The Skin Quartet at Wits - the Old and the New
Last week I found myself part of a small but enthusiastic crowd at the Wits Amphitheatre. It seemed on all counts to be an extremely select and well-educated crowd who had each paid R100 to hear some very strange and very modern compositions.
There was a very long silence at the beginning of the show as the lights slowly dimmed. I'm not sure if this was part of the performance, but it was wonderful to sit in that empty, expectant space and to become familiar with the creaking rustle of our surroundings, to become an audience.
Intermedio all Ciaccona (for solo violin, Brian Ferneyhough: 1986)
I couldn't help but wonder why this very modern piece had been composed for such a traditional instrument at all. Why bother to align oneself with a tradition if one is intent on committing such violence towards a mode which was originally designed to provide harmony and melody? My feelings were that it would have been better to invent not only a brash new piece, but an altogether new instrument for these forms, since any resemblance to the type of music for which the instrument was originally created seemed to rely on a purely abstract and somewhat tenuous connection. On the other hand, if one was going to venerate tradition, why not go back further still? Why not write modern pieces for the Pipa in the Dorian scale? Maybe there are people doing that somewhere already. That could be interesting.
Michael Blake Untitled - a Portrait (film: Aryan Kaganof: 2005)
All the comments we hear focus on a central issue in modern composition, namely that of difficulty. One has the idea that Kaganof was gearing his film towards an exploration of this subject from the very beginning. For example, although we never hear the voice of the film-maker, we do hear Jill Richards answering a question by saying, "No, I don't think the piece is sadistic", which gives a fair indication of what he's been asking her.
The focus of the film on the issue of complexity was appropriate, since this was one of the most salient aspects of the composition. Blake called his piece "gently relentless", and an unshaven Robert Pickup (practising the piece during his holiday from the Zurich Opera House) complains that, "You can't relax in this piece at all." Jill Richards found the difficulty a challenge and claimed that it gave her a distinct sense of focus. She was pleased to have eventually "cracked it" at the end. Michael Blake notes, "I don't see the point of writing a piece that people can just read through and play quite easily."
This seems to be a strange sort of statement to make. Why should difficulty be a virtue? Perhaps this harks back to the very earliest avant-garde composers who defended their work by saying that they were increasing the sophistication of the musical tradition. Previous forms (baroque/romantic) were seen as clichéd and "too easy" for consumption by aficionados. Perhaps Blake's work is more post-modern than modern in that he quotes and comments on previous avant-garde composers. In a sense, he situates himself within a tradition of avant-gardism, as a classical experimentalist.
This discussion on notions of difficulty reminded me of a video on the Beats called Whatever Happened to Kerouac in which one of the poets (I forget who it was) sticks a whistle into the mouth of a baby who happens to be balancing on his knee at the time. When the infant breathes in and out, it creates a rhythmic whistling and the poet laughs, saying - "Listen to that! If art is that easy, it's really not that mysterious at all." This view stands on the opposite end of the scale, introducing the notion that everyone is born creative, but that some have the creativity subdued and eventually drilled out of them. Both views could accommodate the idea of art as an expression of an inner genius, or a Gnostic god-light, though one of them relies on a "natural" innate ability, whereas the other (the type of music Michael Blake creates) is an undoubtedly intellectual exercise and seems to require a fair amount of knowledge of musical history.
Musing on the issue of difficulty also led me to think about the contrast between mathematics and music. Mathematics is becoming more and more complex, and yet its principal goal remains simplicity - Occam's razor. Complexity is surely not an overt goal of modern mathematics, and yet the philosophical convolutions of tiling and imaginary numbers are becoming more and more distanced from any real application. To strive for difficulty may be another attempt by the arts to gain some validity and credence from the overpowering dominance of a contemporary faith in science.
String Quartet No 1 (in memory of William Burton: 2001)
The next piece, also by Michael Blake, further extended his post-modern concerns with articulating quotations. In the first section, occasional African references could be heard amongst the mostly (again, for lack of a better work) avant-garde dissonance.
