“The British may not understand music but they absolutely love the sound it makes.” So quipped Thomas Beecham, and he certainly put his finger on something. For while the conductor and one-time pillar of the British musical establishment was no friend of the musical avant-garde, one of its guiding principles has none the less been to liberate the sound music makes from the various kinds of ‘understandings’ with which it has been reined in.
It should be no surprise, on Beecham’s account, to find that the British play host to one of the best-loved avant-garde music festivals, where musicians from all over the world come each November to witness the latest fruits of musical experimentation in Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. That said, with the festival reaching its 30th anniversary, this year’s event had a distinctly retrospective flavour to it, with the closing event consisting of a modified recreation of a John Cage concert organised in 1958 by the artists Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
The original concert was a riot, the musicians protesting as loudly as the audience against the minute unpredictability of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, an hour-long work in which the pianist struggles through 60 pages containing 84 different kinds of notation. The Huddersfield recreation, masterfully handled by Philip Thomas and the Apartment House group, was an altogether tamer affair, a reminder that much of Cage’s output is, while still fresh, classic primarily in the documentary sense of that term.
The first part of the concert, though, revealed Cage at his lasting best — in particular the Webernesque miniatures of 1934’s Six Short Inventions and 1943’s muted She is Asleep — and the second part departed from the original by presenting six new compositions. Witty tributes from Alvin Curran and Philip Corner framed offerings from younger composers — short pieces by Markus Trunk and Claudia Molitor confirming that Cage’s musical influence remains a powerful force.
Stockhausen was also well served during the festival, particularly by the mesmerising talents of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, who performed his 1968 work Stimmung. Performers of Stockhausen must be accomplished acolytes as well as musicians, and witnessing the weird sounds and occult antics required by ‘the master’ in performance can yield the impression of a musical L Ron Hubbard, perpetrator of an inconceivably vast aesthetic con trick. Stimmung consists of six voices passing around intricately worked-through motifs, interrupted by occasional ejaculations spoken in various languages. “C’est complètement nul!” one of them shouts, some way in, seemingly inviting the obvious affirmative response. But in fact the piece both anticipates and quickly absorbs any attentive audience’s responses, literally ‘reattuning’ them to their environment.
The great discovery of the festival for me was James Tenney, a theorist and composer who worked with both Stockhausen and Cage. Before he died in 2006, Tenney amassed a significant and still relatively untapped body of extremely concentrated work, unfolded in a series of three concerts by the enterprising and gifted Canadian string quartet Quatuor Bozzini. Though diverse in terms of the techniques employed and soundworlds explored, Tenney’s œuvre is unified by its single-minded investigation of the listening experience. Especially memorable was Koan, a work in which five melodic lines move steadily towards and away from each other by microtonal degrees. There’s nothing to ‘get’, no complex puzzle to solve, simply blissful sounds sliding into and out of existence, like patches of forest floor illuminated fleetingly by the sun’s slow arc above the canopy.
Two further highlights included the Piano Baschet, a visually and aurally arresting exploded piano mechanism fitted with pyramidal cones which catch the eye as well as sustain and alter the vibrations of the instrument. Of three newly composed works for the object, reconstructed by Pierre Malbos, only Pierre Alexandre Tremblay’s imaginative evocation of the casting of bells seemed to make full use of the instrument’s oddly restricted sonic capabilities. Another was Dutch composer Peter Adriaansz’s Prana, which uses electric-magnetic bows to turn a piano and three guitars into powerful sustaining instruments, generating slow-moving progressions, rich in overtones, to unfold a minutely constructed eternity.
Fundamentally static, devoid of the grand emotions associated with the classical repertoire, such music prompts many to ask what the point of it is. After a concert of Tenney and Stockhausen, when you emerge into the dull, cacophonous roar of the city, you may find that it suddenly yields a gentle, secret harmony. At this point, though your question may remain unanswered, you’ll certainly have forgotten why you asked it.