My trip to Venice in October 2011 was in order to attend the premiere of my Concertino, which was written earlier in the year for the Ex Novo Ensemble. The concert took place at the Conservatorio Benedetto Marcello where I had been a student of Rubin de Cervin and Sinopoli for one year in the 1970s. (Photos: Roderik de Man)
[Chat with Rose L – a Cambridge friend.]
Rose L: How did you enjoy your evening at the Holland Festival?
Geoffrey King: An entire evening of Varèse? I was happy to witness this extraordinary skill, both on the part of the composer and on that of the performers. I was sitting opposite to where you were, so I got a good look at you. You seemed pretty fed up to me.
Well, the music is all a bit the same, but that in itself is no criticism. Amériques moved on to different territory I thought. It was all very well done and Peter Eötvös is a good conductor, don’t you think?
I haven’t seen so many Boulez gestures since I last saw Boulez. I was surprised by that and thought he could easily step into the older man’s shoes, just as soon as they become vacant. Not a very nice or respectful thought, but there we are……
I don’t expect you think he’s actually looking forward to Boulez kicking the bucket, giving up the ghost.
No, of course not and I wouldn’t make that accusation at any particular individual. But let’s get real here! Old Boulez popping his clogs? The man soaks up a lot of work, so it’s only natural that he has some competitors out there who are, shall we say, expectant……The son loves the father, but the son also wants to inherit. This is natural.
What did you make of the accompanying videos? Did you hear that woman shout out “weg met de video!”
Yes I heard her. The videos were a non issue for me. They could play or not and it wouldn’t make any difference from my point of view.
I thought they were nicely done, though, as you say, redundant.
For me it was an evening of musical violence leaving me very negative, bitchy and unsettled.
Maybe that’s what Varèse intends. Could be. But the music is not usually described in these terms. It’s described abstractly. He’s the “father of electronic music” because of his emphasis on sound. People talk about an emphasis on colour and rhythm.
I haven’t heard so much bloodcurdling music since I went to see the new Birtwistle opera in London – the one with all the shrieking. (He just keeps rolling out these “horror operas”, I can’t understand why, unless it is to create a sensation). The horror aspect of several 20th century composers is to be questioned, especially where those individuals hide behind talk about abstract qualities like rhythm and sound. There is also the “self-hatred” aspect in all this exoticism – hello, what about our OWN culture?
Exoticism is a very big subject. You can say that’s a remarkable thing about educated white people in our culture. They can be anything they like – peasants, Jamaicans (you saw perhaps that white lady there with the dreadlocks, heh-heh), Indian holy men, or just plain vanilla white – whatever they want. You could call it (if you were being ironic) flexibility. And if you want to be bitchy you can say that the only fixed thing about us is the good medical care we get. We usually have teeth well into our 80s.
I am not a music professional like you. I take the music as it strikes me and I haven’t even read the “spin” about it, let alone believed it. But a ten year old could hear the violence during the Varèse evening, it’s not a difficult thing to understand. That is what I draw attention to. It’s necessary to open up a discussion about that and, from my point of view, protest about it. That’s my target.
Well, you may as well give up before you start. The audience was very enthusiastic and it was not JUST some professional clique there – there were tons of music lovers, like yourself.
I’m sorry, I don’t buy that. Actually you mean “music snobs” rather than “music lovers”. These people will clap what they’re told to clap. Reflect that Varèse’s music has very high prestige yet is precisely as I describe it. As you saw, the concert was one of a pair of concerts featuring ALL his music. I had never heard nine of his pieces in a row and I was actually very surprised to see how truly wretched it was. This stuff needs to be countered. I didn’t bother with the second concert. There’s only so much punishment………
Varèse’s ear is fabulous. You talk about the music being wretched. I see a clear contradiction there.
If he had supreme skill, why didn’t he put it to good use? What was his usual inspiration………….the rituals of human sacrifice? He has two ideas. One goes shriek and the other goes thump. They appear together or apart and he likes things happening at the extremes of the scale. He seems to me to have written the accompaniment to rituals that we read about. “They cut the chests open. Ripped the hearts out. Tossed the bodies down the steps. Then cooked them and ate them”. He’s written the musical accompaniment to that. That’s what his music sounds like ALL THE TIME. Why was he busy with this? And why is this violent music acceptable? Why is it a pillar of 20th century music? Because Varèse has a “fabulous ear”? Bullshit!
