Saturday 2 July 2011

Unconventional city sounds

Nonclassical at the Spitalfields Music Festival, London, June 2011

The Spitalfields Music Festival this year included a series of lunchtime concerts in Bishops Square, which ran from 13-24 June. They were programmed by hip record label and club-night organisers Nonclassical and collaborator Richard Lannoy. Founded in 2003 by Gabriel Prokofiev, Nonclassical is devoted to ‘breaking out of the constraints of the traditional classical concert hall’, whether through bringing classical music to nightclubs or producing remixes of classical works. This concert series featured a number of performers and composers, both emerging and established, and placed a special emphasis on the contemporary-classical (and/or ‘nonclassical’) cutting edge. Unfortunately I could only make it to the last four concerts in the series, but this was still enough to witness a remarkable variety of takes on the Nonclassical manifesto.

Tuesday 21 June: Tansy Davies, Azalea Ensemble, Sarah Dacey, Kerry Andrew

In the middle of a busy lunch hour near Liverpool Street Station, one would not generally expect to encounter a performance of a monophonic setting of translated 12th-century French poetry. Yet today, precisely this was my introduction to the ‘Music in the Market’ concert series in Bishops Square. This concert featured music by Tansy Davies, played by the Azalea Ensemble with guests, and its highlight was the beguiling ‘Troubairitz’ for soprano and drum.

Davies’ text is a collection of seven translations (or ‘adaptations’) by Derek Mahon of 12th-century songs by ‘trobairitz’, or female troubadours. In its sparsity and stateliness, the composition owes much to a sort of pseudo-medieval aesthetic, but the composer follows the poet in drawing us towards moments which jar historically: one song climaxes with the line ‘I fancy him the most’, an arresting thing to hear in a medieval poem. The subtle, winding chromaticism in the vocal line likewise offers a surreal perspective on the work’s medievalism, creating a strange mesh of old and new. Glancing around at all the busy passers-by in suits, often apparently oblivious to the whole affair, only made things stranger. And certainly, the setting made the song cycle’s sober final line resonate: ‘I walk alone in a green wood with no man at my side’. The singer, Sarah Dacey of Juice, delivered the piece with conviction and grace, making the concert’s unusual surroundings her own.

‘Troubairitz’ was placed between two other ‘sets’ (for such is how Nonclassical organise their concerts), which featured a number of other compositions by Davies. Generally these works seemed considerably less medieval, and instead combined an almost jazzy rhythmic impetus with a gritty, harsh soundworld which often recalled Ligeti. The standout pieces were ‘Grind Show’, which was (disappointingly) the only item to make use of a substantial number of the fantastic Azalea Ensemble, and the schmalzy song ‘This Love’, sung by Kerry Andrew (also of Juice). Davies herself played the laptop part for ‘Grind Show’ and occasionally offered us information to the pieces’ backgrounds, which helped give shape to some of the more abstract compositions. Overall the concert was impressively varied and always interesting. If it didn’t manage to turn quite as many businessmen’s heads as it might have hoped, the hectic background nonetheless provided a fascinatingly unlikely setting for the performance.


Wednesday 22 June: Ligeti Quartet, DJ Switch

Gabriel Prokofiev’s Concerto for Turntables and Orchestra is coming to the Proms this year, in a programme which also includes the most famous work of the composer’s illustrious grandfather. This lunchtime concert, though, hosted a performance of this work by DJ Switch which was refreshingly free from the spectre of Sergei. It even lacked an orchestra, having been rearranged so that it was all played electronically. The effect was that, rather than seeming like a classical piece with added DJ, this arrangement came across as a virtuosic DJ performance which happened to make much use of orchestral sounds and classical forms. This did a lot to further Nonclassical’s aim of breaking down barriers between musical types – arguably more than the original, in fact. And, remarkably enough, the performance was sufficiently enthralling to make me forget temporarily about the torrential rainfall and the fact that I’d forgotten my umbrella.

Switch is a three-time DMC World Champion DJ, and though I’m not quite as up to speed with DJ technique as I might be, to be able to see him play at such close proximity was still an incredible experience, his complete mastery of the decks and his obvious extreme musicality being very clear. And I suspect that watching him at a distance of a couple of metres and for free is not an experience come by easily. Prokofiev provides the DJ with several opportunities to improvise – ‘cadenzas’, if you want (apparently the DJ’s score reads ‘go nuts’) – and Switch capitalised on these opportunities fully. The performance was a remarkable display of virtuosity, both performative and compositional, with Prokofiev juggling between his divergent influences with sincerity and ambition. Impressively, Prokofiev and Switch made musical genre seem irrelevant. I am eager to discover if the Proms performance, also featuring Switch, is as successful given its somewhat different context.

