Wednesday, 29 April 2009


It was loud. Whatever else one might think of to say about the Icebreaker concert, everyone seems to agree it was very, very loud. Most of the people who've been talking about coming out with their ears bleeding have been saying it with relish; also a small but strong minority who found it far too loud. So, loud then.

My problem was not so much with the loudness, I think but with… indigestibility. Maybe it was the plateful of kwetiau I wolfed down just before the concert, but I found the whole thing just too much music to listen to at a single sitting. Several of the pieces (ok, Steve's piece, Colin's, John's, and Gordon's) were extremely dense, complex, and multi-layered as well as in some cases quite long. That plus the loudness (did I mention that?)… my listening capacity was overwhelmed, leaving me with only a frustratingly vague impressions of these pieces.

Which bothers me, because I'm pretty sure these were all excellent. Steve Forman's TONIGHT'S EPISODE - The Crunch started off the concert with the drummer, sitting downstage in front of the band, giving a rockist four on the stix to kick off the band. It was billed as 'an 80's TV-movie' style piece and pretty much did that, with a lot of very straight four on the drums, although imagined as a cue it would have to be some kind of crazy show which got cancelled in the middle of series one.

Colin Broom is an old friend and colleague of mine, who, for those who don't know, formed Glasgow's own post-minimalist amplified contemporary group Invention Ensemble back in the 90s; I was in that band too. Colin writing a piece for Icebreaker is something that feels like it was always meant to happen, and I'm very glad that it now has. I suspect BLEED was a really very good piece indeed; some trademark Broom-isms (fanatically detailed nervous repetitions of single notes, extremely complex poly-everything textures), and something which seemed distinctly new, a pretty tune at the end. I could do with hearing this again.

John De Simone's Anti-Hero Fantasy is the piece which I retain least of in my memory, I can't really say a lot about it. It opened with a passage in deliberately piercing high notes which, what with the extreme amplification (loud) must have been particularly trying for some people. At the end there was an entertaining passage in thrash metal triplets which people who know more about this kind of thing than I do seemed to think was in serious danger of a suing?

Gordon McPherson is the head of composition at the RSAMD, and my PhD supervisor. The Baby Bear's Bed is not a new piece, dating from 2003, but this was it's first Scottish outing. It opened with a very simple and I thought brilliantly composed and executed gesture, a guitar solo which keeps returning to a single note; which is different each time. After that came a long piece of music, some of it very dense and busy, some of it quite clear in texture, then it was the end. I'm sorry, I can't remember much more about it than that.

I've skipped over three pieces. Chris Duncan's Icebreaker piece Waking Step, Falling Wall succeeded in finding different territory to the others, with gently strummed guitar chords (could have been more gently strummed, perhaps; loud) and a kind of pop-music-gone-wrong aesthetic.

In between the Icebreaker pieces were the first two of the sequenzas which are to feature throughout this year's Plug. Going from a fully-amplified rock band to unaccompanied piccolo worked surprisingly well, with performer Sarah Hayes completely unfazed by the act she had to follow. Tom Wilson's sequenza Courante was full of piccoloicity, a lot of extremely agile writing counterpointed with some perhaps uncomfortable sounding vocal multiphonic effects. Alan MacDermid's JalapeƱo Snowballing performed by Gillian Skingley on soprano sax was cheered to the rafters; the performance was good, but the piece seemed perhaps to not entirely p0wn the instrument in the way one would expect for a sequenza.

Going back to the loudness; there is some kind of a problem with the whole Icebreaker thing, somewhere. I feel distinctly uncomfortable saying this, as I've long been a card-carrying member of the team who go around saying that what is wrong with classical music is that it's never properly amplified, the players dress up too stuffy and play sitting down, and they can't keep time anyway. Icebreaker untick all of those boxes, but somehow... well, it all sounds a bit samey really, particularly the chuffing panpipes. Loudness is not the problem.