Friday, 9 April 2010


Sometimes the sheer challenge of presenting a work and the exigencies of concert-planning can mean that even the most important ones exist more by reputation.

So it is with Edgar (or, depending on how he felt at the time, Edgard) Varèse. It's impossible to conceive of 20th-century (and even 21st-century) music without him, yet when was the last time you saw anything performed? Ionisation (his greatest hit) needs 13 percussionists for just 6 minutes ("What are they going to do for the rest of the concert?", thinks the administration). So here's a version broadcast on ZDF (BBC4, anyone?)*

And what about the first piece that he admitted into his canon, Amériques, with its 27 woodwind and 29 brass complemented by correspondingly large string and percussion sections? Déserts? The taped "interpolations of organised sound" might put concert halls off (though on the up-side it only needs twenty performers) but that doesn't explain why Pierre Boulez omitted them from his first recording. And then, again, from his second.

So a big welcome for the South Bank Centre's mini-fest Varèse 360, which doesn't just play the music (including a couple of UK premieres) but has added stagings and video projections.

I haven't seen it yet but it's entirely in keeping with Varèse's ideas: another of his classics, Poème électronique, was written for the Philips Pavilion at Expo '58 in Brussels, where it was broadcast through 350 or 400 speakers in a stomach-shaped space designed by Le Corbusier's assistant (later a composer) Iannis Xenakis. Le Corbusier himself oversaw the accompanying images and film clips. Though the pavilion itself was dismantled, we do have various designs, notes and stills and a stereo version of Varèse's composition, so that it was possible to make a sort of virtual recreation.

Among Varèse 360's sidebar events is a screening of the 1920 Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde (an uncredited Varèse played a police officer), for which Scanner has sampled the composer's works to create a new score. Safe to say that it's very different from whatever Hugo Riesenfeld might have written for the original release.

Varèse has fared a bit better on disc. Given that two, admittedly very full, CDs will seal the deal, pretty much any single disc (and actually there have been quite a lot) constitutes a significant collection, while shorter pieces like Ionisation and Density 21.5 for solo flute turn up on a number of compilations. But there have been several more or less complete surveys starting with Robert Craft, graced with a great psychedelic cover, but, like his equally pioneering Webern set, occasionally more enthusiastic than accurate. After that came [not comprehensive and in no particular order] Pierre Boulez, Kent Nagano and Christopher Lyndon-Gee.

Riccardo Chailly (carrying the imprimatur of Varése's amanuensis Chou Wen-chung) includes a couple of byways that are otherwise unobtainable and presents the original version of Amériques - Varèse's later, less resource-heavy version is generally performed. But even without those, Chailly's is the single set to get. For historical interest, you can also get the boxily recorded Frederic Waldman etc al "volume 1" (there was no volume 2) that inspired Frank Zappa.

For those who want a preview, I'll be presenting two one-hour shows as an introduction to Varèse and his works on Resonance 104.4fm (8pm on Wed 14 and Thurs 15 April). Then we'll glue them together and broadcast a single two-hour extravaganza at some point in the future.

*There's also a performance by the Ensemble InterContemporain and Boulez on Youtube: it sounds better but the close-ups and panels that come and go made me concentrate on the individual performer (actually, usually their hands) rather than the whole ensemble.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Maska and Stanko

Trumpeter Tomasz Stanko's Barbican concert reflected the two halves of a career split by tragedy.

In 1963 he joined the brilliant composer-pianist Krzysztof Komeda's band, becoming his closest colleague. Komeda, one of the pioneers of European jazz, was equally inspired by classical music and free jazz and, after Roman Polanski's early short Two Men and a Wardrobe (Dwaj ludzie z szafa, 1958), scored around forty films. In 1969, aged 38, he died (depending on who you believe, as a result of a car accident or when some drunken horseplay went wrong).

Stanko, who had up to then been content within Komeda’s group, set out on his own, but continued to play his friend's music, climaxing with the 1997 album Litania, which itself became a classic.

But the evening began with the world premiere of the Brothers Quay’s new short film, Maska, based on Stanislaw Lem’s 1976 short story. Anyone who has seen their work (this excellent two-disc set collects their short films) will know what to expect: odd animated marionettes playing out oblique but disturbing dramas in gelid, granular light. Maska showed their usual love of craftsmanship: even a shot that could be achieved in a few minutes in live action - a diaphanous cloth being drawn back - was carefully animated. Rich, luminous visuals – the dense shadows of the cavernous set, pierced by shafts of glowing highlights, are accompanied by a soundtrack that included sections of Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris.

