Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Simon Bainbridge, Rebecca Saunders : music as sculpture

The joy of being in cities like London is that there's so much on, you're spoiled for choice. Last Saturday alone there were 6 different good things on offer. The one I wish I'd been at was the Wigmore Hall where the Arditti Quartet and the Hilliard Ensemble played several new works, including Simon Bainbridge's Tenebrae.

This is what the Times, said, "a tough but atmospheric work that appeared to take its cue from the English title — Shadows — of the Paul Celan poem it set. Certainly the use of silence, and of strings to cushion the gentle, overlapping chanting of the voices on eerie chords, seemed to suggest an “otherworld” shadowing the human. I just wished that the voices had something more interesting to do. All the extrovert break-outs came from the strings." The Times is not the place to go to read about new music but at least that helps a bit. I wish I'd been there! Bainbridge is one of the most original current British composers, quite different from the "religious" crowd like Finnissy, MacMillan, Harvey, Tavener.

Bainbridge previously set Primo Levi, extremely well, in Ad Ora Incerta and Four Primo Levi Settngs, so Paul Celan should follow naturally. Indeed, I've always thought of Bainbridge in terms of Paul Celan, so I'm kicking myself for missing this. Last night I was listening to the recording, about which I'll write more later.

Magnus Lindberg said “music is making notes vibrate in space”. There’s also the often-quoted phrase describing architecture as “frozen music”. Hence, Simon Bainbridge’s Music Space Reflection addresses itself to Daniel Liebeskind’s innovative building for the Imperial War Museum North. The music was created to be heard in that building, the audience encouraged to look up and around them, even to move around to appreciate how movement adapted what they heard. The idea, I think, is that the listener can process sound in relation to space, and respond to surroundings in a musical way. I heard it in the flat, conventional auditorium at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, which almost certainly limited the experience. There were wide screen projections of images like glass and metal – nothing more explicit – but these were distracting rather than helpful.

The orchestra played in four equally balanced blocks across the platform, amplified sensitively by microphones and speakers in unusual formations, such as above and behind the audience. The resonances were quite bizarre, genuinely imparting a sense that sound was coming from four dimensions, and adding a low, rumble giving a depth of sound not otherwise possible from conventional instruments. It felt as though we were hearing the very pulse of the earth.

The music unfolds against a deep electronic deep reverberation, moving swiftly in different directions, sometimes creating angular dissonances, sometimes rotating in whimsical flurries. Sometimes the sounds turn on a sudden pivot, changing direction as if they were rounding corners. You don’t need visual clues, but you can “feel” glass and metal in the clear, sharp textures, solid forms against transparent. This is very expressive music, though not at all “programmatic”: it’s far too imaginative and quirky. Just as architecture is a means of giving shape to “empty” space, even silence is part of Bainbridge’s concept. At the end, sounds gradually dissipate, but even then, there’s a structure to the way they fade into the computer-enhanced hum, so understated that only sensitive ears can pick it up. In nature, too, there are many sounds almost imperceptible to human ears, but they are there, nonetheless, and affect us subliminally.

Driving home I listened to BBC Radio 3's Hear and Now programme on the Berlin Avant Garde. Quite interesting speakers though I'm not sure about the music. One piece reminded me of many hours spent in an intensive care unit praying the machines didn't deviate from relentless hum because of what that might mean. But forward it to 22 minutes, when Rebecca Saunders comes on. Blauuw, written for the trumpeter Marco Blauuw is a wonderful piece, so listen before it goes off air on 14th.

Music is invisible, but it's created by sound waves and vibrations which are physical phenomena, and affected by where they are made. Saunders's music is extremely physical. She uses sound like probes, exploring the space around it: sound waves expand or retract differently in different environments, subtly adapting to the space in which they are heard. At the Proms in 2009, her Traces was performed. Read about it HERE If you think in conventional thematic development, it seems formless, til you realize that what's she's doing is using music to "feel" a way around ideas, like a blind person might use their fingers to explore what they can't see. It's a whole new way of thinking about music, extremely sensual and physical but in a subtle way that grows out of space rather than existing in limbo. Rebecca Saunders sculpts with sound, the way a sculptor might shape a piece of marble, following the natural form inherent in the stone.

THIS is where I went Saturday night - Britten Sinfonia at the QRH. I went because the programme was very well chosen, designed to showcase Elliott Carter's Dialogues, from 2005, an important work that has been recorded 3 times already as far as I know. It's a very important work in the vast Carter canon, and needs to be known by anyone wanting to understand Carter's work. Performance was good enough, but the last time I heard this live it was conducted by Pierre Boulez, Carter's friend for over 50 years, who's one of the best Carter interpreters of all. The Britten Sinfonia is a good orchestra, but the booklet presentation could have been better.

1 comment:

Darrein said...

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