|Silbury Hill collage, from London Sinfonietta|
Harrison Birtwistle's Silbury Air ( 1977/2003) is a case in point. It's one of the great classics of the repertoire, inspired by Silbury Hill, a neolithic mound rising steeply above the flat plains of Wiltshire. In foggy conditions, it looms above the mist as if it were a strange alien entity. It connects to other prehistoric land forms in the area, such as Avebury, Long Barrow and Stonehenge. Building these monuments may have taken millennia, constructed as they were without modern tools. Yet no-one knows who built them, or why. "Unfinished Business", mysteries we may never solve. Silbury Air is an evocation in musical form of many ideas Birtwistle has been developing over many years: layers of sound like geological strata, cells growing organically into denser blocks, always moving. Tiny percussive fragments (including harp and piano - Rolf Hind) grew into a long seamless drone, with oboe, B flat clarinet and trombone. Flurries of notes, building up patterns. Temple blocks and metallic brass : lines swaying in characteristic Birtwistle waywardness. Could we hear neolithic workmen hammering away ? And echoes of The Rite of Spring ? Textures thinned out : high strings and winds, surprisingly subdued, mysterious brass chords, percussion in various forms beating time. Ticking sounds, too - the passage of time - an elusive flute theme rising above. Single harp chords. Hard to tell when sound merged into silence, but that, I think, is the point.
Organic growth, too, in Iannis Xenakis Thalleïn (1984) The title means "sprouting" Thus the sudden but sustained chord, exploding like a siren, high-pitched sounds rising upwards, rhythmic cells bubbling along. An exotic glissando that decelerated before rising up again - a tendril, unfurling and swaying. Further loops of sound (winds and brass), sparkling flurries and single notes plucked on piano and percussion. The music moves through several distinct phases, ideas carried through and developed anew. Dense textures alternated with stark staccato, evolving into florid glissando multitudes. Percussion chords anchored wildly rhythmic figures. Single chords along the keyboard danced with drums and strings. Long wailing brass and single chord percussion. The "siren" opening returned, in new form, with a strong brass line. Xenakis creates shapes with sound, shapes so inventive that they could be depicted in visual form.
As I listened to Xenakis, I thought of Boulez's many Notations, reconfiguring and growing like a Mandelbrot, the very essence of life. So it was good to hear Colin Matthews’ Contraflow (1992) after Xenakis Thalleïn. Again, the idea of shapes spiralling and unfolding, with joyous proliferation. It's "contraflow" in the sense of two forces meeting and merging. Colin Matthews is a major figure in British new music and very much a part of the London Sinfonietta heritage.
Since this concert was a sampler programme, we didn't get to hear the whole of Wolfgang Rihm's Chiffre-Zyklus (1982-6), which evolved from Chiffre I through a series of different instrumental groupings to form a traverse, though each section can be played individually. Here, though, we heard Chiffres II (of X) subtitled "Silence to be Beaten" (1983). From near silence, a strident chord which breaks into zig zags, movement further propelled by rushing rhythms, capricious figures for winds and brass, alternating by piano beating time like a metronome. Energetic blocks of sound which suddenly disappear into near-silence. High-pitched sound, interrupted by thwacks of timpani. Further near silence, rumbling percussion, tense single keys crackling across the keyboard. The climax builds up in waves of varied detail. A marching pace, led by brass calls. Gradually, the textures open out again: sighing winds, single notes on the piano, and silence returns. What a ride!