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Seen and Heard Concert Review


Varése, Lang/Greenaway, Andriessen: London Sinfonietta, Synergy Vocals, Jurjen Hempel (conductor), Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 29.10.2005 (AO)



Edgar Varése, Intégrales

David Lang/Peter Greenaway, Writing on Water

Louis Andriessen, De Staat



New music is becoming the last word in trendy chic, whatever one cares about the music.  So perhaps it’s a heavy hint that this is one of the three performances of Varése’s Intégrales in the space of as many months.  Boulez, who did so much to promote Varése, said of him that he had the “deliberate wildness of the animal that does not go with the herd”.  “I find”, he added, “a tonic in the ozone of your scores, and in your example”.  Each of the concerts featuring Intégrales highlights a different aspect of the composer’s brilliance.  Tonight showed Varése’s influence on music that doesn’t develop in traditional sequence but progresses on lines of its own logic.  Intégrales is strikingly visceral. Tonight, the Sinfonietta under Hempel, gave a worthy if unimpassioned reading, perhaps because it’s familiar ground, and their minds were focussed on what was to come.

Walking on Water” is music expanded.  Its ideas are expressed through images as well as sounds, the artist and calligrapher creating images in conjunction with the musicians.  It’s an ambitious concept and has worked before. Glass’s Koyanisqatsii springs to mind. Here, though, the element of spontaneous improvisation is part of the experience, for the painting and the images of bubbles and fluids projected onscreen are created in real time in connection with the music.  Unfortunately it was a one way collaboration.  Most of the time the musicians had to focus on their playing and on the conductor.  The piece was commissioned by Lloyd’s to celebrate Trafalgar and their collection of silver.  Exactly how, I’m not sure, but it’s good that such an institution supports innovation.  Lloyds cover risk, after all.  Not that it mattered – the odd written words were intrusive, breaking the flow of abstraction.  The calligraphy, by Brody Neuenschwander, was most effective when it interpreted word as movement.  In Chinese calligraphy, subtle things like the tail of a brushstroke convey feeling by themselves.

The fleeting visuals were a counterpoint to music with a relentless pulse.  Patterns repeated themselves endlessly interspersed with a stabbing heartbeat sometimes from the brass, sometimes from percussion.  This was the foundation on which the music was built up, block by block.  Underpinning the structure was a dialogue between viola and cello, hypnotically pounding the basic theme deep into the unconscious.  The voices took up the theme, sometimes on their own, sometimes with the viola and other instruments.  The blending of voices was exemplary.  Three baritones, each with a distinctive tone created a subtle harmony, more in keeping with the muted, darker colours of viola and low horns.  Three guitars replicated the voice themes, in a similar gradation of colour.  What propelled the music forward was the subtle interaction of changing textures, not any formal change in form.  Indeed, the odd sudden shifts of direction were unsettling, in particular the sudden rock music theme introduced at one point by the guitars.  It was an exciting experience to observe, though I’m not sure the impact will be as strong on film or DVD.

The high point of the evening was Andriessen’s rarely heard De Staat.   This is intrinsically dramatic music, which needs no frills.  Indeed, it is uncompromisingly brutal, in accord with Andriessen’s hatred of “easy listening”.  Technically demanding, it needs virtuoso performers, yet it eschews superficial cliché.  The audience has to work as hard as the players.   The oboes and cors anglais herald attention: they sound strangely exotic, almost primitive.  The text is based on Plato’s ideas on music and the social value of modes of expression.  Yet the words are deliberately buried, like an encryption that must be decoded.    The music builds up in huge platforms of dense texture, powerful and disturbing at the same time.  Simple, repeated figures reiterate over and over, making impenetrable walls of sound.   It traverses like an enormous juggernaut, moving imperceptibly but with great force.  The orchestra seemed like a huge Gamelan, producing sheets of sound, pivoting on a tiny variation in timbre.   Every now and then, things would crank up a notch, such as when the trumpets sound a kind of alarum, increasing the tension.  Again, the violas played the part of a non human chorus, filling the chorus’s role in commenting on the drama.  The actual voices chant the strangely impersonal words in Greek, almost hidden in the highly structured walls of sound.  It’s a bit of a cop out to have them translated in English and projected on screen above the stage, for Plato and Andriessen both treated them cryptically.  The last text, however, is illuminating.  “Change”, states this extract, “always involves far reaching danger.  Any alteration in the modes of music is always followed by alteration in the most fundamental laws of the State”.   At a stroke, the high anxiety behind the formulaic repetitions is revealed at last.   Conformity gives the state control, but that need to conform is neurotic.  Hence the tense pounding of the walls of sound, the minimalist variation, the barbarity lurking just beyond the formal structure.  No wonder the viola chorus was freer to comment ambiguously than the human chorus. 

Deliberately brutal as the music may be, it in fact works more as chamber music than as orchestral.  The musicians have to listen to each other.  As Andriessen said “there is not a hierarchy in the parts”.  Anti-symphony it may be, but its technical challenges are such that it works when the players are highly motivated, self disciplined  professionals.  The Sinfonietta once again showed that they have the expertise to carry off something as quixotic as this.  More fundamentally, they also have a unique intuition for how the music works and its significance.   I felt truly fortunate to be part of the experience for a few brief hours.

It was such a stimulating performance that I kept thinking about how   the ideas have affected current music.  Bang on a Can sprang to mind  for the first time in years, and I wondered what happened to them.   On the train home I glanced at last at the programme.  What a shock! David Lang, who composed Writing on Water, was a founder of Bang on a Can!



Anne Ozorio





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