'Sound and language' was the theme for tonight's concert, the first of two concerts on that theme that will be given by the Kammerensemble Neue Musik Berlin in their hometown this month. Bringing together works by ten different composers, of several different nationalities, this mini-series serves as an indication of some of the various compositional strategies being pursued these days in contemporary music, and the mutual distinctions and crossovers they have.
It has been remarked ad nauseum in the past, and doubtless will continue to be remarked ad nauseum in the future, that a defining quality of that music of our time derived from the western art music tradition, is its unprecedented multifaceted nature, stylistically speaking. Going to a concert of contemporary music could mean any number of different nights out, and any number of different audience-member types. In this way, one may well, perhaps, speak, in distinction to the glorious and illustrious past, of our being in an uncommon practice era.
Though likely it never was anyway, for a composer now it is markedly not enough merely to compose. One must in creating music also create one's voice – to find one's voice, which has been hiding, one presumes, God knows where. Voice here is obviously a metaphor, but all the same an all but unexamined one, one which allies music to language as both bound by a sense of vocality. The voice indicates in general terms a channel of expression that comes before any exclusive subdivision or designation into language, music or other artistic forms by which one makes oneself known. The idea of voice in music also, we should note, gives us something to talk about when considering music; and in this way we probably talk about music as if we were talking about ourselves.
The music on offer at tonight's concert, Sound and Language I, explored different musical approaches to the relation between these two communicative terms. The forces required were small, and the concert was an intimate one, more relaxed than usual, with the KNM Berlin splintered into its solo members. After their recent, enjoyable New Music Spa, a large scale affair in a cavernous, many-roomed venue, the set-up here showed the group in a different light, applied to a different end.
First up was Jean-Luc Hervé's 'Entlöse'. The work was performed twice over the course of the evening, the first arrangement being for speaker and piano quartet, the second having the speaker replaced by a solo violin. The ensemble writing, lithe, fluid and abstract-gestural, was arresting, the work's form gradually unfolding and expanding, spiralling slowly into contrary-motion glissandi. My favourite arrangement of the two was the one for speaker, who is made to monotonously deliver simple subject-predicate-object pronouncements to the instrumental backing, his ever-increasing speed suggesting a tongue twister.
Following this was 'Four Scenes After Francisco Goya', by Clemens Gadenstätter, with words by Lisa Spalt. Scored for solo guitarist, on a bronze-stringed guitar the like of which you're likely to see in the hands of a busker, it utilises, alongside multifarious guitar techniques, the voice of the guitarist, who enunciates absurdist remarks while playing. The sight and sound of the guitarist onstage made for quite some spectacle – an instrument you'd usually associate with unadventurous and bland music being made to bring forth a bizarre and compelling barrage, totally other, an irony that is probably intended by the composer. In my mind I transposed the performer into a singer-songwriter night setting, and was amused with the results.
Ana Maria Rodriguez's 'Radio station of the Forgotten Cities' is an electroacoustic work scored for trumpet and percussion along with recorded sounds, here triggered from a laptop. Quite unexpectedly we were whisked back to the 1950s avant-garde of Boulez and Stockhausen, the language of the musical discourse appearing quite serial, whether it was serially composed or not.
A not dissimilar work is Martin Bauer's 'La Nueva Escritura', for viola, percussion and electronics. Following on from the preceding piece, the audience was still talking when Bauer's work struck up, though you couldn't be sure whether the sounds and actions coming from the percussionist onstage was the performer just arranging his instruments or actually performing the work – the latter as it happened. The work drifted along without much in the way of notable event, but was pleasant in that drift, the viola called for at one point to imitate recorded speech coming through over the speakers.
Finishing off the evening was Nicolas Collins' 'Sonnet 40', after Shakespeare, for solo trumpet; and an improvisatory piece conceived by the ensemble in collaboration with Gadenstätter and Spalt.
By Liam Cagney