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Showing posts with label Pierre Boulez. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pierre Boulez. Show all posts

Saturday, 24 November 2018

Phronesis : Solos aren't really their thing

Reflections on hearing Phronesis in Cambridge (November 2018)

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2018 (25 October to 1 November)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

24 November

Reflections on hearing Phronesis (@phronesismusic) at Cambridge International Jazz Festival 2018 – a gig at The Mumford Theatre, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge,
on Saturday 24 November 2018 at 7.30 p.m.

In the first set, the band gave us four numbers (or 'songs'), the third of which (Jasper Høiby, leader and bass-player, suggested) was from 2014 (and which had been heard played at The Stables in 2016), but they were all in such extended forms that one was almost aware of 'Four seasons in one day' (to quote Crowded House).

By which is meant, almost necessarily, that the instrumentalists are all 'playing the long game', painting 'a bigger picture', whereas the solo is most usually a period taken out of a shorter treatment of a song, which does not necessarily have or need an overarching feel in which such individualism, rather than the compact work of the trio, is going to feel out of place*.

They will no sooner have excitingly stepped up into an energetic, faster gear** than drop down or away, and the trick in the hearing is, when it happens, to enjoy the acceleration into that movement, but accept that it is part of a whole, in that Phronesis perform songs that are fundamentally quite modular, or moody – or modular***.

However, it is something more loose than that*, as if the structure of the song is modelling-clay that can be shaped by the interaction of the members of the trio as they go, by listening to each other, and also looking out for each other’s signals. The things that communicate themselves in this music at its height - which is already of an unbelievably and highly reliable special quality - are that everyone enjoys the others' playing, and a strong sense of freedom and of play, which can easily move between the very melodic and the strongly rhythmic.

We had tight and virtuosic drumming from Anton Eger (@AntonEger), as one will remember when the band were at Cambridge Jazz Festival in 2016, and saw the erect and observant Høiby (@jasperhoiby) centre stage, at times casting looks back and forth between Ivo Neame (@Ivoneame) on piano, and Eger. Harmonically, and in terms of the figurations and inflections that he can adeptly work with, Neame seems like a mirror to and for Eger, and Eger for Neame, with Høiby (using the bow more often than two years ago) in the role of using his playing and presence to mediate and direct, at the cross-roads of patterned communications, and gauging with Eger and Neame when to extend a section, when to move – which they always do so smoothly – to another passage, another facet, another feeling.

This is not jazz that is pretending to be clever. It just is clever, in the sense of being good and of quality, but does not even require of us to congratulate ourselves for being there to listen (or for listening to it). It takes us to places, maybe not real ones, in the band's sound-world, and, as the new album is called, perhaps tells us We Are All ?

With the three of them, deeply bowing at the front of the stage in The Mumford Theatre, who could doubt that they had given their all, and that we had truly been with them, in - and because of - the music !

End-notes :

* Another musical example, if in the world of what has been written out, might be where a chamber work is in movements, but - without a break - they are run together, such as Ravel's Sonata in A Minor (Op. Posth.) ?

** Colour coded by the principal lighting of the back, velveteen curtain, behind the band, as blue, red, and sub-marine green (the encore was purple, then red), the three songs of the second set all had this synergistic short moment, when the trio took off together, in tempo and intensity :

Perhaps we most immediately sense how alive their creativity is in this type of sound, but it is there to act as a contrast to much else that is going on in the song, such as when they are relishing a repetition or noodling with the possibilities of tossing a fragment around, yet almost without exception conveying the feeling of being both experimental and able to cope with the play-offs that they create, the interplay on which they thrive.

*** Which is not to say that they are blocks of material in, say, a Boulezian sense, where playing one determines whether one will or will not play another (e.g. his Piano Sonata No. 3), or, within a set of reels or jigs, where a group such as Lau might take a pre-arranged, short common rest - a little like the heart 'missing a bit, or a jump-cut in the cinema - and then directly juxtapose the tempo and rhythm of what went before with those of the new.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Swinging it at Saffron Hall

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 November

This is a review of an evening at Saffron Hall (Saffron Walden, Essex) with Britten Sinfonia, Eddie Gomez, Sebastiaan de Krom, and conductor Kristjan Järvi, on Saturday 21 November 2015 at 7.30 p.m.

