Archive for March, 2008

Helmut LachnemannSaturday March 29th, 2008 | 8pm
Helmut Lachenmann

UBC School of Music Recital Hall

This has been a pretty great year for composed music in the Pacific NW, with performances of Feldman, Rzewelski and now Helmut Lachenmann.  Apparently Lachenmann is doing a year residency at Harvard and has taken the opportunity while he is in the States to visit a number of colleges and present some of his music.Vancouver New Music along with the UBC School of Music and the University of Victoria managed to have him come up for a week or so and present programs at both colleges. I of course jumped at the chance to not only see rarely preformed works of a modern composer, but the composer himself.

It’s been odd weather here this last week, where it would go from 65 (f) one weekend to snowing the next. Snow in late March is very rare in this region and the fact that it was doing so the day before I had to make the three hour drive north was a bit worrisome.  Luckily the weather was fine here, the snow hadn’t lasted, but as I made my way further north there was a lot more evidence of this weather.  The border also proved to be a challenge causing me to wait an hour to get through. Combine that with a bit of wandering to find the campus and then the recital hall I made it in around 7:20pm. Just as I walked in they finished introducing Helmut Lachenmann who was going to do a little pre-concert Q&A with a UBC faculty member.

The Q&A was pretty interesting, basically Lachenmann was asked about the style of his music, the critical reaction to it and then some details on the pieces that were to be performed that night. Lachenmann apparently refers to his music as Musique Concrète Instrumentale, by which he means he tries to approximate the sound world that was explored in Musique Concrète via electronic means with traditional acoustic instruments.  He talked of industrial sounds, the noises of the everyday and how he wanted to uses those as materials. Thus he worked with such extended techniques, extremes in pitch and unorthodox methods of playing. This he said often brought a negative critical reaction, which he implied came from people seeing something they loved used in such a way. He gave the example of a ‘cello, and how if you loved the ‘cello seeing how it was abused in Pression, would bring about that negative reaction.

After a bit of a break Giorgio Magnanensi of Vancouver New Music came out to introduce the performance and note a program change.  He said that Lachnemann had agreed to perform one of his pieces and that was added to the beginning of the second half. So with that the show began with the one non-Lachnemann piece.

Post-Prae-Ludium per Donau, composed by Luigi Nono
performed by Max Murray on Tuba and Daniel Peter Biro, Randy Jones and Kirk McNally on live electronics.

Luigio Nono was Helmut Lachenmann’s teacher in the late ’50s so it was appropriate that the concert began with this tip of the hat to his old mentor.  This piece was for solo tuba and live electronics.  The soloist sat on stage with just his head and the tuba peeking up behind two music stands. Three electronicians sat in the midst of the audience with a table full of laptops and electronic effects.  The piece began with this dry gasps and burbles of air through the tuba with a pretty good separate in time.  The electronics kicked in with rather lower level echos, stereo panning and what seemed to be very distant murmuring voices. The tuba’s sounds became increasingly more longer, continuous tones to which the electronics echo would merge and create shifting patterns. The murmur went away about half way through and it just seemed to be shifting layers of delay. The end was very beautiful with this wash of sound as the tuba played a continuous tone that was echoed and interfered with by the electronics.

Serynade, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Jee Yeon Ryu, piano

This was a solo piano piece and was in a pretty stark contrast to the Nono piece that preceded it. Massive attacks on the piano, from huge two handed chords to an entire arm crashing down on the keys began the piece. Usually these would played with massive force and seperated in space. Not lengthy gaps but enough to really focus on the resonances of the piano. This seemed to be a major aspect of what Lachenmann is exploring, how the piano resonance can be setup, altered and worked with. The sustain pedal was used a lot, often coming in or cutting out post the sound event to modulate and alter this resonance. Other components of the piece included quick arpeggios and glissando’s that again seemed to be done for the resonance that remained afterwards or layered above a lingering roar from one of those smashed chords. The piece concluded with single notes hammered with a lot of force fully spaced out to allow their sound to die out.

