Monday, 5 November 2012

JULIA WOLFE: ADVENTURES IN SOUND

Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank, London, 11th October


Regular readers, should such a thing exist, will know that Julia Wolfe was a founder member of the new music ensemble Bang on a Can, whose solo compositions finally reached my ears via Steve Reich's birthday celebrations at the Barbican in May last year.

Should you want map references as to where Wolfe stems from, such pointers are probably helpful. Certainly her work's a world away from the punk music simultaneously celebrated in the 'Someday All the Adults Will Die' exhibition, elsewhere in the South Bank complex. And yet it's in what seems a very hackneyed exhibition's nadir, that a strange point of congruence is hit on.

In a diatribe by John Holmstrom of 'Punk' magazine he claims punk was originally a celebration of American culture - until it was corrupted by the feckless and workshy Brits, which has left the States more open to the threat of communism. Which, if you're British, a communist and a punk fan, is a pretty amusing thing to come across. It's like one of those shock jock fulminations which you can only wish was right.

But there is actually a grain of truth to be found there, for in a sense punk really was a celebration of American culture. As David Thomas of Pere Ubu commented, “our ambitions were to move it forward… create something worthy of Faulkner or Melville.”

It's perhaps too easy to flip the flag, to take up a narrow anti-Americanism and overlook the amount of American art that's positively influenced you. But there's an irony and a deeper point. What we tend to hope for is dissident art which critiques America, but it's often the least mainstream aspects of American culture which tend to epitomise what's best about it.

Which Wolfe does in spades. Even when high culture does embrace the low, it too often feels like some kind of self-congratulatory eclecticism, or some philanthropic condescension - like donating money to charity while ignoring that it's those people you're feeding off. Whereas her music never starts with such separations between popular and higbrow, but seizes instead on whatever seems to her the most enticing- a bottom-line refusal to be fenced in. Wolfe will feed your head and grab you by the gut simultaneously. She writes in the programme of her desire “to bring something earthy and visceral to the orchestra – to break with formality and get down and dirty.”

As we'll see, such outside-the-box thinking leads to off-the-wall performances sporting the most unorthodox instrumentation. But it's not through any circus-act gimmickiness that this is music you just have to see live. There's a visceral force to it that you've simply got to be there for. (And I should know. A creative juxtaposition between the timetables and when the trains were actually running meant I missed the whole first half of the concert, and only heard it via the live Radio 3 broadcast on the iPlayer.)

Porceedings opened with 'Tell Me Everything' - and she's not kidding with that title. For a composer rooted in minimalism this was pretty maximalist stuff! Rather than serenely harmonious it was positively cacophonous, like the whole history of music happening at once, overlaying itself as if composed on sheets of acetate paper.

Which is of course the history of music. Whatever the books tell you, music did not develop through some neat notion of linear progress, with one formal innovation supplanting another. It was chaotic and convulsive, a flow diagram where lines fly everywhere, cross and feed back on themselves.

Or if not music the piece could be about the way the history of America is chaotic, different groups and traditions slamming head-on into each other and throwing up something new and completely unpredictable. What if you had Superman hearing and were taking in the different neighbourhoods of New York all at once? - different strains emanating from every window, adding to the same patchwork symphony played in the key of life. Rather than the 'melting pot' of homogenous white-bread America, this was an alphabet soup of new words and phrases. It felt reminiscent, in feel more than sound, of Terry Riley's innovative 'In C', in which everyone simultaneously plays what they feel like and together.

Yet if cachophonous it's also cheerily freewheeling, like a party to which no-one is turned away. It was like George Gershwin thrown tipsy by a cocktail of drugs and post-modernity, it was like discombobulated dance music. It's the very opposite of the austere 'challenging' label that new music gets tagged with. Wolfe commented “there were so many times while writing this piece that I broke into laughter.”


Let's skip 'Cruel Sister,' which I didn't make it in time to hear and anyway wrote about last time.

Remember that old Carol where you get sent for Christmas “eleven pipers piping”? Well it wasn't Christmas and it involved a mere nine pipers, but 'LAD' still seemed in that spirit.

It was performed by the bagpipe ensemble (I am not making this up) the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, previous winners of 'When Will I Be Famous' (I am still not making this up) who have been described as “bagrock”, and include Who and AC/DC numbers in their repertoire (it's all true, honest). Though it was written with this instrumentation in mind, this is only the second-ever performance to feature all nine pipers. (Most versions have utilised the labour-saving minimalist standby of playing along to pre-recorded tapes.)

