Monday, 2 February 2015

Wolfgang Rihm Tutuguri Barbican Percussion Day

Wolfgang Rihm's Tutuguri is legend. Everyone's heard of it but not many have heard it first hand, live, because it's just too massive. Organizing a  performance must be a logistical nightmare. We've waited nearly 35 years to hear its London premiere, hosted by the Barbican Centre, and the BBC Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Total Immersion Day on Percussion. The wait was worth it! Recordings don't do Tutuguri justice. You have to be present to feel the sheer physical power of the experience. Even in Rihm's vast body of extravagant, expressive work there's nothing quite like it.

Tutuguri (1980-83) is every bit as much a work of theatre as music. Even before the players entered, half the audience was taking photos of the stage. You can see  some of them in the photo above – it was quite a Light Show. The stage was laid out for a massive and very unusual orchestra.  It was crammed with desks and instruments, the front half strings, winds,  brass, a harp and piano. Invisible sounds are beamed around the auditorium by mixing desk. Four massive tam tams are placed in  upper balconies. So many different types of percussion were being used that it would take a sharp-eared specialist to identify them all. Somehow, a singer (in this case Leigh Melrose) struggles to keep on top of things, spitting out percussive single syllables, like cries of pain, until his voice cracks in exhaustion. Melrose's throat and lungs must take ages to recover. But Tutuguri is a ritual of endurance.

Rihm's  model for Tutuguri was a piece by  by Artonin Artaud (pictured) , the actor and theatre theorist whose ideas have great influence on modern theatre, film, dance and music. (Tutuguri was originally choreographed). Very briefly, he believed that communication could exist on multiple levels.  Texts don't have to be spoken, nor even rational.  In Tutuguri, the soloist and invisble choir (on tape)  utter sounds in single syllable bursts of staccato, which don't have meaning in themselves: it's up to the audience to intuit the connections themselves.  If, of course, there "is" any meaning we can deduce. Artaud was fascinated by primal states of experience that cannot be articulated - hence the animalistic grunts and piercing screams. Orchestra and singers all on the same communal level.  Rihm's use of percussion is absolutely deliberate. because percussion reflects the rhythms of the human body, heartbeats, breathing, movement.

Ritual is a means of throwing off the restrictions of normal behaviour and entering alternative realms of consciousness. When Artaud travelled to Mexico in 1936 and encountered the  Tarahumara people, he understood why they used peyote as part of ritual magic.  He'd spent most of his life in institutions where he'd been subject to ECT and chemically induced altered states. In the supposedly civilized west, shamans come in other forms.

In Tutuguri,  Rihm uses the tight formality of ritual to create a framework. Steady pulsations build up synchronicity with the involuntary rhythms of the body. At each barely imperceptible plateau, tension is released by high, piercing sounds of flutes and horns. While the emotions released by this music may be primal and inarticulate, Rihm's musical self-discipline is highly sophisticated. Interactions between different instruments are complex - at times you can almost feel the back and forth flow between  the players, as if they were engaging in a dance using sound instead of their bodies. The structure is intricate, almost maze-like, creating patterns and counter-patterns on many simultaneous levels. Thus  Tutuguri is very "sculptural", almost tactile. We can hear how the 30-year-old Rihm has absorbed the spatial awareness of Nono and Stockhausen and adapted it to large symphonic form. We can also hear how Rihm influenced a whole new generation of composers, even indirectly, like Rebecca Saunders. In Tutuguri, the music moves, like a living creature, magicked up from sound.

Eighty minutes of pulsating energy gave way to a thirty-minute interval necessitated by the vast changes on stage, which killed the intensity which had gone before.  Rihm has since learned that extravagance has its price. The final, fourth part of the piece seemed harder to comprehend. The percussionists now stood alone, doing their thing in different forms and combinations, interspersed with the crashes of the giant tam tams – very J Arthur Rank, and worryingly predictable. With Kent Nagano as conductor, the BBC SO  was led by a master who understands the form and its idiosyncrasies, and drilled the orchestra into a performance so tight and bouncy that a friend who knows Ghanaian drumming said the players of the BBC SO would have been respected there.

Tutuguri showed the BBC doing what it does best, presenting good music, done well.  It';s good that the BBC SO  does outreach educational ventures, which those who took part must have enjoyed, but a section of Steve Reich happy clapping before Tutuguri proves only that the new BBC era of non-musical targets and box ticking is intruding on core musical values.

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