Franklin Cox

Pression, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Franklin Cox

This solo ‘cello piece had been moved out of the second half to allow for the added Lachenmann piano performance. This piece is a full exploration of all the varieties of sound that can be eked out of a ‘cello. It began with this dry half scrape of the bow across the strings and then continued with two fingers rubbing up a set of strings in an ascending whining sound. The body of the ‘cello was rubbed and then the bow itself which was still motionless across the strings. The bow then came into play underneath the strings, generating dry crackling, sounds as it was rubbed against them. Then more percussive sounds as it was slapped against the strings. Some staccato bowing beneath the bridge created with staggering guttural sound before the strings themselves were bowed in the normal position but with his hand muting the strings just above the bridge. A bit of slow bowed strings, dry and with no vibrato faded in and out in the last couple of minutes. This was a really great piece and I really enjoyed the vast soundworld that was revealed by the instrument.

Helmut Lachenmann
Helmut Lachenmann

Ein Kinderspiel, composed and performed by Helmut Lachenmann

There was a short intermission after and then Helmut Lachnenmann walked on stage and took a seat at the piano. He began to play this jaunty little melody way high in the upper register.  After he had gone through this tune he stopped and turned to the audience and said that he should give us the titles of the pieces. This piece is made up of seven German children tunes and he gave us all the titles and then said he would begin again. So again with the nearly one fingered tune eked out in the upper register with the sustain pedal down. The next little tune was similar but midrange on the piano. Then a super short one also about in the midrange followed by one that he played with one hand crossed over the the other. This seemed to be the melody played in both hands clashing with each other. The next piece seemed to take this a step further and was just chords by the overlapping hands in this dense wall of sound where I could pick out no melody. The sixth little tune was back to the simple one finger melody but this time way down in the lower register. The final part began in the low end but quickly moved to the extreme upper register where those dry tones with little resonance eked out the simple melody a note at a time.  An odd piece, I think the point was how these simple melodies could generate the same odd colliding resonances on the piano as his extreme and more abstract pieces. It was good fun overall and neat to see Lachnemann playing his own compositions.

Jee Yeon Ryu, AK Coope and Franklin Cox

Allegro Sostenuto, composed by Helmut Lachenmann
performed by Jee Yeon Ryu on piano, AK Coope on clarinets and Franklin Cox on ‘cello.

The final piece of the even was a trio for clarinet/bass clarinet, ‘cello and piano.  This was the longest piece of the evening and the only real ensemble piece.  Each of the three instruments seemed to work through a bunch of different sounds and techniques with only the most oblique reference to each other. The piano was most sounds seperated in space, short chords and runs, mallett work on the strings and body of the piano and some inside/outside playing. The ‘cello explored a lot of the extended techniques and sounds that we had heard in Pression, with quite a bit of very dry bowing.  The clarinet mostly did short little sustained tones and little runs. At several points she would stand up and emit a blast into the pianos cavity. About half way through the piece the clarinetist switched to bass clarinet and began generated wispy breathy sounds through it. After a bit of this she again transition to short continuous tones.  The group interaction was hard to determine, it really seemed like three simultaneous explorations of sound. However at several points they stopped completely for nice little silences that demonstrated them working together very well. This piece in many ways sounded the most like stereotyped twentieth century composed music, with this myriad short passages, wide variety of sounds and that feeling of disconnectedness. It was though a nice contrast to all the solo pieces and constantly engaging.

Another really well put together event from Vancouver New Music and a really rare opportunity that I’m glad I got to experience.

“Certainly what I do on the guitar is there without me playing it.”
– Keith Rowe(3)

This is the last of the early boots that have been leaked to the nets. This set occurred about two weeks after the previous one and is most likely the lineup of Cardew, Gare, Prévost and Rowe and possibly Hobbs (*see note below). While that set had that chamber feel to it with multiple bowed string instruments, this one differs in many ways yet feels informed by it. It has a very electronic, controlled noise feel in the beginning with the percussion sounding mechanical and various statics, pure tones and electronically amplified scrapes, buzzes and the like. It then enters a very spacious period, where drumming (very traditional jazz style), isolated piano clusters and a murmur of bowed instruments come in and out. Quite a bit of radio or tape or both in this one especially toward the end. Overall there is that uneasiness and tension from the previous set, but the variety of sounds used is a lot wider.

