London Contemporary Music Festival, Weekend 2 – Bold Tendencies, Peckham Car Park, London, 2nd – 4th August

Steve Noble + Anthony Pateras

 The second weekend of the London Contemporary Music Festival 2013 kicked off with ‘New Complexity and Noise’, an event exhibiting two strains of avant-garde music practice that emerged in the 1970s, a move towards “the outer limits of density and possibility” contrasted with free-improvisation’s move into spontaneous action.  The complexity part of the evening encompassed the furious proliferation of Michael Finnissy, an avalanche of bass notes rumbling like thunder, interrupted by sudden gusts of silence; the violent parps, spluttered outbursts, and contorted bass twists of Aaron Cassidy; a trombone piece by this composer taking in delicate muted whistles and almost feedback-like tones.  A highlight was the second Finnissy piece which was almost gothic in its buttressed grandiosity; each flurry of piano notes only serving to further knot and tangle the music in an ever-plunging elaboration.  Mark Knoop at the piano was a captivating presence, a storm of rapid movement and intensity.  This, for me, was an introduction to some very unfamiliar music; it was effective in making me want to seek out more.

Mark Knoop

 The improvisation and noise part of the evening found my ears in more familiar but no less fascinating territory.  Steve Noble and Anthony Pateras whipped up virulent electronic froth, Noble provided a machine-gun counterpoint, strafing the sound-field with rapid clattering, using small bowls, cymbals, bowed drones, and metallic screams.  It closely meshed with Panteras’ synth in a wild dance.  Noble took a solo turn with a clash of cymbals and violent rings echoing off the walls; industrial screams soaking the bare concrete.  Noble is a master of controlled frenzy and constrained chaos.  A Pateras’ solo was centred around blurts of pixelated bass blast, like hundreds of tubas blowing in unison; the passing trains, for once, barely intruding on the sound at all.

Russell Haswell

Russell Haswell closed ‘New Complexity and Noise‘ with a set that seemed to be mimic earlier ones and compress their sound into spraying molten audio-shards.  I thought I could detect piano chords and Noble’s drums beneath the harsh maelstrom; although, this may have just been an aural hallucination caused by Haswell’s pulsing, jagged noise wall.  He occasionally leaned towards something more dancefloor friendly before another deluge of fractured analogue slurry erupted from the speakers.  An impressive, atavistic set, full of texture; it never became merely an exercise in extremity, but extreme it was; a deafening, assaulting, nulling war on ears and minds.  Bold Tendencies was buried in the sound of roaring circuits and raging magma filled wires.  A white-noise expressway to yr skull; a destructive and blissfully transcending ascension.

‘Music for Loudspeakers’ followed the next day, with a short programme based around pieces exploring the possibilities of loudspeakers as a noise making instrument.  ‘Secure‘ created by Ambrose Seddon was an electronic piece, scattered around multiple speakers, making the venue a hissing concrete womb; a comforting cocoon of static, drone, running water, and wind-tunnel blare.  The other piece for numerous speakers by Aisha Orazbayeva consisted of recordings of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony fractured like a smashed mirror; each piece pristine, but a jumbled cacophanous whole that changed with the listener’s movement.  A symphonic babble, emphasis shifting as the sound-space is explored.

Pendulum Music

One of the joys of this festival has been its completely open (all events were free), varied and unpretentious approach to New Music programming.  This was never more evident than in the performance of Steve Reich’s ‘Pendulum Music‘; some may have criticised its divergence from austere minimalism but there is only a small imaginative leap from the original score’s “pulling it back like a swing” to “pulling back a swing”: thus the curators had rigged a series of wooden perches for audience members to swing on, microphones attached to the seats, making short screams or whispers as they passed over the speakers laid on the floor.  It was fun and playful, and well within the artist’s intension, enhanced by a sense of participation.  Performed earlier, Alvin Lucier’s ‘Standing in a Room‘ was, perhaps, a less successful rendering, rather than a gradual blurring of the recorded voice, Lucy Railton’s “I am standing in a car park…” was instead fed back in to the venue in a series of discrete manipulated samples, the recording included a screaming train appropriately, given its persistent intrusion throughout the festival.  It was nonetheless a beautiful whooshing drone, the voice smeared beyond comprehensibility.