Certainly there are echoes of a fictional pagan world. Primitivism is an important aspect of Modernism. But Varèse was also very forward looking and very inspired by the New World.
You mean like Mondrian in New York, doing his Boogie-Woogies?
Yes, that sort of thing. Varèse was a genius. And by the way, as you also slight Birtwistle’s music here, I’ll add that I admire this composer tremendously. Maybe the sheer quality of these composers is just passing you by. You are deaf to it.
I’m not deaf and I’m not daft either. I will admit that I was in a very bad mood because I hated the building. Jerry-built excuse for a hall – in an ex factory – a gasometer, of all things. Entrance the size of a telephone booth so people had to queue up to get in and out and it took ages. What is it with cultured types and factories? They certainly don’t want to WORK in them. What’s the attraction then?
They like the costume of the proletariat, just as they like beads and incense from the East. That doesn’t mean they want to get up at 5 in the morning and do the work, nor that they want to live like some Africans and shit in latrines/ on the highway.
You’re possibly right there. I think probably I don’t have respect for any aspect of this wank. And can I point out that during the evening, which certainly explored musical material from non Western cultures (almost an “ethnic celebration” of an evening), there wasn’t one single black face to be seen. Not on the platform. Not in the audience. Just one exception, a black guy (and very cute he was too) who’d been hired to serve drinks. Thanks for that “Holland Festival”.
Well it’s a “white celebration” isn’t it. If you want to see an “exotic crowd” of blacks and browns, you need to go Sloterdijk Station at 6.30 in the morning and watch the people traveling to the early morning factory shift. You won’t see them at a concert of exotic based classical music.
Yes whites celebrating…..what exactly? Posing as what exactly? The answer to that is complicated I’m sure, but some things are very simple – have you seen the Wiki photo of Varèse? – is that a pose, or what? I understand we’re dealing partly with show-biz here, but, really, tell me, why are people taking this music seriously and financing huge expensive events like this…………?
Well I’ve tried telling you, again and again, but you are not buying it.
No I’m not and I’m digging much deeper than YOU. Artists like Varèse, they seem to like expressing violence in their work, I am targeting that. And white folk and their love of exoticism, I’m targeting that too. It seems that the only thing we educated ones truly DON’T like is our own history. We travel to the remotest places on earth to breathe in THAT atmosphere. Or we “time travel” to the remotest epochs in order to breathe in THAT atmosphere. I call it self-hatred.
Well you know what, I think you are an amateur psychologist just as much as you are an amateur musician. You can date “white” fascination with exotic travels and imaginings back to the Renaissance. And didn’t Mozart write in Turkish style sometimes? Just how much of our culture (which you ask us to treasure) are you are attacking here?
Well start with the treasure: J.S.Bach. Nothing exotic about that and it tells us about who we are, far better than the “bow and arrow” stuff of Varèse. The horror of people of taste in this environment is a school carol concert or “meat and two veg”. A chat with the local vicar or receiving a Christmas card with a robin on. The sight of the Queen Mother in a petal hat. Put it all together, you know where I’m headed.
You’re like a playful kitten with a ball of wool. Like a scratchy bad-tempered kitten I should say, because you are just creating confusion and chaos and mischief. You are tangling up many different threads here. Some of what you just mentioned is simply English kitsch with absolutely NO relevance to the discussion you started.
Creating chaos? You mean unlike Varèse who is, by contrast, putting a radiant light out into the world…….?
Oh Rose, put a sock in it! And do some study. In silence. Thank you.
During this concert I was thinking about composition versus improvisation. It’s an issue that has interested me for some time. The performance included improvisations that approached a density and volatility that a great percentage of orchestral composers would be unable to achieve, working with traditional methods. The credit for this lies as much with Joel Ryan’s remarkable methods of transforming acoustic sound, as with the formidable improvising abilities of Uitti and Parker.
