tickets were free, so that helped) fuelled with the knowledge that there would be a small refreshment afterwards to dull the pain.

So off I trooped to the Old Fruitmarket, part of the City Halls complex in Glasgow's Merchant City.  The first time I'd been in this unusual venue, and quite impressive it was too with apparently original street ambience.  To my delight the first thing I saw was the open bar in the corner, so even more aural pain could potentially be dulled if necessary!

One pint of Belhaven Best in my hand, and I took my seat at the back of the auditorium, next to most of my fellow GCC members who were sitting in on the first half prior to their piece which took up all the second half.

The concert was being recorded by the BBC for broadcast later the same evening on the BBC Radio 3 Hear and Now programme.  For the next week I believe you can hear the programme using the BBC iPlayer by following this link.  About 27 minutes into it you can hear a mini-documentary, and from about 41 minutes the choir piece can be heard.

But I'm jumping ahead slightly.  What was the rest of the concert all about.  Well, although it was called Cardew's The Great Learning it was only the final piece, the choir one, that was by Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981).  The first half featured music by Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988), John Cage (1912-1992), and Howard Skempton (b.1947).

The performance was presented from the stage and directed by Martyn Brabbins, who also played trombone in the second half, and who clearly knows his stuff and has the easy manner and charm to engage the audience very well indeed.  Interestingly the programme notes said "Martyn Brabbins last worked with the BBC SSO in December 2011, at the orchestra's 75th birthday concert, here at City Halls" so I trust that's a typo and not a premonition of this concert doing for his career!

I'm no music critic, but I'll try to outline my honest thoughts as a layman, albeit one who is admittedly and unashamedly biased against this sort of music.  But it's my Blog, and I'm not asking you to agree with me!

The first item was Ohio, for 16 strings, by Scelsi.  The programme notes mention that his eccentricity was so extreme that he decribed himself not as "composer" but rather "a messenger".  Using microtones as it did, my impression of the piece is that it seemed to be somewhat reminiscent of sixteen 5 year old violinists trying to tune up but never quite making it. The musicianship of the players was unquestionable, but they were playing what was in front of them and what was in front of them was, in my opinion, shit.  Quite a lot of my Belhaven Best disappeared during this one!

And so to the second item.  Solo for Sliding Trombone from Concert for Piano and Orchestra by Cage.  I know nothing of Cage apart from his iconic 4'33" of silence.  And I don't mean the word iconic to convey good.  The programme notes say there is no master score of this work, just individual parts for up to 13 orchestral players and piano, any number of whom may take part.  It also talks of space-time notation, which sounds slightly Star-Trekky to me.  Simon Johnson, principal trombonist of the BBCSO was the performer, and after the Scelsi it was a lighthearted relief best summed up as a man very skilfully making strange random noises using a trombone and its constituent parts, with vuvuzela and Tourette's obligato!  I was impressed ny Simon's versatility, but not necessarily by the piece although I accept that by dint of him having the score in front of him it gave him the vehicle to improvise as required.

The final item of the first half was Lento by Skempton and I had guessed it would be in a similar vein (i.e. perhaps an open vein!) to the previous two.  But I was wrong.  It was actual music.  Performed by the whole of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra it was powerful and moving, with beautiful chordal sounds ranging from the tranquillity of strings to the grandeur of brass and back again, with a surprise sudden ending that actually made me smile!  No English cadence here to give you a heads-up!  It was worth coming to the first half for this piece alone.  And for the beer, of course.

photo of rehearsal, by Michael Bawtree
And so to the interval of 20 minutes which gave plenty time to replenish my glass.

The second half of the concert was taken up with a single item, Paragraph 3 from The great Learning by Cardew.  Members of the BBCSSO, four amateur musicians, Martyn Brabbins on trombone, and 25 members of Glasgow Chamber Choir were the performers.

The choir had sung through it about twice at the end of recent rehearsals, so I'd had a chance to listen to the sort of style, which is aleatoric meaning pretty much made up!  My only previous experience of aleatoric music was at a GCC concert last year when we sang a piece by Jonathan Harvey after which I vowed never to sing any of his music ever again, it wasn't a happy experience for me!  Hence my relief at being unavailable for the orchestral rehearsals this past week and therefore out of the concert.