Part I :

1. Igor Stravinsky ~ Tango
2. Improvisation by Steven Osborne (on material from Keith Jarrett)
3. Frank Zappa ~ Igor’s Boogie
4. Stravinsky ~ Ragtime for 11 instruments
5. Zappa ~ The Perfect Stranger

Before playing (1) Tango, and then an improvisation, pianist Steven Osborne told us that the latter was not going to be a reflection on the Stravinsky (as the programme said), but a reaction to having heard Keith Jarrett in a solo concert the night before, at the EFG London Jazz Festival (@LondonJazzFest) at The Royal Festival Hall (@southbankcentre) – something so beautiful from Jarrett that it had been with him ever since, and which he wished to share with us.

To Stravinsky’s Tango (1940), in its original form for solo piano, Osborne brought a slight holding-back on the off-beat in the second, companion bar of those with which it opens. Initially, he was quite measured, and, when it came the first time, let the chromatic writing speak for itself. However, this was as preparation for it to repeat, where he now let rip for a few bars, and then brought a charmingly smiling humour to the succeeding passages, of greater restraint : on its third appearance, even a feel of the strident, and then just enjoying the riffy rumble in the bass. The work does not end with bravado, and Osborne brought it to us unforced and placid.

Whether or not the first section of his (2) improvisation also derived from Jarrett (to begin with, one was a little reminded of Staircase, with its bassy, deliberative ascents), Osborne brought in elements of contrary motion. As, with time, he rose up the keyboard, his playing increased in note-richness, and spikiness of attack, to very high and piercing notes, which then unleashed a wild torrent of discords : with movement up and down the keys, they subsided.

A sustained note linked to what clearly possessed the serenity and beauty of Jarrett’s recent solo recordings, and with his simplicity and understatement : the theme rippled for a while, before a moto perpetuo developed under notes of longer value, and there was a very strong feeling that there was something quite incredible about how vibrant the chordal progressions were. With a subtle diminuendo, the piece died away, to end very quietly.

The (3) first Zappa piece was very short, foregrounded woodwind, brass and marimba, and, after coming to resemble a march, had a fanfare-like close. (Starting at this point, Kristjan Järvi was conducting Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia) (and those who joined in with it later).)

Stravinsky’s (4) Ragtime (1918) has none of the concision or – for want of a better word – ‘moderation’ of his Tango, more than two decades later. Right at the start, beats on the bass-drum are part of the fabric, although they are used, as off-beats and in combination with harmonies that sound off (almost in a ‘sick’ sort of way), to create an unsettling effect. Alongside all of which, we soon hear the crazily energetic sound of the cimbalom, which creates a sort of unease (if not disquiet) of its own, as does the later use of the snare-drum.

The connotations of the title ‘Ragtime’ may have led us to expect something of a more easy-going nature, but the piece itself, in its origins in the ambiguous world of The Soldier’s Tale (1917), is loaded with questions, epitomized by the use of trombone, which, played with a mute, sounded sneering and sour, or by the ironic sound of the cymbals, or even a prominent slide-effect by Jacqueline Shave (on violin). The mood appears to require the instrumentalists to play a little sharp, but, in structural terms, the work is relatively straightforward to follow (unlike much of what followed¹), and so we hear a phrase passed from Joy Farrall (clarinet) to Jacqueline Shave, sounding as an echo. In this first longer piece, one could appreciate the precision of the ensemble, but also the way in which the named individuals, amongst others, were bringing a swing and a sway to their part.

Frank Zappa’s (5) The Perfect Stranger (1984) is written for a great diversity of forces, including two grand pianos (the pianists double on celestes), and three percussionists on either side of the stage and at the rear, each with an array that incorporates snare-drums, marimbas, and tubular-bells. String-players were ranged across the front (with principal cellist Caroline Dearnley on one end, stage left (and next to Clare Finnimore, principal violist), and her fellow cellist on the other, with Shave (as leader) in the middle (flanked by two other violinists). Behind them, and centrally in the ensemble, a harp.

A motif on tubular-bells opened the work (and later we could keep seeing the two or three percussionists, primed by their sets² to give us a chord or a pair of chords). When we heard twin marimbas with what sounded like a xylophone, the effect was, for a moment, almost Boulezian³, but his is not the sound-world that Zappa inhabits, because (early on) he had Shave playing Zigeuner style, and had written passages with an extreme, highly slurred form of legato, as well as a jerky type of staccato.

