The Rambler :: blog

Friday, January 14, 2005

Elysian String Quartet, Purcell Room, 10 Jan 2005: thoughts on Classical Music Criticism 

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uTopianTurtleTop points towards a great extract from the National Arts and Journalism Program's Reporting the Arts. Of the critics contributing, Robert Christgau, Sasha Frere-Jones and Joseh Horowitz are on the musical tip; together their three contributions make for a provocative read. Christgau reviews the history of rock criticism delineating its difference from film and TV criticism. He concludes that the sheer volume of music being produced these days – 27,000 albums a year by recent estimates – requires rock critics to be gatekeepers for consumers, "people whose lifework is seeking out good music of every sort and telling the world about it". He also laments the demise of the adventurous writer, constrained by editorial control at a newspaper, or lost in a chorus of inferiority on the net, and charges the daily newspapers to rethink their strategy towards pop crit to allow maverick voices the chance to talk about what is new and interesting in new and interesting ways. Sasha Frere-Jones builds on much of what Christgau outlines, asking the question whether musicians make better or poorer music critics, and establishing what is most important for readers of pop music criticism:
A minority may read pop criticism as prose or philosophy, but to the larger audience it is a betting broadsheet. Will I win, lose or show with my 10 bucks? When answering that question, what constitutes expertise for the relevant critic? Knowing how to play the guitar or, perhaps, knowing how to listen to records in the same way as other listeners?
This is a really great point, picking up from Christgau’s image of the cultural gatekeeper, but taking it somewhere more specifically useful than a plea for greater editorial adventure. "Most of the important figures in pop criticism – Robert Christgau, Greil Marcus, Ann Powers – are not musicians but rather experts in hearing and understanding lateral connections."

With these two complementary essays in mind, Horowitz's piece 'Classical Music Criticism at the Crossroads' makes for interesting reading indeed. Firstly, I'm delighted to read that there was a time, long ago, when critics – and therefore audiences and promoters – didn’t care about performers. W.J. Henderson wrote in 1934 "Can [the public] ever again be trained to love music for its own sake and not because of the marvels wrought upon it by supermen?" This view is one I've long held, but always known was a bit heretical. I don't honestly care who's performing a work; I've certainly never been to a concert or bought a classical CD purely on the strength of the performers. All I care about is that they programme something I want to hear, and play it well – and for the bucks most performers charge I'd say both of those are essential prerequisites for the job. (But sadly it ain't true – people will happily pay to hear one of Henderson’s 'supermen' play any old crap badly. Again and again.)

This might be why something like the Park Lane Group Young Artists New Year series, which should be essential listening, isn't for most of London's new music scene. New performers, programming new works – perfect. The series has been a regular fixture in the London calendar for almost 50 years, but is suffering from falling attendances and a shortage of money – Annette Moreau in today's Independent talks of a 'pitiful attendance' for the concert she is reviewing.

This year 10 concerts (two a night all this week) showcased a total of 28 players, as well 62 contemporary works. Although perhaps not as much as there once was, there is still quite some prestige attached to performing in this series, and for any British performer hoping to make a career in contemporary music it’s an essential early stopping point. So it was good to see the Elysian Quartet (candidates for Rambler house band) on the Purcell Room stage on Monday evening stepping onto this ladder and opening the series. It was also good to see a much better than 'pitiful' attendance for this one.

If you're sitting there with your betting slip, you can safely put the Elysian's name down. If you don't care for fat men belching Rossini in their sleep, or associate wet T-shirts with 1970s school fetes rather than Vivaldi, then groups like the Elysian are for you. If you give a toss about the notated music people are writing right now, that other people want to play right now, then an Elysian gig will suit you. Unless you actually live with one of the players, I can guarantee you will hear something good that you've not heard before.

I heard three pieces I'd not heard before, and liked at least two of them.Aurelio Tello's Dansaq II was a fragmentary thing, in six movements, that seemed to throw a bit of everything possible into the mix. Not like Kurtág – this was really chop and change stuff. Somehow it held itself together, as a Peruvian Inca motif (Tello is from Peru) was put through a series of variations that seemed to cover every aspect of quartet technique – except straight, vibrato-on lushness. Fidgety and surprising; good stuff. Phillip Neil Martin's An Outburst of Time, given its London première grabbed me less – it was simply less adventurousness than the Tello. But it was a canny bit of programming – more than 10 minutes into the concert Martin's piece gave the quartet the space to introduce some fuller lyricism into their playing.

In a completely different way, Dai Fujikura's Midnight All Day contained moments of genuine beauty. The shortest, most unified work of the concert, it was built mostly from heavy scrunches of bow on string that mellowed into cleaner tones and chords: the last, and most extended of these, the very last, was a breathtaking effect. It's the kind of soundworld that wouldn't be out of place on, I don’t know, some glitchy Scando electronica maybe, which only makes me wonder why bother giving it to string quartet in the first place. Fujikura certainly has the best publicity of any British composer since Thomas Adès (he's practically everywhere), but I've yet to be completely convinced by his work; Midnight is another example of this. It's a neat little idea that he's found to base his piece on, and it's executed crisply and to good effect – but like other works of his I've heard it didn’t quite lift off for me. There just wasn't that extra something in it that made me glad that someone at least had the good sense to put this idea on paper and hand to a string quartet. One day, Fujikura should blow me away – he hasn't yet.

One composer who does always satisfy however is Stephen Montague. Mentioned previously on these pages as grand ringmaster of John Cage's Musicircus, Montague composes quirky, theatrical minimalism that feels more lightweight than it actually is. His String Quartet no.1 is an in memoriam for two composer friends, Barry Anderson and Tomasz Sikorski, which uses thematic and harmonic material from their music. The quartet also requires both live electronics and a tape track of electronically altered string quartet sounds, all of which are layered to fill the auditorium at times to bursting point. At times this is an angry response to the premature deaths of two talented composers that has its audience flinching with great surges of volume, but the work comes into its own at the very end with a genuine Stephen Montague touch. The final, subsiding waves of the piece are a quotation from Sikorski's Holzwege (small orchestra, 1972), a pattern of alternating two-note motifs. One by one the three upper parts of the quartet (the cello, necessarily, remains seated) rise and turn their backs to the audience and each other. At first this looks like a cheap gesture, a gimmick for the end of the work. Each player only has two remember a couple of notes after all, and none of them need to see each other at this stage; if it's too easy, it's not theatre. But when the players stop, they start again – backs still to one another, they coordinate perfectly, stop, start, in the breaths of private contemplation. For a full minute, the quartet – threatening to explode itself in electronic rage – has shattered, quietly, like mourners leaving a funeral wake.

It's a magical effect that calls to mind angels and the smoke of memories rising into the sky, as well as nodding towards the Cage/New York/experimental scene in that is in Montague's blood. And, in the best possible way, the performers – as bodies, as symbols of a mysterious (dis)unity – became central after all. Performers are central to notated music – someone's got to play that notation after all – but what matters so much more than who they are is what those performers are doing, their role within the music that they are playing; like any good string quartet the Elysians understand this well.

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