The text of Paragraph 3 from the great Learning is:  

Things have their root and their branches.  Affairs have their end and their beginning.  To know what is first and what is last will lead near to what is taught. 

The singers choose bits of it to sing and repeat to various notes/chords.  The score in fact is a single handwritten page although the piece lasts around 40 minutes, and no two performances will ever be the same!

The Cardew was executed well, both by players and singers and I have to confess that despite myself I was impressed with it.  I didn't like it, but it was interesting enough to impress me.  It's a visual spectacle, with 25 singers and I think around 10 musicians (the score lists it as "large instruments" so it's mostly brass) scattered around the stage interspersed with each other.  But not only that, they move around while singing/playing.  And not only that they move around amongst the audience!  Very slowly, and obviously choreographed to a certain extent, the movements of the choir in particular put me in mind of a Zombie Choir and if they had been holding their arms out in front of them and repeating the word "Braiiinnns" instead of the repeated excerpts randomly chosen by each singer on the spur of the moment from the text it wouldn't have seemed out of place!

As an aside, and speaking about being well executed, there's a conspiracy theory that Cardew, who died in a hit and run car accident in 1981, was actually killed by the British Security Services because of his prominent Marxist-Leninist involvement.  I'd contend that if MI5 did have anything to do with it it was more likely because they were music lovers!

It is however largely because it's a visual and aural spectacle that last night's second half worked for me. I've just listened to it on iPlayer three times in a row while typing this post, and if I'd been listening on BBC Radio 3 last night then it wouldn't have lasted 40 seconds before being switched off, never mind 40 minutes!  Perhaps if you were listening through high-end audio equipment you might get the mesmerising sense of the ever changing audio landscape caused by the random interaction of the musicians moving around, as we did in the audience, but without surround sound it's a bit like a cacophany of noise with little to commend itself to the listener.

I used this phrase to my fellow choristers last night in the pub across the road afterwards in summary of the Cardew, and perhaps even of the whole evening - well executed by all the performers, but you can't polish a turd.

And don't worry, I'm not thinking of giving up the day job and becoming a music critic any time soon!


  1. I don't know, I got a really good feel for the concert from that review (suspect the beer might have helped). I think I'd probably come to similar conclusions.

    I love the Fruitmarket, I've seen some cracking gigs there (they use it a lot for Celtic Connections). Though I also went to a Peter Greenaway night there, with a PG short film accompanied by live orchestra, which was every bit as Pseud's Corner as you'd expect for Peter Greenaway.

  2. I suppose Jackie that in essence I went there expecting to hate it, but I didn't. Still not my cup of tea, but as an event it went well. The musicianship of everyone involved, choir, players and conductor, was excellent.

  3. Interesting stuff I think. I heard the R3 prog and quite enjoyed it. I performed and listened to a lot of contemporary/ avant-garde music in my early 20's and often listen to Hear and Now (if it's not on, late night relaxation can sometimes involve a dark room, whisky and Webern). Gemma doesn't like it when I listen to Hear & Now in bed, but quite enjoyed performing last night - to her surprise. There is something to be said for immersion, perhaps like introducing an musical atheist to evensong: only the tonally deaf could fail to find a source of spiritual nourishment there...?

  4. You've made me laugh & piqued my interest enough that I'll give iPlayer a listen to. I'm pretty sure my conclusion will parallel your own, but nothing ventured, nothing gained!

  5. Just for the record, the movement wasn't choreographed at all - the only guidance was to keep it moderaltey slow, but we were free to do whatever took our fancy - move, stay still, sit down, whatever.
    Singing this was a very unusual experience, I found it to be almost a meditative experience - something of the mix of the intensity of listening required by us and the general slow tempo. Listening to the recording, I was struck by how clear it seemed compared to what I was hearing in the Fruitmarket, where it sounded very much less distinct to me. A really enjoyable thing to do, but I possibly won't be buying the CD any time soon...

    Huge disappointment that the Skempton wasn't broadcast: a most hauntingly beautiful piece, and just so unexpected in the context of a contemporary music concert.