Some moments in the work jumped out, such as a lovely short passage for Sarah Burnett on bassoon, and when the harp (Sally Pryce) came in and out of prominence. Likewise, we suddenly heard from the three blocks of percussion on snare-drum, or doubled marimbas with tubular-bells. All in all, though, the work had a quirky moodiness of its own, revolving its material ruminatively, but with occasional bright – and seemingly uncynical – overlays of brass (or of overshadowing with it), and we seemed a long way from where the evening had begun.

* * * * *

Part II :

6. Claus Ogerman ~ Excerpts from the Second Movement of Symbiosis (1974)
7. Darius Milhaud ~ La création du monde
8. Simon Bainbridge ~ Counterpoints

At this point in the evening, Eddie Gomez first came on stage, looking assured and relaxed along with Sebastiaan de Krom : with Steven Osborne, they were to form a neat trio, stage right, on piano, bass, and Pearl drum-kit, respectively. (Gomez’ bass had a pick-up so that he could monitor himself.)

The piece by (6) Ogerman began with a piano statement, passed to the woodwind and strings, and which, as it continued to be played, started to sound to have oriental overtones. Eddie Gomez waited, holding his bass, and with one leg casually resting on the calf of the other at one point. Steven Osborne then made a shorter utterance, with which the Britten Sinfonia players joined in, and which reminded of Aaron Copland. On Osborne’s third utterance, Sebastiaan de Krom joined in, using brushes, and Gomez started quietly strumming, although, since this was a work that might have had an improvised element, he seemed to be closely reading his score.

As the movement proceeded, Gomez was playing very far down the finger-board, in a way that sounded somewhat agitated at times, and plucking very close to the bridge. After a repeated note, with quiet strings, the sound of Gomez on bass became more agitated, but with piano-textures underneath it. Towards the end, he employed a lot of tremolo, and the impression made by the Sinfonia strings was quite luscious : it concluded with piano, bass, and strings.

Having first looked at the evening’s programme, and somehow confused reading the title of Milhaud’s La création du monde (his Opus 81a) with expecting to hear his Le bœuf sur le toit, Op. 58, one was more than prepared, in one’s head, for the insistence of its rondo-like form (from more than three years earlier****, and before he had heard jazz for himself in the States).

In the introduction of (7) La création du monde, he uses saxophone, and a Spanish style to his trumpets, to create a stately air, but it was not to be long before a jazzy bass, snare-drum and trombone launched first Paul Archibald (trumpet), and then Joy Farrall, with a ‘kick’ and a swing on clarinet. All of which, with Milhaud, very soon gets out of hand, with a riot of woodwind and brass – or seems to, because he suddenly drops down, eventually to the more subtle forces of string-quartet and flute. At this point, Bradley Grant gave thoughtful emphasis to some idiomatic writing for alto-sax, with some smooth slides and sinuous passages, before horn and other instruments joined in, and became more prominent.

There is gusto in the quartet of string-players, to whom Milhaud resorts again (and it seems that he heard performances in New York City where a string-quartet adopted such a percussive role), adding in timpani, and building up to a swirling, Gershwinesque tutti. Again, he brings us down from there, to oboe (Emma Feilding), before developing into further lively writing for Farrall, and a pulsing sort of shuffle.

However, these are passages into which he has built what might be punctuations, but which sometimes feel like interruptions : with a tin-pan-alley section, what begin as clearly signalled developments grow into a sort of primaeval, if short-lived, cacophony, in which alto-sax (Bradley Grant) and bassoon (Sarah Burnett) have key roles. They continue to do so, as, initially with a slow rallentando, Milhaud closes the work : he evokes material from the beginning, but patterns it differently, for a brief last riff, before a quiet close.

For reasons that were not entirely clear, unless indicating that he had very much enjoyed conducting Britten Sinfonia (@BrittenSinfonia), Järvi half-turned to the audience with a cheeky grin at the end of the Milhaud (which was not to be the last that we saw of such playful expressions).

At times, Simon Bainbridge’s (8) Counterpoints (2015) was musically quite bewildering, but it often came to resemble a one-movement Chamber Symphony (or Kammerkonzert). As has already been remarked**, in commenting on Zappa’s The Perfect Stranger, there was much going on to see happening, or about to happen, but here it would probably have been better heard, and not watched – as, for example, when a small gong was raised out of and lowered back into water ? One wanted to be able to be aware of such sounds in the whole (and maybe then peep out, to see what they were), not have one’s attention drawn visually to the mechanics of the sound-production : sometimes, less is more, because one may see eight double-basses on stage, but not hear the sound of eight instruments.

