Friday, 25 May 2012

Harrison Birtwistle Portrait London Sinfonietta

Harrison Birtwistle is perhaps the greatest living British composer. The London Sinfonietta, with which he's been associateed for over 40 years, paid tribute to him in this South Bank In Portrait: Harrison Birtwistle event.  Event, rather than concert. Forty minutes of music was stretched out to nearly two hours as an excercise to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 9th June  and filmed for archive and further broadcast. The audience were pretty much used as incidental props.

Had it not been for the sheer force of Birtwiustle's personality it would not have been worth attending. At least the BBC studio events lets us "props" in the audience get in free, but the South Bank makes us pay for the privilege of wallpapering the hall. Curiously, it felt like Birtwistle's own music, where parallel levels co-exist but don't necessarily connect., though it's unlikely that South Bank marketing had that in mind. Listen to the broadcast, where Birtwistle keeps cutting through gretentious waffle with down-to-earth ripostes, like "No". He's so sharp that he doesn't need presenting. The South Bank seems fixated with dumbing music down, but Birtwistle shows that good music can stand up for itself.  "Beethovenian  (long noun)" says Tom Service of dynamic contrast.  "No  just basic music practice" says Birtwistle. It was hilarious, but also pointed good sense. Birtwistle shows that it's possible to talk intelligently and intelligibly about music without pretending to be clever.  Tom Service keeps repeating the tongue twister title Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum over and over because he can . "I don't do Latin" says Birtwistle. "Is Five Distances for 5 Instruments the key to your work? (or words to that effect). For once, Birtwistle is lost for words, but his face speaks volumes. Let's hope that whoever edits the film has the guts not to pretty things up. Then it will be a classic, honouring Birtwistle in perpetuity.

Bitrrtwistle acknowledged his long relationship with the London Sinfonietta by starting with Cortege (2007), a reworking of Ritual Fragment. A typical Birtwistle cryptic code, for Cortege was written to celebrate the reopening oif the Royal Festival Hall, though both commemorate Michael Vyner, one of the founders of the London Sinfonietta. It's a theatrical work in which performers change positions as they play: reminiscent of Luigi Nono perhaps.. But in this context, it was particularly poignant as times have changed so much since Vyner's uncompromising vision held sway.

Five Distances for 5 Instruments (1992)  is a ten minute jaunt of movement and interchange. Horn (Michael Thompson) and Bassoon (Simon Haram) call out to each other while flute (Michael Cox)  oboe (Gareth Hulse) and clarinet (Mark van delWiel) comment.

Birtwistle spoke eloquently about how Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum is structured, using Paul Klee as metaphor. Boulez, too, is a Klee fan and collector: it's hard to overestimate the importance of modern visual art on modern music, even though Birtwistle thinks Picasso wasn't much good. The piece is like an infernal clockwork, (another Birtwistle thing). Six "musical mechanisms" interacting and opposing each other, changing gear, pace and register.  I love Birtwistle's quirky sense of humour, where notes jumble along, clash and escape in sudden spurts of free spirited joy. The photo at right (by James Yardley, is a moment of sheer Birtwistle glory, a completely unplanned juxtaposition of two place names in an incongruous setting. And they're both near where the composer was born! He'd chuckle.

The musical highlight of the evening, however, was the UK premiere of In Broken Images (20110 first heard at MITO Settembre Musica when the top photo was taken. Its tight construction seems to give it vigour. "The 'timbre family principle'  and the 'principle of rhyhmic imitation" says Pietro Mussino in the original programme notes. "Every timbre layer-family has its own inner complexity  which in some cases exceeds the ten polyphonic parts  while in others lightens to the point of only using, for example, the clarinet".  Again, the idea of a perpetual motion machine that recharges itself with the energy of constantly changing cells. And the idea of voices as characters, conversing and demurring: opera without voices. Birtwistle asked Tom Service to read out a poem which inspired the work. "You are young and fast, I am old and slow" it runs (not exact words). But old isn't decrepit. This is amazingly energetic and inventive. "They're both me" said Birtwistle.

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