Showing posts with label The Rest is Noise. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Rest is Noise. Show all posts

Monday, November 04, 2013

Gubaidulina speaks


As The Rest is Noise at Southbank Centre reached the 1970s, the composer Sofia Gubaidulina arrived to talk to us about spirituality in music. With Dr Marina Frolova-Walker from Cambridge to translate for her, this living legend spoke not only of those times but current ones as well; and she articulated some deep-seated truths about composition and culture that I suspect many of us sense but could scarcely express so well. Today, Gubaidulina said, is the most dangerous time humanity has ever faced, because we are facing "the global impoverishment of the human soul". We are in danger of losing the most human part of ourselves.

Art, she suggested, is always spiritual, because it springs from the subconscious, intuitive part of the mind. It reconnects us with a higher power, the higher part of our own spirit. This also serves as a moral force: she suggested that those who have lost touch with this aspect of art/culture exist without the knowledge of humanity's sensible limits, and she added that she sees such people around her all the time. Art, however, can be our "salvation".

As the space for the quiet, intuitive, spiritual self is eaten up by the ever-increasing flow of technology, information and the superficial part of the intellect, so that aspect of ourselves reduces until we risk losing it altogether. And that is what's dangerous. Along with the fact that art cannot exist without support, which means there must be people/organisations who believe in it enough to provide that support, if it is to survive...

The talk should in due course be available to listen to on the TRIN website and I'll post a link when it is up. Read more about Gubaidulina in this wonderful interview, and don't miss her violin concerto, 'Offertorium', which is to be performed on Wednesday night at the RFH, along with three works by Arvo Pärt.



Monday, October 07, 2013

The post-war world and the Darmstadt effect

I've spent the weekend at The Rest is Noise at the Southbank, hoping to learn something about the post-war years and Darmstadt. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's found this the single most tricky patch of 20th-century music history, and I reckoned that if this panoply of talks, films and concerts wasn't going to sort that out for me, then nothing would.

I got a lot more than I bargained for.



It's not every day you have the chance to hear things from the horse's mouth, and the horses in question were Schoenberg's daughter, Nuria Schoenberg-Nono, and the composer Helmut Lachenmann. The event started a little late; it was such a beautiful day that they'd decided to walk over to the South Bank together.

Lachenmann expressed an objection to the part of the book-behind-the-series devoted to the so-called Darmstadt School. First, he says, it doesn't mention Bruno Maderna. But moreover, he insisted that the aura of myths and fear and domination that in contemporary music seem to surround the name Darmstadt are just that: myths. Probably based on a couple of things that Boulez might have said once, a long time ago. Stockhausen annointed the saviour of the future of music? Boulez the dominant force? Only one type of music can be allowed? Rubbish. Stockhausen was one of many people with many contrasting ideas. The place was filled with composers whose ideas were fundamentally different from one another, he declared, recalling, too, perfectly civilised discussions between Cage and Nono. How myths are built, what they consist of, what they do to our perception - these all need more consideration.

Nuria Schoenberg-Nono recalled her father's concern (NB he died in 1951) about the trend towards analysing serialist technique ahead of concern for expression, since he considered his music expressive. Asked (by muggins, who was tired of only blokes asking the questions) what she thought he'd have made of the musical world today, she said she has never tried to get inside the minds of either her father or her husband, but she does think that the standards of performance now have risen so much that a work such as his piano concerto or violin concerto can by played like music, rather than as a technical struggle.



But what constitutes expressiveness in music anyway? Lachenmann cast powerful perspective on this. (I personally don't agree with him about Rachmaninov - the idea that R is sentimental is a myth in the opposite direction - but never mind that for now...). Essentially, he suggested that emotional response lies in the listener, not the music itself. He says that a composer doesn't write to express his/her own emotion - you are not crying while you write, as you are in a ferment of creative activity. Any emotion involved comes from the person listening. The import is in the message, not the way it is conveyed. As an example, he said, if you tell someone, "Your father is dead," you don't fill those four words with huge expressive import. You say it without emotion. The person receiving the message will respond with feeling of their own. 