Actually I prefer the term “instant composition” for this kind of performance because I have come to view improvisation in close relation to composition. The “instant” aspect, by the way, reminds me of the huge scandal over Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket. John Ruskin had written “I never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face”. When Whistler sued, he was asked in court about how long it took to paint the picture. Whistler replied “Half a day.” His lawyer then said “So, you are charging two hundred guineas for half a day’s work?” The painter replied “No………….for the experience of a life time.”
The worlds of the conservatoire and the university music department have changed a great deal since I was trained (late 60s – mid 70s). I’ve written before that improvisation went unmentioned in those days as a possible modus operandi for a composer. I had to discover the value of this for myself. That was quite a confronting experience and one of many such over the years. I still remember, for example, the shock of hearing a beautiful Indian oboe for the first time during a performance of Peter Brook’s version of the Mahābhārata. It was a painful reaction – “My God, is that what an oboe can sound like!”
Radio Filharmonisch Orkest
Jaap van Zweden, dirigent
Vanessa Barkowski, mezzosopraan
Leonard Sökefeld, sopraan
Rihm – Memoria (Drei Requiem-Bruckstücke)
Bruckner – Vierde symfonie in Es ‘Romantische’
The composers’ union arranged for us today to have some free tickets for the Jaap van Zweden concert. I went along with one of my students. As emotionally driven as an Expressionist piece is, the Rihm pushed lots of buttons and I failed to react. I left my motor on for a while and then eventually switched off and started looking at the chandeliers and stretching my legs out. At least we were in the very back row so there was some leg room. I don’t like to speak with any disrespect of colleagues who are living – at least if I have named them – because I know everyone is trying to do their best and I respect that. No doubt this applies to Rihm. So I’ll leave it for others to describe “Memoria” and to explain why it might be regarded as failing in some respects.
At any rate it was unfortunate to couple this music with the radiant work of Bruckner which hardly even knows what vulgarity is. We just have to bow to this man. I wish I could do that in person and kiss his hand. In the superb 4th Symphony, in contrast to the Rihm, the composer seems too restrained even to press anyone’s buttons, let alone to do so ineffectually. But he does affect me, and so deeply. Thank God there are composers like this to look up to. I’m not a critic, so that’s enough on this subject – except that the Groot Omroepkoor sang terrifically in the contemporary piece.
After the concert, my student and I walked from Museumplein through the town and down the shopping street (Kalverstraat). That’s vulgar enough for anyone by the way. We ended up in Dam Square which would be very nice, with its royal palace and all, if it weren’t for the clutter.
I hopped on a tram 14 and came home and went to bed and read my book. I’ve got a nice Scifi book at the moment which features a genetically enhanced squid steering a spaceship to a fictional second Earth moon. Great fun.
The performance last night with Frances-Marie Uitti and Paul Griffiths in “there is still time” was a most beautiful and poignant event. The work is described in Paul Griffiths’ website as “scenes for speaking voice and cello, the spoken part using just Ophelia’s vocabulary in Hamlet”. And in the programme as “an intimate and touching portrait of love and loss, memory and hope…” Paul Griffiths himself performs the text. Here are some reviews of the piece from his website:-
I found it to be a wonderful and novel way to renew the tradition of chamber music. I don’t know if it is the case (I’ve heard it said) that composers now tend to neglect chamber music in favour of big ensembles, orchestras, opera houses. If so, listening to this duo for speaker and cello, should remind them of the power that exists in a minimal setting.
I can pay tribute to Uitti in this way – the harpsichordist Gerard van Vuuren said to her after the performance that the bow becomes part of her arm, and the cello becomes part of her. I have a feeling about that too. For me, as soon as she picks up the bow something inside says “oh, this is special”. Anyone reading these reactions should make sure to see her (she tours quite a lot) and find their own way of describing exactly what it is she is doing with this instrument. It’s a remarkable achievement. There is the two bow technique, the admirable improvisations, the possibilities of the instrument itself (last night an electronic cello and [I think for the first time] her recently acquired METAL CELLO). But in the end, it’s not about these aspects, it’s about what Gerard pointed to………
There is nowhere for the performer to hide in this setting. Indeed, it’s not about hiding, it’s about intimacy. The public is very close to the sound. In the Bimhuis last night, there was no stage, so the performance space dissolves into the auditorium and the auditorium dissolves into the bar space behind. And from the bar, it’s just a vista of water. So the venue seems to be all about openness. It’s uplifting, that’s for sure.