The work had a very quiet start, with strings and a ‘squeaky’ bass-effect from Gomez. More so than before in the concert, Kristjan Järvi was bringing piano or cymbals, say, in and out with very definite cues or strokes. As well as familiar pairings, such as of marimba and vibraphone, composer Simon Bainbridge used a variety of instruments, and so we had Gomez with the rarely heard bass-flute (Sarah O'Flynn), and we could sense, at times, that there was an underpinning beat to the whole concerto.

In one moment with Järvi, there was a strange face-off with Gomez as to whether he would play when directed. Then, as there were further games, and an encouraging gesture and grin from Järvi, it all seemed to have been in good spirits. A special feature of this part of the work was an extended section for oboe and soft bass. The concerto ended with downwards cascades of notes, finishing with Gomez.


¹ Where one feels forced to give more of ‘an impression’, in more general terms, rather than describe the work and how it unfolded : completely unlike a fractal, where any part might give one the whole.

² It became especially true of the second half of the concert that being able to see so clearly what was happening was a distraction from listening (and so the opposite effect from hearing Colin Currie and The Colin Currie Group at this venue in an all-Reich concert)). The composition by Simon Bainbridge, which closed the evening, would actually have benefited from having closed eyes, had it not been realized too late.

³ This observation seems less unlikely, given that Jo Kirkbride’s programme-notes informed us that Pierre Boulez had commissioned the work, as one of three by Zappa that he recorded with The Ensemble Intercontemporain.

⁴ Apparently, according to Wikipedia® (@Wikipedia), Le bœuf sur le toit was originally to have been the score of one of Charlie Chaplin’s silent films (Cinéma-fantaisie for violin and piano).

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Monday, 22 June 2015

Boulez at 90 : Aldeburgh Festival at its niche best

This is an account of Boulez Exploration at Aldeburgh Festival’s Boulez at 90

More views of - or before - Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

22 June

This is an account of the Boulez Exploration day, on Thursday 18 June at 3.00 p.m. (and 11.30 a.m.), at Aldeburgh Festival’s celebrations of Boulez at 90

On the face of it, Boulez Exploration sounds like a strange activity, but, with a strong communicator and respectful guide in the composer Julian Anderson (and the apt collaboration of Florent Boffard to give and bring out examples from the score (in the morning, it had been Quatuor Diotima : see below)), it was a chance to realize, during Aldeburgh Festival (@aldeburghmusic), just how much there was to explore in the realm of the compositions of Pierre Boulez.

Regarding Piano Sonata No. 3, one might have thought that one had heard a recording, but it became clear that the notion of incompleteness in itself meant that we did not have all the material, and Boffard even had a piece, in manuscript and courtesy of Boulez himself, that might not have been played in public before : at the end of Anderson’s exposition of the work to be heard, and before Boffard gave his performance, one questioner, envisaging that Boulez might not live forever, seemed quite perturbed that we might be left with no definitive version of the sonata...

Meanwhile, we had heard how Boulez had debated, and corresponded with, Stockhausen and Cage about the use of aleatory techniques (which Cage, we learnt, preferred to call ‘chance’), and had, after blasting them both (but without naming them) in an article in 1957 called Alea, had maybe shown them how it should be done in this piece. He had started with criticism, of other things, of Stockhausen’s Klavierstück XI, and its apparent scope for random performance of its elements : for Anderson and Boffard were agreed that the scope for playing such works from sight, and with decisions made on the spot, is limited, because one actually ends up needs to prepare one’s approach to the piece in advance (defeating what Stockhausen seemed to have aimed at, with elements that could be played in any order ?).

By contrast, and objecting to anything so arbitrary (if it were possible to play it that way), Boulez had provided choices, and, between them, Boffard and Anderson talked us through the instructions that he had given to the performer, and which were at their simplest in those for the middle movement (Formant 2), called Trope (a word, we heard, denoting a section inserted into a plainsong text) : start with any one of its four sections and play all four, from that point until one got back to where one began. (The titles of those sections (Texte, Parenthèse, Glose, Commentaire) are all evocative of the layers of interpretation of mediaeval religious texts (of all kinds).)