(This explains to me exactly why I loathe so much the exaggerated interpretations of certain of today's terribly successful performers. They get in the way of the music's message. I could name a few, but this is probably not the moment.)

One gentleman in the audience shared his own memories of Darmstadt and remarked that in contrast to a summer school in the States, the food at the German organisation was absolutely terrible and gave him very bad poisoning once. If the food had been better, he said, the whole history of music might have been altered thenceforth. Nuria pointed out that in the post-war years there wasn't very much food in Germany, and recalled an incident in which a sack of potatoes was delivered to Darmstadt, yet the person in charge of catering had never seen a sack of potatoes before, so cooked them without washing them.

There's the rub: the effect of the war. We know, in theory, that the association of marching rhythms with Nazi jackboots, the use of Wagner, Bruckner and Beethoven in Goebbels's propaganda, the building of a sense of supremacy through these great romantic masterpieces, all that was seared into the minds of the young people who saw it happening around them, in some cases lost their families, in some cases were forced to take part in the horrors themselves. But do we really feel, and empathise with, how deep that psychological shock went? It's a Clockwork Orange effect, perhaps; and within a terrible void, for the great creative voices like Stravinsky and Bartok had left Europe, while potential newcomers had in some cases been killed (think of Gideon Klein). If a fresh start had to be made, you can see why.

It sounds strange, it sounds oversimplified, but a sense of empathy was what emerged, above all, from this extraordinary couple of days. A film about Ligeti (made in 1993) told of the composer's family's fate in World War II - his father and brother were killed, his mother returned unexpectedly having survived a concentration camp - though said nothing about what happened in that time to Ligeti (pictured, right) himself. We heard from Tom Service - whose pre-concert talk before Gruppen yesterday contained the single clearest and most succinct explanation of electronic music that I've ever heard - about Stockhausen's background: his father, drafted into the German army, died somewhere in Hungary; his mother, mentally ill, was confined to an asylum, but there left to die by the Nazi regime.

We heard nothing from anybody, though, of Bernd Alois Zimmermann, surely one of the most violent and compelling voices of that era, who committed suicide in the 1960s - or if we did, I missed it. It's impossible to take in everything since so many different events are going on at once, but the website is a fabulous resource as many of the talks are posted on it after the event. Explore here.

Talks around the era included matters of DNA and also the CIA (which some say funded Darmstadt - I missed this one too, but want to read the book - Note, update this morning, Ian Pace tells me that he has explored the issue thoroughly and found it to be yet another myth). The historian Donald Sassoon spoke on literary heroes and villains, notably those of Ian Fleming's James Bond books. My former sister-in-law, the art historian Monica Bohm-Duchen, gave a Bites talk about the art created by inmates of concentration camps and subsequently by others in response to the Holocaust. And the desperation, horror and nihilism of Rosselini's film Germany, Year Zero - shot in the ruins of Berlin after the war, following a 12-year-old boy's efforts to survive and feed his family - perhaps gave us the clearest insights of all into the forces that shaped these minds.

And now and then, a revelation of sorts emerges from the correlations of different artforms. How strange that those Bond villains, over the years, whether influenced or not by the Cold War, are not  politically motivated but instead represent self-interest, greed and big, soulless business versus the individual; how bizarre that both a Soviet book and an American one could trace almost the same outline of the same journey; and how intriguing that fundamentally opposed musical systems - the ultra-control of Boulez versus the chance operations of John Cage - can produce, for the listener, music that seems to inhabit the self-same aesthetic. How extraordinary that the iconoclast par excellence, Stockhausen himself, is still part of a tradition of larger-than-life German visionary composers and was inspired to create Gruppen by the sight of the Alps. (And how many times has my OH protested against my discomfort with Bruckner by saying "But it's the music of the Alps!" - yet had he been there last night, instead of on tour in Vienna, he'd probably have fled the volume of noise inside the hall).