Afterwards people were going up to Frances’ little gaggle of instruments like curious spectators in a zoo. A dangerous moment. Those instruments can bite if approached carelessly. And one woman caught her leg on a spike. Heh-heh.
The instruments can make tiny tiny sounds. The metal cello was having its waist tickled at one point by some bow hairs. A faint breathy sound came out.
As to the musical material in general, you would expect some lamentation at certain points……..and yes, there is enough of it to satisfy an Elgar, I think. And when the two bows come out and there are four note chords, the chance to have some rich tonality is not funked. So some baroque chord progressions appear. But arrived at from an oblique angle, touched on and quickly abandoned.
All the while, the voice, through the microphone, is making sounds that can, if they want, marry together with the cello ones. Those faint breathy cello sounds I mentioned were matched by breathy sounds from the speaker. And when the voice rises to a shout, out comes a second rank cello that can be slapped about a bit and doesn’t mind. (Mmm…..I wonder what that feels like…..?)
The movements are well proportioned. There are some short ones. This is vital, because the big trap awaiting improvisers is the tendency to be prolix.
Afterwards, people sat quietly. I didn’t myself feel like moving either. Eventually I carried some of the instruments downstairs to the dressing room and then joined my friends in the bar for a few beers.
Ophelia drowning – above it’s Harold Copping – just for a change……….
The only thought that crossed my mind was that, perhaps, the pieces are ancestors of Boulez’s Notations (the orchestral versions, not the piano ones). At any rate, something about the forms, and how the pieces relate to each other, reminded me a bit of the Boulez.
I found the ordering of the concert a bit odd. If the idea was that the Schönberg (Verklärte Nacht) and the Bartók should be main dishes, with the Pulcinella Suite as “sorbet”, I could see the logic, but it didn’t work for me. I think I would have started with the Bartók, then had the Stravinsky. Then put the big Schönberg piece in the second half.
A few other odd things. I saw no one from the new music scene. That made me think that this kind of concert is now classed along with Beethoven and Brahms. Heh-heh.
Another odd thing was that the vulgar bass and trombone duet in Pulcinella was no longer vulgar. The trombonist kind of ironed out the glissandi and the bassist played his part beautifully – there was no clumsiness (as there would have been in Stravinsky’s time, I guess). Stravinsky said that the real joke was not the trombone sliding but the fact that the “comic duo” was so ill-matched (a rasping voice answered by a hoarse one). Anyway, none of this came across. I guess Boulez “doesn’t do vulgar”.
As I said yesterday, the orchestra was terrific. But the acoustic in the Muziekgebouw was kinder to the wind than to the strings. Nevertheless, the Schönberg sounded marvelous, just marvelous.
I and my companion left to get some beers elsewhere. I hadn’t drunk anything beforehand – a rule of mine at these events. The Belgian beer was worth the wait though. I walked home more than a little off-key, it has to be said.
Talking of excessive consumption (and conspicuous, also), the cafe/bar just before the performance was absolutely groaning with concert goers (?) tucking in. Great heaps of rather pointless salad (how much does a lettuce cost anyway?). A bit of a revolting spectacle, I found……….
Not that going to a concert should be like going to church…………and there were several dishy waiters on hand, as if to reinforce the point.
Well, enough said………………….
Towards those who find nothing to admire in the conducting of Pierre Boulez, nor in his compositions, one tends to adopt a Machiavellian strategy – (a sweet smile of “agreement” perhaps? or a quick change of subject? – “Oh my God, it IS cloudy today, isn’t it”.). Meanwhile, in the secrecy of one’s mind, where honesty can reign, one is marveling, absolutely marveling at this man and his achievements. I was deeply moved by his concert with Verklärte Nacht, Bartók’s Four Orchestral pieces op.4 and the Pulcinella Suite. The playing (the Mahler Chamber Orchestra) was of a standard you almost never hear.