AMM – London 3 February 1970

This one begins tentatively, with a rattling metallic percussion, static and this intermittent high whistling sound. The occasional beat of a drum accentuates this rather mechanical noise. A bit into this a warbling bowing sound can be heard now and again pretty buried below the other sounds. A piano note or two. Then it drops dead. A bell rings out and then some squeaky bowing comes in and rises in volume.This doesn’t last and the playing becoming bursts of sound in space. Quiet piano chords, short snare rolls, guitar hum comes in and goes. Some faint radio at one points rises almost inaudibly in a fairly quiet place, so not much volume. Eddie then seriously picks up the snare rolls, not so much playing loudly as continuously and to this the piano responds accordingly. Again they break off and it becomes more pointalistic; electronics swelling via volume pedals, percussion effects, choppy bowing. More aggressive piano chords.

Things become very spacious, the piano plays short melodic figures, a persistent electronic hum, squeaks as of rubbed drumheads, the radio or tape coming in and then fading away, a cymbal crash.  Things meander for a bit before picking up again, once again led by the drums, this time a furious assault on a tom or bongo. Some kind of Cecil Taylor-ish figures on the piano, fingernails on chalk bowing and muffled radio. Again the dense part doesn’t last and fades to a persistent low volume wail, like an ebow’d string, quite piano notes, bowed metal, the occasional voice from the radio. After a bit of this a real beat driven thing come on the radio, to which the piano responds with a ragtime fragment of the Ode to Joy, and everyone else does this holding pattern of sounds – quite rattly percussion, low bowing and so on. The radio doesn’t last long but this uneasy, persistence does. Some louder percussion is brought in and the bowing becomes more aggressive. Things really quiet down from here, a background of humming, quiet percussion very steady state. Radio again briefly appears, with a snippet of the Beatles as does bowing of a sliding nature. Very electronic sounding in this bit almost like an ambient fadeout -if it was done on a factory floor with some of the machines winding down. In the last minute again the drums go crazy, almost in a full on drum solo. Clearly a full kit was present at this session. The piano tries to fight through this, with low end chord crashes, and there is a persistent electronic buzz and then the tape ends.

“This improvisation is inherently about problem-solving; it’s inherently dialogical.”
– Edwin Prévost (3)

The feeling to me of this one is that of a desire to not develop anything too far where too far is defined by the individual player. For some things this may be only a fragment of sound for others it may take a minute or five but nothing overstays its welcome. Now you might argue that this is what makes improvised music good in general, but as a deliberate strategy it creates something markedly different then just sensitive playing. Not to mention that this is quite different from later AMM with its layers of continuous sound. This constraint (if it really is one beyond my speculation of course) curtails droning, overuse of the same sound world, reliance on established gestures and so on. When allowed those things can all be great and used well and thus argued to not overstay their welcome. But in this piece it feels like a deliberate strategy and it gives a markedly different feel to it. At times it can kind of hint at insect music with a variety of short sounds coming and going, but as other sounds can last a few minutes or longer this is never a dominate mode. Especially as the individual players may not be synchronized in how long the develop what they are playing, so you get a nice overlapping of short quick events, with longer more developed ones.  Overall an interesting effect that gives this a brooding feel but with a prickly surface.

There has been some question as to the AMM lineup at this time in various places including in the published sources. My primary source has been Prévost’s article AMM 1965/1994 — a brief and mostly chronological historical summary published in No Sound is Innocent(4, p. 185-186) namely this quote:

From the early 1970s until the fracture of AMM in 1972 the ensemble remained the quartet: Cardew, Gare, Prévost and Rowe.” (4, p.185)

However the AMM Factsheet in the Crypt Liner notes(8) states that Hobbs is still part of the group as of October 1970. Now while the Crypt Factsheet is quite possibly fraught with errors one would that this basic fact would be correct.  Finally the most recent and specific confirmation comes from John Tilbury’s recent biography of Cardew where he states that Hobbs “had already left the group in May 1971”(7, p.650). This I think has to be the case as the degree of scholarship is so high in this book and Tilbury was of course present and friends with all the principles. I’ll rely on his legwork with having asked all of the surving members of AMM w/r/t this issue.

