A is for.. Brice Pauset's "A"
at the Festival d'Automne 1st December 99
A is for.. A sizeable crowd gathered at the Théâtre de Châtelet to catch the one (and so far only) performance of "A", an 85-minute work for soprano, baritone, two speakers, four choral groups and five instruments by 34 year-old Brice Pauset, one of the brightest young composers to have escaped from IRCAM's sweaty, staticky bunker in recent years. A is for Antonin Artaud, the central figure of the work (several of his texts are set to music and declaimed by the speakers), in homage perhaps to IRCAM's founding father Pierre Boulez, whose "angry young man" period at the end of the 1940s coincided with and drew inspiration from Artaud's final years of "madness". You might be forgiven then for expecting A for Angry, the same kind of ferocious expressionism of Boulez's "Le Visage Nuptial" or his first Piano Sonata, but in fact Pauset's composition unfolds over nearly an hour and a half in predominantly slow tempi with no sign whatsoever of vocal histrionics. If you'll forgive the pun, it was all very posée (poised), the Nonoesque chorales (Pauset's a big fan) seemingly at odds with Artaud's bodies, bones and bags of pus. A could then be for alors? - so what?- why should settings of Artaud be vicious and violent (similarly, why should settings of Beckett necessarily be quietly despairing?)? IRCAM gadgetry took centre stage, but was used sparingly and to good effect (picking out resonant frequencies, refracting the two pianos into intricate canonic configurations, and "miraculously" suspending the vocal chorales into infinity), even though one feels the Cité de la Musique would have been a more state-of-the-art venue for such effects (see our Nono review). A is certainly for Ambitious: almost without precedent in terms of its scale (lasting as long as Nono's "Caminantes... Ayacucho" and Barraqué's "Au delà du Hasard" combined), "A" is so maddeningly mature that it sounds as if it was written by someone twice Pauset's age, from the conscious invocation of pre-Renaissance polyphony (complete with embedded quotations from "L'Homme Armé" and other medieval hits) to the earnestly intellectual programme notes which give the impression that if Pauset ever leaves his studio at IRCAM it's just to go to the nearest bookstore for some light reading matter such as Nietzsche or Carlo Michelstaedter's "Persuasion and Rhetoric" (Michelstaedter finished his magnum opus in 1910 at the age of 23 and promptly killed himself the morning after.. fun stuff!).
If A is for Accomplishment (it is clear that Pauset has a fine ear and writes very well for the voice - rare these days), it is also for Anticlimax: the work leaves you feeling a little hungry. Even so, A is also for Applause, well-deserved for soprano Françoise Kubler, baritone Jean-Christophe Jacques, speakers Caroline Chaniolleau and Claude Guyonnet and conductor Rachid Safir, but the evening ended with the farcical appearance of Pauset on stage, dressed in jeans and crumpled white shirt, with a red Bic sticking out of his top pocket, sporting a shit-eating grin like he'd just made it to the last stage of Tomb Raider, to a chorus of cheers and boos (he seemed especially delighted with the boos). The composer's gleeful tech/nerd image somehow didn't go with the medieval bookishness, but then again, even Antonin Artaud had a sense of humor. Or did he?
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SONIC CIRCUITS VII
Philip Blackburn's Innova label and its series of Sonic Circuits CDs documenting the International Festival of Electroacoustic Music always provide a fresh and varied selection of today's electronic music. This fine disc brings together works as diverse as José Halac's "The Breaking of the Scream" (emotional exorcism through Argentinean folk song), Mario Verandi's "Figuras Flamencas" (title self-explanatory), Thomas Gerwin's "Rollenspiel" (which, as the Press Release says, "turns your head into a roulette game") and the cavernous ambient of Christina Agamanolis' "Aftermath". The shorter pieces are, as is often the case, more effective. Mark Applebaum's "Dead White Males ReMix" (nice title, but I still prefer David Lang's long-lost "Eating Living Monkeys") is a ProTools hatchet job on Applebaum's existing orchestral work, while Mike Frengel's "Long Slender Heels" is a slab of post-rock foot-fetishism worthy of Zorn, and Timothy Oesau's "Angola du Sons" (to be played "at a volume slightly below permanent damage") should slightly realign the configuration of your internal organs. A nice variation on the inevitable end-of-the-year compilation albums, this is an ideal Christmas gift for impressionable youngsters.
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MUSICAL PERSPECTIVES (GOODBYE 20TH CENTURY)
"Everything comes to an end... even the twentieth century," writes Lou Harrison on the album cover, and Sonic Youth have been together for nearly a quarter of it. This is their "classical" (no, I'm joking) album, an ambitious set of interpretations of works by Cage, Cardew, Kosugi, Macuinas, Oliveros, Ono, Reich, Slonimsky, Tenney and Wolff. Wolff gives the project his blessing by playing himself on "Edges" (with spooky Goldilocks vocals from Kim Gordon) and "Burdocks" (nice to see this out again.. it was previously only available on a long-deleted Wergo Schallplatten LP). On the other works, Sonic Youth are joined by Downtown luminaries such as Christian Marclay and Wharton Tiers, as well as Takehisa Kosugi and the ubiquitous Jim O'Rourke. Coco Hayley, Kim's daughter with SY guitarist Thurston Moore, gives a spirited performance of Yoko Ono's "Voice Piece for Soprano" (all twelve seconds of it..!), and elsewhere William Winant adds deft touches of percussion.
Though delighted to see Thurston and his cohorts starting to do for American Experimentalism what they've done for Improv (bring in a whole new crossover audience from indie rock), I wonder what Cage would have made of their versions of "Six" and "Four": while his late number pieces obviously leave the performer a good degree of freedom in terms of where material is placed, they nevertheless breathe through the delicate juxtaposition of sound and silence, and silence is not something Sonic Youth are very good at. Their thirty-minute version of "Four" drifts through some fascinatingly bleak metallic landscapes but never leaves the listener the empty space to relate the fragile soundworld to his/her immediate environment. Cage is Zen, whereas this is Dark Ambient.
If silence isn't a SY specialty, then feedback surely is. On paper, Steve Reich's "Pendulum Music", where mics are allowed to swing and eventually come to rest above horizontally-mounted speakers in a cloud of uninterrupted feedback, looks tailor-made for the group. Curiously though, the gradual process element so central to early Reich, the slow lengthening of feedback blips into yelps into squeals and ultimately howls is rather hard to spot (compare the other available version of the piece on Wergo 6630-2). It sounds great, but would Steve like it? Such quibbles aside, this is a splendid double-album. Let's hope the more mainstream SY fans have the courage to hang on to it long enough to develop a taste for the great American Experimental tradition that the group so evidently springs from.
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Chaya Czernowin is a 42 year old Israeli-born composer who has studied, amongst others, with Brian Ferneyhough at UCSD. Don't be fooled by the rather twee cover art and the nice photo: this is gritty stuff, recalling not only her teacher but also Giacinto Scelsi - he would surely have approved of her concept of the ensemble becoming a "single composite instrument" - and Richard Barrett - the imaginative use of non-European instruments: "Die Kreuzung" (after the Kafka short story) uses a u, or Japanese mouth organ, to great effect. There is also a Japanese feel to "Ina", whose flutes refer more to the shakuhachi of traditional Japanese Court Music than to, say, Ferneyhough's "Mnemosyne". Elsewhere, grainy string writing (once more the Arditti Quartet is breathtaking) and throaty wind textures bring Xenakis to mind. Particularly impressive is the slow-motion sextet "Dam Sheon Hachol" ("the bleeding of the hourglass"). A fine album from a composer we should be hearing more of in years to come.