Trombones in Spaces

Missing Saturday night’s ‘Parmegiani, SND, Raime’, I returned on Sunday for ‘Coming Together‘, a series of works from an assortment of artists, capped by the Rzewski masterpiece.  Beginning with ‘Trombones in Spaces‘ by Alex De Little which  explored the Doppler effects of moving trombone players around an open space, brass pulses like Reichian sirens washed out by a breeze.  Michael Haleta’s ‘4points, 40 paths‘ was a shambling zombie orchestra, a room full of people manipulating various objects: combs, pots, clothes pegs, tape measures, poles, while moving around a space marked with coloured dots.  A plethora of sound was conjured from a jumble of detritus, like a Merz chamber group, the players moving to some obscure pattern.  ‘Glitch‘ was a contribution from Vitaliji Glovackyte for double bass and tape deck; roaring tape-head fuzz and arco-spark bow scrapes were constructed from a brilliant human/machine interface, the bass fully utilised as a sound-source: taps, rubbed squeaks, furious squalls; the tape-deck intruding with off-kilter interventions.  A voice performance from Vocal Constructivists was a humming buzzing profusion, occasionally like a Schwitters sound poem: playful and humorous, the piece included sandwich eating, weird hand gestures, and massed panting babble.  A found-sound piece from Andrew Hill, ‘Abstracted Journeys‘ included animal chatter, industrial clank, rainfall, steam, birds, chains, and harsh slams; a fascinating collage, brief but full of depth.  ‘Prayer‘ by Daniel Harle a composition for violin and electronics saw the soloist’s music looped and phased by software, creating a shifting sound-shadow, an impressionistic blurring; recordings of radio chatter and sirens crept in lend a ghostly air to the work, the city bleeding into the music as this festival has; Harle’s playing full of beautiful sweeping sadness and flickering echoes.

Coming Together

The climax of the afternoon was absolutely stunning; a propulsive and gripping reading of Frederic Rzewski’s ‘Coming Together‘.  The performance was imbued with a furious but subtle anger.  A soft rippling surface masked raging undercurrents: rolling keyboard riffs, sharp stabs of violin, strident bursts of oboe and french horn, the rapid tinkling of vibraphone, and the repetitive vocals added up to a stunning and powerful performance.  Stirring and beautiful: the bass timbres, sparkling vibraphone, and forcefully enunciated vocals, engrossed the audience.  This was one of the very best live performances I’ve witnessed and would gladly have submitted to another hour of it.  ‘Attica‘ by contrast was a sad lament in place of the former’s raging protest.  This amazing group realised an incredible piece of music in a wonderful setting, causing an almost epiphanic moment for this stunned writer.  The gathered musicians were a magical ensemble playing with passion and enormous ability.  A heart-swelling triumph.

Jane Chapman

The final session of the festival was ‘Keyboard Breakdown‘, a tour of harpsichord and piano music, from French Baroque to American Minimalism and beyond.  Jane Chapman seated at the harpsichord tore through the repertoire, playing beautifully, the material diverse and broad, the 18th century music clashing engagingly with the avant-garde activity of Paul Whitty.  She closed with Gyorgi Ligeti’s rapidly mutating ‘Continuum‘.

Persian Surgery Dervishes

A performance of Terry Riley’s ‘Persian Surgery Dervishes‘ sucked the audience into a pulsing repetitive vortex of hypnotic drone, a psychedelic blur of tumbling notes and humming pipe-like tones, under shimmering harmonics.  It built to a euphoric plateaux.

Mark Knoop

Closing the festival was Mark Knoop’s full-spectrum piano tour.  Beginning with Frank Liszt’s ‘Unstern!‘ and terminating with Philip Corner’s performance piece ‘Piano Activities‘, the set took in Schoenberg, Mozart, Xenakis, La Monte Young, and Morton Feldman.  Knoop played masterfully, passionately when required, but with lightness and delicacy at other moments.  The sequence was a continuous and gripping procession of music, each piece complementing and contrasting effectively with the next.  As the final note of Schoenberg’s ‘Drei Klavierstucke‘ rang out, Knoop began to hammer the piano lid back into the body of the instrument.  Joined by other performers, he, and they, demolished the piano using chains, hammers, and their own hands.  Keys were smashed; strings plucked and rubbed; the whole body of the instrument singing in a violent symphony.  The performance was at once disturbing, the destruction lit by only a single hanging bulb, and exhilarating, the thrill of witnessing something so creatively destructive; ‘Piano Activities‘ was the perfect way to close the LCMF, a performance of real power, the audience shocked out of apathy, a palpable tension in the room.

Piano Activities

This inaugural London Contemporary Music Festival was a great success and a considerable achievement.  The policy of free ticketing ensured a broad and curious audience, the venue was innovative, the programme fascinating, and the performances memorable.  I look forward to the 2014 edition with great excitement.

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