Piano duo the Labèque Sisters are visiting King's Place this week to curate and perform in a celebration of what they are calling 'fifty years of minimalism'. The first concert took place tonight, and boy was it anything but minimal.
The billing for the concerts obviously suggests some sort of canon-forming impetus, especially in the rather contentious (and arbitrary!) talk of 'fifty years'. Fifty years since what? La Monte Young's Trio for Strings? (No.) Rauschenberg's White Paintings? (No.) 4'33''? (No.) Any of the early Glass or Reich pieces? (No.)
It probably comes across as petty to argue the point, but the title of the event immediately had my hackles slightly raised. And yet I was certainly prepared to forgive the organisers their rhetorical flourish. However, my concerns only got more severe over the course of the first evening.
King's Place is a wonderful venue which puts on a range of great music and performances, but its organisational skills are often a little to be found wanting. In this case, the first problem came with the start time: 2030. I’m sure there was a good reason for this late start, but the fact that the programme (from the pre-publicity) was to include any number of pieces from ten named composers, and that it, eventually, included fifteen separate pieces (contra to the apparent seventeen pieces on the published programme - the 'interval' and 'exit' pieces were inaudible), including the fifty-minute long (in this case) In C, meant that we left the building only at 2330, hardly an ideal time for a concert to end.
And so many of the pieces themselves were not only suspect in terms of the 'minimalism' rubric of the event, but also left a bland impression or were easily forgotten in the informal dash through the packed programme. Music by Ravel and Colin McPhee fell into the former category, whilst pieces from William Duckworth and Nicola Tescari fell into the latter.
The programme displays an understandable desire to cover the pre or proto-minimalist repertoire, and in this respect the inclusion of short pieces by Cage and Satie was perfectly understandable. The first of the Satie pieces, the Prelude from Le fils des étoiles, was given a rather lovely, tonally rich and emotionally meditative performance by Katia Labèque. This followed the playback on reel-to-reel tape of Terry Riley's pathbreaking Mescalin Mix from 1961, a crackly and swampy psychedelic tape piece that wouldn't sound out of place in the release schedule of any number of retro electronic artists, from William Basinski to Philip Jeck, even to Kim Cascone.
This was a strong start, but too often this sort of momentum was swallowed up by the blandishments of things like the four-hand Ravel ('Laideronnette', from Ma mè re l’oye), or the frankly needless inclusion of the McPhee Balinese Gamelan Music. There were other highlights, including a rare outing for La Monte Young's X for Henry Flynt (in which a pianist bashes out one loud sound a specific number of times, which in this case amounted to Raphaël Séguinler playing mid-range cluster very loudly and in darkness 283 times), and the tumbling clouds of Massimo Pupillo's Sulphur and Mercury. Katia and Nicola Tescari's Piano Phase lacked some bite and verve in the early stages, but it grew into a fairly vivid reading. And let it also be said that the Labèque played well all evening, bringing their expressive and emphatic technique to bear quite sweetly and even movingly.
However, the programme was too slapdash, and way too long. By the time the closing performance of Riley’s open composition In C came along, my attention was compromised. The performance itself was nothing special, though this is a piece that to my ears is often more fun for the performers than it is for the audience - as my friend remarked to me on leaving, Reich's Music for Eighteen Musicians does this kind of musical thing much better.
In any case, the electric bass was mixed far too high for the first half, thus throwing the weight artificially to the lower range and to electronic timbres, and, further, many performers, including one of the front line singers, were far too diffident. The early stages of the piece were far too rote, too. Some exciting moments occurred; as for example when the whole ensemble had seemingly moved through the e-g-c rising figure, only for the bassist suddenly to interpolate it at the bottom of the texture a few minutes later when it had been all but forgotten. This produced a sudden smile on most of the musicians’ faces. And yet I struggled to engage; this had been a long evening, and I was little in the mood for homilies to community, indeterminate, musical, or otherwise!
Photo: The Labèque Sisters
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