Windrose (music by Arnáez, Bellusci, and Kagel)
Now Hear This New Music Festival
New Music Edmonton
Nicolás Arnáez: Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo
Mauricio Kagel: Die Stücke der Windrose: Norden
Mauricio Kagel: Die Stücke der Windrose: Osten
Miguel Bellusci “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca”
Holy Trinity Anglican Church
Friday, March 23rd, 2018
The Kagelian Ensemble:
Chenoa Anderson, flutes
Don Ross, clarinets
Charles Stolte, narration
Mark Segger, percussion
Viktoria Reiswich-Dapp, keyboards
Haley Simons, keyboard
Jeff Johnson, bass
The Vaughan String Quartet:
Neda Yamach, violin
Mattia Berrini, violin
Fabiola Amorim, viola
Silvia Buttiglione, ‘cello
Conducted by Miguel Bellusci
The Now Hear This Festival of new music, put on by New Music Edmonton, has regularly featured a major composer of the last half-century or so – in 2014 it was R. Murray Schafer, in 2015 Ligeti (including an unforgettable performance of 100 metronomes), in 2017 the music of Pauline Oliveros. This year it was the turn of one of the doyens of the avant-garde movement, Mauricio Kagel, featured in a concert with a specially formed ensemble (The Kagelian Ensemble) on Friday March 23rd, in the Festival’s central venue, Holy Trinity Anglican Church.
The colourful and widely influential Argentinian composer, who was born in 1931 and died in 2008, was somehow perceived, at the height of the avant-garde period in the 1960s and 70s, as not quite on the Olympian heights of fellow composers Xenakis, Ligeti, and especially Stockhausen, let alone easier-to-take composers such Penderecki. One of the reasons was Kagel’s sense of humour and of the absurd, which annoyed more serious critics. Gradually, too, his work increasingly involved turning the concert hall into a place of music drama or theatre. Staatstheater (1967-1970), for example, included chamber pots as instruments, and famously in Match (1964), two table-tennis players – cellists – fight it out with a drummer as referee.
Nonetheless, there were central, cutting edge, and influential works: the electronic Musica para la torre (1953), Acustica (1968-1970), exploring experimental sound-makers and tape, and written on cards randomly distributed to the players, and the marvellous Improvisation ajouté (1961-1962), one of the earliest works to explore the extreme sounds a concert organ could make: extended technique for the organ. His importance and his music have, since the 1980s, slowly undergone a wider appreciation, in part because so many of his then-outlandish elements – the dramatics, the absurd or ironic, the extended techniques, the use of unconventional instruments – are now part and parcel of contemporary composition.
He also continued to explore the varied elements of his style, recognizably based on those avant-garde roots, but extending his range into, for example, three expressive string quartets. A major work in that later period was Die Stücke der Windrose for nine musicians, a set of eight pieces started in 1988 and completed in 1994, each describing one of the points of the compass rose (which includes, for example, North-West as well as West – hence the eight). Friday’s concert was built around two of these, Osten (East), the first to be written, and Norden (North) the last.
Osten is in Kagel’s most entertaining vein, as if one was in a surrealistic nightclub in Turkey and the traditional band had been listening to too many Argentinian tangos. For, until near the end, the piece is built on echoes of dance rhythms, and a section echoing Jewish folk music, complete with accordion. Irony abounds – not the least the ‘orientalism’ of the whole thing (Edward Said in a bad dream) – and it is both catchy and entertaining. The longer Norden is very evocative descriptive music, echoing things like the crackling of ice using plastic sheeting as a clapperboard. High harmonics evoke ice fields, the whole thing also has a touch of the nightmarish, of the surrealistic, and there is a strong sense of strict rhythmic control and power. That reaches its fulfillment in a wonderful unexpected build-up in blocks (I had an image – again, surrealistic – of walruses on an Arctic beach), before the percussionist creates more shivering sounds with a branch with old autumnal leaves on it. It is, Kagel said, a northern landscape of his own imagination, having himself never been to the far north, and it is a world that seems to veer between clashing titans of ice flows and low hiss of sparkling frost.
Both pieces were very convincingly played by a group that included the Vaughan String Quartet, with their usual first violinist replaced for this concert by Neda Yamach, who plays with the Edmonton Symphony and is the violinist of the Trio de Moda. The Kagel pieces – indeed all the concert – went well beyond the usual comfort level of the Quartet, and it was good to see them so effectively embracing a more extreme idiom. There was also some lovely clarinet playing from Don Ross, and the ensemble had the advantage of a conductor, the Argentinian composer and conductor Miguel Bellusci, who is steeped in Kagel’s idioms.
The concert opened with a piece by the Argentinian composer Nicolás Arnáez, who now lives in Edmonton. He specializes in soundscapes and sound installations (quite a lot of his music can be heard here). Sobre Como Pintar en el Tiempo (‘On How To Draw Over The Time’) , created in 2013, combines a string quartet (here the Vaughan) – with ” three-dimensional ambisonics cube sound spatialization, real-time processing, and Max MSP 6 patch” – or to put it in simpler terms, the music the quartet plays is recorded in real time and regularly played by in reverse or computer manipulated either on its own or in conjunction with the quartet playing further material. Essentially based on rhythms and textures, rather than melodic material (though eventually a melody of a kind does emerge out of the miasma), it was an alluring soundscape, a fitting prelude to the Kagel. However, it did go on too long – if it had finished just before the section when the computer-generated music played on its own, it would have been very satisfying, but there isn’t enough variety in the material to justify the longer length (an endemic problem with this kind of music).
The concert ended with a most entertaining drama piece with music by the conductor himself, Miguel Bellusci. The concept of “Doctoral Thesis Dissertation by Prof. Yack Pineda Machaca” for Lecturer and Instrumental Quartet is that we are now somewhere in the 4000s AD. A terrific cataclysm had overcome the world, raising sea levels so that the survivors had to rebuild civilization above the new sea levels. Consequently, to explore what the world must have been like pre-catastrophie, submarine archeology has taken place. Musical artifacts, including some printed ones, have been unearthed, and a professor (a spoken role played with enthusiastic satire by Charles Stolte) is trying in a lecture to unravel how the instruments were played and evolved. This leads to humorous misunderstandings, with a strong dig at the avant-garde period, where the kinds of sounds produced and their method of production would seem to be more ‘primitive’ – and thus archeologically earlier – than pre-avant-garde music. The concept that there might have been a second, earlier cataclysm, so that survivors of the second found the musical instruments of the first, and did not initially know how to play them, was a felicitous stroke, and the whole thing was illustrated by musical examples. Again, it was too long – it got a little repetitive by the end, and there were no new ideas to excite the imagination or progress the humour – but if Bellusci can cut it a to around 18-20 minutes he has a winner here, which would be great fun for a university ensemble to perform.
Overall, though, this was a really enjoyable concert, one of the most entertaining that I have attended at any Hear This Now Festival, and one played with commitment and authority by all involved, convincingly surmounting the considerable demands of some of the music.