Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Plug I - Transformers

Plug started off tonight with a concert of music for instruments and live electronics, and I realise now what a rod I've made for my back by deciding to blog this; a lot to write about!

So here goes. Trumpeter Bede William's piece Mechanism for Form shocked me by starting off in what I can only describe as… a minor key. With a big quasi-new-age chordal washes and a long, haunting and, yup, pretty much tonal melody; neither mechanistic nor formal. Extraordinary. Not the kind of thing one expects at this kind of concert. In the second half of this well-constructed and well-played solo piece, the language became more fractured and modernist, with a hint of a reference back to the opening material towards the end.

Christine Cooper partnered up with Louise Athwal on piano for Inside the Black Box. Quite a contrast between different types of material here including, again, some quite conventional material for the piano in a couple of places, with well paced electronic gestures. This was followed by one of the evening's first slightly icky moments, as mics were reset for Drew Petrie's Who gave you this?. The ickyness persisted for me a little at the start of the piece, and it took a while to settle into a rather different performance style from the rest of the evening, with vocalist Andrew Dickinson running between four oddly placed mics, reading from various dictionaries, and generally hamming around, accompanied by yet more layers of recorded text. It made me laugh in one place, which makes it ok in my book.

This was followed by a technical hitch of rather more substantial proportions as we waited exactly 4'33 for Alastair Clarkson to figure out why no sound was coming from the piano into the laptop. A distinctly embarrassing m-o-o-o-ment, as we all waited in concert-etiquette silence for the piece to proceed. At least if the best man at a wedding loses the ring the organist can play something to cover it. I kept wondering what this concert would have been like done in a much more clubby venue, with a CD with some beats in between...

When the piece finally got going though, it was a quiet triumph. Very simple and beautiful piano writing, executed with fantastic touch and intensity by pianist Callista Nurse; quiet, sparse, barely underlined by the most subtle of delays and echoes from the laptop. An entirely inappropriate title, Finger Sex, which reminded me of that moment in the movie 'This is Spinal Tap' where a beautiful ballad ('… in D minor; the saddest of keys…') turns out to be bathetically entitled 'Lick My Love Pump'.

After the break, it was Christine Cooper's turn to swap places with Louise Athwal to play the latter's Entangled Particles from a set of Deformation Dances for bass and live electronics. About half-way through I started to make some (possibly mistaken) sense of this piece, as the Christine played a habaƱera rhythm by knocking on the soundboard of the bass. But that may have nothing to do with it.

Alastair Clarkson came back with a second piece Electric Coal Mine for Tim Cooper on euphonium, with live electronics. According to the programme note the 'musical elements of the piece come from very different backgrounds; the euphonium, from the coal mining tradition; and electronic music from the European studios of the 40s and 50s'. I certainly got a feeling of Germanic industry from the piece, but I rather missed the brass band side of things; I kept wishing there was more actual euphonium playing in the piece, like a Carnival of Venice style a burst of triple-tongued triplets in F major. But that would have been my piece, not Alastair's.

Another pairing from earlier in the evening now reappeared in swapped roles, trumpeter Drew Petrie to play Andrew Dickinson's Aural Skills. The setup was the same, with the player moving between four mics, again with an element of theatre; I particularly liked the moment when the composer, seated at the mixing desk, waved at the trumpet player to run offstage.

The last piece in the concert was Callista Nurse's Industry, performed by Christine Cooper on the double bass. It held my attention, and I'm not sure why. I felt as if I could have happily listened to either the busy double bass part or the electronic part separately, and was having trouble keeping them both in mind at the same time. Then it ended.

And, where it ends, the rest of Plug starts; back tomorrow night for the Symposia concert. I did make some recordings at the concert, but I don't have time to edit them and put them up here tonight. Tomorrow maybe. And, I must also remember to say something about Will Chadwick's VocalShop, which turns out to be an installation, not a piece of music!