Glasgow Minimal

Smith Quartet; Icebreaker; Michael Nyman Band with David McAlmont

Old Fruitmarket; Grand Hall, 30 May 2009 4 stars 5 stars 4 stars

SmithsMost of the time, musical highlights that reach Glasgow also reach Edinburgh and vice versa, but every now and again one simply has to jump on the train. Svend Brown and his team at Glasgow's Concert Halls have assembled a diverse and exciting programme under the broad heading 'Minimal', kicking off with this weekend's celebration of three key figures, Reich, Glass and Nyman.

Icebreaker had already performed a realization of Brian Eno’s Apollo to Al Reinert's moonshot documentary For All Mankind the previous night. Still to come on Sunday was a new family oriented intermedia work Icarus on the Edge, by Philip Glass in collaboration with the astronomer Brian Greene, performed by the SCO. Still, Saturday's fare stood out, most of all for the rare chance to hear one of the seminal hardcore New York minimalist works, Music with changing parts, performed live.

Having heard the Kronos Quartet perform Different Trains only a matter of weeks previously, it was interesting to hear a different interpretation in the the performance of the same work by The Smith Quartet, especially in light of the specific issue regarding the live quartet's prominence in relation to the prerecorded material. Where Kronos minimized the differentiation, the Smith Quartet put the 'live' line more in the foreground. It is clearer, then, how the material is generated out of the rhythms and shapes of the spoken words, but perversely I'm not convinced that the work benefits. It enhances the human dimension, yes, but it possibly tends to overstress those words when their banality, their un-poeticness, is part of the aesthetic. It is like an actor reading poetry—they cannot help reading like an actor.

The Triple Quartet made for an interesting contrast. It is a work that can be performed by three quartets—a dodecatet, I suppose—so the impression this performance made with two quartets pre-recorded might be quite transformed by hearing the alternative. The score stipulates that the same quartet record the backing, but it seemed to me that the live quartet carried the rhetorical weight of the piece. The backing was as though a labour-saving device, prompting further reflection on the problematic relationship with technology that the Kronos performance of Different Trains stimulated. The present work is in a happier place, in terms of its overall sensibility, but it follows the scheme of Different Trains quite closely in layout and design—not only the fast-slow-fast sequence of movements, but the tempo shifts within the first movement seemed familiar.

Complementing the Reich, Icebreaker took the stage for the second of the afternoon's concerts. Philip Glass has never liked the 'minimalism' label, and a work like Music with changing parts makes one realize why. It is huge, dense, and ceaselessly compelling, simultaneously serious and mellow, simultaneously fast and slow, simultaneously hard going to listen to and as easy as pie. The biggest sense of duality comes from the work's signature, which is created by the sustained notes. Because the musicians are given a degree of freedom over how long to hold and when, the effect is of an emergent melody arching over the more usual quick repeated motifs and lending a distinctive serenity to the resulting melos. Over and above that, the psychoacoustic effect that Glass originally perceived and went to work on—imaginary sustained notes—is at work too.

At the outset the ensemble's reading stayed close to their recorded version, and nor was the mix very loud. One of the aspects noted in contemporary reports of the work's early performances is the volume. Happily on both counts the intensity built gradually, along with a greater freedom. The 'changing parts' is not an especially visual dynamic, apart from some switching between keyboards, and wind players switching between panpipes, WX11, flute, saxophone, that kind of thing. For that matter, the keyboards were fronted by a pair of KX88 master keyboards in place of the trademark Glass Farfisas. Though patched sympathetically, their timbres were more robust than the 'period recordings'—an observation that goes for the ensemble as a whole. There is probably a greater distance between the two interpretations than there would be, say, between a modern symphony orchestra performing Haydn as compared to a period group.

One small remark about these two performances in the Old Fruitmarket: the way the stage is set up, the musicians have to go a long way to go offstage, which distorts the rhythm of the curtain call. I’m sure the perfunctory applause at the end of the Smith Quartet's performance reflected that, rather than any sense of disappointment.

NymanFor the evening performance we adjourned to the much admired Grand Hall, an acoustic space that is among Glasgow's prouder boasts. Before the concert Michael Nyman spoke with Svend Brown. Among the interesting nuggets was the detail of Nyman's claim to the first use of the term 'minimal' in relation to the experimental music of the 1960s. In a column he used to write for the Spectator, a bridge paragraph between notices of Peter Maxwell Davies and Cornelius Cardew, the latter's minimalist approach being—for Nyman—a refreshing change from the former's, well, Maximalism. Indirectly this was a reminder that the British experimentalists Nyman worked among brought a wholly different ideological debate to their work—in Cardew's case, eschewing an orthodox European avant-gardism for an ultimately Maoist abnegation expressed in folk-song simplicity. Not very New York.

Nyman's remit at the Spectator, covering jazz and rock as well as the contemporary classical scene, is instructive regarding his own music—or at least, his work with the Michael Nyman Band. There is an echo of the jazz big band in its size, and some of its instrumentation, notably the raucous combination of sax and trumpet that frequently carries the melody. However, Nyman's sound owes as much to rock, with its simple, driving rhythms, resolutely, for the most part, in straight 4/4. Though he doesn't use drums or percussion, he gets a powerful bassline from a combination of electric bass, bass trombone and baritone sax. What really drives it all, though, when he is on form, is a flair for a style of harmonic rhythm that supports the melodic invention in such a way as to afford plenty of scope for surprise as well as resolution. Immediately, with 'Chasing sheep is best left to shepherds', from Peter Greenaway’s film The Draughtsman’s Contract, there is a tremendous brio that marks him apart from his afternoon peers. The formula is simple, and when it works the result is delightful. When it fails, unfortunately, it palls pretty rapidly, as with the music for Prospero's Books. Never mind. Another rock-like aspect is that nothing goes on for too long, so we're soon on to something else.

The second half was given over to a performance of The Glare, an album co-authored with David McAlmont. The talented soul singer, who has been seeking out interesting cross-genre collaborations in recent years, created songs from a series of Nyman numbers, their texts inspired by stories in the news—hence the title, referring to the glare of publicity. I'm inclined to say that the combination doesn't work, despite McAlmont's eloquent, lyrical virtuosity. Certainly the performance was flawless, but I had the feeling that the collaboration was one-way, the Nyman method seeming somewhat inflexible against the expressive vocals. Mind you, what do I know? The rapturous reception at the end suggested that few in the audience would agree, with a good number standing to applaud.

Next up: another seminal masterpiece, Steve Reich's Music for 18 musicians with the London Sinfonietta on 13 February 2011.

By Peter Cudmore

Photos: Smith Quartet and Michael Nyman

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