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  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

 

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Warp Works & Twentieth Century Masters
Disc 1
Aphex TWIN (b.1971)
Prepared Piano Pieces 1 & 2 [4:20]
Conlon NANCARROW (b.1912)
arr. Yvar Mikjhashoff
Study no. 7 [10:58]
John CAGE (1912-1992)
Sonatas 1& 2 (from Sonatas & Interludes 1946-48) [4:37]
Steve REICH (b.1936)
Violin Phase (1967) [9:38]
John CAGE
First Construction in Metal (1939) [9:04]
SQUAREPUSHER (b.1975) arr. David Horne
The Tide [5:59]
Karlheinz STOCKHAUSEN (b.1928)
Spiral (1968) [20:01] Disc 2
John CAGE
Sonata 12 (from Sonatas & Interludes) [2:55}
Edgard VARÈSE (1883-1965)
Ionization (1929-31) [6:31]
Steve REICH
Six Marimbas (1986) [18:04]
SQUAREPUSHER arr. Fraser Trainer & Sound Intermedia
Conc 2 Symmetriac [1:34]
John CAGE
Sonatas 5 & 6 (from Sonatas & Interludes) [4:12]
Aphex TWIN arr. David Horne
AFX237 V7 [5:59]
György LIGETI (1923-2006)
Chamber Concerto (1969) [18:05]
Aphex TWIN arr. Kenneth Hesketh
Polygon Window [9:02]
London Sinfonietta
rec. live, 8 March 2003, Royal Festival Hall, London. 25 March 2004, Brighton Dome. 26 March 2004, Liverpool Philharmonic Hall
WARP RECORDS WARPCD144P [64:39 + 66:27]


 

How does even a ‘cutting-edge’ contemporary music ensemble like the London Sinfonietta re-invent itself, stay trendy, flash da bling? Answer – much in the same way as ‘modern classical’ composers are programmed with dead favourites – if they’re lucky: chose some ‘with-it’ electronic performers and programme them with still-alive or generally acknowledged modern masters. This is something of the idea behind the London Sinfonietta/Warp concerts which started in March 2003. ‘Not a crossover’ as stated in the press release is right, with most of the hip stuff having been arranged to be playable by the London Sinfonietta. Like some of the Kronos Quartet versions of rock tracks these seem to be fairly straight ‘orchestrations’ and thank goodness without any of those hideously embarrassing attempts to front classical musicians with scratching DJs or rappers. This double CD set comes in a folding cardboard sleeve with minimal notes – my source of information on the younger names came with the aforementioned press release, instantly revealing my lack of hipness. 

Aphex Twin is the pseudonym of Richard D. James. In the opening works the piano is ‘prepared’ by placing a chain over the strings. This sound invites direct comparison with the Cage Sonatas & Interludes elsewhere on these discs, but the chains introduce little more than unpleasant distortion to otherwise fairly new-age sounding keyboard musings which float around the middle of the keyboard, offering little more than pleasant diversion.

Conlon Nancarrow’s Study no. 7 has been given the full works by its arranger, who uncompromisingly throws all kinds of superb effects into what was originally designed for player-piano. This introduction of the human element into ‘Machine Music’ (one of the sub-themes of this set) works on many levels. The very act of transcribing such a piece for ensemble takes it away from its mechanical origins, and the quirky joy of hearing the stumbling rhythms being punched away in the background by pizzicato strings, harpsichord or piano while winds and brass take on the arching polyphonies and fragmented tunes make this an instrumental tour-de-force. This piece is by far the longest of the early studies, and the only one approaching a recognisable Sonata form.

Nancarrow is like a J.S. Bach for our times – like the ‘48’ you can imagine many of his  studies sounding good on almost anything – the ‘playable’ ones, that is.

John Cage’s Sonatas & Interludes for prepared piano are deeply researched studies into the sonic possibilities of the piano, and live or die by the complex interaction between instrument, assorted alien objects and player. These performances are all superbly recorded and performed, with all of the funky rhythmic splendour and exotic colour nuances coming through. His First Construction in Metal is based largely on percussive effects played on a wide variety of objects, from pianos to anvils via what sounds like an entire kitchen’s worth of pots and pans. There are some nice glissando effects – done by dipping your piece of metal in a bucket of water – but while we can but admire the pioneering spirit at work the reasons for resurrecting this kind of piece are arguable.