One cool thing about the piece is that much of the score is based around the incidental sounds the bagpipe makes when being prepared to play (as the bag is inflated), so ends up exploring the uniqueness of their timbre much more deeply. In this way, rather than trying to overcome the limits of the instrument it focuses in on them. Then times it by nine. If 'Tell Me Everything' made music out of pluralism, this was music which ganged up on you.

The resultant sound achieves the 'Modernist double' of sounding ancient and futuristic at the same time. It was simultaneously like being present at the dawn of time and standing before a UFO gearing up to defy gravity. The sound was simultaneously fulsome and indescribable.

This was the most classically Minimalist piece in the concert, and should put paid once and for all to the dumb prejudice that the style is about twee little twinkly sounds, the musical equivalent of Christmas lights. Wolfe herself has said “being in the same room with a bagpipe (or nine) is sonically completely overwhelming”. When those pipers get a pipin' they virtually inflated the room!It really wasn't so far away from the heavy riffing of hard rock bands. This is music not to stroke your chin but shake your tonsils.


Then for the finale came 'rISE and fLY.' (Yes, that's hOW iT'S wRITTEN, perhaps to get bloggers annoyed with their auto-correct functions.) There was only one non-wind instrument in the whole of 'LAD', one player striking the floor with his foot. This next piece built on that one element. It involved an orchestra the size of a swarm, but backing a soloist playing his own body. Before moving on to a mix of mostly extemporised percussion, including plastic buckets and – as he proudly told us - the oven tray from his flat.

...which of course immediately breaks one of Minimalism's most cardinal rules, in allowing one player to be dominant. But... you know... in a good way. In the Seventies era of uber-radicalism, leftist composers were always arguing a hierarchy between instruments represented a hierarchical society, with the second flautist and the triangle player representing a divided proletariat under the autocracy of the oboe. Like most such theories, they pushed it to a somewhat obsessive extent but (despite my jesting) there is most likely some nugget of truth at the root of it. After all, the main aim of amplification is to ensure that the very bottom of this hierarchy is you. You can tap your foot or pat your leg at a gig, and it's normally so loud you can't hear yourself. You are outmanned and outgunned.

But amplification here is used to invert the normal acoustic hierarchy, less megaphone diplomacy and more a democratising device. Some strategically placed mikes, some slider action on the mixing desk and rubbing your hands together is suddenly on a level with a kettle drum. Film can overcome the laws of scale, with 'Battleship Potemkin' at one point framing the entirety of the ship and the next blowing up some maggots to the full size of the screen. Amplification means music can do the same.

Wolfe was inspired into this piece by the old Hambone tradition of folk music played on human body, and by “New York City street beats... banging out grooves on plastic tubs and pots and pans.” She saw the piece as “its own short history”, the 'body' and 'percussion' sections compressing this shift between the two eras. (It reminds me of the segue at the end of 'How The West Was Won', as the mountain trail becomes the multi-laned highway.)

The piece worked least well when the orchestra echoed and underlined the soloist, like a kind of musical exoskeleton, and most when it treated him like any other soloist and played around him. Even a football know-nothing like me knows the team players don't run straight after the guy with the ball, but arrange themselves around him. Moreover, when playing as a team, the instruments underlined the uniqueness of the 'human sounds', the hollow slappiness of striking your chest, the sharpness of finger snaps.

But best of all, however exhilarating a sight is a grown man battering his own thighs and chest, was the way you got used to it so quickly. It went past being a clever gimmick, and soon became another way of producing music. The oven tray in your flat? An instrument, waiting to happen.

The piece was written specially for the soloist, Colin Currie, and perhaps its chief weakness was that it at times felt like that - tipping over into an excuse for virtuoso playing. (Particularly in it's second half.) Which was perhaps a step too far from Minimalism for me. However much I enjoyed it, it was my least favourite piece of the night. But then, given the inspirational audacity of the programme as a whole, perhaps that's to praise with faint damning. Four pieces, each striking off on it's own, but sharing the same underlying ethos – the future of music lies in it's roots.

Next time someone claims the Americans do nothing but steal foreign folk traditions and sell it back as packaged blandness, tell the know-nothings to listen to some Julia Wolfe.


Coming soon! More from the Ether Festival. (Yeah I know, a bit late in the day! Are you not used to that yet?)

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