Saturday 9 November 2019


Barbican, London, Wednesday 30th Oct

Glass’s Ensemble were in town to perform the classic Minimalist work ’Music With Changing Parts’, from 1970. (You can tell it’s an early work from the flatly descriptive title. I’m expecting to hit upon ’Music For Musicians’ any day now.) In an appealing anecdote it was through attending an early British performance of this that Bowie and Eno discovered Glass.

Glass himself, now in his Eighties, proved too ill to participate. Which was a disappointment, but not a deal-breaker. For one thing, I’d seen him perform the epic ’Music In Twelve Parts’ in the Brighton Festival nine years ago. For another, it was hearing his own Ensemble which was the key thing. Minimalist music is often taken up by musicians the way Brechtian drama is by actors, which is to say badly. It works against all their basic assumptions, such as their desire to stamp their own personality on the work. The Philip Glass Ensemble is more likely to get Glass right.

In the programme Glass admitted the Ensemble hadn’t played the piece since ’81, and he regarded it as a “transitional work” supplanted by later works pieces as ’Music In Twelve Parts’, until newer groups picked up on it and caused him to reassess. He added “I found that by enlarging on the original score with a brass and a vocal ensemble, I was able to bring the music to a fuller and more definite expression…. A more satisfying completing of the original idea.”

A sentence which did give me pause. (Perhaps still smarting from the debacle that was ‘Lodger’.) In their early days, both Glass and Reich worked with small groups. The original recording of this had eight musicians, the first performance possibly less. This was out of economic necessity, but was virtuous. It generated a discipline, you couldn’t go ornate with it if you wanted to.

A larger Ensemble (seventeen players, not counting the chorus) presents opportunity to tinker with the original, to throw in bells and whistles. Doing things because you can. It even necessitated two conductors, one a demonstrating keyboard player who stood facing the others and the other a more traditional gesticulating type for the brass and choir.

As things turned out, the lengthy opening confined itself entirely to the keyboards. They struck up a rhythmic pulse, to which the smallest and most subtle modulations soon became enthralling. Only gradually and incrementally did the brass and chorus work their way in, and mostly they served to amplify rather than add. It was more like blowing a sketch up to wall size, and less like dumping extra detail lines upon it.

Not being there in ’81 I didn’t know the original piece. But it seemed to me Glass went on to do something smarter still. At first rarely used together, the brass and chorus became more and more powerful as the piece went on. By the end it had built up to a mighty crescendo, hardly what you expect from a Minimalist work but made into a welcome surprise. It became like a ship powered by steam and by sail simultaneously, the rhythmic pulses still driving below decks as the chorus became the bright and open wind.

The original un-expanded version, albeit not by the Ensemble themselves…

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, Sun 3rd Nov

This marked the return of the festival “dedicated to mediative listening and deep concentration”. As before, this non-Metropolitan type could only make one of the days. Which had relocated from St. Johns in Smith Square to the South Bank’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Not of an elitist disposition, I love the way Reich and Glass have moved from the fringes to win popular appeal. But it was also good to know that as well as blossoming branches this music has tough, sinewy roots, and see those roots are getting watered. So as the record shows I was a big fan of Deep Minimalism 1.0, commenting how it felt “like a living, breathing scene. There was a laid-back, by-fans-for-fans atmosphere to the day which made it involving, made it more than the mere sum of its parts…. it simply felt like someone had said ‘back to mine to listen to cool music’ to a few hundred people.”

Laura Cannell played “medieval violin” and “double pipes”, which turned out to mean blowing two recorders at once. She used the raw, open-tuned sound of traditional instruments to collapse the distinction between folk and minimalist music. For this isn’t some strange artsy-fartsy style at all, in fact in many ways Minimalism is music coming home. However, while all the pieces she played were effective they were perhaps a little samey. She seemed to need to alternate between violin and pipes to find variety.

Morton Feldman’s solo piano work ’Triadic Memories’ proved the centrepiece around which the rest of the day had to arrange itself. The blurb promised “the flow of piano tones becomes an unspoken mantra to infinity.” Deep Minimalism has notably made the infinity symbol into a motif, an alternative to the otherwise ubiquitous time signature, a sign we’re passing beyond standard notions of musical time. And never more appropriately than here. At an hour and a half of very slow piano music, sometimes going down to single finger playing, it could feel like we were being taken to infinity and beyond.

By comparison, my previous live experience of Feldman was a jaunt. But if challenges exist to such a work they’re there for a reason. As the man himself said of his penchant for duration: “Up to one hour you think about form, but after an hour and a half it's scale. Form is easy: just the division of things into parts. But scale is another matter.” If something is too vast to take in all at once, you give up trying and instead listen from moment to moment.

