Saturday, 17 April 2010

Varèse 360˚ South Bank (1) London Sinfonietta

Queues for returns at a “new” music concert? David Atherton conducted the London Sinfonietta in the first concert of the Edgard Varèse 360˚ weekend at the South Bank. Judging by the crowds at Queen Elizabeth Hall, Varèse could have filled the RFH. Eighty years ago, Varèse really was shockingly avant garde but now he’s permeated modern culture and reaches a wider audience. No Varèse, no IRCAM, no experimental music or art. Musical archaeology come alive!

Ionisation was surprising in 1933 because it’s orchestrated solely for percussion instruments. The concept, though, is ancient. Much non-western music is percussion based, so the seeds for Ionisation were sown decades before, when non-western music first became known in Europe. It connects, too, the “primitive” that fascinated modern art.

Ions are tiny particles that build up to form larger units. Ionisation foresees fragmentation, the idea of cells of sound multiplying into complex structures. Atherton emphasized the point further by following Ionisation with Density 21.5 for solo flute. Michael Cox showed how a single melodic instrument can develop many different simple motifs. Dances for Burgess fits well with this group, because it’s relatively delicate. Chou Wen-chung, who worked closely with Varèse, noted that it was sketched during work on the much more ambitious Déserts. As Chou says, “This whiff of a dance is like a wildflower, swaying in the wake of a desert storm”

John Tomlinson is a much greater artist than the sort of fans who simply chase celebrity for the sake of celebrity will ever realize. Those who admire his Minotaur, though, will appreciate why he sang Varèse‘s Ecuatorial. He doesn’t need the money, he does it because the voice part is interesting. The whole piece is a work of intertwined contrasts. Sometimes Tomlinson sings, sometimes intones speech, veering towards abstract chant. His dark bass adds ballast to the two cellos Theremin (Jonathan Golove, Natasha Fanny). Their surreal, ethereal wails represent an alternative to conventional instruments, and bridge the gap between acoustic and electronic music. Ecuatorial refers to the lost tribes of the Maya, so a performance links mysterious past with the incomprehensible present, which is “primitive” in its own way.

Exaudi is a wonderful ensemble, equally adept in medieval polyphony as in ultra contemporary music. In Études pour Espace, they intone the different moods of the fragmented texts, weaving words with orchestration.

Varèse’s music is theatrical, so enhancing it with visuals is very much in keeping with his ideas about connecting the senses. Déserts was thus the triumph of the evening. .The Queen Elizabeth Hall became a giant 4 dimensional theatre, visual projections covering walls and ceiling. This highlighted the flow between physical and non-physical music. We’re so used to electronic music now that the shock value has long worn off. Experiencing Déserts like this is a reminder that multimedia is a very old idea indeed. Like many artists of his time, Varèse believed there was a connection between different art forms. The video started with images vaguely suggesting sand particles thrown up in a sandstorm. Yet again, the concept of small particles making up a larger whole.

There’s LOTS MORE on Varèse on this site, use the search facility and labels. There’s even a full download of the 1921 silent film Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The film’s being shown at the South Bank with a newly composed soundtrack, but you can watch it here wihile listening to recordings by Varèse himself. (I picked multiple Nocturnales because that fits amazingly well.

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