The concerto was the last of three sets; the first two featured contemporary music specialists the Ligeti Quartet in performances of the First String Quartets by György Ligeti and, again, Gabriel Prokofiev. Though the covered outdoor acoustic was less than ideal for a string quartet, the group were very successful in capturing the subtle humour of the intricate Ligeti piece, and they brought a refreshing and thoroughly Nonclassical unstuffiness to their performance. This applies equally to their rendition of the Prokofiev quartet – a work which, though far more evidently classical than the concerto, still showed signs of an interest in popular music, particularly in the house-tinged final movement. Between the sets, Richard Lannoy provided short remixes of parts of the Prokofiev quartet: further evidence, if it were needed, that classical and popular aren’t really so far apart, or at least that they needn’t be.


Thursday 23 June: Leon Michener Trio

Gleefully obliterating the distinction between sound-checks and art, the Leon Michener Trio actually slipped into an improvisation five minutes before their concert was due to begin. And when the concert proper got going, they lost little if any of this sense of spontaneity and fun. As with the other concerts in the series, the group performed three sets, with Richard Lannoy playing some Nonclassical remixes between them – though today the sets were fairly similar, all consisting of several at-least-partially-improvised jazz performances. While superficially this jazz group might appear (unlike the concert series’s other outfits) to merit the tag ‘nonclassical’ in a rather prosaic way, there was still a genre twist here. Two of the pieces they played were interpretations of twentieth-century classical works: Charles Ives’s song ‘The New River’ and Anton Webern’s ‘Five Movements for String Quartet’, Op. 5.

Both of these interpretations sounded completely natural in their new forms. I suspect the Ives was the more faithful transcription, retaining a strong sense of Ives’s brash harmonies and textural variability. The Webern piece seemed a lot freer, mainly reworking several of Webern’s three- or four-note motifs into a new harmonic context. This was a fascinating take on Webern, in which you could still hear the composer’s penchant for concision and gestural violence, as well as this piece’s sense of drive. But the trio also granted the piece an element of play which one can miss in the concert hall. Again, this concert saw Nonclassical spot on their boundary-breaking agenda.

Michener’s two bandmates deserve a mention as well. Oli Brice provided strong support on double bass, his personal highlight being an ecstatic bowed solo in harmonics which eventually segued into a sweet piano ballad. Tim Giles’s drumming brought a funkier edge to the sound, and it was fascinating to watch his constant variation of sticks and technique. It’s rare to see a drummer play with the shaft of a brush without seeming pretentious. Leading them, Michener was a fascinating mixture of thoughtfulness and free imagination, and he seems very likely to go places in coming years.


Friday 24 June: Larry Goves and Tom McKinney

The final concert in the series welcomed electroacoustic composer and performer Larry Goves and guitarist Tom McKinney. With Goves on laptop and McKinney on both acoustic and electric guitars, they performed works by Nigel Westlake, Panayiotis Kokoras and Ian Vine. The highlight of the concert – in fact, of all the concerts – was an immaculate performance of Steve Reich’s ‘Electric Counterpoint’.

Reich’s ‘Counterpoint’ series also includes works for clarinet, flute and cello, and all feature one performer playing live, alongside a recording of a number of other parts for the same instrument. Hence, ‘Electric Counterpoint’ had McKinney playing with twelve pre-recorded guitar parts (ten for electric guitar, two for electric bass). Though it might seem strange to have the ‘live’ portion of performance being such a small fraction of the overall texture, this is emphatically not a cop-out solution to not having thirteen guitarists to hand.

The way the depth of the sound dwarfed the part played live found its perfect analogue in the surrounding city and the indifference of so many of the passers-by. It’s become a cliché to relate Reich’s work to the city, to the strange objectivity of a busy street, but hearing – also watching, for that matter – the work performed within such a setting was a startling aesthetic congruence. I followed people’s paths across the square as I picked out lines from the huge web of sound, and when I saw a person stop to listen I was jolted back to watching McKinney play his part live. How many people did stop? I’d say about one in every thirteen. This was a stunning reminder that pop, as we tend to think of it, is not the only music of our time, and whether classical or nonclassical, contemporary ‘art music’ is often neither irrelevant nor elitist. If Nonclassical believe that making this important point requires fun polemics like playing remixes between sets, then so much the better. Theirs is a point worth making, and they do it well.


Enjoyed this article? Share it with others.


Music scholar Cara Bleiman takes a look at the political potential of music past and present in an essay, striking chords

Sarah Boyes asks What Does Music Mean? in a Battle in Print

Frank Furedi looks at the role of truth in music over recent years

Gramaphone Magazine
Established, incisive classical music magazine

BBC Music
Listen by genre and read all about it!

British Music Information Centre
All about 20th and 21st century music

Heady internet resource for exploring all things classical

Royal College of Music
Events, research, hire a musician
Scottish, Irish and World music resource

Music Manifesto
New Labour dumbing down music education

Busk Action
Small group with BIG aims to deregulate busking

Royal Albert Hall
Classical music and shows

English National Opera
Britain’s only full time repertory opera company!

Royal Opera House
Music, ballet, theatre and a very big building

No Music Day
Imagine a day with no music…

Like what you see? - keep it that way, support Culture Wars online review.