True, the word ‘Memories’ is there in the title. Yet this, I’m guessing, refers to the way elements recur, but without any overall structure in which to place them. So they transpire as a hazy half-recollection, something akin to a folk memory. It’s “somehow I know this” rather than “this recalls a motif from the second movement, now transferred to the strings”. And despite its sombre mood the piece is in its own way melodic, in the way a Puritan church might not contain a lot to look at but still has its own sense of simple harmoniousness. There is something hymnal about Feldman.

So the challenges dissolve once you get to hear the pieces from the inside. Though admittedly that’s easier said than done. As the piece went on (you couldn’t say progressed) I kept going back and forth between the two senses of interminable. One where I was in an eternal present and time something that just happened to other people. And the other, more… um, familiar use of the term. The piece notably had an attrition rate among the audience.

The second half seemed almost the opposite to the first. While every earlier piece had been by a soloist, suddenly sixteen celloists were on-stage and playing along to Malibu’s electronics. And how do you spoil the sound of sixteen cellos? As it turns out, by smothering them in crashing wave sounds, la-la vocals and general New Age mush. It’s the musical equivalent of platitudes, of being told “there, there, never mind” on an an endless loop.

I had resolved to only mention the memorable works, but truth to tell Malibu had such a high processed sugar content that it became memorable - just for the wrong reasons.

John Luther Adams then used the same sixteen cellos, for ’Canticles of the Sky’,, though to distinctly better effect. I might have preferred the other Adams piece I’ve seen live, ‘Become Ocean’, but only on points - this was still an effective and affecting work.

There is perhaps a link between Adams and Feldman, even though they don’t sound remotely alike. The most common weakness of Romanticism was to anthropomorphise its interest in nature, and in so doing diminish it. A mountain range become merely a looking glass for the artist. Adams and Feldman are more able to channel nature’s mighty strangeness, in both senses of the term.

Last time I was quite successfully seduced. This time, at least judging by the day I saw, Deep Minimalism just didn’t seem to be getting as deep. Just as the other venue had a more informal feel, this was closer to a standard business-as-usual concert.

Moreover, there seemed a polarisation at work, as if Feldman and Malibu were battling for the event’s identity. With the majority seeming to favour Malibu. John Lewis’ Guardian review found her “groundbreaking but physically compelling” whereas Feldman was dismissed as “rambling and interminable”. Perhaps we now need our alternative to the alternative, Still Deeper Minimalism 1.0. We could even form rival gangs and get into very slow knife fights.

Rather than a YouTube clip, which doesn’t sound exactly conducive to deep concentration, let’s link to the playlist the curators provided…

St. Bartholomews Church,Brighton, Mon 4th Nov

There’s music which is too complex to get your head round, but that’s just befuddled aggravation. Then there’s much that’s too simple to get your head round, a far more potent force. Which is what Moon Duo trade in. It’s the sensory derangement of psychedelia combined with the hypnotic force and ecstatic states of dance music, which soon convinces you that you must have drunk the Kool-Aid. And though there’s the intensity of garage rock at the heart of the storm there’s a kind of serenity.

The keyboards are the engine here, like a Terminator whose mission is to lead the dance, often with pulses so pared down they’re a short step away from drones. And it’s the guitar which fills the normal keyboard rolls, providing fills and flourishes like a kind of punctuation, or solos which glide over the top of the sound.

Last time I caught them, some four years ago, I commented:“Moon Duo sound like… well, moonlight, silver-cold and slightly spectral. Hairy West Coast hippies they may be, but the ideal gig for them wouldn’t be on some sun-baked beach, but in a forest clearing with the glowing white orb at its fullest.”

In the intervening four years their sound has filled out somewhat, even developed from black-and-white into splashes of bright colour. It might not sound a good idea on paper, when audacious sparseness was always part of their trance-out appeal. But they make it work.

And the fullness is emphasised by the new light show. The band are surrounded by screens on which projections appear. The visuals aren’t the standard shifting lava lamp forms of psychedelia but geometric patterns. Which meshes perfectly with the sound. But perhaps the best thing is the way the display includes silhouettes of the three players, so the visuals never come to override the music. (It helps that each has such a distinct silhouette. Keyboardist Sanae Yamada should definitely not grow herself a beard.)

And it all works quite splendidly in the salubrious expanse of St. Bartholomews Church. (The highest-roofed Church in Britain, I would have you know.) Combine all of this and everything is lifted beyond a regular gig, into special event territory. People who weren’t here will later be claiming they were.

Alas all this doesn’t make it onto record. A sticker on the latest CD, ‘Stars Are The Light’, promises “their most melodic and hooks-driven album yet” Suggesting the idea is for a cross-over album, which lets newbies in gently. Everything sounds back where it should be, the vocals up top on the mix and the keyboards relegated to accompanying them. Many album tracks sound like the regular standards which the live versions stretch and distort beyond recognition. It’s like it was recorded in captivity, whereas live is where they can go wild. True it does break free more the more it goes on, though it never really reaches their live sound.

From London, light show a-go-go…

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