A being, created limb by limb, transmutes first into a woman and then something more, taking us from mystery, through unease to mythic near-horror.

Ignoring the story's possible political interpretations, the Quays are more interested in the robotic Frankenstein: a protagonist that describes its own birth and development, re-forming itself by sheer force of will; shape-shifting and obfuscating its personality, making us wonder about its old husk (or heart?), leaving us peering in on a strange cold world, as compelling as it is unsettling.

As the last credit held the screen, Stanko’s sextet appeared and launched into a selection from his own score to the 1999 film Egzekutor. Starting insouciantly, Stanko’s husky trumpet was shadowed by soprano Justyna Steczkowska, each taking turns to ride over the other. Saxophonist Adam Pieronczyk occasionally joined in, adding more subtle colours to the duet. Meanwhile Steczkowska, in her spangly mini-dress, once or twice broke into a brief, self-absorbed, gentle wiggle. In the middle Pieronczyk’s dense and harder driven solos contrasted with pianist Dominik Wania, who alternated fluid runs with cool but decisive chords.

The second half was the Komeda tribute – majoring on his films with Polanski – minus Steczkowska, but with accompanying visuals: archive and original footage, clips from Knife in the Water and live relays of the musicians. In the event, it was dominated by the live relays – of the rest there was too little to be something and too much to be nothing.

The highlight was an extended medley, Wania again showed his versatility punching out a jagged but contemplative opening and later returning for a dreamy Debussian response to Pieronczyk’s tightly frantic solos. It was all held together by Stanko’s recurring Spanish-tinged trumpet.

For an encore, the dream sequence from Rosemary’s Baby was accompanied by one of Komeda’s greatest hits – riotously welcomed by the crowd – Sleep Safe and Warm again with Stanko and Steczkowska leading. The sextet beautifully captured the music’s lullaby mood, but abandoned the original orchestra’s bitterly ironic saccharine tone - and of course ignored this sequence's hypnotically somnolent soundscape. The new approach reflected the deep well of Komeda’s creativity, making a fitting end to the evening.

Waterloo (near Waterloo)

A quick note to point out (to those who don't already know) that I'll be at the Royal Festival Hall on Thursday 22 April introducing Karl Grune's 1929 film Waterloo, with the Philharmonia Orchestra playing the UK premiere of Carl Davis' score, under the composer himself. The film starts at 7.00 but I'll be talking at 5.45.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Shutter Island

Somewhat belatedly (the problem of coordinating diaries), I just saw Shutter Island. A lot of reviews have concentrated on the labyrinthine (dare I say implausible?) plot though the "twist" - guessable in essence, if not in detail, within the first few minutes - bothered me less than in The Sixth Sense, which simply wasn't good enough to stop me being annoyed at how its self-proclaimed USP had failed.

Others have dissed it because of the plethora of movie references, majoring on the acrophobic Vertigo and Black Narcissus and another film which, were I even to mention it, might give my smarter readers (as if you aren't all smart!) a clue as to what happens. As if it's the first time Scorsese's ever done something like that!

But back to Shutter Island and a number of critics have talked about the music. Scorsese does use original scores: Howard Shore followed on from a blossoming relationship with Elmer Bernstein that was cut cruelly short by the composer's death* (or the intervention of Harvey Weinstein, if you believe what some say). But many of his soundtracks rely on pre-existing music in a way that's worth a study in itself. Still, it works for Woody Allen, though a more pertinent comparison - which we'll come back to - is Kubrick.

The music was chosen by Scorsese's old friend Robbie Robertson - The Last Waltz is their most famous collaboration but he's been involved with several other films. Now, looking at the playlist, the first name to come to mind would not be the driving force behind The Band, though Paramount were so excited that their press release didn't even bother to mention the names of the actual composers.**

But think about the filmic associations of some of the names on the list and the fog lifts slightly. 2001, The Shining and The Exorcist share Shutter Island's needle-drop aesthetic and all feature the "acceptable faces of modernism" Ligeti and Penderecki. Shutter Island and The Shining even share Ligeti's Lontano. In later years those two have been joined by Alfred Schnittke (who duly turns up here).

The soundtrack divides into three types of music. There are some vintage pop songs while the mournful post-minimalism quotient is filled with Ingram Marshall, John Adams, Lou Harrison and the oscillating On the Nature of Daylight by Max Richter, best-known for Waltz With Bashir. At the end of the film, it returns as a new underscore to Dinah Washington's recording of This Bitter Earth.