But what really touched me about the event was Boulez himself, still conducting as well as ever – an agile 82 year old. His physical gestures have reduced in size somewhat (I am remembering him from London in the late 60s/early 70s when I was a student and used to go to all his concerts with the BBCSO – he was Chief Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1971-1975). But he still walks quickly to the podium as he always did, and has that same modest manner (nothing fancy or pompous about HIM). Only when he exits from the wings do you see that he is very slightly bent with age. And when he bows to the audience, not really smiling fully, his face is somehow twisted, I don’t know, it’s difficult to describe.
I last saw Boulez conduct at Aix in 1983. So it was a shock to see him now, so aged. It saddened me very much, and my thoughts turned to Stravinsky’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 1965. Then, Stravinsky was 83, so only a little older. But he was not in such good shape. He came on to the stage with a stick, dragging a bad leg behind him. Incidentally, his manner was nothing like the “artisan” approach of Boulez. He was both noble and gracious. A happy aristocrat. Well, I have said a whole lot of times that Stravinsky was a king amongst composers, so that expresses it perfectly, so far as I am concerned.
My sadness contasted, I hope, with the mood of the majority of the audience last night, for whom the occasion should have been, by rights, a joyous one.
Not out of arrogance, but simply because I find myself to be so “apart”, I experience in myself such a contrast with others. Yesterday, just folding some clothes during my “tidying hour” I was listening to the Stravinsky Jeu de Cartes. After a time, I stopped what I was doing and just concentrated on the music. Then came that astonishing E7 chord at the end. It just cracked me open and I cried. (At these times, one stands aside looking on in some astonishment). Why this most “heartless” of composers, with this “heartless” piece, dedicated to wit rather than to sentiment, should affect me so, I don’t know.
Nice conversation, as usual, but mainly we were meeting to decide which events to attend in the upcoming Holland Festival. Frances herself is giving two performances during this festival, on the 8th and 9th of June.
Then I walked quickly to the union meeting. Saw some friends and colleagues there – Peter Adriaansz, Roderik de Man, Michel van der Aa, Martin Altena, Martijn Padding and David Dramm. Louis Andriessen was also in attendance. There was a long presentation of what will be the new structure for administering contemporary music in Holland and many questions about it. Then some other business. Quite heavy stuff. So I was glad to drink a glass of rosé during the break.
Cycled back through the Red Light District. Lots of drunken men swaying around the narrow lanes, making it difficult to get by. And two pedestrians crashed together suddenly. I thought there would be a punch-up, but fortunately it was good humoured. As always, the atmosphere in this quarter irritated me and I was glad to be out of it. Years ago, coming down from the composer Jan-Bas Bollen’s apartment on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal we had to step over a huge drop of blood on the doorstep – obviously left there by an addict shooting up. Then a few doors away you had the prostitutes sitting in the windows. I remarked to Jan-Bas, how bizarre it was, this juxtaposition of sordid 20th century life and exquisite old buildings. He said “no, this is the oldest part of town and the prostitutes were always here. This is where the sailors came when the boats docked”.
In one of these streets, Mozart (may his name live forever) stayed, during his visit to Amsterdam, aged nine or ten. He spent seven months or so in Holland and wrote twelve works, including two symphonies….
We discussed Chendra’s video clips on YouTube. My favourite is Lamento de Pollux (Chendra is himself dancing in that one) with very effective music by Santiago Lanchares. It’s a work-in-progress, but already excellent. I told Chendra that the clip reminded me of Un Chien Andalou. But when we looked at the film later (and also at L’Age d’Or) he didn’t see any resemblance to his work and I couldn’t find the words to explain what I meant………whoops.
After lunch we went back to the Nieuwmarkt and sat at a terrasje drinking coffee. Spring has arrived you see.
Then we walked over to the Muziekgebouw aan ’t IJ and picked up a brochure for next season. I like that building very much and the positioning there by the water is just great.
We went with Jeroen, a friend of Chendra’s, to the ballet in the Muziektheater. I like that theatre very much. Het Nationale Ballet is a really good company. I enjoyed the evening. Particularly an excellent electronic score by Jacob ter Veldhuis, who I’ve sometimes met at Roderik and Annelie de Man’s house.
Choreographers go on trying to work with traditional ballet vocabulary, just as we are still trying to do something with violins and cellos. That’s not an exact parallel, but….the point is you get that sometimes disconcerting combination of old and new.
Dinner at Dantzig aan de Amstel next door. Meat! Mmm!