Disturbia: an evening of psycho-dramatic music

Ilona Domnich, BBC Concert Orchestra/Keith Lockhart

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 2 November 20114 stars

DisturbiaEnvelopes housing eye-masks, doubling as ultra-stylish monochrome programmes, were left on every seat in the concert hall at the outset of the concert. It's nice when atmosphere and good marketing are taken into consideration in programming a concert of psycho-dramatic avant-garde music. My expectations were higher than usual.

The concert began with Francis Poulenc's La Voix Humaine (1959). This one-act opera is based on a monologue written by Jean Cocteau in which a young woman has a telephone conversation with her ex-lover on the eve of his wedding. The gruelling call is repeatedly interrupted due to Paris's notoriously poor telephone service at the time, and the tension increases with each interruption.

Soprano Ilona Domnich impressed as the betrayed protagonist, though occasionally her diction was unclear and, as a result, the narrative wasn't always easy to follow. Saying that, the sheer drama of her delivery, the quality of the orchestra's performance, the stage design and the synchronised lighting more than made up for it, and the end result was a powerful display to behold.

After a much-needed twenty minute interval, Krzysztof Penderecki's Polymorphia (1961) opened the second part of the concert. Written for 48 string instruments, this sonoristic masterpiece explores a remarkable variety of colour in the spectrum between noise and music. Using numerous original extended techniques and graphic notation, the composer creates a unique sound world that often suggests electronic music. Under the authoritative control of conductor Keith Lockhart, the orchestra realised his dynamic aural vision beautifully. Extremely slow glissandi playing in canon recalled a reverberated oscillating synthesiser, while expanding and tapering bands of white-noise alluded to an electronic filtering process.

Polymorphia was appropriately succeeded by the UK premiere of Jonny Greenwood's 48 Responses to Polymorphia, also scored for 48 string musicians. This work contains quite a number of references to Penderecki's piece. The most obvious example, apart from the piece's aforementioned orchestration, is its juxtaposition of musical beauty and sonic dread. It begins on a C major chord, on which chord Polymorphia came to an abrupt end, but gradually moves in the opposite direction, from a place of tonality to one of pure noise. As the music becomes murkier, the C major chord occasionally resurfaces along with snippets from a J.S. Bach-esque chorale, only to be engulfed once more by the overwhelmingly dissonant orchestral current.

Here, as in Penderecki's piece, Greenwood employs numerous extended techniques to create vast, almost electronic-sounding timbral shifts. At one point, the string players bowed and beat the strings of their instruments with large South American bean pods. The powerful result sounded not unlike col legno effects (whereby the player uses the wood of the bow) blended with a chorus of makeshift tambourines. At various points, Lockhart pointed his finger at a player on one side of the orchestra, then slowly shifted his aim to the opposite side, as a single micro-musical figure was imitated across the entire ensemble, bringing to mind the exemplary reverb and delay effects of electronic music.

DisturbiaWhatever his initial inspiration, Greenwood sells the piece short in his choice of title. 48 Responses to Polymorphia is so much more than a twenty-first century answer or set of answers to Pendericki's seminal work. Greenwood’s vision is arguably grander, the work unfolding in a much more gradual manner and exploring greater extremes in sonority. The piece also acknowledges Xenakis's Metastasis in its use of slow contrapuntal glissandi, J.S. Bach (as I mentioned earlier), and Greenwood's own earlier work Popcorn Superheat Receiver (2005) in its use of cacophonous and rhythmically jaunty string-writing.

There was something theatrical about the piece’s performance, from the unconventional manipulation of the instruments to the grand hand gestures of the conductor. Most notable though, was the point in the middle of the piece when the entire orchestra suddenly halted and stared menacingly at one member of the audience for a few seconds, before resuming where they had left off.

Originally made on a computer-generated music box, with glitchy and disconcerting wind-up toy samples, Nannou (1999), written by Aphex Twin, creates both a mood of nostalgia and of agitation. In his new re-arrangement, Nunn has exploited the full colour of the orchestra. Interestingly, the string players physically wind up toys at the beginning of the piece to recreate the noisy samples of the original track; and naturally the child's chime-box melody is re-imagined on pitched percussion. As the piece progresses, some of the perky melodic lines are played and sustained by the brass and string sections, completely transforming the sound and recalling the abundance of filler on Sigur Rós' Takk LP. Compared to the Penderecki and Greenwood works immediately preceding, this arrangement of Nannou came across as quirky and even cheesy, playing on the over-used cliché of a sinister world experienced from a child's perspective.

For the final piece of the night, the orchestra left the stage, the lights dimmed and the audience were advised to use the provided eye-masks as Luciano Berio's Visage (1961) for two track tape played out over the sound system. This somewhat notorious work is made up of a combination of Cathy Berbarian (the composer's first wife)’s unsettling vocal improvisations and electronics. While I imagine the piece created a stir when it was first heard, understandably now, as technology has progressed so significantly since its composition, the electronics sound dated, almost as if they were conceived to soundtrack a 1950s science fiction B-movie. However, Berbarian's impressive vocal performance has stood the test of time, almost exclusively creating Visage's renowned ominous atmosphere.

Because of the very nature of the piece, Visage was a less immersive feat than most of the earlier orchestral performances on the night, and this was reflected in a few audience members prematurely leaving the concert. The eye-masks certainly made this less of an issue, although I feel that the piece would have made a much more effective overture to the concert.

Apart from the underwhelming Nannou and the questionable placement of Visage at the end of the programme, the concert was a success. It is a rarity that appropriately dim lighting is used in orchestral concerts to create ambience, but here it was used to almost cinematic-effect, and made the music all the more engaging. The true highlight of the evening, though, was the outstanding 48 Responses to Polymorphia.

By Paul McGuire

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