In my experience Steve Reich’s Violin Phase comes over better live than on recordings, with the spatial relationship between players and speakers often making for a fascinating and dramatic audio experience. Compared to other versions this performance doesn’t quite hack it – the tempo relationship between player and phase sometimes too inaccurate to create the correct groove, the recording balance too ‘in your face’ to allow the lines to mix and blend. The tempo seems just a fraction too slow, and while the middle section settles down nicely enough there are enough raggedy bits to have you reaching for your Shem Guibbory version (ECM 1168). Never mind, this is live music, and there aren’t many violinists let alone listeners who know how extremely difficult this piece is to play! Six Marimbas on disc two goes better, but as the kind of percussionists staple diet it has become this is to be expected.

Squarepusher is the pseudonym of Tom Jenkinson. The Tide has a compulsive rhythmic drive pushed forward by crescendi from winds and brass, low grunting from contrafagot and bass clarinet, and trills and thudding from strings and piano. It has the kind of organised/improvisatory jazziness that Berio achieved, but without the clearly defined harmonic interest, although there would appear to be a kind of tonal arch in there somewhere. His Conc 2 Symmetriac has been treated to some nicely chilling bowed-percussion sounds, and would make a good soundtrack to a horror film preview.

Aphex Twin’s AFX237 V7 is altogether more substantial than the Prepared Piano Pieces though a little similar in effect to Squarepusher’s The Tide with those grunting low winds being put in to cover for bass-lead sounds – there are only so many ways of rendering some kinds of electronic sound playable on conventional instruments. This piece has a lighter, more Charleston feel to The Tide however. Polygon Window is the pop-finale to this set, opening with slinky figures over a sizzle cymbal, and thence building over a driving drum beat to a smashing finale, via a remarkable snare drum section.   

Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Spiral uses a shortwave radio ‘to tune into sounds from beyond the stars.’ The resulting cosmic interference is commented upon by a saxophone played through an echo relay which enhances the spatial space-effect, and builds to allow parallel chords and Don Ellis style echo-canons from the instrument. There are some spectacular monodic electronic filigrees and some nice Jan Garbarek turns of phrase later in the piece, but I can imagine many listeners being able to ‘take it, or leave it alone’. 

Edgard Varèse’s Ionisation is scored almost entirely for unpitched percussion instruments, and explores the use the resonant qualities of the instruments to develop rhythmic cells in a complex interplay. Sirens and chiming bells toward the end of the piece turn the piece into a kind of sound poem, and it receives a feisty performance on this CD.

Ligeti’s Chamber Concerto is a 20th century classic by any standard, and any performance of such a work by this standard of ensemble has to be of interest. This was the slimmed down chamber version of some of the already recognised Ligeti sonic fingerprints which had been introduced in the Cello Concerto and ‘Lontano’, with intensely mobile or atmospheric sound-effects, and hyper-extended harmonic resolutions and climaxes. The London Sinfonietta’s performance is good as may be expected, but the recorded balance throws up a few strange perspectives and there are some notable consumptives in the audience.

These concerts sound like they were great fun, and all concerned are to be commended on some adventurous programming. Ultimately however, it is almost inevitable that putting contemporary ‘experimental’ musician’s work up against 20th century classics just serves to show how far we yet have to go in order to achieve those standards of the past, let alone surpass them – especially when such work is taken out of context and orchestrated for conventional instruments, putting it in direct competition with composers whose background and aesthetic ethics inhabit an entirely different world to today. I don’t want to be negative, but I can almost guarantee that the works which will live on in your memory will be those by the established names of Cage, Nancarrow and Ligeti. As live recordings these performances have plenty of the raw energy one would hope for, and as such both discs offer something beyond the ordinary – which is what you want, isn’t it? 

Dominy Clements

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