Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Cage and Feldman Volkov Prom 47

Climbing a mountain made of buns? This photo shows the Cheung Chau Bun Festival for which teams of men train all year so they can scale heights of pastry. It's fun and down to earth. Why expend angst when you can simply enjoy.

Ilan Volkov's Prom 47 was wonderful, defusing the hysterics modern music often attracts from those who hate on principle.The Bogeymen of the Avant Garde are perfectly approachable, if you take them on their own terms. That's perhaps why Cornelius Cardew's Bun No 1 works. It's slight but fun. As Calum McDonald, in his notes puts it "Cardew deploys a whole panoply of techniques – contrary motion, retrogrades, glissandi, harmonics, staggered entries, extreme contrasts of loud and soft, angular motifs, cautious stepwise movement, decisive synchronised attacks, extremes of range from the deepest tuba to the highest piccolo, transparent chamber-music-like part-writing, massive tutti exclamations, and almost constantly changing time signatures."  Cardew gave many reasons for the whimsical title, but for me the piece feels soft, round and yummy - no percussion at all!

Nothing but percussion in John Cage's First Construction (in metal). Varèse’s Ionisation (written only 8 to 10 years before) is obviously an influence, but possibly also Colin McPhee whose explorations in Indonesian music and gamelan in particular have transformed western music. For many, non-western music opened a whole new palette of expressive possibilities. Messiaen, for example, and even Simon Holt's Table of Noises.  First Construction is structurally very sophisticated, mapped with mathematical rigour, so the lines weave and interplay precisely. Medieval polyphony, carefully designed for maximum textural complexity, except that Cage is using percussion instead of voice. You don't have to analyze medieval polyphony to enjoy it. Nor do you have to map out Cage's structure to get a lot from this deeply expressive music, though it enhances the experience. It's like a medieval cathedral constructed of exotic materials, different but spiritually satisfying.

I enjoyed Howard Skempton's Lento (1990)  for much the same reason, though it's nowhere as important a work as Cage's First Construction. The mood is transcendant, defying the large forces used in its creation. It's not all that far removed from mainstream music - think Mahler, or Bruckner - though it's modern.  Ilan Volkov gets the BBCSSO to play it with refinement, so the harmonies blend beautifully.

In 2006, the London Sinfonietta played Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel at the Proms. It was unbelievably powerful:, a spiritual experience.  It was like being in a secular cathedral, light and colour a metaphor for deep feelings.  Similarly, Feldman's Piano and Orchestra (1975) operates on emotions that don't need logical explanation. Volkov gets extreme restraint from the orchestra. This illuminates John Tilbury's playing. This isn't concertante so much as a kind of communion where the orchestra listens to the soloist, their response like an aura around his playing. Calum McDonald describes the piece as a "slow wheeling kaleidoscope" revealing different objects with each turn. Sometimes single notes unadorned, sometimes clusters, lively outbursts. Towards the end, the orchestra wells up, brass ominously assertive. But Tilbury plays on, unshaken and serene, quietly repeating a theme that's run unobtrusively throughout the piece. Modern music is most certainly emotional. You just need a capacity for empathy. And performances as good as this.

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