The second movement, with its long, mournful strains reminiscent of Arvo Pärt, revealed the first signs of emotion creeping in, and I found this section wonderfully moving. The piece was an elegy for Blake's friend, the composer William Burton, and one sensed his grappling with the difficulties of trying to codify feelings of loss and nostalgia.
Of course, it's a matter of taste, but I do enjoy emotionally intense music. Music seems superior to literature in being able to induce and represent feelings which cannot be portrayed in terms of rational configurations. When music becomes overly intellectual it always feels to me as though it is edging into the realms of the textual, into significations and references and representations of reason. But the beauty of music is that it represents only itself. In the moment of performance there is nothing behind it; it simply embodies that moment. To talk about it afterwards and analyse and dissect it (as I am doing now) is a different game altogether. Nevertheless, the second movement of this piece was my favourite of the evening.
Skin Quartet (for DVD and string quartet, David Young and Louisa Bufardeci: 2003)
This work was first composed by David Young (music) and Louisa Bufardeci (on the visuals) for the Melbourne Arts Festival in 2003. The basic premise concerns an arrangement of statistics drawn from the yearly CIA fact book on world populations. Visual space is balanced by time, and a simple formula is applied to all the data classifying ethnic identities. Each continent is allotted a space according to its landmass, which then moves across the screen at a speed determined by population size. Each language in the country is named and the median age of the countries passes over the screen in the time it takes for each country to make it into the space allotted to it. During the dividing lines separating the continents and countries, the backdrop investigates slow-moving extreme close-ups of the textures of skin types and old maps, amongst other things. This may sound like a highly complex equation, but since it goes on for 38 minutes, one soon grows acclimatised to the rules of the game. The median age was the only part of the puzzle we were unable to figure out during the performance itself.
The music sounds improvised, but is, in actual fact, carefully notated. The notation for each continent introduces a different formula as well; for example, whereas Europe is played on standard clefts, Antarctica, on the other hand, consists of textual instructions on the handling of bowls of ice. The arrival of Antarctica, a huge near-silent space in the middle of the piece, provided a powerful counter-balance to the rest of the globe. It was good to be reminded of this vast, silent continent as yet not overrun by scampering, chattering apes.
Slowly as one feels one's way into the system, the sense of a global picture begins to emerge. It's like studying a map of the world for half an hour and losing one's sense of self in all the many countries and populations of the earth. As with other pieces trying to encompass all the world and everyone in it (such as the collaborations between Geoffrey Regio and Phillip Glass - "Koyaanisqatsi", "Powaqatsi" and "Naqoyisqatsi"), the immense subject matter does leave one rather dazed.
One also becomes aware of how self-centred nationalities tend to be, a reminder that although we are so caught up in the relevance of South Africans past and future, all the debates concerning our local lot (politicians, businessmen, entertainers etc) represent only the machinations of a very tiny proportion of a very small corner of the world. It's a healthy thing to be reminded of just how many other countries there are about which we know practically nothing. What do we hear or know about Ecuador, The Solomon Islands, Bhutan? Why is it that we know the opinions of only a dozen other countries?
In this sense it was also a healthy environmental awareness project. In as much as it made one aware of the vastness of human habitation, it also made one realise that it was, by the same token, finite. (I thought of a charitable campaign idea once which tries to get a picture of the globe to every single person in the world. Is this not as important as literacy and polio vaccinations? Is it not necessary to make people aware of the fact that the world is a floating orb, not an endless mythic realm?)
So, yes, it was a thrill to watch the Skin Quartet and I was thoroughly mesmerised by the exercise. To return to a point made earlier, I felt the piece was ultimately closer to literature than to music, since it harks back to the very earliest genre - the list. Clearly its creators share an obsession with taxonomies of data, facts and figures, and this makes the work not only very new, but also ancient.
Overall, then, it ended up an enjoyable evening, though I must confess that I remain unconvinced that harmony and melody have been supplanted by superior elements when it comes to modern classical music. It may well be an apt reflection of our scattered, noisy environments, and yet I could not shake a longing for the lulling, confident tones of more peaceful tunes of the past.
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