Before, Constellation-Miroir (Formant 3) was an assemblage from sections that were, essentially, individual notes (Points 1 to 3) and groups of notes (Blocs I and II), and, afterwards, Formant 1 (extracts from Antiphonie) had simple-form and elaborated versions of each verset and RÉPONS (the lower- and upper-case descriptions, respectively, denoting them - only one version was to be chosen to be played) : Boffard gave us the simple and elaborated versions, but none of this really served as a guide to listening in the performance (as the effect was too overwhelming to want to keep track of whether one was hearing VERSET II, or already onto verset 3), but an understanding of Boulez’ care as composer, and of his integrity in doing what he believes in.

Pictured a few nights later, Florent Boffard is the last figure on the right

What one saw was how Boulez had given freedom to prepare a version of the sonata for performance (arguing against what he saw as the extreme liberty of his contemporaries in letting their work become too random), and could then listen to Boffard’s pianism and precise articulation against that theoretical and musical background.

A superb event – but what else would one expect of Boulez at 90 at Aldeburgh Festival ?

In the morning, and in a different approach (not least as one ticket-price admitted one to both sessions), Julian Anderson had played us, as DJ, extracts from a constellation of other works by Boulez that surrounded his Livre pour quatuor, and we had heard from members of the quartet how they had gained his trust (by suggesting a pairing to bring its sound into relief). From that point, they had worked with him to ease certain difficulties in a score that is itself, we gathered, virtually unobtainable, such as how to interpret a tempo-marking Vif consistently with sustained playing (Anderson liked the short extract that they played at that original speed, but had to agree that it was punishing on them), or the lack of dynamic-markings or a means of making a reasonably playable transition from one note to another that was quite separate on the strings and finger-board for the next.

An earlier, and more linear, score than that of the sonata, and brought to us with great sincerity and interpretative skill by Quatuor Diotima : one immersed oneself in the sound of their playing, and, rare for a live performance, avoided watching the performers in order better to do so.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Gerard McBurney's A Pierre Dream at The Maltings, Snape

More views of or before Cambridge Film Festival 2015 (3 to 13 September)
(Click here to go directly to the Festival web-site)

18 June

This is a review of A Pierre Dream : A Portrait of Pierre Boulez at Aldeburgh Festival on Wednesday 17 June at 7.30 p.m.

Actors with placards, at times a little too noisy on their castors, protested not student issues from the late 1960s, but with the face, image and message of Boulez, in this unbroken evening, dedicated to his music and his (often literary*) influences.

At times, he was heard translated, possibly when he spoke in French more (or his English had not been so strong**, or he resisted talking in it ?), but very often not. And his face, whether in stills or footage, spilled onto or was caught on assemblages or groupings, or discrete arrays, of placards***, along with pages from his scores, or shots of places, or even images that were redolent of natural growth or of the rain. (One can taste the production a little here.)

Soprano Anna Sideris adeptly gave us Improvisations sur Mallarmé I and II (from Pli selon pli : Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui… (Improvisation I) and Une dentelle s’abolit… (Improvisation II)), and Charlotte Betts-Dean Le marteau. Elly Condron, credited as a speaking actor (and all in white as a Muse ?), was clear, definite, and, deliberately, a little cool and detached in rendering English translations of French texts for his Mallarmé and René Clair settings (in Le marteau).

From excerpts of the intimate sound of piano**** (or doubled piano) to pieces for eleven players or more, such as Dérive 2 or Le marteau sans maître, writer and composer Gerard McBurney’s staging ranged over Boulez’ work, thought and utterance in this intense show. Hearing, and re-hearing, his texts and instrumental and vocal settings, his voice changed, but was always Boulez, just as he changed from his arrival in Paris to contemporary footage.

Do not take one's word for it : this review in The Times now Tweeted :


* Proust, Mallarmé, and René Clair.

** Striking up a conversation with him at Aldeburgh Festival’s Boulez at 85, with a friend who wanted to know his thoughts about Keith Jarrett (after enquiring about, which he denied, the influence of Messiaen’s teaching, thought to have been heard in works that he conducted the night before), one can testify to his English.

*** The fact that they were non-speaking actors, or that there were screens on the stage that acted as verbal prompts, was not sufficient to explain how they knew where exactly to be : no doubt there must have been tape-marks, of positions, on the floor.

**** Incises, Structures, Notations, and, with flute (which, it seems, Jean-Pierre Rampal rejected), Sonatine.

Unless stated otherwise, all films reviewed were screened at Festival Central (Arts Picturehouse, Cambridge)