“Old Life Was Rubbish”

On Friday I decided to forego attending the McGill homecoming concert featuring our symphony orchestra and guest artist Jane Eaglen performing the first act of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Instead, I opted to attended a free concert of new music appropriately titled “Old Life Was Rubbish” featuring the music of british composer Laurence Crane performed by the Ensemble KORE at the Chapelle historique du Bon-Pasteur.

The Ensemble KORE is one of the younger of the many Montréal ensembles that specialize in contemporary music. The group was founded in 1997 by composer Michael Oesterle and the ever-iconoclastic composer/pianist Marc Couroux. The group consists of a flexible number of musicians which perform chamber-sized works and, in recent years, have performed concerts which primarily feature the work of one composer.

The composer Laurence Crane, according to his biography, is “closely associated with the British ensemble Apartment House, who have to date given around forty performances of his works.” His music is very simple and almost minimalist in the Feldman sense of the word. In contrast to a lot of Feldman’s work, the harmonic materials that Crane uses are mostly derived from consonant tonal, modal, or pandiatonic systems. These aggregates, in a Cage-ian sense of the word, are placed in a very simple rhythmically sustained environment practically without any dynamics except for subtle ones which provided by orchestration.

I find it hard to discuss this type of music without briefly pausing to talk about its esthetics. For instance, when talking with some friends after the concert I had to bite my tongue from paraphrasing something Jean-Luc Godard says in Histoire(s) du Cinéma about how a nation’s cinema often reflects a nation’s identity: “America makes commercials…France makes paintings…and the British make what they’ve always wanted to make – nothing.” I resisted because I don’t think that this quote particularly works as an analogy for music. For me, there seems to be something inherently complex about sound. Even when I’m listening to something as simple as Feldman’s “For John Cage,” Reich’s “Come Out,” or just a sine wave or two I can not help but be overwhelmed by the very nature of sound. However, this is a matter for much further contemplation, and I’ll leave it aside for now.

The first piece on the first half of the program, entitled “See Our Lake” (in two movements), is scored for alto flute, clarinet (doubling bass clarinet on the first movement), violin, violoncello, and vibraphone. In this piece the vibraphone and the remaining quartet serve as two independent choirs that never play together. When each of these choirs play they oscillate between a limited number of chords. The most striking moment was in the second movement as the members of multi-timbral choir oscillate voices between these few oscillating harmonies.

The second piece on the program was “Three Pieces for James Clapperton” and was performed by Marc Couroux on the solo piano. Unfortunately, this was one of the least interesting pieces on the program. I hypothesize that this because this was the only work on the program for only one instrument and was also the oldest piece on program. In contrast, the last piece on the first half, “Seven Short Pieces” for bass flute, clarinet, violin, violoncello, and piano had a few of the most striking moments in the entire concert. The fifth piece, which consisted of rising of harmonics on the violoncello and accompanying pizzicato chords on the violin, was nearly perfect. Also, in the first, sixth, and seventh pieces it was amazing to hear how much the timbres and attack envelopes of the bass flute and the chalumeau register of the clarinet sound alike.

The second half of the concert began with “Estonia” for alto flute (doubling bass flute), clarinet, violin, and violoncello. The composer’s notes for this piece describe how, although he has never visited Estonia, he has always been compelled by Estonians who have first and last names with four letters. This fact served as the inspiration for the work’s three gorgeous movements entitled “Erki Nool,” “Mart Poom,” and “Arvo Pärt.” The forth work on the program, “Sparling” for clarinet and guitar, is one of a number of versions of the same work which was written for the clarinet player Andrew Sparling. In this piece, the audience spends most of the time drowned in the sound of a clarinet playing long As.

The final piece on the program, “John White in Berlin” for electric guitar, violoncello, percussion, and piano was the highlight of the evening. This work was written for the aforementioned Apartment House ensemble and is dedicated to English composer and performer John White. The primary feature of this work is the presence of five ebows. This magnetic device is not just used in its conventional manner on the guitar, but also to sustain an A dominant seventh chord which last the duration of the piece on the piano. The effect of this alien drone is absolutely amazing, particularly in that it provides a wash in which the various timbral transformations of the electronic guitar and percussion tremolos rise out of.

My only real criticism for the concert is that all the performers always performed with the music. Whenever I would briefly open my eyes it would always strike me as strange to see that the performers were paying such intense interest to a page that was very close to blank. I found this strange, because from previous experience, I find separating oneself from the tablature of the score always enhances ones’ attention the sounds spectral morphology. In music that is as focused on timbre and pure sound (and as easy to memorize) as Laurence Crane’s I can only begin to imagine how much this small change could have enhanced the performance.

Despite this one main criticism, I was pleased by the brief respite from complex compositional thought that this concert offered. As I walked to the grand opening party for the new McGill music building my heart was content and I was filled with a wonderfully relaxed and contemplative feeling.

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