Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Teutonic dialectic

It's been an age since my last post, it seems. Part of that has been work - I've just done a hugely enjoyable UK tour with The Convergence Quartet: Taylor Ho Bynum on cornet, flugelhorn & G trumpet (I'd never heard of one either!), Harris Eisenstadt on drums & percussion, and Alexander Hawkins on piano, followed by six performances of Catherine Kontz's hugely ambitious music theatre piece Mie.

Anyway, I decided when I set up this blog that I wouldn't use it to big up my so-called career, so I'll return to its usual format - as my friend Joel described it, 'Dom's book and music review'! (Though I hope some other things sneak in from time to time.) I've had a few enthusiasms over the last couple of months, starting with the wonderful Cecil Taylor in Berlin '88 box set. I've lusted after this for a long while now, so was incredibly lucky to find a friend who wanted to sell his, and who was willing to sell it to me for far less than he could have got for it on the internet. It's a magnificent object, and the book it includes is wonderful, including some fascinating writing and priceless photos, including of Cecil rehearsing his European big band seemingly by a walk in the garden! All the music is of course fascinating, and some of it truly astounding. The duos with drummers have garnered most comment, but my favourite right now is the first of the two orchestra CDs, 'Involution/Evolution'. Sure, there is wonderfully raucous blowing, but the clarity and the intricacy of the music is what really gets me. Cecil's melodies are bold and direct (there's a great bassline early on - it's not that often I cop a riff off a Cecil Taylor record!), his comping fascinating, and Han Bennink's drumming transparent yet propulsive in the best big band style. The colours are also beautiful - Gunter Hampel's vibes alongside Cecil's piano remind me of nothing so much as Milt Jackson with Thelonious Monk.

Speaking of bold melodies, variety of colour and structural intricacy, last Tuesday I found second hand copies of pocket scores for all Beethoven's late string quartets in Oxfam. I've been meaning to get into this music for a long time, so I took the opportunity, and also availed myself of the Emmerson String Quartet's 1990s recordings. I've only just scratched the surface of this music so far (a couple of listens to opus numbers 127, 130 and 133), but I'm gripped. So much of what came later is held in this music - the quartets of Bartok and Webern are clearly in there, while the first couple of the bars of the second movement of op. 127 seem to hold the seeds of Morton Feldman's music. And even though the influence I suppose passes through Schoenberg, the range of texture and the intricacy of rhythm and tempo seem to me to point clearly to Brian Ferneyhough's quartets, especially the second. Adorno wrote fascinatingly about this music, including comments that seem to apply to so much of the music I really value. For example, in 'Late Style in Beethoven', from 1937, he wrote that 'in general, in Beethoven's music, subjectivity - in the full sense given to it by Kant - acts not so much by breaking through form, as rather, more fundamentally, by creating it'. I find, by the way, none of the problematic approach to rhythm I find in Mozart and mentioned in a previous post.

And to come right up to date with German music, I have in the last few days been taken over by an enthusiasm for the work of Helmut Lachenmann. From being only vaguely aware of him, over the last year he has become a composer I respect; I am now a fully fledged enthusiast. There has been a festival of his music in London over the last week, of which I only caught one concert, but it was a particularly striking experience. His inventiveness in discovering new sounds from old and new instruments is very exciting, but more so than this is the fact that he refuses to stop there but always puts his sounds to work, refusing to operate either in a simple 'scorched earth' denial of musical history (a la John Cage, perhaps?) or merely assert that new, 'interesting' sounds let the composer off the hook of investigating the problems of music's relation to its own history by 'transcending' them. As he writes in the notes to the CD Schwankungen am Rand, on ECM, 'the initial fascination, were it to remain at that and not immediately be mitigated by capriciously critical reflection, would be more likely to lead to moderately "interesting" - i.e. boring - arrangements than to new sonical horizons'. Hearing the composer play his own piano piece 'Ein Kinderspiel' was engrossing, and I look forward to hearing some of the pieces from the same concert again this Saturday on Radio 3.

One final thing - I have just heard on the radio that Robert Altman has died. I couldn't claim to know his work particularly well, but I will be watching MASH again in his memory - some of the finest, funniest and most uncompromising satire since Swift, surely.

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