Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Plug II - Symposia

Symposia are doing a lot of things right, it seems to me. Choosing to do their concert in the intimacy of the opera studio rather than the barren expanses of the concert hall. Making sure the concert was properly lit. An informal performance style, including their tradition of inviting the audience to the pub afterwards for a drink.

They also work only with C21st century composers, some of whom have stuff to say. Take Alastair Clarkson, who is having a busy Plug. His Invocation à Peaches tonight reminded me of a passage from one of Iain M. Banks' sci-fi novels, 'Use of Weapons';

"All right, she said, nodding. Then her brow wrinkled. She indicated the combat suit. "What did you call that thing?"
He looked puzzled, then said "Oh; it's an FYT suit"
"Yes, a serious FYT suit, that's what you said. But I thought I knew all the nomenclature; I've never heard that acronym before. What does it stand for?"
"It stands for a serious fuck-you-too suit."
This was a serious FYT piece, for drums, bass clarinet and violin, with Alastair himself on laptop. Very simple; the drums laid down a succession of loud more-or-less rhythmic textures, which were picked up and looped in an out-of-sync way on the lappy. Eventually the bass clarinet and violin joined in the melée, until the piece stopped on a dime. Brilliant. I'm always a bit nervous when I see a classical percussionist sitting behind a drumkit; are we about to get something which seriously fails to rock? What we did get from Nicola Miles was a display of technique and control which few jazz or rock drummers could have pulled off, with perfectly controlled accents exactly where the composer wanted them and nowhere else.

Kevan O'Reilly followed this with a piece with one of the best titles in Plug, I am enjoying your face, for flute, violin, cello and clarinet. Unfortunately, I found myself unable to enjoy the music very much. Maybe I'm just grumpy after a long day's teaching, but I felt that as a piece of counterpoint it lacked melody, and as a piece of harmony the only thing I could latch on to was that every two bars there would be another wrong-sounding chord. The piece didn't seem to have many other distinguishing characeristics.

Justin Fung's piece "Ba Ba Ba Ba?", "Ba Ba Ba…" was billed as a picture of the eight-hour day of a Hong Kong elevator operator, compressed into eight minutes. The lift was represented by a recording of the stereotypical mechanical phrases and dinging-doors which one hears, while the players (violin, flute and bass clarinet, if I remember correctly) seemed to represent elevator muzak. That sounds a slightly bald and obvious idea, and at the start of the piece it did indeed seem rather literal and naive to me. Better material came later in the piece, as the laptop amplified the trio with reflections of themselves; I found myself able to imagine the lift operator knocking off for a break, riding up to the roof and gazing out over the city.

Poor Will Chadwick. He had planned and rehearsed an elaborate setup which, to quote from his note;
'eliminates the idea of passive roles inside the concert hall through a system where both 'audience', 'players' and 'technology' all play an active role in making music. The feedback loop is designed so that without input from all three parts the music is not heard'.
The gubbins of this was a number of audience members onstage controlling a laptop which in turn would control in some way what the players would play, while the rest of the audience were to take part by sending text messages to the players. Unfortunately we didn't get to see how this elaborate techo-musico-social game was to play out as the stupid computer kept crashing, and the piece had to be pulled. I hope they try it again very soon.

The last piece in the concert was Ol's Breakfast Baroque; sorry, that's Oliver Iredale Searle, to give him the full bigup. Ollie seems to be mining a distictly postmodernist vein these days, which is rather to my taste; this piece was a sort of recomposed/decomposed slice of Handel, homage à Classic FM, with a marimba wittily reminiscent of harpsichord alongside flute, violin, cello and bass clarinet. I very much enjoyed the moments where Fiona swapped to baroque flute, with clever and well-executed play between the different tunings of the old and modern instruments. Although, I kind of lost patience with an extensive sparse coda, which seemed to last about as long as Classic FM has been on the air.

Finally, typically for a composer, I'm taking the players for granted! They deserve a mench, not least because they've done a couple of my pieces in the past very well. Fergus Hetherington on violin, Jessica Sullivan on Cello, Fiona Ferguson on flute, Fran Pybus on clarinets, and Nicola Miles on percussion, directed by Oliver Searle. (Oh, and I'm not allowed to say who the lighting designer is. Don't ask. Lips sealed.)

Update on recordings from the concert; messed up again, somehow managed to deleted Alastair's piece and Kevan's piece, curses. For today I'm going to get a bigger memory card so I can record a coupla hours straight. As before, recordings are available to interested parties on request. (I gather Bob Whitney is also recording everything properly, but won't be able to do any editing until next week or so.)


Kevan O'Reilly said...

Cheers simon... an honest oppinion is better than getting stabbed in the dark by a guy you don't know.

Anonymous said...

Rather disappointing review today in the Herald...

Didn't like the fact that nobody's work was really mentioned or discussed.

Never mind.

Still stick to my research question of: "what are reviews for?".

For the person who didn't go, but wanted to pretend that they did?

For the person who did go, but couldn't make up their mind for themselves?

To educate people who don't know anything about contemporary music?

To reaffirm the belief in skeptics that all contemporary music is bad?

Answers on a postcard, please...

Fiona Ferguson said...

Great Blog Simon - you should be unleashing your thoughts to a wider audience! Really enjoyed your reviews, honest and informative. Cheers, Fiona

J. Simon van der Walt said...

Thanks, Fiona. I've kind of enjoyed doing it, quite time consuming, though. Will certainly keep this up, may do more in the future.