Our cultural world is not flat. If you travel round it far enough in one direction, you arrive at the same point you'd have reached if you'd gone the other way.

Add to this some extraordinary concerts. Members of the Aurora Orchestra were at the helm on Saturday night for Stockhausen and Boulez, with pianist Nicolas Hodges and percussionist Colin Currie interacting with electronics for all they were worth in Kontakte, following the strange, aural-3D spatial effect of Gesang der Jünglinge - the odd matter of attending a live concert to listen to something non-live is another issue, of course. Boulez's Le marteau sans maitre - like Stockhausen the visionary - seemed strangely in tradition too, that of French music's attention to timbre, instrumentation, detail and delicacy. 

On Sunday afternoon we heard astonishing percussion playing from students of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, performing Xenakis and Cage; and the weekend culminated in Stockhausen's Gruppen - three orchestras, one on stage, two to the sides of the RFH auditorium - with the "traditional" (I quote) two performances of the piece framing the evening on either side of more delicacy and detail, this time from Nono. Is the journey from Monteverdi and Gabrieli's antiphonies in San Marco to Stockhausen's in the RFH as great as we might think? 

The thoughts provoked by these days, the intensity of the information intake and the social whirl - old friends and new, with everyone wanting to share their impressions - will not, as you'll have gathered, fit into a single blogpost. This is a beginning, not an end; a chance for further exploration and a great deal more chewing in the months and years ahead. As for today, I don't think I'll be listening to anything at all.


Monday, September 30, 2013

Why THE REST IS NOISE festival will change concert-going forever

The second part of the Southbank Centre's year-long celebration of the music of the 20th century kicked off on Saturday. And as it did so, the venue released figures that prove beyond reasonable doubt that this extraordinary festival, The Rest is Noise, has not only been succeeding in attracting new audiences, but doing so as if there is a tomorrow after all. 

In short, three-quarters of people booking for these concerts  had not bought tickets for a contemporary classical event at the Southbank before. The place has sold more than three times as many tickets for contemporary classical music during the festival than they did in 2012. About 39 per cent [update] of those booking for concerts had not been to any classical concert at the centre before, and one in three people booking the whole-weekend tickets had never been to the Southbank Centre before at all.

The wake-up call is so loud that The Rest is Noise amounts to a virtual thump on the head for the musical world - or, indeed, a kick on the backside. We can't afford to ignore such numbers. And that's why programming may never be the same again. 

There's been a buzz around The Rest is Noise unlike anything I've encountered within these hallowed (?) portals in 40 years. The RFH was bursting at the seams for Britten's Peter Grimes on Saturday night, but the ferment of activity in the surrounding weekends of events - like this one devoted to the Britten centenary, including films, talks, more concerts (Noye's Fludde notably), 'bite' events (15-min talks on different yet related topics) - also feels more like the Edinburgh Fringe or Hay-on-Wye than a stuffy old arts centre. Hopefully those last four words are ones we'll never have to see together henceforth.

I had a chat with Jude Kelly (artistic director of Southbank Centre) and Gillian Moore (head of music) about what they've been trying to do with The Rest is Noise, and why. You may remember that a few years ago Daniel Barenboim did the complete Beethoven sonatas cycle at the RFH in two weeks. At the time, I wrote this article, declaring that the runaway success of the series proved that what really draws audiences in is anything but dumbing down: instead, we long for the big, immersive, profound experience, where you give a lot and reap more than you sow. It turns out that this wasn't a coincidence.

"When I first came in as artistic director, the first thing that happened in classical music was that an agent said Barenboim was going to do the Beethoven sonatas over a year," Kelly says. "I said: no, let’s do it over a fortnight. They thought that was too much to offer; I said no, that’s what we want to do. And it was a huge success. That gave me the courage to think that these big ideas are what we should be championing." 

