Text We’d Like to Write

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The Church of St Anne & St Agnes sits at an elbow turn amongst high rises, a short walk from St. Paul’s underground. A space designed in proportionate clarity by Wren, the building is approached through a triangular garden that passes through small portico before breaking into a spacious, yet curiously hunched main volume, banded by austerely arched windows, a series of pastel columns, a dubious Britannica crest and a corner organ stacked up like a cake to the right of the pews. Regrettably, this was the first Music We’d Like to Hear concerts that I’d been to, but the line up of pieces curated by the composer Tim Parkinson suggested that this would be a good occasion to start. The evening began with Vincenzo Galilei’s Contrapunti (1584), a two-voiced work carefully performed by Angharad Davies and Sara Hubrich on violins. Delicate melodic phrases interwove and coalesced with both precision and occasional slurring, and had the effect of somehow opening up the space, or even awakening the ears after the relentless city noise and chaotic activity that had been waded through up until that point in the day. It might seem a vaguely dismissive thing to say about a piece of music, but it did offer something of a palliative, a stirring method by which one might clean a ‘receptive surface’ (in what? attention span; consciousness?) such that whatever followed (even in the extending act of listening to the Galilei piece itself) could be dealt with according to renewed ‘availabilities’, an arrested state of listening. I guess this is meant less as a comment about Contrapunti than as an acknowledgment of Parkinson’s adroit choice of opening with it.

It was quickly followed by Parkinson himself, joined by James Saunders – both credited with playing ‘any sound-producing means’, which in this case at least included bells and pipes, sticks on overturned gongs, bows pulled across bowl lips, tin whistles and melodicas – performing Michael Parson’s 1978 piece Pentachordal Melody. The structure of the piece appeared to involve the revolving recurrence of five pitches in a semi-improvised (or unidentifiably ordered) sequence. An information sheet picked up at the door provided a sequence of numbers in a small grid, which was to be used by the players in order to determine both the “order of pitches and the number of notes in each phrase.” The music was steady, intermittent, with various alignments and overlays beginning to build up a ‘vertical’ texture on top of the expansive horizons of silence and deliberate points of sound. At times it seemed that the piece risked becoming too mechanical, or its back and forth exchanges between players too predictable, but then this was dispersed as the instrumentation changed or odd coincidences caused the piece to reel away, simultaneously exposing the tension that had been built up almost surreptitiously. The texture of imminent collapse, perhaps punctured by a taxi chirrup just beyond the church walls, became established almost without noticing, no doubt partly due to the calm confidence of the performers and their full inhabitation of the time needed to move from one phase of the work to the next. At the end of the piece, Parsons, who was in the audience, rose to take a round of applause – an acknowledgment he graciously redirected onto the players in front of him through a semi-physical gesture of transference that both resembled some sort of game involving a ball being passed on with minimum contact, and the piece of music he had written into sound.

Davies and Hubrich then returned to the stage to perform Chiyoko Szlavnics’ Interior Landscape, a piece that demanded unusual fingerings and sustained glissandi, such that the composer apparently had to work with the players to find the best techniques for generate exactly what was intended. Pitches were grouped in odd clusters – a view of the left hand would present a taut cradle, one digit of which would suddenly slip, either down to another stop or even hopping onto another string, moving from one sustained pressure point to another, as if a specific ‘gearing’ were being shifted one cog at a time (one petal from a bloom), each movement both a gain and a loss not wholly unanticipated as the overall sound from both players is buffeted by the other pitches, beating intervals, or revealed as a transparent counter to what was resting on top of it. One hand kept racing under the other, as if pouring sand were falling from one palm to the next, each rising slide braced for slippage. A clock mechanism dotted with sponges, still nodes and escaping strands. The last piece before the interval, performed again by Parkinson Saunders, was For John (Material), a Christian Woolf piece dating from 2008, dedicated to John Cage. The information sheets suggested that the composer considered the work an “anarchic canon” in which where specific material common to both performers is distributed independently. This approach, thematically threaded through the two-fold pieces throughout the evening, allowed for continuous possibilities for alignment and discordance, as partial recognitions and echoes between each performer came to the surface. The piece resembled that of Michael Parsons yet seemed a more committed extension of a similar premise. The performance was sparser, lengthier, and was somehow more effective in establishing it’s architectonic, as it were, through the volume of the church.

After a brief interval, the second half of the concert was taken up by a performance of Jürg Frey’s Ohne Titel (Zwei Violinen). In a more substantial note Frey, a composer associated with the Wandelweiser Group, suggested that the piece makes a two-fold address to the perception of time, suggesting that it can be encountered either as a ‘path’ or an ‘expanse’, a claim that seemed to make sense when considering the proximity between the two performers in a number of senses, repeated actions, mirrored physical gestures, and musical repetitions and ruptures. The piece accommodated both relentlessly repeated events and abrupt changes that could not really be anticipated. Davies and Hubrich would often matched each other with incredible precision (Davies appearing to assume a lead with silent count-ins, barely perceptible nods and facial indicators that could well suggest only my misreading of the situation), yet never managed to disappear into the same space as it were – never defeating pesky physical laws. The two violin ‘lines’, in laying so closely side by side, either copied or in symmetry, revealed any deviation, grain or slip (in the clay) and allowed to be unobtrusively emphasised, underlined in contingent delicacy and in its unequivocal occurrence. I was as if the smallest of differential increments could in effect become enlarged (makes me think of those deserts and water spouts in Francis Bacon, the eruptions of hidden oceanic pressures, an unbounded universe poking out of a dirty sink…). Again, the duration of the piece focused the attention on these details, these flaking borderlines, mixing everything together with general fatigue and the lure of exposed breathing patterns. At times the head became suddenly exposed as a rudder hinged on the neck, or rather unstably embedded in the upper chest, starting to swing a little from tiredness, or as a result of a certain lilt or lean in the textures being mapped out for the ears. Not a rudder for steering in the sense of firmly establishing direction or any stable route to be followed (i.e. not as part of a learning mechanism) but rather a fluid and unpredictable (probe) head… the image comes of a particular kind of plastic toy snakes that I used to play with as a child, which was broken up into many segments articulated on pins such that a side-winding movement could be made, even if the snake was held at a single gripping point. When holding one rear segment, the snake’s body could be made to sweep from side to side in such a way that its motion could not really be tracked – they were too slow to provoke and too fast to react to… obviously there were only certain movements that could be made, certain planes into which the joints could be prodded, yet the ‘overall’ line would wave like a supple spine, coherent and unaffected. So what, then? Being at the head of such a snake, sat on the prow to listen – where is this point in relation to ‘path’ and ‘expanse’, as if you could get one without the other…? – the stability that afforded access to these unforeseen movements of the leading edge became buried in the composition, hidden elsewhere, perhaps in the snake-belly of the structural instrumentation, or the specific components involved in the this performance in that space… all such things combined…as a band of images for the most part, potentially sprung from a coiled position on a hard pew, a passing imagining of a St Sebastian ekphratically (?) wrought by Flann O’Brien, where assassinating arrows taper down to near-invisible threads passing through the saint like music; backdrops of Yves Tanguy that had been stripped of those tiny objects, details that the young Dalí would rip off, just leaving smoky expanses; the sound of a jet being heard as a definite handful of pitches, striking its tangent to London as its grip of tones was steadily relinquished and stripped away – a sonic leaflet campaign – at a moment when Ohne Titel stepped clusters of five repeated strokes seamlessly down into four, as if the music were subject to a crystalline fragmentation that couldn’t possibly be tracked and could never, despite its beauty, be relaxed into completely.