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October 8, 2013 5:15 pm
Standard musical notation was great for marshalling orchestras in the harmonic complexities of the western orchestral tradition, but somewhat less good for organising the random elements, found sounds and microtones that dominated post-second world war experimental music. Worse still, it was too imperious, and reinforced the barrier between composition and performance.
This entertaining and at times joyful concert celebrated alternative, more flexible means of visually representing musical performance, concentrating on the experimental heyday of the 1960 and ’70s, when composers such as John Cage, Cornelius Cardew and Tom Phillips looked to graphic design, post-representational art and hieroglyphics to help guide performance. And with scores scrolling on screen while the musicians played, the event was something of a visual feast.
Cardew’s score for Treatise – we were given pages 34-39 – looked like architectural plans for the chemical industry crossed with an unfolding Kandinsky line drawing. The score for Phillips’ Golden Flower could have been an astrological chart designed by Miró, and Wadada Leo Smith’s Luminous Axis was so beautifully drawn it could hang on a gallery wall, though its relationship to the music was somewhat obscure.
For the most part, though, the scores clearly guided performance while allowing varying degrees of interpretation. John Cage’s opening piece, Water Music, started with the instruction “Duck whistle in a bowl of water as long as the breath holds” and continued with precisely timed commands that had the single performer, Joanna MacGregor, scurrying from grand piano to various everyday objects while manipulating a transistor radio. The sparse single piano discords were perfect, the kazoo over an emotive radio phone-in side splitting. And orthodox notation was not entirely absent. George Crumb’s haunting, spacious pieces for solo piano, Crucifixus and Spiral Galaxy, used standard notation, albeit now shaped first as a cross and then as a spiral. And, once again, pianist MacGregor’s sensitivity, touch and timing were outstanding.
Other highlights included the vocally gymnastic Elaine Mitchener superbly interpreting Cathy Berberian’s Stripsody – lots of strip cartoon yaaaaaaarghs! zooms! and doyngs!; Tom Arthurs’ sensitive, sustained, jazz-inflected muted trumpet dovetailing sensitively with Oliver Coates’ cello drone; and the vibrant, free-jazzish reading of Fred Frith’s Bricks for Six, featuring all four musicians and beep-and-whoof electronics from Isambard Khroustaliov.
Touring the UK until October 11, www.sounduk.net
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