But there's also a gratifyingly large chuck of unrepentant modernism, though as usual such music accompanies threat, madness, violence, etc. The aforementioned Lontano with its wonderful thick yet fluid textures, dark and glistening, the hypnotic ritual of Morton Feldman's Rothko Chapel, a bit of middle-period Gianto Scelsi - the surprising step-father of TV Times' former agony aunt and Eurovision Song Contest presenter Katie Boyle - which precedes his later, Zen-like utterances. Probably the most extreme piece is Nam June Paik's Hommage à John Cage, a post-fluxus mixture of pre-recorded tape and the sounds of random live performance. But undoubtedly the 'tune' that most of the audience will go out whistling is Penderecki's long-gestating Third Symphony. The insistent passacaglia theme (actually more of a rhythm) sits as solid as Shutter Island itself.

As is the way with film soundtracks, a lot of the pieces are abbreviated or overlaid with dialogue so it's great to think that soundtrack purchasers will be exposed to the full, mad glory of Nam June Paik, the middle section of Christian Zeal and Activity with its looped recording of a preacher, or the near sub-ambient Brian Eno - all things that would probably have passed them by in the sound mix.

Anal emo teenagers will point out that Mahler's Piano Quartet, a long-ignored student work, wasn't actually premiered until 1965, eleven years after the film in which a record of it is played was set and might even question why Max von Sydow makes a point of mentioning its key signature: nobody who actually knows about classical music bothers with that kind of detail and anyway it's the only one he wrote (that we know about). Anal emo pensioners will point out that This Bitter Earth came out in 1960 (though we can bat them aside by pointing out that it's a non-diegetic track).

For me, the film that came to mind was Cape Fear. They're both genre pieces that weren't generated by Scorsese: Cape Fear started out as a Spielberg project and Shutter Island moved from Wolfgang Petersen to David Fincher before he picked it up. Nevertheless he made them both his own and, ironically had two of his biggest hits. And the relentless and increasingly frenetic Penderecki, a thick block of sound coming out of Polish sonorism can't help but remind us of Bernard Herrmann's original Cape Fear, as channelled by Elmer Bernstein.

Anyway, you can get the soundtrack from Rhino Records, here.

*Having said that, he's also used ... errrrrr ... Philip Glass and U2.

** For your delectation here's a proper track-list (some of the pieces are on slightly obscure labels so I'm giving them a leg-up, with links):

1) Ingram Marshall: Fog Tropes. Brass Sextet from the Orchestra of St Lukes, pre-recorded tape/John Adams
2) Penderecki: Symphony No 3 (passacaglia). National Polish RSO/Antoni Wit
3) Cage: Music for Marcel Duchamp. Phillip Vandré (prepared piano) [written for Hans Richter's film Dreams That Money Can Buy]
4) Nam June Paik: Hommage à John Cage [tape and live performance]
5) Ligeti: Lontano. Vienna Philharmonic/Abbado
6) Feldman: Rothko Chapel 2. UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, David Abel (viola), Karen Rosenak (celeste), William Winant (percussion), California EAR Unit
7) Cry. Johnnie Ray
8) Max Richter: On the Nature of Daylight. Max Richter
9) Scelsi:Uaxuctum: the Legend of the Mayan City, Which They Themselves Destroyed for Religious Reasons. Concentus Vocalis, soloists, Vienna RSO/Peter Rundel [the soundtrack album only has a section of the full piece]
10) Mahler. Piano Quartet. Prazak Quartet
11) Adams. Christian Zeal and Activity. San Francisco SO/Edo de Waart
12) Lou Harrison: Suite for Strings (Nocturne). The New Professionals Orchestra/Rebecca Miller
13) Brian Eno: Lizard Point. Brian Eno [not easy to find on the website but it's on their re-release of Ambient 4: On Land]
14) Schnittke: Hymn no 2. Torlief Thedéen (cello) Entcho Radoukanov (double bass) [sadly, I don't think that Borodin Quartet cellist and dedicatee Valentin Berlinsky ever recorded it]
15) Cage. The Root of an Unfocus. Boris Berman (prepared piano) [For what it's worth, Merce Cunningham, for whom it was written. said this piece was about fear, awareness of the unknown, struggle, and the final defeat]
16) Ingram Marshall: Prelude: The Bay [originally the musical element of Alcatraz, a multimedia piece about the island]
17) Bennie Benjamin and George David Weiss: Wheel of Fortune. Kay Starr
18) Lonnie Johnson: Tomorrow Night. Lonnie Johnson
19) Clyde Otis (arr. Max Richter) This Bitter Earth, Dinah Washington (and Max Richter)