Friday, 3 February 2012

Manchester Jewel Shines

To Manchester for the fortieth birthday concert of the Manchester Camerata at Bridgewater Hall. ‘We are one of Manchester’s three orchestras,’ the Chief Executive insists, ‘not Manchester’s third orchestra.’ The Hallé and BBC Phil are bigger, but the Camerata is lithe, intimate and viable, an expanded quartet rather than a reduced symphony orchestra just as their new conductor Gabor Takacs-Nagy, founding violinist of the Takacs string quartet, would have it. Indeed, they tackle Bartok’s Concerto for Two Pianos and Percussion as if it were still the jewel-like Sonata of its original form, the four soloists prominent, the orchestra a discreet splash of background colour and atmosphere. Their bow ends are just visible keeping precise time behind the world’s greatest percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie and the orchestra’s own timpanist Julie Fulton, standing like twin pillars on either side of the batonless conductor who moulds the plasticine sound with his fiddler’s hands. The pianists Philip Smith and Noriko sit back to back at the front like disagreeing neighbours, he sparking a waltz, she a jig, he glissandoing, she playing themes, until Glennie silences the pair with her incisive, thrilling xylophone.

Takacs-Nagy appears with a mike while the stage hands clear the battery. ‘We Hungarians never won a war,’ he jokes modestly, ‘but we do not lack passion.’ This is demonstrated in his countryman Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta whose folk rhythms and tunes the Mancunians play as if it were the Matra mountains and not Manchester’s breast-like hills they lived among. The charismatic leader Giovanni Guzzo is a Venezuelan product of el sistema who urges the players on as they trace Takacs-Nagy’s volatile beat. The strings dry tone is grittily expressive as they emphasise the first syllable stresses of the Hungarian phrase. A clarinet with gleaming, silver tone wins a thunderous round of applause for her virtuosic cadenza.

For Haydn’s Symphony No104 ‘London’ the Camerata plays standing up as if a game of musical chairs has ensued during the interval and the cellos, who alone are exempt, won. Guzzo now bobs and weaves with Haydn’s spritely dances and the electric pulse courses through the floor and into the musicians’ frames. The andante has a sadness that bespeaks the composer’s unsatisfactory private life at home in Eisenstadt, but the scherzo has a frisson that reflects his excitement at being away. The Camerata launch into the merry maypole dance of the finale with all the verve and innocence of townsfolk on holiday, showing for all that they are as able to change to as many moods and emotions as the weather.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Cage Without Bars

The first major celebration of the John Cage centenary takes place this Thursday evening at London’s Royal College of Music (RCM). Professor of Composition Jean-Philippe Calvin directs a rare performance of Cage’s HPSCHD for seven harpsichords and 51 tape recorders composed in 1969 just after the moon landing. It is given by the RCM’s Variable Geometry ensemble which consists largely of Calvin’s students. Although the concert is set to take place at 7.30pm  in the Amaryllis Fleming Hall, it otherwise contains a lot of indeterminacy. ‘Some of the harpsichordists will play any keyboard pieces by Mozart they wish, some will practise repetitively and some doing electronic triggering by touching ‘prepared’ keys’, says Calvin when we meet in the College canteen.

‘The purpose of indeterminacy,’ says Calvin, ‘is the extinguishing of the self from the act of composition. The artist becomes a channel for either divine or natural influence. Cage’s ideas on this derive from Asian philosophy, Zen Buddhism, but also from the writings of the German mediaeval monk Meister Eckhardt and the American thinker Joseph Campbell. In the fifties, the composer Lou Harrison introduced him to the I Ching or Book of Changes, an ancient system of divination. In fact, I played I Ching On-line to make HPSCHD, which is of indeterminate length and can go on for ever, into a twenty-minute piece. You have to enter certain perameters and shuffle them about basically. Of oucrse, you can also do it through heads-and-tails or dice-rolling….’ I am, at this point, reminded of the interview music lesson I gave last term, during which I showed a class how to compose with a dice. They could have had Cage. 

The sounds on Cage’s 51 tape recorders are now collected on a single CD-ROM for hire from Cage’s publisher Peters Edition in London, though the electronic burbles and whoops will be emitted at random from a large number of speakers around the hall. ‘It would be difficult to find 51 reel-to-reel tape machines nowadays,’ says Calvin, ‘let alone seven harpsichords in one place.’

Besides sounds, the work consists also of Cage’s images, NASA slides and movies of the moon landing, projected on to screens behind the performers. ‘It’s a multi-media project more than a concert piece, a 1960s ‘happening’,’ says Calvin. ‘You have to understand that when fellow artist Lejaren Hiller asked him to write the piece, Cage didn’t actually like the sound of the harpsichord. He thought it resembled a sewing machine. So he was always going to use them in a strange, new way. I am looking forward to seeing how it comes together. I think today it is still a happening.’

Calvin began his musical life as a percussionist. He grew up in Toulouse, studied music at Hartford University, Connecticut, USA, and was invited to work at IRCAM, the contemporary music centre beneath the Pompidou Centre in Paris. ‘I met Cage once,’ he says. ‘He came to hear my percussion group’s rehearsal of his First Construction. It’s twenty years ago now and all I can remember is his laughter.’

Most of the images of Cage show him laughing. ‘In the end, Boulez thought he wasn’t serious enough,’ says Calvin. ‘After the War, Cage was a big hero in Europe. He was invited to the first courses at Darmstadt – which was established by the Americans not the Germans (!) as part of the programme to defascisticise European culture. At some point, Boulez went into this very integral serialism and rejected leaving things to chance, although if you listen to pieces by Boulez and Cage from the same period, they sound very similar!’

Calvin’s RCM programme also includes Cage’s Concert from 1958, an almost totally random piece for piano and orchestra involving any number of players on any instruments who may play from any part of the music. ‘He composed al the parts independently which is why there’s no conductor’s score for the first time,’ says Calvin. ‘Some conductors find this disturbing. All there is is a list of time indications, which he obtained through I Ching. Actually, that’s how he came to Four Minutes Thirty Three. He even said Four Minutes Thirty Three could be part of Concert. The piano part may be random but it contans 63 pages of music and 84 different piano techniques including silence.’ 

Cage’s Living Room Music from the 1940s brings to the bill the younger composer before he had become obsessed with chance. Four percussionists play from a meticulously crafted score on household items – a newspaper, a tumbler, a TV set, a table. The second movement is a spoken fugue beginning with the words ‘a-once-upon-a-time…’ ‘It’s a fun piece,’ says Calvin.

The rest of the programme is given to Cage’s influences Edgard Varèse and Henry Cowell and Cage’s friend Morton Feldman. ‘These composers are all connected,’ says Calvin. ‘Cage was influenced by Varèse’s ideas about ‘organised sound’ and at some stage asked if he could use the terminology. That’s why we start with Varèse’s Integrales. Feldman worked with Varèse and expanded the idea of projected sound. Cage studied with Cowell who introduced him to Oriental ideas. Although Cage is credited with inventing the ‘prepared piano’, Cowell was the real initiator of the idea. Cage just coined the term. The story is that his percussion group arrived at a venue to accompany a dance but the pit was too small to accommodate all the players with their instruments. The grand piano took up all the room so he ‘prepared’ it so sound like a gamelan and a set of drums and they gathered round and played that.’

The RCM concert, which, with the group Variable Geometry involves a large number of performers, gives the Cage celebrations considerable impetus, not to say academic authority. ‘Cage may seem as a clown to some people,’ says Calvin, ‘but I think his music has a place in the concert hall. We shall therefore appear formally as for a normal concert.’