Gillian Moore adds: "The idea of programming 20th-century music boldly and constantly is for me so strong – I’ve always tried to do that. But this is a very big idea that really can help us achieve it. Linking with Alex Ross’s book, we’re not slavishly following it, but using its atmosphere as a stimulus. It’s all about putting music in its cultural context of history, science, what was happening, what people were thinking, at the time."

She continues: "Music is not isolated from the world of ideas. Sometimes in classical music we can behave as if it’s its own thing, going along on tram tracks without relating to intellectual ideas. But talk to any composer about politics or life sciences and it absolutely does. So to appeal to people who are culturally curious, but who might think classical music is not for them, especially 20th-century classical music, we are talking about more of our music being linked to broader cultural questions." 

(This relates to another of my own old bug-bears - about the isolation of musical biographies in bookshops, tucked far away from the general biography section which might feature writers, artists, philosophers and actors, among others. That's where musical creators and performers belong, too. Nowadays, of course, you're lucky if you can even find a bookshop.)

Kelly, who has been artistic director of the centre since 2006, says she is often struck by how many extremely well-educated people, interested in theatre, politics, economics, history, science and more, tell her that they never attend concerts of classical music. "But all of that makes up music - so let’s contextualise the whole thing," she says. If you only want to listen to the music, that's fine, of course; but now there has to be a further option as well. 

"I can't speak for other places, but for Southbank it provokes the question that doing a single concert with no other information around it other than programme notes isn’t a proper offer," she says, when I ask what the implications are for future programming. "If any of the orchestras want to do that, it means their assumption is that the audience is already familiar with the repertoire or are certainly very comfortable with classical music. 

"My passion is about how you reach lots of other people who aren’t familiar and aren't comfortable. Obviously just playing the concert in itself hasn’t been doing that. I’m very committed to extending this idea of the wide open school, the offer to do music studies and history studies and science studies all in one go - and making the live performance of music and contemporary dance and contemporary art a central way of understanding  how our societies work."

Having had no thorough academic musical education at college level, she adds that when she wanted to fill in the gaps, the solution she was looking for simply didn't seem to exist: "a course on how you learn and understand the history of classical music". This education is what's been lacking; this is why so many people, when you tell them you're involved with classical music, look afraid and say at once, "I don't know much about classical music". That absence of knowledge intimidates them and, instead of proving an attraction to learn something, it keeps them away. 

"I’m interested in the fact that people are excited by the complexity of science and the complexity of ecosystems, but classical music, which is a version of all of that, stays away from them," Kelly says. "We’ve partly got ourselves to blame - the art industry has often spoken in language that suggests this is for people with fine feelings or that you have to go on some sort of escalator before you can get there and people don’t know what the starting point is." 

"I think we’ve got to be much more welcoming and much less judgemental," Kelly adds. "I think we can seem judgemental about people who don’t know much about classical music. We should say, 'Great, if you don’t know anything about it then you won’t have any prejudices...'" The Rest is Noise website is a huge bonus where this is concerned, preserving many of the talks, "bites", etc, on demand. Visit the Explore section here.

The bonanza of this festival, which includes study evenings, "breakfast with..." sessions exploring the technical workings of music, screenings of films, events for children, and countless other elements, may not be easy to replicate elsewhere - though I'm sure that this is just the beginning for the Southbank. Still, the thinking, and the resulting sales, carry a few big, strong simple messages for all. It's about having courage to think big and to lead from the front. "The big lesson for me is about the scale of an idea," says Moore. "Sometimes you have to do something really big and bold for it to cut through." 

The full programme for the rest of the Rest is here. And now we've reached the point where many of the composers are alive and some of them are kicking. We can certainly expect to see Philip Glass, Steve Reich and Sofia Gubaidulina in London in person for good chunks of the next part. 

What of the future? Don't dismiss this event as a one-off. What's become clear is that the rest is just not noisy enough.