All that being said I still don’t think that Hobbs was present at this concert. There is  plenty of documented cases of additions or subtractions from the group on a show by show basis, and clearly at some points people couldn’t make the gigs.  So my basic operating procedure has been to follow the lineup as the sources indicate, but to also follow the evidence of my ears.  The previously reviewed recording from January, does sound like there are five disparate sound sources and the most likely case would be that it is Hobbs. In this recording it sounds like four members and certainly there is little aural evidence for dual percussionists.  Barring confirmation from principles or contemporary sources this is I think the best that can be done.


1) Cornelius Cardew, Towards an Ethic of Improvisation Cornelius Cardew(1936-1981): A Reader, Copula 2006
2) Notes on AMM: Entering and Leaving History Stuart Broomer, CODA Magazine no. 290. 2000
3) Meta Machine Music, Rob Young, The Wire Issue #132 (February 1995)
4) Edwin Prévost, No Sound is Innocent, Copula, 1995
5) The AMM page at the European Free Improvisation Home
6) Keith Rowe interview by Dan Warburton at Paris Transatlantic
7) John Tilbury, Cornelius Cardew: A Life Unfinished, Copula, 2008
8) AMM Factsheet, The Crypt Liner Notes (not online), Matchless Recordings 1992

Frederic Rzewski at the Chapel.

On Saturday, March 1st I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Frederic Rzewski performing his own compositions at the chapel.  Honestly I’m not all that up on Rzewski’s work, I’ve got a few cds, People United Never Will be Defeated! of course and have heard the odd thing here and there. I’ve also heard most of the MEV stuff that he was on and am fairly up on his place in the radical music of that time especially in his connections to Cornelius Cardew. I’ve not been as into the whole text reading/piano combination that he I’ve kind of associated him with (not sure how fairly, that might be a smaller part of his oeuvre then I’ve imagined). Anyway rare US tour from him though, was not something I was going to miss.

The Chapel was far more packed then I have ever seen it before. They normally setup two columns of half a dozen seats going back for 10-12 rows. This time they had added an additional “wing” to each of these nearly doubling the seating. These were nearly all filled and seemed like some additional seating was set up in the back. All those bodies warmed it up pretty well.  They gave us a nice handout which detailed the pieces that were going to be played in depth, including the old folk songs that a couple of them were based on. A note on that, this is a fairly common component of Rzewski’s compositions, where he’ll take a folk song and riff on it, most famously in People United Will Never be Defeated! with its 36 variations. Not too much passed the published start time the lights dimmed and Frederic ambled up to the stage and without preamble began to play.

Johnny has Gone for a Soldier (2003)
Rzewski, as he sat down, immediately attack the piano with the opening chords of this piece.  Lots of big chords, dramatic runs, propulsive density.  Rather romantic I felt, with powerful emotions directly channeled into the music and a deliberate attempt to communicate this to the audience. There’d be these more plaintive, brooding sections as the lull between attacks and then back to the dramatic attacks on the piano. His precision and power in these dramatic sections was impressive, especially as he looks like this slight grandfatherly figure. The whole thing slowed down and by the end was softer, more contemplative. Pauses began to appear, tentative feeling like there was some criteria he had to meet before he’d start playing again. Three of four of these variable length pauses and then it ended with a few quiet chords.

Afterwards he stood up to the applause and when it died down said a few words. He pointed out that all of these pieces tonight were about war. I knew this and this was pretty obvious in the program notes but I have to say that I could really feel it in the pieces. I didn’t do a very close reading of the program notes until after the show and about the above piece he said this: “I simply allowed my thoughts on war, and the current one in particular, to spin themselves out, always following the structure of the song”.  This is definitely how it felt to me, the bits of the theme poking up here and there. He describes that tentative ending thusly: “The ending seems inconclusive, just like the ongoing war now.”

