Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Graphic Scores at LSO St Luke's on Sunday Night

Intrigued by Offsprog One's link, http://www.theguardian.com/music/gallery/2013/oct/04/graphic-music-scores-in-pictures , which she sent because of my own graphic song scores mccookerybook.tumblr.com (although mine are Low Art and the others are several notches Higher), I decide to go to LSO St Luke's on Sunday night to see what the beautiful scores sounded like.
St Luke's is an extraordinary building which has somehow retained the spirituality of churchness while adding the most perfect acoustics.
I am not used to attending concerts like this, so arrived early to 'get the feel' and enjoy a coffee in the ubiquitous crypt caff. Would all those old bodies be rolling in their graves at the sound of Espresso machines' enthusiastic whooshing? Perhaps they would, or perhaps they would enjoy the company.
It was interesting to observe the audience, who were also observing the audience; it was impossible to work out from their uniforms if they were artists, musicians, classical music fans, experimental fans, or the purely curious like myself.
In this it was quite definitely different to the average rock gig.
The concert started with Joanna McGregor's solo interpretation of John Cage's Water Music. With a combination of tuned radio, water-filled jugs, a duck call and a piano, she followed the score faithfully as it scrolled above her on a screen. Joanna is a mesmerising performer whom I last saw many years ago performing Rachmaninov in a sparkling and dramatic Zandra Rhodes dress! This was a much more formal occasion but she still had the sparkle, only this time emanating from within her performing persona; at the conclusion of the hectic piece, she smiled at the audience and was met with appreciative laughter and a round of applause.
The Cornelius Cardew composition, Treatise Pages 34-39, was not so appealing for some reason. In this piece, the formality worked against the format. What should have looked like fun looked like hard work (in every performance genre the hard work is there: the trick is to hide this from the audience). There were a couple of personal taste issues here too: the muted trumpet reminded me of the worst of Ian Carr's Nucleus, whom I loved apart from the too-much-muted-trumpet bits, and the laptop.
Am I the only person in the world who is a tiny bit fed up of laptops? Too many laptop musicians are completely un-engaging to watch and Cardew himself couldn't possibly have written for laptop as they hadn't been invented. I love audio machines and technology, all the more so when their workings are visible. These scores are extrovert and visually loud; it doesn't matter how loud a laptop is, it's still quiet!
Everything came to life again with Fred Frith's Zurich and Bricks for Six. Zurich's score was a pitted snowfield, which Joanna McGregor played as a fluid and dripping soundscape, trading licks with the cellist, Oliver Coates. Coates, like policemen, seemed to be getting younger every day but he was putting an appreciative amount of effort into sounding just right. Bricks for Six utilised the ensemble perfectly as they translated a brick wall into audio, even the by now un-muted trumpet and the laptop finding their place in the audio field.
Tom Phillips's scores were breathtaking and again, the ensemble leapt straight into them rather than skittering over the top. The Lesbia Waltz in particular was brilliant and humorous with a tongue-in-cheek approach to the complex instructions. It must have been hard because Tom Phillips was actually in the audience- he seemed very pleased with the interpretation and stood up to take a bow at the end.

By this point my full-on cold was taking it's toll and I started to cough uncontrollably. Thank God I saw Cathy Berberian's Stripsody before I left. This was sung by Elaine Mitchener and was the aural equivalent of The Beano, consisting as it did of a series of expressive sound effects in a dramatic construction that could have been any Comic graphic story depending on the interpreter. This was a real tension-breaker and was the most engaging piece so far: The audience seemed to be willing her to get through the complicated and dynamic instructions and at the end she garnered a huge round of applause.
I had to leave at half time to cough, which was a shame as the concert format had started to win me over by then. These glorious visual scores are open to interpretation and at first I had been wary of the formal black clothing worn by the performers and the stiff format which seemed to be working against the visual exuberance of the projections above. But the scores are for everyone and anyone to perform; there was something relaxing in the silent formality of a Sunday evening and in watching a performance that paralleled a child's experience of learning to read. Who's to say that our system of writing signs and symbols could not have evolved utterly differently and that the relationship between how we read them and the way we make them sound as speech, or indeed the way we communicate with sound, could not have been entirely the opposite to that which we have mutually agreed to use?
Watching classically-trained musicians grapple with spontaneity and fight with their instinct to make perfect sound according to a perfect plan was absorbing in itself, and the actual sounds were intriguing. As interpretation, this was a really rewarding evening and most of my negative responses were entirely to do with my own prejudices, which I am working upon as we speak!

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