Universal Records sends an email saying ‘Save the Date’ Friday 8th April, 8.30 for 9pm. They won’t say what for. I like surprises so off I go to the South Bank. The ticket office knows nothing about it and the press desk is unmanned. I am about to leave in disgust when I see a shadowy group lurking in the entrance of the Queen Elizabeth Hall.
‘Hallo,’ I say to a stout man on the periphery of the group, ‘;’is this the Universal Records event which I have received an email about?’
‘It might be,’ he replied. ‘Who wants to know?’.
I give my credentials. ‘Speak to him,’ he says, waving vaguely in the direction of the middle of the group. ‘He’s press.’
‘Hallo,’ I say to an even stouter man blocking a doorway, ‘are you press?’
‘Do I look like the press?’ he replies
‘I don’t know,’ I said. ‘You could be.’
‘No mate,’ he says with a tired look and nods towards a third person. ‘That’s who you want to speak to.’ The real press officer satisfies himself that I am a properly invited guest and gives me a wrist-band for access. ‘The show’s late,’ he says. ‘Come back in an hour.’
An hour? What sort of entertainment is this? I drink a beer and read the paper in the Festival Hall foyer. At 10pm, they let me in. I join an audience of mostly couples competing with repetitive trance music from huge banks of speakers to make themselves heard. Notices pinned to the wall detail the programme. Apparently a DJ called Pantha de Prince, composer of pieces of music called Black Noise and Versions of Black Noise and another DJ, Berlin’s Apparat, will be appearing to give previews of two of their new ‘remix’ albums. The audience is warned that ‘haze and strobe effects’ will be in operation and that Pantha is not expected until 1.45am.
This is a different planet to mine, I think, as I make another three or four circuits of the still empty dance floor before leaving for the station. I am impressed with the stamina of the young adherents and the lengths they go to for the sake of the sounds they crave. Disc jockeys are now composers. More my style is the Proms Launch party on Thursday which starts at 5pm with a cup of tea, a biscuit and a press conference from the head of BBC Radio 3, Roger Wright,. It continues with a drinks and canapés reception in the main concert hall of the Royal College of Music. Wright is impressively fluent as he makes his jokes before the ranks of tea-sipping scribes and then repeats them from the concert platform for the larger, now alcohol-fuelled crowd.
He tells us that the new work in the National Youth Orchestra concert is the Turntable Concerto by Gabriel Prokofiev, grandson of Sergei, performed by DJ Switch. Wright reminds us that there are two DJ Switches and this one’s real name Anthony Calverson. Suddenly I am back with the bouncers at Universal Records’ clandestine remix gig. My planet has made contact.
Wright is keen on the ‘Brahms and Liszt’ coupling. Liszt is in for his bicentenary, Brahms only for the rhyming slang thrown up (as it were) although it does also present the opportunity of performing the Brahms violin concerto in its eccentric piano version. Wright predicts that the Havergal Brian concert will sell out early because the horde of performers will take up all the room. The Brian night is the first of a series of ‘Choral Sundays’ throughout the season because Wright recognises that the Albert Hall is the ideal venue for the great choir and orchestra works. It is also strangely intimate, Wright believes, and so Kennedy is playing solo Bach late night. Another violinist, Chistian Tetzlaff, is to perform Birtwistle and upset everyone, while another Viktoria Mullova with her cellist partner Matthew Barley, are to give two concerts, one classical, one jazz, to show off the different sides of their musical personalities. The cellist Yo-Yo Ma gives the world premiere of a cello concerto by Graham Fitkin and composer Robin Holloway is up to his Fifth Concerto for Orchestra already as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra will show in one of the BBC commissions. ‘The BBC is the greatest patron of new music in the world,’ boasts Wright.
The Last Night conductor is Ed Gardner, the youngest person to do so since Sir Henry Wood himself and the Last Night soprano is Susan Bullock, one of the world’s leading Wagnerians and everyone’s first choice for Brunnhilde. I tell her to sing Rule Britannia in a horned helmet. Opening the concert is a new work by Maxwell Davies, commissioned by the Musicians’ Benevolent Fund in recognition of, and gratitude for, the thousands of pounds raised every year by a group of Prommers with their annoying collecting buckets at the end of every concert. They used to be a witty bunch of people, those who pay a pittance to stand all night, but now they are characterised only by their nightly chant of how much money they raised at the previous concert. This works out at roughly £1000 a time and the audience duly claps the achievement like a game show crowd. I was brought up to find any mention of money distasteful but it is doubly so when coupled with the self-righteousness of charity-giving. Some press persons were moved to recall instances of great prommers’ wit from ages past – On Bartok night ‘Could Duke Bluebeard go toGate 6 where his wives are waiting’, on National Youth Orchestra night: ‘Hands up who’s wearing Right Guard!’ - and another to ask whether Max was to be paid for the commission. It would be galling to discover that they had raised money only to pay for their own present.
Kuniko plays Reich
A CD, Kuniko Plays Reich, arrives from Record Company of the year, Linn Records. The Japanese percussionist arranges Electric Counterpoint for steel drums, marimba and vibraphone plus tape and worries the composer as he conceived the piece for electric guitars, ie identical instruments. Kuniko’s version, in which each movement focuses on a different instrument, persuades him however. The gentle steady rhythm is seductive. The pans clatter, their vague tuning is un-Reich-like, but their placid sway has the unexpected redolence of the Gamelan. Behind, the vibraphone’s ‘wave sound’ comes in and out of earshot like a swarm of bees, giving the music almost 3-D depth.
In Six Marimbas Counterpoint, Kuniko pre-records five of the parts and plays the sixth ‘live’, a contrast lost on disc. The smooth robotic pulse, unvarying volume, and constantly repeating phrases have a trance-like effect. She plays with clean, precise hits, the hard beater-heads giving an urgent bite to the music. The cheerful bounce icontrasts with the conveyor-belt, automaton character like a happy factory worker.
Vermont Counterpoint is originally for flute and tape, but Kuniko’s version is for vibraphone. Phase shift techniques create chance rhythmic, gradually changing patterns as in a kaleidoscope. Nothing happens in the music; it never modulates, comes to no cadences and changes key only once and abruptly, without preamble. The piece stops as peremptorily as it starts, although the conclusion is marked with a shimmering of tones which is as much of an emotional climax as Reich ever creates. This is music for the machine age, clean, efficient, precise and of our time Kuniko expresses this beautifully.