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
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.
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.
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.
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!