War Songs (2008, premier)
Continuing with his comments at the conclusion of the previous piece,  he informed us that the next pieces were a work in progress and that this in fact was the first time he’ll perform them.  “I don’t know how to play these yet” he concluded as he sat down.  These feeling definitely went through the performance of these, as it felt hesitant, rawer a bit careful. At times he’d lean forward and his big bushy eyebrows would raise almost in surprise, a “what was I thinking” kind of look. And yet I felt this all really added to the piece. The war we are in now is such a mess and the reactions are so odd. People are mostly opposed and yet they aren’t really invested and don’t do anything. To someone from the ’60 where popular uprisings and protest was the norm and the conversation was always dominated by the war it must just seem confusing.  Confusion is what cam through to me in this piece, interspersed with some anger and genuine pain.

Fragments of popular war melodies would seem to arise here and again, spaced out, sometimes almost played a note at a time with one finger and then collapsing into the miasma of the piece.  Some of this almost had a serial feel to me and the program notes do reveal that they were highly structured. “Writing these things was a little like doing crossword puzzles.” Again I think the unpracticed nature of this performance helped out with this deeper structure, it might feel a lot less emotional if played with perfect precision. Afterwards he genuinely asked for comments on the piece.

Mayn Yingele (1988)
The finale piece from the first set was also the oldest composition. It felt a lot closer to the first piece, with loud romantic sections and sparser more intricate bits.  It felt more structured almost a combination of Liszt and Webern in its mix of romance and structure. Or perhaps a throwback to that period in the early twentieth century where certain modern composers were using the techniques of the day adapting the folk songs of their youth. This piece is a set of twenty four variations on a Yiddish tune to which a poem by Morris Rosenfield had been set. The theme concerns a father who works so much in a sweatshop that he never sees his son.  Rzewski wrote this piece on the anniversary of Kristallnacht and of it his says: “My piece is a reflection on that vanished part of Jewish tradition which so strongly colors, by its absence, the culture of our time”.  The most powerful part of this piece was it’s conclusion where after a more contemplative section he switches to these repeated pounded chords with the sustain pedal down. These built up in power and volume and reverberated in the space and clashed with his other in a violent cry.

Frederic Rzewski at the piano

Four Pieces (1977)
There was a short intermission during which they (blessedly) opened the windows of the chapel and let in some air and ambient sounds. Not a very long break, fifteen minutes or so and then the lights dimmed and Frederic came back onto the stage. The final piece was the oldest of all the pieces he played and the longest.  The notes inform us that it was written as a “kind of sequel” to The People United.  Structurally it is pretty different from that piece and not being a set of variations doesn’t quite have that feel. But you can tell that stylistically it is of that period. The notes describe the structure thusly: “It is a kind of sonata in four movements, with a single theme that keeps returning in different forms and moods, vaguely reminiscent of traditional music of the Andes, but without actually quoting anything.”  The theme threading through it does tie it all together and the four parts are pretty recognizable distinct. It has the elements of the earlier piece; romantic runs, big chords and softer more introspective sections. It’s connection to the war theme wasn’t as apparent to me, but the notes inform me that it is a “meditation on Chile four years after the coup d’etat”.

Musically my favorite part was the fourth and final piece was began with a repeated figures in both hand in the very upper register. Almost minimalist in nature these slowly worked their way down to the low end of the piano and then began working their way up again. A pause in the mid range with almost variations on the repetitions and then it was back up again. Once reaching the upper register he almost immediately headed lower again this time a pretty rapid transgression down and back up. These repeated again and once in the low end began a slower, but inevitable migration back upwards. The piece concluded with single notes, spaced out on the very highest keys. Really stunning and a nice way to conclude the evening. Frederic concluded his stay in Seattle with a well deserved standing ovation.

I really enjoyed this performance and the music. I hope I have the stamina and strength of Frederic when I’m 70!  I really appreciate how he has stayed true to his politics and they way his concerns for the world have not diminished. Politically music is a tricky thing, done wrong it is no more then propaganda or club songs. Too abstract and it is totally opaque. Obviously things like the program notes help bring this clear but I think that at least in a couple of the pieces the message is clear. Like a well chose album title, just telling us that the nights theme was war related was enough. The notes just gave us the specifics.